Excitement is in the air this Saturday, March 19, 2022 at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center for the Arts as music lovers prepare themselves for an electrifying performance by Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses.
Louis Prima Jr. is the son of musician Louis Prima. Louis Jr.’s mother, Gia Maione — who was born in Roebling but raised in Toms River — began performing with his father in 1962. Gia taught Louis Jr. to play the drums when he was five years old. Growing up near Las Vegas, Louis Jr. spent time each summer at his grandparents’ home in Toms River.
The Prima family moved to New Orleans where Louis Jr. studied piano but later moved back to Las Vegas. While still in school, Prima learned to play the trumpet. After graduation, he dropped out of college and joined a band called Problem Child which performed both in Las Vegas and Hollywood. When the ensemble disbanded in 1995, Prima shifted his musical focus to the jazz, swing, and jump blues musical styles of his father.
Following a career outside of the music industry, Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses released their debut album, Return of the Wildest, in 2012. The group’s second album, 2014’s Blow, was recorded at the same Capital Records studio where Prima’s father and mother recorded.
Inside the Grunin Center auditorium — located on the campus of Toms River’s Ocean County College — the lights dim and the venue’s Executive and Artistic Director, Shannon Mayers, greets the audience. Mayers reveals that tonight’s concert is a culmination of an all-day celebration in which the new college studio theater next door was named in honor of Louis Prima’s Jr.’s mother, Gia Maione Prima.
Mayers introduces Anthony Sylvester, a trustee of the Gia Maione Prima Foundation, who reminds the crowd that “Gia was a Toms River gal,” before welcoming The Witnesses — vocalist Kate Curran, saxophonist Marco Palos, trombonist Philip Clevinger, guitarist Glenn McCallum, keyboardist Jenny Jarnagin, bassist A.J. Dicharry, and drummer A.D. Adams, along with Jared Charette on baritone saxophone and John Martin on trumpet — to the stage.
The show opens with Glenn McCallum playing electric guitar and Marco Palos playing tenor sax on “Riff Raff.” The pair energetically riffs together as A.J. Dicharry, A.D. Adams, Jenny Jarnagin, Philip Clevinger, Jared Charette, and John Martin join in on bass, drums, organ, trombone, bari sax, and trumpet, and vocalist Kate Curran introduces the crowd to Louis Prima, Jr.
Prima and Curran animatedly sing together in harmony on the swinging “Jump, Jive and Wail.” Heads bop as audience members jive in their seats to the song’s infectious “Oh, you gotta jump, jive, an’ then you wail” chorus. The number also features lively solos from Palos on sax, Clevinger on trombone, and Jarnagin on keyboards. Kate Curran dances to the infectious beat as Prima plays the trumpet and leads the rest of the horns in a spirited call and response session.
Curran is featured on a bluesy and rockin’ version of “I Just Wanna Have Fun,” where the crowd loves her big vocal sound.
Palos’ charismatic tenor sax playing leads off the next number, “Blow.”
Prima and Curran play tambourines and freely strut around the stage as Clevinger on trombone and Palos on sax display fancy footwork on this brassy and bluesy swing number.
Audience members joyfully clap along with the on-stage antics before responding with animated cheers and whistles.
Prima takes the mic to greet the crowd exclaiming, “How happy we are to be performing live here at the Grunin Center!” Acknowledging, “We tried for two years to make this happen,” Prima expresses his appreciation for the theater next door being named for his mother. He tells the audience stories about enjoying summers as a boy in Toms River at his grandparents’ house, and about spending time in Seaside Heights on the boardwalk at his grandfather, Tom Maione’s, “Red Top Bar — with the miniature golf on top” and “eating Maruca’s Pizza.”
Here, Prima and the band launch into one of the highlight numbers of the evening, the swinging, “Go Let’s Go.” Starting off with Clevinger on trombone, Prima impressively handles the lead and the group responds as he wails, “If you want to go (Let’s go, let’s go)/If you want to go, let’s go (Let’s go).” Band members step and sing before taking turns soloing — fingers flying — creating a dynamic sound that jumps off the stage and enthralls the crowd.
Prima is also is featured on an upbeat rendition of “Pennies from Heaven” where he scat sings and plays off Palos’ fiery saxophone. Curran — who hails from Montclair, NJ — sings a song written especially for her by drummer A. D. Adams entitled “I’m in Love,” an upbeat swing number which features her rich and emotional alto vocal.
After reminding the crowd that his father provided the voice of King Louie in the 1967 Disney film, The Jungle Book, Prima performs his dad’s famous song, “I Wanna Be Like You.” Opening with stylized drums and growling horns, audience members smile as Prima happily croons the well-known, “Oh, Oobee doo/I wanna be like you-oo-oo/I wanna walk like you/Talk like you, too” chorus.
The horn players add to the merriment by making jungle noises and ape sounds as they excitedly dance around before the entire band freezes in place. At this point, Prima talks about how the pandemic interrupted the group’s recording and touring plans. He explains that he was living in Las Vegas but wanted to go back to Louisiana and ended up moving there during the pandemic. Here, Prima launches into a new song about his situation entitled “I’m Coming Home,” where he sings with feeling and then plays trumpet as the horn players come downstage to join him to avid audience cheers and applause.
Next, the group performs the circus-like “Greatest Show on Earth,” where Curran and Prima move up and down while they sing as if they’re riding on a carousel.
Prima tells a story about how, in 1936, his father wrote “Sing, Sing, Sing” for Bing Crosby. He explains that although the song was originally called “Sing, Bing, Sing,” the title was ultimately changed before becoming a hit for Benny Goodman and his Orchestra.
According to Prima, “Sing, Sing, Sing” was the first song to feature drums as a solo instrument. As such, A. D. Adams is featured on the drums on this number. Prima and all of the Witnesses leave the stage except for Adams and trumpeter John Martin. After Adams accompanies Martin’s jazzy trumpet solo, Martin leaves Adams alone on the stage to perform a rapid-fire drum solo. Standing at times as he plays, audience members whistle and cheer as Adams impresses with his technical and musical acumen. Soon, Prima retakes the stage and plays the drum set along with Adams, the pair energetically trading drum rolls, cymbal rolls, and even comical silent rolls in the air to enthusiastic applause.
Prima continues to play drums as the rest of The Witnesses return for a medley of classic pop and rock songs. Drummer Adams moves downstage to sing lead on Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” saxophonist Palos handles the lead vocal on The Ides of March’s “Vehicle,” and trombonist Clevinger dances loose and animated while exuding a James Brown vibe as he performs a thrilling rendition of “I Feel Good.”
Keyboardist Jenny Jarnagin is featured on Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing,” and Curran starts out nice and easy on Ike and Tina Turner’s arrangement of “Proud Mary” before the tempo increases and Clevinger and Adams join her dancing with arms raised and feet stepping, eliciting cheers for an electrifying performance.
To complete the medley, guitarist Glenn McCallum sings low on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and Prima returns to the mic to sing lead on a rockin’ arrangement of The Temptations’ “Get Ready” which features Adams on drums, Martin on trumpet, and Jared Charette on baritone sax.
Palos plays a simmering saxophone intro on “Night Train.” Prima and Curran dance on this brassy and bluesy number, and tenor and baritone saxophone duel before the spectacle ends with Marco Palos who, amazingly, bends backwards while playing his sax center stage.
Slowing things down, Curran is featured on “Sunday Kind of Love,” a song written by Louis Prima Sr. and made famous by Etta James. Making it her own with a soulful and jazzy interpretation, she and Prima follow up with an upbeat duet on “That Old Black Magic.” The crowd enjoys their comical repartee as the vocalists croon to one another.
Audience members joyfully clap along on a medley of two upbeat Italian songs, “Angelina” and “Zooma Zooma,” before rising to their feet and cheering for the band’s vigorous performance. Then, Prima and the Witnesses follow up with another highlight number of the evening — their rendition of Louis Prima Sr.’s “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody.”
Band members jump up and down as they sing and play on this happy-go-lucky tune filled with comedy as well as musicianship and topped off with a kick line. At the end of the performance, the band freezes and then unfreezes to cheers and a standing ovation from the Grunin Center crowd.
To conclude the evening’s festivities, Prima plays trumpet as he happily leads a parade of instrumentalists down into the audience, marching and dancing to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The jazzy sound winds its way throughout the theater and even upstairs into the balcony before the group returns to the stage, the audience standing, clapping, and thoroughly enjoying the merriment of this outstanding live performance.
When Prima asks, “Did you have a good time?” the audience responds with an enthusiastic “Yeah!” Prima declares, “It was great coming to my Mom’s hometown to celebrate today! Thank you to the Grunin Center. We had a blast,” before concluding, “Remember: Music is good for the soul. Music is good for the heart. Music is good for everything! ”
As audience members file out of the auditorium, we chat with several in the crowd who share their thoughts on tonight’s performance by Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses.
Ken from Toms River exclaims, “It was so energetic, and I especially loved the horns!” whereas Daria from Toms River contends, “I loved Louis Prima Jr.’s show,” revealing, “And I knew his mom, too!”
Explains Joe, a musician from Toms River, “What great musicianship! The band was tight and organized — I loved it!” before adding, “I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to live music!”
Wendy from Florence calls tonight’s performance “Excellent, with a lot of energy and fancy footwork.”
Mark from Florence reveals, “This is our fourth time seeing the band, and they get better and better each time we see them,” noting, “They seem to have even more energy as they get older!”
Fannie from Rahway calls tonight’s performance “Fabulous!” explaining, “Louis Prima Jr. just makes you want to smile” and adding, “The Grunin Center is such a beautiful theater with a great vibe and lovely atmosphere. Everybody should come here!”
Lastly, we chat with Joe and Jeanne from Bergenfield. Whereas Joe exclaims, “It was an amazing show — it left me smiling!” Jeanne declares, “Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses were fantastic! There was non-stop cheering and singing. I was dancing in my seat. I didn’t want the night to be over,” before concluding, “This show was spectacular from beginning to end!”
To learn more about Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses, please go to louisprimajr.com. For further info on upcoming performances at the Grunin Center — including The Hit Men on April 8, Shawn Colvin on April 30, and The Bronx Wanderers on June 26 — please to go grunincenter.org.
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