Lon Bronson remembers the “epiphany,” even if he’s not sure of the date or exactly how many cocktails led to the revelation.
It was 1988, or maybe 1989. The site is not in question: It was Calamity Jane’s, an infamous but fondly remembered live music haunt on Boulder Highway that closed long ago. Bronson had two cocktails, maybe three, as for the first time he watched the blowout horn band Tower of Power perform live.
- Lon Bronson, Mark OToole
Bronson was seated on one of Calamity Jane’s couches -- no theater seating at this venue -- and feeling the band’s famed audio power when it hit him.
“I literally had an epiphany,” Bronson, the great trumpet player and for 20 years frontman for the Lon Bronson All-Star Band, said during the most recent episode of “Kats With the Dish,” which aired Friday on KUNV 91.5-FM. “I could do a Tower of Power band here in Las Vegas, with all local players.”
Bronson took the idea to the Riviera, which had just opened Le Bistro Theater, and pitched a 1 a.m. Monday night showcase featuring some of the city’s top players. “Right from the get-go, it was jammed,” Bronson said. “It was a slam dunk.”
Bronson has since become one of the city’s most-respected musicians, having launched “The Rat Pack Is Back” with David Cassidy at the Desert Inn, and is still the bandleader for the show of that title at the Rio. He has performed at venues in most of the standing Strip hotels and several that have been razed in the last two decades.
During the interview, the conversation strayed to what is, in fact, a lounge show. The answer is not so simple, as Bronson says every show in a lounge is not necessarily a true lounge show. He’s long praised the dynamite production Matt Goss performs each weekend at Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars Palace, which is by definition a lounge, if a glorified one.
“The closest thing we have to a traditional lounge show in Las Vegas is Matt Goss,” Bronson said. “But it is not really a lounge show. It’s a great show, with his band and all of the dancers, but it is a paid show (tickets to The Gossy Room start at $40, absent fees). … In the old days, the boys would subsidize these shows, and you could see a Don Rickles or Wayne Newton, and the tourists would spend their money on the tables or on food.”
The allure was simple, Bronson says. “A tourist would get out of a car or bus or off a plane and walk into any casino, and there would be incredible talent onstage you could not see in your Podunk town,” Bronson said. “That is gone now. You actually get more of that old Vegas vibe in Indian casinos than you do in Las Vegas.”
Bronson, whose band plays a free show the second and fourth Thursdays of each month at Ovation at Green Valley Ranch, has been around Las Vegas long enough to understand the reason why.
“The blame will always be financial,” he said. “It always comes down to money, making a profit. There are a lot of bad guys. In the corporate mentality, the show has to make this amount of money, and if it doesn’t, you cut back the budget for the bands and try to make it profitable, and it’s a slippery slope. Pretty soon bands suck because they are in the lounge, and they aren’t making any money.
“The lounge scene doesn’t exist for that very reason because the lounge is not making any money.”
Bronson had mentioned Newton and recalled meeting Newton during the taping of “Drew Carey’s Mr. Vegas All-Night Party,” in 1997, a live variety show where Bronson also first encountered Cassidy, leading to “The Rat Pack Is Back” partnership that wound up closing at the Desert Inn. The far-flung lineup also trotted punk-a-billy star Rev. Horton Heat onstage.
In an idea that could well have been born in a Vegas lounge, Carey craved a duet with Newton, who he had not yet even met. He wanted to sing “Danke Schoen” with Mr. Las Vegas, live, onstage, for the broadcast.
“He bounced the idea off me and said, ‘What do you think? And I said, “If you can get that on, great. But I can’t really see it. I don’t believe I’d seen Wayne do that as a duet with anyone before,” Bronson said. Then he addressed co-host Tricia McCrone, whose sister Kathleen is married to Newton, and added “So, I get to into a dressing room and basically tell your brother-in-law what to sing on his signature song.”
Carey wanted to sing, not negotiate. “Drew goes, ‘I don’t want to tell him what to do on this. You go in and be the bad guy,’ ” Bronson said. “I said, ‘Would you send me in to Frank Sinatra and tell him what to sing on “New York, New York?” ’ But I was the good soldier … Wayne was just the nicest guy, and they did sing the song, I think for the first time ever as a duet.”
It was that, and the show still airs occasionally on HBO.
More recently, Bronson has recorded a song with Tower of Power co-founder Doc Kupka titled “At the End of the Day,” an idea that surfaced during a phone conversation between the two as Bronson expressed lingering annoyance at the overuse of that trite phrase.
As Bronson says, “Everyone uses ‘At the end of the day’ at the beginning of sentences, so I told Doc this, and he said, ‘We are writing a song called ‘At the End of the Day.’ ”
The relationship between Bronson and the Tower of Power band members has blossomed since those days at Calamity Jane’s. Members of Tower of Power will perform with Bronson’s band Sept. 15 in what is billed as a “special recording night.”
Doors open at 8 p.m., and admission is free, naturally.