Appearing at Feinstein's at the Regency through May 25, Smith, the ultimate survivor, is recreating the 1950s and 1960s in a contemporary way for a new generation of fans who weren't even born when she was in her glory years as the First Lady of Las Vegas, singing with the Louis Prima jazz band and recording duets with Frank Sinatra.
Still wearing a cloche hairstyle in the manner of film legend Louise Brooks, Smith freely admits to being 74 but "feeling like 40." She talks and sings warm and torchy with a whisper of Southern drawl that clings to her from a Virginia childhood, much as she did when she emerged as the Prima's "girl singer" and comic foil (and later wife) nearly 60 years ago and took Charles Trenet's ballad "I Wish You Love" as her theme song.
She recalls that she used to do five shows a night at the Sahara Hotel in Vegas between midnight and 6 a.m., "opening with 'When You're Smilin'" and closing with 'When the Saints Go Marching In,'" a song she sings as a sing-along for her Feinstein's audience. She uses it as a rousing prelude to her final, heartfelt number, Sinatra's "The House I Live In," a truly grand, patriotic finale.
"I love singing Sinatra songs," she tells her audience, mentioning in passing that her most recent Concord album is "Keely Sings Sinatra." "I wrote a lot of songs myself with Louis but I was never given any credit. But that's life."
She opens the show with her adaptation of Prima's "Swing, Swing, Swing" and segues into "Let the Good Times Roll," a number that describes perfectly her entertainment philosophy. Then she moves on to Prima's swinging "Jump, Jive An' Wail" and Jule Stein's breathless "It's Magic."
Smith has her own swinging style mixed with the cool sophistication of jazz, and it will never go out of style with discriminating audiences. She's not above taking liberties with a song and even changes the location of Jerry Lieber and Frank Stoller's "Kansas City" to New York and one of Prima's signature songs, "Oh, Marie," to "Oh, Louie," making it a bumptious, fast-moving number.
She gives a terrific renditions of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer classic, "That Old Black Magic," and "Just a Gigolo," another song Prima made famous along with his "Oh, Babe," a real foot-tapper. Her delivery recalls the good-natured roughhouse for which she and Prima were famous, making them the precursors of Sonny and Cher.
The music is lush, thanks to the backup of a seven-man band with Smith's son-in-law, Dennis Michaels, conducting with quiet aplomb from the piano. Saxophone accompaniment is particularly important to her uptempo performance and she gets great support from Jerry Vivino and Mike Migliore, masters of the instrument.
After she and Prima were divorced, Smith married record producer Jimmy Bowen and retired from her singing career to rear her children. She didn't return to recording and club work until they were grown. Since then, her career has been quite diverse.
She's been heard on the soundtrack of several films, including "Stuart Little," and television viewers were introduced to her "Jump, Jive and Wail" on The Gap's commercials. Her concert engagements take her from Manhattan to cities across the nation and the Hollywood Bowl.
Her next engagement will be at the Atlantic City Hilton in New Jersey, June 24-29.