In two weeks, saxophonist Sam Butera will get the hometown hero's recognition he's deserved for decades. On Monday, April 22, Butera will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award in Music at the 2002 Big Easy Entertainment Awards, where an all-star New Orleans band featuring Iguanas' saxophonist Derek Huston will pay tribute to Butera. That weekend, on Saturday, April 27, Butera will make his debut at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in a headline appearance. It's a triumphant visit for a man who agonized over leaving New Orleans in 1954.
Butera was one of the kings of Bourbon Street in the 1940s and early '50s, with regular gigs at the Dream Room and Leon Prima's 500 Club, and he recorded driving instrumental hits like "Chicken Scratch" that ensured steady crowds and substantial income. Butera loved his hometown so much that he had already quit a job playing with esteemed drummer Ray McKinley, after becoming homesick while on tour. So when trumpeter and vocalist Louis Prima asked Butera to move to Las Vegas with him, Butera was faced with making a huge leap of faith.
"I was making a lot of money then, and Louis wasn't paying any money," remembers Butera in a phone interview from his Las Vegas home. "The first paycheck I got from Louis was $250, and my wife said, 'This isn't going to work.' "I told her, 'Let's hang in with this.' I saw how the people were picking up on his music, and he did, too. The next week I played with him at the Sahara, my check was already up to $500 a week. When I started playing with him, I changed the whole format."
That's not hubris; it's the truth. As Prima's arranger and bandleader, Butera steered Prima from a big-band format to a stripped down, streetwise sound that played to Butera and Prima's New Orleans roots. The result was a timeless string of songs -- smashes like "Jump, Jive and Wail," "That Old Black Magic," "I've Got You Under My Skin," and "Just a Gigolo" -- which rode Butera's roaring sax and Prima's strutting tomcat vocal delivery straight onto dance floors and into the history books. It was christened "swing" music, but its dominant shuffle beat and horn-heavy sound are a blueprint of '40s and '50s Crescent City jump blues.
"When I play, I sound like a little R&B," says Butera. "I play that way because that's what people wanted to hear and what they were buying, and that's what they're still buying. I started out as a bebop musician, but I couldn't make any money playing bebop, so I thought, I'm gonna give the people what they want. Tenor sax was the big instrument then, so I did some honking, but still played jazz around the honking. There weren't too many guys doing that, except Lee Allen. Lee and I played many a jam session together, and used to jam with Paul Gayten at the Brass Rail."
Butera was the perfect musical foil for Prima, and has nothing but praise for his late former employer. "Louis was the greatest entertainer, just unbelievable," says Butera. "He wrote unbelievable lyrics, too. The way people accepted us was incredible. We were the No. 1 attraction in the world. When we played [President] Kennedy's Inaugural Ball in 1960, Sinatra sang one song -- and we got four songs."
Speaking of ol' Blue Eyes, Butera regards his 1976 recording session with Sinatra on the song "Stargazer" as one of his career milestones. "Man, there's only one Sinatra," says Butera. "He could sing, that son of a gun. I never heard anybody phrase like that, and just the way he breathed ... Sinatra and I were good friends."
His peers such as Prima, Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. may be gone, but Butera still carries the torch, packing in the crowds in Las Vegas and tour engagements. He's also become a seminal figure to a whole new generation of performers, from swing revivalists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth. Such attention is a mixed blessing for Butera.
"I was happy that the kids were coming back to this music, but those kids didn't swing," he says. "They were playing all the notes, but they didn't feel it. This guy came to see me at the Tropicana, and came up to me and said, 'Hi Sam.' I asked him, 'Who are you?' He says, 'David Lee Roth.' I told him, 'Give me my money.' He just turned around and walked away. He'd taken his arrangement of 'Just a Gigolo' and copyrighted it, and I never got a dime."
These days, Butera's too busy enjoying himself to get worked up over such matters. When he's not playing a show or recording with his own band The Wildest, he's most often found on the golf course. "I just played this morning," he says. "I shoot 87, 86 and still hit the ball pretty good. You gotta remember, I'm 74 years old."
And still swingin'.