Posts Tagged ‘lounges’

The Last Time I Saw Paris

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

The golden age of lounge entertainment in Atlantic City has been over for some years. The recent passing of saxophone giant Sam Butera, architect behind the sound of Louis Prima, just formalized the end of an area.

From the inception of casino gaming in 1978 until the early 1990s, virtually every casino/hotel had a lounge that featured live music. Some of the attractions were local, some were national. In the very beginning, Resorts International, the first casino to open, booked jazzers like Red Norvo and Teddy Wilson, and later, Sam Butera, Freddie Bell, R & B pioneers The Treniers, and jazz trumpeter Jack Sheldon.

Later on, The Golden Nugget booked everyone who was anyone from the world of Las Vegas lounges, including Buddy Greco, Frank D’Rone, Keely Smith, Billy Eckstine, Johnnie Ray, Billy Daniels, Joanie Sommers, Chris Connor, and many others.

The Claridge jumped into the fray after a while, as did Caesars, with attractions like Julius LaRosa. Dakota Staton and Buddy Greco, who, if memory serves, moved to The Claridge from The Golden Nugget and then to Caesars. There were bidding wars going on in those days.

It was party every night in those lounges. And remember, this was world class entertainment on view for the price of a drink.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when things began to change, but I do recall when I first saw the handwriting on the wall.

Sonny Averona was a Sinatra-type singer who had a substantial following at the shore and beyond. Sonny’s following was the “right” kind of following, i.e., high-rollers. He packed the lounge at The Taj Mahal six nights a week. I know. I was his drummer. When Sonny took a break, the crowds gambled–quite heavily, I was told–until we returned to the stage.

I was shocked when we were given two weeks’ notice. I had become acquainted with one of the Taj’s executives, also a regular visitor to the lounge, and told him that, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why we were given notice, given the size the type of business we were doing.

“Come with me,” the exec said, while leading me to a quarter slot machine at the end of an aisle in a dark and rather secluded part of the casino floor. “See this machine? It may be in a dog of a location, but it’s still good for a minimum of $600 per hour. What’s replacing you in the lounge? Slot machines.”

As of summer, 2009, there are a number of lounges that do book live music, though the descriptions of the sounds within–provided by the casinos themselves–do not go beyond “live entertainment” or “rock cover bands.”

What hasn’t changed is that casino executives have to be creative in terms of who or what they book in their bigger rooms. A “name” is always a draw (when Sinatra was in town, all of Atlantic City was sold out) and given the economic climate and the fact that A.C. is no longer the only game in town, these places need all the help they can get.

Here’s some creativity at work for you: A recent advertisement for the Borgata casino/hotel listed none other than Paris Hilton as an upcoming attraction on Saturday, June 13th. You’ve got to hand it to the folks at the Borgata. What they’ve done in terms of appealing to the younger/upscale market has been astounding, and the operation has become a model for all other casinos in the area and beyond.

But Paris Hilton?

Those of us of a certain age knew that “actress” Zsa Zsa Gabor was basically famous for just being famous, though she did develop a character and demonstrated a flair for comedy, often at her own expense.

But Paris Hilton?

What does she do, and more importantly, what will she do at the Borgata on the evening of Saturday, June 13th?

The copy for the first newspaper advertisement I saw read, simply, “Paris Hilton, Music by Jesse Marco, Saturday, June 13.”

Music by Jesse Marco? Gee, maybe Hilton would be singing with a big band.

It turns out that Marco is one of the hottest, young D.J.’s around, so don’t look forward to hearing any Count Basie charts.

One of the Borgata’s web sites,, offers another clue as to what Hilton will be doing on the evening of June 13.

Here, the copy reads PARIS HILTON (in very big letters), and underneath, in very small letters, “Hosts Mur.Mur,” and underneath that, also in small letters, “Music by Jesse Marco,” and underneath that, again in large letters, SATURDAY, JUNE 13.

Mur.Mur, it turns out, is a new nightspot within the Borgata, which they describe at “the nightclub with a personality all to itself.” In line with just what the Hilton appearance is all about, the key word here has got to be “hosts.”

That, evidently, is what Hilton does. She shows up. And on this night, she’ll be hostessing at a disco. Mur.Mur. The nightclub with a personality all to itself. Bet the joint will be mobbed.

I bear no ill will toward Hilton or Jesse Marco, the Borgata or Mur dot Mur. In fact, I’m jealous. I want the gig. I’d love to get paid for showing up. Nice work if you can get it, says the song.

More seriously, I miss Sam Butera and the era when Buddy Greco would be singing and swinging to a packed room. There was nothing canned about it and these performers gave their all and created an excitement and energy that hasn’t been surpassed. And it was all live.

I’ll pass on the famous hostess and the disc jockey. I’ll listen my Sam Butera records instead.


The ageless Buddy Greco appears regularly at his own spot in Cathedral City, CA, “Buddy Greco’s Dinner Club,” and will be touring the U.K. in August.

Julius LaRosa’s web site lists no appearances beyond November of last year.

Trumpeter Jack Sheldon is still out there swinging, and will be playing at The Playboy Jazz Festival at The Hollywood Bowl on June 13, the same date Paris Hilton will be hostessing at the Borgata.

Singer and guitarist Frank D’Rone, a vastly under-appreciated talent (boy, did we have some times at The Golden Nugget), continues to play to packed houses in and around his native Chicago, on the west coast and at other selected, national venues.

Vocalist Joanie Sommers is still singing and takes jobs, when offered, near her Los Angeles home base.

Several of the recorded works of legendary jazz singer Chris Connor are being reissued–finally–by a number of record companies in Japan. Her singular singing style will be the subject of pianist/composer/eductaor Ran Blake’s lecture series this summer at the New England Conservatory.

The golden voice of Keely Smith has not changed one iota since her days with Louis Prima. She appears in the “main rooms” — no longer the lounges — of nightspots and concert halls nationally and records for the Concord Jazz label.

Milt Trenier, the only surviving member of The Treniers, appears a few times per month in and around his Chicago home.

Jazz pianist Teddy Wilson died in 1986.

Billy (“That Old Black Magic”) Daniels died in 1988.

Singer and hit-maker Johnnie Ray died in 1990.

Singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine died in 1993.

Jazz vibraphonist Red Norvo died in 1999.

Jazz singer Dakota Staton died in 2007.

Vegas lounge maven Freddie Bell died in 2008.

SAM BUTERA: What Made Sammy Run

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Note: I saw Sam Butera hundreds of times in the 1980s at various
casinos in Atlantic City, notably Resorts International. At that juncture,
I was writing for Atlantic City Magazine by day and playing in the lounges
by night, but I always made it my business to be in the lounge of
Resorts when Sam Butera and The Wildest were in residence. It
was the hottest show in town. Eventually, I became close with Sam
and the talented members of his band, including the late Buck Mainieri
and Chuck Stevens Ignolia (Connie’s brother) and keyboardist
and arranger Arnie Teich. Sam had me helping with sound, with
publicity, etc. In other words, I was a hanger-on with a purpose. Sam
and the boys gave me some of the most exciting and most
educational moments of my life. Though the following tribute
concentrates on Butera’s long association with Louis Prima, be
aware that he participated in many projects on his own, both before
and during the Prima years, including recording sessions as a
soloist, fabulous pairings with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy
Davis, and even a film or two, including “The Rat Race.” Sam’s music,
with and without Prima, is timeless and will never, ever date or age.
Was it art? As Sam might have answered, “I don’t know, man…but it
was sure fun.”

Saxophonist Sam Butera, the architect behind the sound of the legendarysinger and trumpeter, Louis Prima, passed away in Las Vegas on June 3rd. He would have been 82 in August. Butera, who retired in 2004, died as a result of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, said his wife of 62 years, Vera.

The Butera/Prima pairing constitutes one of the great show business stories. In 1954, young Butera was quite the sensation on the New Orleans club scene, with his raucous combination of jazz, dixieland and rhythm and blues sax solos and vocals winning over locals and tourists nightly. He was, in fact, already a national name, as he was voted as one of the most outstanding teenage jazz musicians in the country by Look Magazine a few years earlier.

Unfortunately, Louis Prima career was all but shot by 1954. Though he had enormous success in the late 1930s with a Dixieland combination on 52nd Street in New York city, a popular and quite entertaining big band throughout through the 1940s and plenty of hit records, by 1954, the big band era was long over and Prima’s “jumpin’ and jivin” style was pretty much considered old hat. Prima and then-wife, vocalist Keely Smith–they married in 1953– were working every dive imaginable, with local rhythm sections. “Louis had us playing in bowling alleys, or wherever else he could get us a job,” Smith said years later.

Prima needed a break, and he got one in the form of Bill Miller, Entertainment Director of Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel, where Prima had once headlined. Miller gave Prima and Smith two weeks in December. In the lounge. On the midnight to 5 a.m. shift.

Though they went over well with the Vegas audience—they were extended throughout the month, and the musicians provided for them worked well–Louis Prima knew something was missing. Prima’s New Orleans-based brother, Leon, told Louis about this fabulous band in New Orleans, led by a swinging, honking, entertaining dynamo of a saxophone player, Sam Butera. Instinctively, Prima knew that Butera could give him the sound, and help realize the musical concept, he wanted. Prima begged Butera to come to Vegas on Christmas. Butera came out December 26th, and shortly after, the face of Las Vegas entertainment changed.

Louis Prima had already been through a number of musical styles, including swing, big band sounds, dixieland, Italian “jive” novelties like “Please Don’t Squeeza-Da Banana,” and several more. His goal was to somehow incorporate all of these in his act, with contemporary rhythm and blues overtones. At the same time, he was developing the role of his singing wife, Keely Smith, into that of bored, deadpan vocalist who could care less about Prima’s on-stage scatting, jiving, dancing, be-bopping and other musical shenanigans. Sonny and Cher were an updated version of Louis and Keely.

Sam Butera and his talented New Orleans crew, dubbed “The Witnesses,” brought it all together. Even Prima’s cornball novelties–like “Josephina Please Don’t Lean-A on the Bell”–were now catchy, electrric swingers, held together by a modified swing beat called a “shuffle.” It wasn’t rock and it wasn’t jazz and it wasn’t dixieland. The music of Louis Prima, as defined by Butera, had elements of them all.

Louis Prima, Keely Smith and Sam Butera and The Witness were a hit and took Las Vegas by storm. The Casbah Lounge at the Sahara was the spot in Vegas. Tables were impossible to come by and after-hours visits to the lounge by the headliners–which frequently included Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack co-horts–became the norm. The group signed a lucrative contract with Capital Records, had a bunch of hit records, made a movie or two and were all over television. Ed Sullivan, who employed them frequentely on his television program was fond of calling them “the hottest act in the country.”

And the songs? Venerable oldies like “That Old Black Magic,” “Just a Gigolo,” “Oh Marie,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and dozens of others were arranged by Sam Butera for maximum effectiveness, utilizing the skilled talents of Prima’s wild vocals and trumpet playing, Smith’s sweet singing, and on most every tune, the booting and rousing tenor saxophone of Butera.

Prima, Butera and The Witnesses remained Vegas staples–and toured the country– for years, even after the very public divorce of Keely Smith and Louis Prima in 1961. Though the hits stopped coming and audiences and tastes changed, they always had their following. In 1967, Prima, Butera and the Witnesses got a tremendous shot in the arm via their casting, albeit as cartoon characters, in Walt Disney’s “The Jungle Book.” Prima, naturally, was “King Louie,” King of the Apes. Youngsters are still mesmerized by the songs and the characters in that film today.

The man who Sam Butera called “The Chief” played his last gig in 1975, after lapsing into a coma during an operation to remove a brain tumor. Louis Prima died three years later. Butera understandably floundered a bit on his own in the beginning, and sadly, a pairing with Keely Smith didn’t work out. Vegas, of course, wasn’t the same.

But things changed with the advent of legalized casino gaming in Atlantic City in 1978. As Sam Butera and “The Wildest” (Prima widow Gia Miaone owned the name “The Witnesses” and wouldn’t allow Butera to use it), the rabble-rousing tenor man garnered an entire “new” audience who remembered and loved the music of Louis Prima. It was that Vegas excitement–every night–all over again. Butera had a fine, fine band which was seven or eight strong at one point, and for years, they were the stars of the lounge within Resorts International, often alternating with other Vegas lounge legends, The Treniers and Freddie Bell and The Bellboys. Again, everyone who was everyone came into the lounge to catch Sam Butera. Including Frank Sinatra.

Rocker David Lee Roth’s remake of Prima/Butera’s “Just a Gigolo” brought even more audiences, nationwide, to see and hear “the original,” as did The Gap’s use of the Butera arrangement of “Jump Jive and Wail.”

In 2004, Sam Butera formally retired, tired of the constant travel and having to deal with a changed Las Vegas and a changed Atlantic City. He didn’t need to work. He worked and played long and hard, and even during his last gigs at the age of 78, he played with more energy than I have ever seen on stage before or since.

I once asked, during a band break at Resorts International in the early 1980s, if there was any secret to to his longevity. “There are two things to remember,” he told me. “One is that it’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice. The second is, and I love pure jazz more than anyone else, that we don’t play for critics. We play what I call happy music, and as Louis used to say, ‘We play it pretty for the people.'”