By Mike Scott
Even now, the better part of five decades later, Louis Prima Jr. still holds onto a vivid memory of the first time he saw “The Jungle Book.” It was at the domed Cinerama theater in Las Vegas, he said, and Prima’s father — the peerlessly charismatic New Orleans-born musician and entertainer Louis Prima, who played the orangutan monarch King Louie in the animated Disney classic — was smiling down at him from the seat right next to his.
And then the movie started — and Junior’s little mind was blown.
“I know I must have been 2 or 4 when it came
out. I don’t remember my age,”
the younger Prima said, calling recently from his home in Las Vegas. “But I remember going with my father and my mother and my sister, and I have conscious memories of sitting there, looking at the screen at King Louie and looking up at my dad and going, ‘How is this even working? I don’t understand this technology!'”
Not only did King Louie sound like his dad — and, more importantly, swing like his dad — but “when you see the orangutan, you definitely see my dad,” the younger Prima said.
“My father’s personality and charm, appeal, whatever you want to call it, came through no matter what he did,” Prima said. “He was one of the few people that could do a studio album and make it sound like you were standing next to him on-stage, and he did that in the cartoon. He was larger-than-life, even as a character, just lending a voice.”
This week, Disney’s new, computer-animated “Jungle Book” lands in theaters, a glitzy, glossy and distinctly modern take on the old Kipling-inspired classic. And while “I Wan’na Be Like You” — the show-stopping song that Prima popularized in the 1967 original — is, indeed, included in it, the part of King Louie isn’t quite the same as in the original movie.
For one, he’s not an orangutan. Instead, director Jon Favreau re-wrote things to make him an extinct orang-like creature called a Gigantopithecus, which — unlike orangutans — actually roamed India once upon a time. Secondly, and even more importantly, he’s voiced by Christopher Walken, filling in for Prima.
“I think Christopher Walken is an awesome choice to do King Louie,” Prima Jr. said. “It’s going to be interesting. I will see the movie, but for me, ‘Jungle Book’ is always going to be that cartoon, no matter what they do to it.”
Likewise, he said, King Louie will always be his dear old dad, in his eyes.
He’s not alone.
For many a Disney purist, when it comes to “The Jungle Book” you simply can’t spell primate without “Prima,” the name of the inimitable showman whose appealing brand of on-stage antics helped him forge a career that spanned his early days in New Orleans, a move to the swinging New York nightclub scene, the big-band era, his own Vegas era and then, finally, thanks in part to “The Jungle Book” — which was released just 11 years before his death in 1978 — into the rock ‘n’ roll era.
That’s only fitting, as the senior Prima was hand-picked for the role by Walt Disney himself, who wanted somebody zany to fill the role of King Louie, the self-described “king of the swingers.” It was a great fit.
“He was perfect for it. A great jazz man,” longtime Disney songwriter Richard Sherman remembered earlier this year in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “Academy Originals” video series. “He had a band called Sam Butera and the Witnesses. They played at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. So we were sent there to play this song (‘I Wan’na Be Like You’) for Louis Prima.”
After waiting for hours, and sitting through performance after performance by Prima, Butera and their rowdy bandmates, Sherman and his songwriting partner and brother Robert Sherman finally got Prima and company alone.
Squeezing everybody into a tiny room with an upright piano that was facing a wall, Richard Sherman remembers twisting himself around to perform the song for them, “grunting away like an ape and everything” in the process. When he was done, Prima pretended to take offense.
“They were just listening like a couple of university professors,” Sherman said. “When I was through, he said, ‘Are you trying to make a monkey out of me?’ I said, ‘No! You’re the ape! These guys are the monkeys!’ — and they all started to laugh. They loved it. They just were just putting a joke on us, because they were wild men.”
While the eventual look and movement of the character was based loosely on Prima, that wasn’t the only bit of inspiration he, Butera and the Witnesses had on the movie.
“When they play, they parade around. They sort of get into line and promenade around,” Sherman said. “And the animators watched them do that and they actually did the sequence that way, where the band would follow around, all as apes and monkeys. It was a great sequence, it was really great. It was very fun. I’ll never forget it.”
Neither would Prima. When it came time for the Hollywood premiere of “The Jungle Book,” he and his gang of New Orleans musical cutups were only too happy to perform a bit of pre-show entertainment in the legendary forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now the TCL Chinese Theater) as the star-studded crowd — Zsa Zsa Gabor, Fred MacMurray, Sony and Cher, Buddy Ebsen, Charlton Heston, Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, James Garner, Martin Landau — filed in with their respective families.
Later, in a 1973 interview with The Times-Picayune, Prima is described as talking “with considerable enthusiasm” about “The Jungle Book” and Walt Disney. “His movies were the best things that ever happened to kids as entertainment,” Prima said at the time.
Disney and “I Wan’na Be Like You” were also among the best things that happened to Prima, especially late in his career.
“The gold record was always on the wall,” Louis Prima Jr. said. “That was a prominent piece of the household. I believe that was the first actual gold record he did. I mean, good lord, what, 170 albums? In his lifetime he was a recording fiend. But that was the one, and kudos to Walt Disney for getting him in the movie.”
To this day, “I Wan’na Be Like You” is still a key part of the junior Prima’s stage show, in which he performs with the Witnesses — and which he is preparing to take on the road this summer. “That’s the one common bond,” he said. “If you say you’ve never heard Louis Prima or heard of him or know the music, you 100 percent have heard that song and seen the movie.”
Although there was some talk about getting the younger Prima involved in the new “Jungle Book” in some fashion, things didn’t pan out. But even without his or his father’s contributions, the new “Jungle Book” still boasts a certain New Orleans flavor. The antics of Baloo the bear, for example, get a distinctly Dixieland musical soundtrack. Also, during the closing credits, local piano legend Dr. John sings a rendition of film’s other big hit, the Oscar-nominated “Bare Necessities,” recorded during a New Orleans session with Favreau in late 2014.
While Prima says he hopes the new version does well in theaters, he hopes nobody soon forgets the movie that started it all some 49 years ago.
“I hope it stands on its own and Disney doesn’t try to shelve (the original) ‘Jungle Book’ forever,” Prima said. “Because every time that thing comes out, whatever incarnation it is, it’s popular, it’s huge. I hope they just keep on keeping on, because like I said, that’s the one common bond we have with the entire world. I don’t care how old you are, what color you are, where you’re from, what language you speak — you know King Louie.”
This story was originally published in April 2016 by NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune.