Las Vegas just couldn’t compare.
For most of her professional life, Las Vegas native Lena Prima was based in the casino-resort city, where her father, Louis, had been a major attraction.
But in 2011, Prima and her husband, bassist Tim Fahey, traded Vegas glitz for New Orleans soul.
“Coming back here is the best thing I ever did,” she said last week. “I don’t even know where to start. The people and the music and the vibe and the city. I love everything.”
Prima mostly grew up in Las Vegas, but her family — including her mother, Gia Maione Prima, and brother Louis Jr. — also spent time in New Orleans and nearby Covington, where Louis Prima owned a golf course.
During family visits to Louisiana, Prima’s father taught her about his hometown and its traditions.
“Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day,” she said. “And walking around to the grocery stores, he knew everybody. I was a little girl, but I’ll never forget that.”
Prima’s father, who died in 1978 at 67, remains a vivid memory, too. Mimicking the lyrics of one of his best-loved songs, “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song),” little Lena wanted to be like him.
“He was like a magical creature, bigger than life, with so much charisma,” she said. “He was a happy, warm, funny being. Who wouldn’t want to be like that?”
Carrying on a family tradition, Prima sings Fridays at the Hotel Monteleone’s revolving Carousel Bar. She performs her dad’s music, her original songs and favorites by other New Orleans artists.
“Every weekend, it’s different types of people, different ages, celebrating things,” she said. “People from all over the world and locals. I love it.”
On Thursday, Sept. 17, Prima also will perform for the Thursdays at Twilight concert series at City Park’s Botanical Garden.
Prima was a professional singer by 18, performing with a Las Vegas rock band. Later, seeing the opportunity to support herself through music exclusively, she worked as a Vegas lounge singer.
While performing in the 1990s with a latter-day version of Spiral Staircase (“More Today Than Yesterday”), Prima added a 20-minute tribute to her dad to the show. The enthusiastic response the tribute received during a cruise-ship performance convinced her to make it a full-length tribute.
In 2010, Prima participated in 100th birthday celebrations for her father in New Orleans. During that two-week visit, she performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and other venues. Upon returning to Las Vegas, she missed New Orleans.
“That was a turning point,” she said.
After Prima’s performance at the French Quarter Festival in April 2011, she and her husband began the process of moving to New Orleans.
By December, they’d arrived.
“We were sitting here with boxes in this apartment,” she said. “It was hard work, but what a great feeling.”
In 2014, Prima released her latest album, “Starting Something.” It’s an autobiographical opus recorded with great local players and singers.
Moving to New Orleans, she said, “it transformed me in so many ways. It freed me. I feel like I’m the best version of myself I’ve ever been.”