Joe Vento is at the lobby piano in the off-Strip Royal Resort, playing an excerpt from “What Kind of Fool Am I?” when he stops and looks quizzically to see if anyone knows the song. A guest finally blurts, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and Vento fires back, “I’ll tell you when I get to know you better.”
The moment begs for a rimshot, but Vento has already stormed into a dreamy arrangement of the famous, forlorn love song recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and countless others. Besides, that’s only the start of the quippy comebacks. There will be more time for rimshots as the evening plays out with Vento at the keys.
Mostly, the 95-year-old piano player woos everyone in the lobby with his music. Occasionally someone joins Vento at the piano, and they spontaneously belt out old standards and long-forgotten gems.
A sharply dressed crooner himself in a blue satin shirt, black vest and fedora, Vento performs every weekend at the Royal, his stylish finger work catching the attention of diners heading into the Barrymore (and sneaking back into the lobby to hear him play), along with unsuspecting tourists coming off the hotel elevators.
The one-time accordionist for musical group The Three Suns and a longtime Strip musician, he’s a legend to many, and his fan base only seems to be growing. We sat down with the colorful Vento for an early dinner at the Barrymore.
No Sazerac for you tonight? Oh no. That’s my secret. I never drank whiskey in my life. No cigarettes. No cocaine.
Did you plan early on to live a long time? I expected to. But then I got unwanted souvenirs from dripping blood on foreign soil. I got a lot of stuff — shrapnel, bullets. Why I’m still alive, I don’t know. I never thought I’d hit 95.
Your years have given you a front-row seat to the evolution of popular music. Do you follow any contemporary artists? Elton John, Lady Gaga—she’s a good Italian girl. Eminem—he’s good, very talented. And Mick Jagger, he prances that stage like a lion.
What about you? They ask me which song I play the best. I say, “I play them all poorly.”
What do people want to hear most from you? They want to hear Beethoven. Beatles. And I play them. Sinatra, “Fly Me to the Moon.” They test me, but I know about 25,000 songs. Frank Sinatra is the most requested.
Who is your all-time favorite musician? Ann-Margret. She sang well. She danced very well. She was effervescent, a very happy person.
She had a long history in Las Vegas. How about you? Seventy years. This was all sagebrush and snakes. They said, “Joe, it’s 50 cents an acre. Why don’t you buy?” I said, “Buy? Who would come to Vegas?”
You also had a concurrent career as an ophthalmologist. I changed coats and hats — doctor to musician. My dad said, “You’re going to be the eye doctor.” That was it. My father was the boss. It’s not like today when the kids run the house.
But your life had been dedicated to music ... I started on a quarter-size violin when I was 2. I was practicing five or six hours a day. When the young guys were shooting streetlights with BB guns, I was studying Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven. Beethoven is the undisputed head of all great composers. There will never be another, because the world has dumbed down so much.
What’s best about playing here at the Royal Resort? I don’t have my pianos anymore. I sold both pianos. It keeps me from getting Alzheimer’s. And, tell me the truth, who does this anymore? Nobody does. People say, “Joey, I was born in the wrong generation.” It was so pure. So nice.
How would you sum up playing piano? It’s catharsis, a cleansing of the soul. It’s ethereal. It’s religious. Everything falls into place.
Joe Vento Friday & Saturday, 6-10 p.m. Royal Resort, 735-6117.