Gia Prima, widow of Louis "King of Swing" Prima and an accomplished singer in her own right, passed away Monday, Sept. 23 in Destin. She was 72.
Gia was a 21-year-old waitress at a New Jersey casino when she met Louis Prima, who was conducting a nationwide search for a new singing partner. Gia got the job and two years later, Louis proposed. As musicians, Gia and Louis traveled the world, recorded 14 albums and made television appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."
“He was my life ... all my life,” Gia told The Log in a 2010 story. “It still remains that way today ... Like a Cinderella story come true.”
During their marriage, Gia gave birth to two children, Louis Jr. and Lena, both of whom are entertainers. Louis Jr. is scheduled to play at next week's Destin Seafood Festival. She is also survived by two grandsons, her sister, June Maione Kassel, and longtime companion, Frank Savannah.
In 1975, when Louis' health was declining and he fell into a coma, Gia had him transferred to a clinic in Louisiana, his home state. From 1976 and on, the Emerald Coast become her home away from home, especially after Louis' death in 1978.
"At first it was to take the kids to Panama City for the rides and the beach,” she told The Log. “Starting around 1983, the kids were grown and had their own lives — when I needed to get away, I found first the Holiday Inn (in Destin), then the Sandestin Hilton ... We’d just stay here, go on the beach, clear my head, keep things in perspective. I always thought it’s so beautiful here, one day I’d like to live here.”
Once Gia made a permanent home in Destin about ten years ago, she kept busy writing a book about her husband and operating Prima Music, LLC and Louis Prima's website. In 2011, she created the Louis Prima ASCAP award; the award is presented yearly to a talented vocalist or musician attending the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
Gia enjoyed sharing her and her late husband's stories and gave two presentations in 2008 and 2010 at the Destin Library. Reference and Youth Service Librarian, Will Rogers, was lucky enough to work alongside Gia at the presentations.
"She was quite a lady," he recalled. "Gia, like her late husband Louis, were talents beyond understanding. The respect Gia had for Louis and the works they created together were not only evident but almost religious. She was a gracious lady who took the time to speak with everyone. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity meet her. I will miss Gia Prima. But I will have the memories for a lifetime."
"Gia’s love for her husband, Louis Prima, was very evident in her retrospective presentations of his work. The crowds at the library were standing room only for these events," added Jurate Burns, Destin Library director.
Editor's note: This story ran in 2010 to promote Gia Prima's presentation at the Destin Library
Destin Library swings
Gia Prima remembers her husband’s musical legacy
Falling in love with band leader and musician Louis Prima remains a magical experience 30 years after his death, says his widow, singer Gia Prima.
“He was my life ... all my life,” Prima told The Log this week. “It still remains that way today ... Like a Cinderella story come true.”
Prima, a Destin resident, will talk about her husband and show some of her “thousands of clips” of his performances in a presentation next month at the Destin Library.
A classically trained violinist in his youth, Louis Prima turned to trumpet in his teens, became a swing music star with the Louis Prima Band in the ’30s and performed a string of hits in the ’50s including “Just a Gigolo,” “Black Magic” and “When You’re Smilin’.” In the ’60s, he provided the voice of King Louie, the swingin’ jungle ape, in Disney’s animated “The Jungle Book.”
“My dad was a huge Louis Prima fan,” Gia Prima said. “From when I was a little child, Dad would wake me up blasting Louis Prima music on the record player.
While on vacation in Florida when she was 14, her father arranged for his daughter, then Gia Maione, to meet Prima. She got him to autograph a picture of herself, which she still carries in her wallet 50 years later.
“From that point on, I collected every single recording he ever made,” Prima said. “In school, for the variety shows, I would always perform Louis’ music.”
In 1962, Louis Prima’s search for a new “girl singer” for his band led him from coast to coast including a stop in New Jersey’s Latin Casino. When Gia Maione — who’d been singing since early childhood — learned he was there, she secured an audition.
Prima, she said, narrowed down his choices to Maione, actress Michelle Lee and Philadelphia singer Charlotte Duber, and asked them all to sing with him the next day, at a special Mother’s Day performance for the women of the Jewish organization, B’Nai B’rith.
“I was a child with crinoline dress and poodle haircut, these were beautiful voluptuous women,” Gia Prima said. “Of course the B’Nai B’rith mothers fell in love with me ... he picked me the next day.”
At their first performance together, she said, she could look out at the audience and see Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Gleason, Robert Mitchum and other stars. The duo clicked both musically and personally, and Gia Maione became Gia Prima, Louis Prima’s fifth wife.
When Louis Prima fell into a coma in 1975, Gia Prima had him transferred to a clinic in Louisiana, relocating to the state to be with him. Starting in 1976, the Emerald Coast became her place to get away from it all, something that became even more important during the 20-year legal battle over her husband’s estate that followed his death in 1978.
“At first it was to take the kids to Panama City for the rides and the beach,” Prima said. “Starting around 1983, the kids were grown and had their own lives — when I needed to get away, I found first the Holiday Inn (in Destin), then the Sandestin Hilton ... We’d just stay here, go on the beach, clear my head, keep things in perspective. I always thought it’s so beautiful here, one day I’d like to live here.”
After returning to New Jersey to care for her aging parents, Prima relocated to a new home in Destin. She stays busy working on a book about her husband, managing and licensing his musical works and putting together a motion picture about Louis Prima’s life.