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 era.
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, borgatanightlife.com, 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.
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