The Wham of Sam
When I moved to Las Vegas in the Spring of 1999, one of the things I was most looking forward to was getting the opportunity to see Sam Butera. The legendary sax man and former bandleader for Louis Prima had kept the act going after Prima's death in 1978, and even partnered with Prima's former wife and straight woman Keely Smith for a successful string of shows at the Desert Inn in the mid-90s. Forty years after he had helped cement Vegas strip's reputation as the most swinging place on earth, he was still out there, playing the lounges and keeping the spirit of the Wildest alive.
I didn't have to wait long. My dad helped me moved out there, and as I was driving him to the airport for his flight back home, we passed the Tropicana. And there on the marquee were the words "In the Lounge... Sam Butera and The Wildest." Hell yeah.
My friend Tyge and I headed down to the strip that same night. We made our way through the Casino to the lounge, and there he was, blowing his way through "That Old Black Magic." It was every bit as awesome as I'd imagined it might be.
I saw him four times during his two week stand at the Trop, and every time I'd almost have to pinch myself that I was getting to see a genuine musical legend play for free... or at least for the cost of a couple of overpriced beers. On the last night of his engagement there, he walked by our table during one of the bands breaks (they generally did three sets over a 3-4 hour period), and I told him how much I was enjoying the show. To my surprise he ended up sitting down at the table with me, and we spent his entire break talking about how much better Vegas was when the mob ran things, the records he made with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr, how his doctor had recently made him give up his beloved wine, and old jazz cats. I think he was shocked that here was this twenty-something kid who knew about all the musicians who were his contemporaries. After half an hour his drummer had to almost pull him away from our conversation and onto the stage for their final set.
After that night, everytime I'd go to see him, he'd wave at me from the stage as I entered whichever lounge he was playing at, and as soon as the set was over he'd come over to our table to say hello. One night while he was at the Rampart, Tyge remarked at how weird it was that 30 years earlier he'd have been doing the same thing, only the people at the table he'd be greeting back then would be Frank & Dean. I could never decide if that was really cool or really sad. Probably a little of both. Regardless it was always impressive whenever I'd take a friend or a date to see him.
I moved back to Nashville in 2001, and always kept an eye out for any of his tour dates that would be close enough that I could drive to. Unfortunately Sam put away his sax for good and retired the following year. His longtime piano player Artie had recently quit on him ("He just got old on me," he had told Tyge), and age caught up with him shortly thereafter. I always thought that he'd be one of those guys that once he quit playing, he'd die shortly thereafter. It just seemed like he lived to play music. While the latter was most definitely true, I was wrong about the dying part.
Sam was born in New Orleans, and he ended every final set of the night with a rousing rendition of "When The Saints Go Marching In." He and the other horn players in his band would leave the stage, and start a parade line through the audience, blowing his horn and shaking hands at the same time. It never failed to bring a smile to my face.
Sam Butera died last week of complications from pnuemonia. He was 81 years old.
You can read Tyge's remembrance of Sam at The Neon Lounge. And the best obituary I've read is the one from his hometown newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune.