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Rockabilly makes it viva Las Vegas

By Jon Johnson, June 2001

"How I wish that there were more
Than the twenty-four hours in the day
'Cause even if there were forty more
I wouldn't sleep a minute away"
- Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, 1964
"Goddamn, I love being drunk!"
- Racketeers bassist Spike Katz, 2001

The 711-room Gold Coast is far from being the biggest casino in Las Vegas these days. In fact, in an era when billion-dollar casinos are modeled on the Manhattan skyline, Imperial Rome, and ancient Egypt, the Gold Coast is downright quaint; one of the few holdovers from Las Vegas' golden age - the Rat Pack, highballs by the light of open-air nuke tests, and wink-wink-nudge-nudge mob control - that hasn't been bought out by a Fortune 500 company and bulldozed to make way for something five times bigger.

Nor does it attract a particularly young crowd these days. In short, the biggest danger at the Gold Coast is the risk of one's foot being run over by a wheelchair or a portable oxygen tank.

So welcome to Viva Las Vegas (or VLV), where day and night quickly become indistinguishable, where the drinking ends when one goes to bed and often starts again when one gets up, and where smoking is as common as...well, as common as smoking was during the 1950's.

Every Easter weekend since 1998, rock 'n' roll fans from around the world have descended on Las Vegas for a 4-day festival devoted to rockabilly; that peculiarly American blend of R&B and hillbilly.

It's far and away the biggest festival of its type in the world today; a celebration of '50's culture incorporating music, cars, clothes, and fast living that is without parallel, featuring performances this year by Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Mart' Brom, the Barnshakers, the Flea Bops, Jack Baymoore and the Bandits and The Racketeers. Also on hand are sets from a handful of original '50's rockers, including Wanda Jackson, the Cadillacs, and Marvin Rainwater.

According to promoter Tom Ingram, this year's event attracted 4,000 people who paid to see the bands in the hotel's main ballroom (twice the number present at the first event in 1998), plus an estimated 1,000-2,000 others who skip the ballroom acts in favor of free performances at the hotel's three other stages and at the Gold Coast's sister hotel, the Orleans, as well as Saturday's car show on the top story of the Gold Coast's parking garage.

Ingram first gained attention as a d.j. at teddy boy events in England in the late '70's, also appearing in a small role as a motorcycle gang member in the Who's 1979 movie "Quadrophenia," a rock opera about the regular battles between rival gangs of mods and rockers in mid-'60's England.

During most of the '80's and '90's he organized and was a majority owner of the twice-annual Hemsby rock 'n' roll weekender before being forced out of the Hemsby organization in what can perhaps best be described as a palace coup.

Although Hemsby was certainly the gold standard for rockabilly festivals up until the mid-'90's, attracting nearly 3,000 attendees at its peak, attendance had declined to about 2,000 by the time of Ingram's ouster in 1997.

"I (had) owned two-thirds of the business in England and someone else owned one-third. And the idea was that we were going to run an event over here under the same company. And unfortunately the guy in England decided to do an illegal share dealing and ripped me off for the whole of the event at Hemsby."

"I could have gone to see a lawyer. I could have gone back to England to try to save it. But Hemsby had had its peak and was dying down. So I decided to continue with my plans here. I had been looking around L.A. and Long Beach, and I couldn't find a place that suited because everything had to finish at two o'clock in the morning. Someone mentioned something to me about all-night bars in Vegas, so I said, 'Vegas! That's the place for a weekender!'"

Sophia Wolff is a vivacious 28-year-old American dance instructor currently living in Montreal, who has attended all four Las Vegas festivals. In addition to teaching dance classes during the weekenders, this year is the first in which she's also acting as an emcee; specifically for the female-led acts.

"When asked how the weekend has changed since 1998, Wolff replies "Well, it's a lot bigger. I know there are about 4,000 people here. The North Americans, up 'til the first Viva Las Vegas, (were more used to) east coast swing and whatever was out there on videotape to learn. Whereas the Europeans are more used to jive, bop, and stroll. They have it a little luckier because it's not spread over such a large area. It's relatively easy to travel within Europe. Whereas the States are so big that weekenders hadn't yet caught on as a phenomenon."

Spike Katz, a Toronto native who has been living in Boston for the last five years, played at the first Viva Las Vegas with The Racketeers, who headlined again this year.

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