Louis Prima's Sheik of Araby: Tricentennial Music Moment

Published on: March 17th, 2018
In 2018, New Orleans is celebrating 300 years. In honor of this milestone, we're featuring Tricentennial Music Moments, on-air and online, all year long. Learn more about the stories and people that have shaped the Crescent City.

May 6, 1957, Louis Prima recorded a dusty old standard from the 1920s, called 'The Sheik of Araby.' The original song was a cliché novelty standard. Louis'  version was of course, in the up-tempo "Prima Shuffle" that he’s known for.

But there was something different -- at the end of each line, Louis' band sang "with no turban on"  and "jumpin' as a jaybird." When Louis performed the song live on stage, the band sang the backup lines, "with no pants on" and "naked as a jaybird." It was typical of Louis' humor but it was a little risque for the 1950s. He couldn’t record the song with those words.

New Orleanian bandleader Don Albert had sung it that way in the 1930s and it was banned from the radio. So when Louis was making his recording of the song, the band sang the cleaner lyrics, which seemed silly, but it still implied that the Sheik was misbehaving. Maybe only some of the audience got the joke, but everybody loved it.

That was Louis Prima in a nutshell. Enjoy life, act like you’re up to no good, throw in a little innuendo, and turn something serious into a barrel of laughs. His style came from growing up in New Orleans and it was the secret of his success. Louis Prima’s risqué stage version never made it to vinyl. But it didn't matter -- it became a New Orleans tradition when a band covered the song, even today. And the audience can join in.


This feature's narrator is Lena Prima. Lena is Louis' daughter and a talented performer in her own right. Lena has five albums and a music career that spans 30+ years. She was born in Las Vegas but has spent the majority of her life in New Orleans, where she still resides today. Lena founded the non-profit organization, CIAO Women! The organization celebrates exceptional female Italians who make a positive difference in their communities. She will be performing a tribute to her father at Jazz Fest 2018 on April 28, and her own set in Economy Hall Tent on the same day. Lena regularly performs at the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street.

WWOZ General Manager Beth Arroyo Utterback with Lena Prima

More WWOZ New Orleans Tricentennial Music Moments


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