Known as an icon in the Las Vegas music industry for over 19 years, music conductor/producer Lon Bronson joins us on today’s episode of Talktails.
Ellis Hall, born in Savanna, Georgia, raised in Boston, is often labeled “genius”. Without musical boundaries he is the quintessential performer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, with a five-octave range.
Hall has also made a mark with his incredible ability as a songwriter, arranger and producer. Ellis has performed, recorded and collaborated with a vast variety of musical icons. Including Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, George Benson, Michael McDonald, John Mayer, Herbie Hancock, Earth Wind & Fire, Natalie Cole, James Taylor, George Duke, Huey Lewis and the News and his musical mentor Ray Charles.
In the early years of his career, Ellis was featured as the lead vocalist performing with Kenny G. on his debut hit single, “What Does it Take.” He then joined the soul-stirring group Tower Of Power as lead vocalist, keyboardist, songwriter, arranger, and producer and enjoyed tremendous success as a member of the multi-platinum group, The California Raisins.
Ellis has been featured in the award winning TV shows including, “The Wonder Years”, and The 75th Oscars “Chicago” segment with Catherine Zeta Jones and Queen Latifa. Some of his film credits include “Big Momma’s House” with Martin Lawrence as well as Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. He has also been a featured vocalist on soundtracks ranging from the TV series West Wing and NYPD Blue to films such as “Lion King II,” “Chicken Run,” “Bruce Almighty,” “A Day Without A Mexican” and “Polar Express”.
Ellis has the honor of being the only artist, other than Ray Charles, to be signed to Charles’ label Crossover Records. He performed and was introduced as Ray Charles’ protégé at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts where Mr. Charles received the National Visionary Leadership Project Award. This tribute has lead to his recent performances with various symphonies including the Pittsburg, Tucson, Nashville and Honolulu Orchestras. Ellis is proud to carry on the celebration of the soul legacy.
Musicians usually have a meaningful story about why and how they chose to specialize on a particular musical instrument. It’s often about how they felt an irresistible pull toward a guitar, the piano, saxophone. Lon Bronson was drawn to play the drums when he was a kid. So what did he do? He played the trumpet. “When I was 10,1 desperately wanted to be a drummer but my parents had a trumpet laying around,” says Bronson, founder and leader of the Lon Bronson All-Star Band. “They said ‘Here you go, you’re going to play the trumpet. It was kind of a sealed fate, I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room there.”
That was 40 years ago, and he’s picked up some percussion experience along the way. But the trumpet has been the bread-and-butter of his career, so in hindsight, it looks like his parents knew something he didn’t. Bronson has worked steadily since moving to Las Vegas in 1985, as a musician,, consultant, bandleader and musical director. For the past 19 years, he’s played the trumpet in his self-named All-Star band, something he calls a “labor of love,” a way to have some fun playing the horn.
The 14-piece big horn band started as a Tower of Power cover band with the blessing and support of its members, Bronson says. Nineteen years later, it’s morphed into more of an original entity, playing what Bronson calls rearrangements of cover tunes, as well as the band’s own music.
The Lon Bronson All-Star Band plays a recurring 9 to 11 p.m. gig Thursdays at the Ovation lounge in Green Valley Ranch.
For more information, visit Bronson’s Web site at lonbronson.com.
– By SONYA PADGETT
-Photo Credit JASON BEAN/LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
By Lon Bronson
“Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head….”
Well, not exactly, but I had spent eight or more hours in mundane conversations with agents and stage managers about upcoming gig details. All that will soon be behind me as I prepare to leave for my All Star Band Saturday night performance (“get a little action in”). I kiss the kids goodnight as they leave me with the eternal question: ‘What’s the true meaning of Christmas, Daddy?’ Before I can venture a reply, they chant in gleeful unison “Vengence”, ah, I’ve taught them well.
My Durango 95 purrs away (“Baby you can drive my car”). It’s a real horror show down Las Vegas Boulevard; I’m steeling myself for the upcoming battle. Tonight we’re recording “The Gig” and that’s special. As I pull into the Golden Nugget valet I make small talk with the attendants. (“Everybody knows my name”). In Vegas it’s way more important to know the valet guys than the bartenders (but knowing the bartenders doesn’t hurt either). I make my way through the battleship gray labyrinth of wrong way turns to the Sinatra Room. Find the elevators. The frenzied trumpet duel from ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” plays over and over in my mind. I half expect to be confronted by Tuco and Angel Eyes as the doors slide open. ‘(“If there’s anything I can do, just call on me and I’ll send it along.”)
Now there’s a flurry of activity – set lists must go out, mutant musician egos must be massaged, which guest artists are sitting in and are they here? I need to relax, only 22 minutes to downbeat time, where’s my beer?
Fee Waybill from the ‘Tubes’ enters our Sinatra Green Room. I’ve been a fan for years; he’s the ultimate front man. What can I say that would be cool? I manage a lame “Hey man!” Noel Coward I’m not. “I’m just a jealous guy” without any power tools.
It’s the midnight hour. Cue the good guys. Rhythm section is in place. Assemble the horn section in the wings. Tom effortlessly screams out a double C note-guess he’s warmed up! Sloppo (the forgotten Marx brother) brings up the rear. He just now begins to assemble his charts and put his horn together (“Try thinking more if just for your own sake”).
We finally take the stage. Applause is mixed with ‘whoas’ and ‘my mans’ which heralds our arrival. Band fans. ‘Cat’ lovers.
I give Mark “the look” and he clicks off four into our opener ‘Gotta Run’. I have a split second to make a decision: one more pull of Guiness or play my horn. Reluctantly I reach for the horn. The first few notes are laborious, a test of sorts: “Cold turkey”.
I once told friend Drew Carey comedy was easy and playing the trumpet is difficult. I like Drew: “A working class hero is something to be.”
The tune comes to a screaming, screeching finish and the crowd erupts…..what this is really all about. I step to the mic to address them thinking ‘So this is what it’s like to be a big Vegas star like Clint or even the Scintas’…. “Imagine” but I kid, I kid….
Over the next 90 minutes we play 15 songs , I down five Guinesses, Sloppo fumbles three more times, Fee nails two unrehearsed Tubes tunes and newlywed Penn Jilette gets kicked in the jewels by one little fool. It turns out to be an “ordinary All-Star gig after all.” I want to tell you being a live musician is a magnificent anachronism.
We’re pauper dinosaurs, new Age antiques, the last of the last yet best of the best and I’ll keep showing up til the fat lady sings.
***The following story contains adult language which may not be suitable for those under the age of 18 or anyone from New England (note: the author was recently contacted us while serving a tour of duty in Iraq . He was amused that we still had his story on-line, more than a few years later. )***
by Mike Atkinson (a senior majoring in Belligerence, and featured columnist for the Oregon Commentator)
We now return to our story about the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Silver Anniversary Tour TM, where our two lunatics are surrendering to Sin City.
The LeBistro Lounge at the Riviera Hotel was the first place we found some legitimate live music, which was a welcome relief. They didn’t have the typical sleazy lounge act-no single-named “artists” crooning Cyndi Lauper covers to a drum machine. They had a real 13-piece band, complete with horns. As we took a table in front of the stage, a sultry diva burst through the rear curtain right in time for the opening verse of “Somebody to Love.” Her Grace Slick impersonation convinced us to stay for a round of 101 proof rum shots. The sparse crowd mildly responded when the song was over, providing plenty of dead time for the band to mull over their next tune. The tenor sax player took this opportunity to noodle around on some pussified Kenny G melody. This did not sit well with the fire in my belly; Lite jazz never does. I had already heard all I could tolerate that summer, at the Mount Hood Jazz Festival. Due to a horrendous misinterpretation of the schedule, I sat through half a set of Earl Klugh while expecting to see McCoy Tyner. I don’t rebound easily from such trauma, so the last thing my being needed was some smart-ass sax player jerkin’ off in my Budweiser. Luckily my Tourette’s syndrome intervened. “Cut that bullshit out!” I booed and heckled him relentlessly. “Sound off like you got a pair! Play some Coltrane, ya pussy! Gimme some goddamn Trane!”
This seemed to be just the kind of crowd energy the band thrived on. Lon Bronson, the emcee, came to the edge of the stage, eager to answer my battle cry. “Ladies and gentlemen, its seems we have a request of sorts. This kind gentleman would like to hear some John Coltrane. Well sir, you’re in luck, because Jay here can play the first two choruses of Trane’s solo on “Giant
“Bullshit!” I chided. I honestly didn’t believe that this guy could pull off one of the hairiest musical feats known to man. I forgot that these sax hacks dedicate their entire lives to that shit. Lon gave the drummer two quick counts, and they tore into “Giant Steps” at breakneck tempo. And darned if Jay didn’t nail that sucker to the wall. When it was finished, he dusted off his suit and mopped his brow as if he had just beaten someone to death. I jumped up and shook his hand for his ballsy effort. In just 32 bars, this guy had redeemed himself from my musical shitlist and established himself as a heavyweight. I turned to berate the stagnant crowd, who only mustered an indifferent smattering of applause for his solo. “Give it up, you shitferbrains putzes! Put your hands together!” The laymen couldn’t appreciate what he had just done-Coltrane’s solo is the musical equivalent of completing an entire decathlon in under one minute.
“Play some Skynyrd!” Austin prodded the band with the next test. Without hesitation, the guitarist broke into the opening riff of “Sweet Home Alabama.” “Turn it up!” They rocked it for all its Southern flavor.
The six-piece horn section put the hammer down on the next number- a balls-out rendition of Tower of Power’s funk anthem “What Is Hip?” Their brazen lines were tighter than Jenna Jameson’s ass. These guys cranked out more power than the Hoover Dam. At the climax of the tune, they gradually snowballed a background lick into a blazing shout chorus that made my soul shiver. I lost control-I sprang out of my chair and tore open my paisley shirt with a primal scream, scattering buttons all over the lounge. Again I razzed the passive audience, and this time they started to respond. People actually joined me in yelling incoherent approval slogans.
I lit up an H.Uppman after “What Is Hip?” I was in full “Cape Fear” mode now. Then Ollie Woodson, lead singer for the Temptations, came from out of nowhere to perform “Soul Man.” I died.
When the band finished their set around 3 a.m., Lon brought me up on stage in recognition of my cheerleading. With my expanding beer gut hanging out of my torn-open shirt, I blew kisses to the now-boisterous crowd with my cigar butt clenched in my molars. As the players packed up their instruments, we introduced ourselves as musicians. “We had you pegged as players the minute you walked in,” joked the baritone sax player, Gordon. “I’m not sure what gave it away first-your taste in requests, or your obnoxious behavior!”
The guys were in a hurry to get to their private post-gig party. Most of them had been playing in Vegas’ top showbands since 8 p.m., so they were eager to get loose. Gordon extended us an invitation, which was a offer we couldn’t refuse. He led us on a back corridor short-cut, around the infernal slot machine/life support systems, past the endless casino, directly to a hotel courtyard where funk and loud voices wafted from a pool-side suite. Two Neanderthal security guards recognized Gordon and waved us in the sliding-glass door. Band members greeted us with belligerent groans. “Who let you fuckers in?” Lon growled. “Naw, you guys are alright. You two were the craziest audience since Chris Farley was here! Make yourselves at home.”
We already were at home. This party was the closest I’d ever seen to utopia. Gordon gave us a tour of the luxurious amenities. The ice-filled bathtub was stocked with Bigfoot Ale and Schlitz. There was also a full no-host bar (which rhymes with “no-holds-barred”), plus a buffet of gourmet hors-d’oeuvres to wash the liquor down. It doesn’t get any better than this,
right? That’s when a troupe of exotic dancers from the “Crazy Girls Cabaret” came sashaying around in Daisy Dukes and bikini tops. After Lon introduced us to “the talent,” I proposed a raucous toast “to sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
“Speaking of drugs…” Gordon said with a mischievous grin as he produced a leather kit bag from his pocket. “Anyone who requests Coltrane and Skynyrd in the same set can toke off my stash any day.” He unveiled a humungous spliff, which he jammed it in my mouth. “have a hit of this shit, kid.”
After a few pulls on the herbal jazz cigarette, my equilibrium called it a night. I was spinning like a dreidel; my vision was a twisted kaleidoscope of blurry strippers and greasy musicians. The curtain was quickly closing on my first night in Vegas, until someone spoon-fed me some “pepsi.” I was instantly rejuvenated; born again hard. Back to the front. I suddenly became the life of the party, clowning and schmoozing with unusual verbosity. I had diarrhea of the mouth, which made me pure comedy. I cracked up the ladies by quoting the movie “Showgirls”: “Ice those nipples, girls. I want perky, perky, PERKY!” I killed the guys with my impersonations of Robert Plant, Joe Cocker and Axl Rose.
As we partied into the night, the players oozed musical wisdom from their collective decades of professional experience. These guys were grizzly studio veterans and show band jocks who had toiled in the shadows of Diana Ross, Doc Severinsen and Sinatra, just to name a few. (Months afterwards, Austin saw Lon and Gordon struttin’ around Vegas with Wayne Newton on some HBO special-these guys are starz!) They were excited to meet two younger musicians who were so curious about their lifestyle. They obliged us with wild stories of their many misadventures in show-biz, such as when the whole band got banned from Reno. I shared the story of my high school jazz band intentionally slaughtering “Hail To The Chief” for President Bush when he spoke at Bob Packwood’s campaign luncheon in 1991.
My recollection of events after the “pepsi” wore off is quite hazy. I remember the first break of daylight inspiring me to go for a swim. I dropped my drawers and ran out to the pool. After throwing a chaise-lounge in the water, I scaled the life guard chair at the deep-end. I pounded my chest and bellowed, “GOOD MORNING LAS VEGAS!” at the top of my lungs before executing a perfect belly-flop. The security guards then kindly told me that the pool didn’t open until 8 a.m.
I returned to the party soaking wet. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the wall of ashen faces that I walked into. The stereo was silent; no one spoke. The tension was so thick you couldn’t have cut it with a Stihl chainsaw. All eyes turned to a man charging toward me holding a coffee pot filled to the brim with a foul yellow brew. This was Fred, the burly ex-Marine who engineered sound for the “Crazy Girlz Cabaret.” I never could’ve guessed Fred’s age if it wasn’t his 50th birthday party. He was still in Boot Camp shape, wound up tighter than a baseball. He appeared to be on DEFCON 1, ready to be called up to kick some Commie ass at a moment’s notice. His chiseled upper-body distorted the star-spangled message printed on his tight
T-shirt: AMERICA-LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT.
Apparently I had slipped into a vegetative state and mistaken Fred’s Krups coffee pot for a bedpan. It was a brand-new birthday gift. Fred was not amused. His jugular vein bulged out of his taut neck. His eyes were as wide as Hulk Hogan’s when it’s payback time. He was in full attack mode. “Take your clothes, and get the fuck out of my room,” he ordered in a demonic, guttural voice. He quaked as he struggled to speak slowly and clearly. It took every ounce of this soldier’s discipline to refrain from tearing my spine out. “Get the fuck out, before I break this on your head,” he barked as he raised the tainted coffee pot above my head. Austin leaped into lawyer mode, stammering off profuse apologies and improvising some explanation of my rare mental illness.
I was shocked and appalled to learn of my debacle. I’ve committed my share of party fouls over the years, but nothing as bad as this. I pleaded to make amends. “Gosh, Fred… I’m really sorry! Tellyawhut, I’ll buy you a new…” “Just get out!” Fred snapped as he pointed to the door. “You are forgotten, but not forgiven.” Funny choice of words coming from a Vietnam Vet.
To be continued…
Gaming Today Magazine
It has been said that live music has become a lost art in Las Vegas. You’d never know it by watching Lon Bronson. An exuberant but exhausted Bronson recently came off the stage at the House of Blues after opening for the Tower of Power. The show was in addition to his regular duties conducting for David Cassidy at the Rio, directing the musicians in the Sahara’s Congo Showroom and serving as production manager at the Riviera, where Bronson also holds after-hours jam sessions in the Le Bistro Lounge. The multi-talented musician, orchestra leader and songwriter has been on a 10-year roll, and he’s finally beginning to bask in the glow of well-deserved limelight.
On Saturday, the Riviera will host a midnight party for Bronson in the Lounge, where guests will be treated to T-shirts and cake. What truly seems to be a small token for Bronson’s efforts could be outweighed by the number of star-studded entertainers and show business friends who will no doubt pack the lounge. Reminiscent of the old Rat Pack days, the list of celebrities who spontaneously jump on stage to perform with Bronson and the band include Taylor Dane, Penn Jillette, Huey Lewis, Joe Walsh and Blood, Sweat & Tears, as well as members of Tower of Power. But on Saturday, the real stars will be Bronson and his All-Star R&B, Rock & Soul Revue band.
The group’s members have played with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Celine Dion, The Four Tops, Elton John and the Temptations. If you’ve never seen Bronson and his band on stage, you might have caught them on TV. They performed for the 1998 HBO special "Mr. Vegas Party Starring Drew Carey," which also aired on NBC. Said Carey after the show, "The band kicks ass. A house band so good, you never want to leave the house!"
Bronson’s original compositions and his All-Star Band were also featured in the 1998-1999 TV season of "Viva Variety" and throughout the "Drew Carey’s Club Roast," both on Comedy Central. A native of Keene, N.H., Bronson has lived in Las Vegas since 1985. He took up the trumpet at the age of 10 and eventually graduated cum laude from the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1981. After touring the United States and Canada for several years, Bronson landed in Las Vegas. In addition to his various engagements noted above, he joined the faculty of UNLV’s music department in 1995. He is also a professor at Southern Nevada Community College.
Las Vegas City Life
They clapped and whooped for an encore, and boy are they ever getting it: Singer Rick Friedman is using the mic cord as a tourniquet and, after pretending to shoot up, sags against an amp in melodramatic, heroin-fortified ecstasy. The rest of the band, led by Lon Bronson-trumpet in one hand, the other pumping emphatically with each word-shouts the chorus to the classic Tubes tune: “White punks on dope! White punks on dope!”
The audience looks like it’s just been slapped with an anvil-and it feels damn good. There are uncomprehending stares and appalled smiles as the realization jells: This is not your typical lounge act. And it’s just the reaction that Bronson-the charismatic Dark Prince of the lounge scene-is looking for.
At the lounge bar after the show, he’s mobbed by people slapping his back and saying things in his ear-old fans, new converts, beautiful women and total drunken freaks.
“You gotta love the night crowd,” he says, swimming at the center of attention. “This is something you can only get by playing at 1 in the morning.” Though the band, and not just the hour, deserves some credit.
The Lon Bronson All-Star Band is the most talented, brash and subversive act you’re likely to see in the lounges of corporate-era Vegas.
Sure, the band-complete with a live horn section, percussionist and a stream of guest singers ranging, on this night, from Lisa Mayer to Tony Tillman of “The Rat Pack Is Back” to longtime lounge fixture Lawrence T-does everything from The Tubes to The Temptations to Tower of Power with a tautness and energy that violently capsizes the lounge band stereotype. But it’s the brazen personality of Bronson that gives the Riv’s house band extra kick.
Between songs, Bronson ditches the trumpet for his second favorite instrument: his big mouth. He roasts the guests (“our next guest, the Doctor of Streetology with a minor in solicitation, the man wearing Hugh Hefner’s pajamas, Lawrence T!”). He makes cracks about the band (“our band features a real live drunken horn section, and the ones who aren’t on alcohol are on drugs”). And, most frequently, he waxes sardonic about the thing closest to his heart: music.
After the band plays a few syrupy bars of “Achy Breaky Heart,” Lon cuts it off: “Sorry folks, we don’t do that. If you want to hear that shit, go somewhere else.” A sarcastic “disco medley tribute” launches Bronson into a rant about retro revivalism and artificial music: “We can be the Boogie Knights, people. We’ll just ditch the live horns, get some track sequencers and some stupid wigs and platform shoes and make everybody happy. And you can rest assured we won’t do anything like this.” At his cue, the All-Stars take off into a crazed, intense funk jam, proving that an afro wig and bell bottoms do not a musician make.
“I don’t even consider us a lounge band. We’re an anti-lounge band,” Bronson says after the set. He’s sitting at the bar, diving for his drink between fans slapping his back and shaking his hand. “We’re really just a local band, but it’s not exactly feasible for us to play the local club circuit. You can only do the Boston so much. What else is left if we want to play somewhere where we can have a little freedom and keep a little self-respect? It just happens to be a lounge.”
And it also just happens to make the Lon Bronson phenom a fist in the face of conventional casino culture, where lounges are, more often than not, backwaters of musical mediocrity and utter predictibility. To the contrary, the 41-year old Bronson considers his band a throwback to the fabled pre-suit days of Vegas. It’s an observation that inevitably leads Bronson into one of his trademark rants.
“The lounges are just littered with plastic sequenced nonsense,” he says. “These casinos don’t want to spend any money on decent lounge bands. In the ’60s and ’70s, the mob would do things right. Sure, they’d take a beating on putting quality talent in the casino, but they knew that people would see the show and say, ‘That was fucking awesome. Now let’s go gamble!’ Now you have the bean-counters who don’t want to spend a penny on talent, stuffing the lounges with bad Top 40 cover bands.”
But if the turnout at Bronson’s show-a crammed lounge and a crowded dance floor-is any indication, the formula that casino entertainment slugs follow to the letter is as inane and counterproductive as Bronson says. Indeed, out-of-towners who caught the Bronson show walked away with their preconceptions about Vegas in flames.
“I was expecting to just see some lounge lizards on stage,” says Darragh Lawrence from Santa Cruz, Calif. “But I was seriously blown away. The band is incredibly tight.”
Ten years of playing together will do that. Even band members-who celebrated the band’s 10th anniversary last month-can’t believe they’ve kept it up for this long.
“When Lon approached me about starting a band-one that would play original music as well as covers-at the Riv, I thought it’d never fly, says singer Rick Friedman. “Then when it did happen, I didn’t think it would last. But here we are. People love this stuff.”
Bronson interjects: “We originally started at 2 a.m. on Monday nights. We’d get all fucked up beforehand, go on about 2:45, and the place was mobbed. If you think we got crazies now, imagine the kind of people showing up at 3 a.m. on a Monday night. We sold a million drinks, though, and they kept us around. The Riv has really stood behind us.”
Along the way, The Lon Bronson All-Stars have managed to snag a few honors as well. They performed on Drew Carey’s 1998 HBO special and were the house band on the ’98-’99 season of Comedy Central’s “Viva Variety.” “I thought, ‘This is our big break!'” Bronson says. “Yeah, right, our big break. The show gets fucking canceled.”
Not that Bronson is grabbing at any big brass rings. The band’s trumpeter and conductor has enough gigs to juggle, including conducting for the Rio’s “David Cassidy at the Copa” show, and heading the UNLV Funk Ensemble. Saturday nights, however, is when he finally gets to join the musical fray.
“People come up to me after the show all the time, promoters, label people, saying, ‘Man, you have to tour, you have to put out some records, you have to realize The Dream.’ No. The Dream is now. We’re all fat, middle aged guys who just want to play our guts out and then go home to our suburban homes and suburban lives. We don’t want to be on the road, stopping at some 7-Eleven at 5 in the morning to eat Baby Ruths for breakfast. We love it here. Vegas is such a gas, man.”
BYLINE: MIKE WEATHERFORD, REVIEW-JOURNAL
Two musical paths came together with a version of “let’s make a deal.”
Lon Bronson grew up liking the band Tower of Power so much that he started his own band with the same horn-powered blend of funk, rock and soul.
When he finally got Tower co-founder Stephen “Doc” Kupka to come check out the Lon Bronson All-Star Band, the veteran bandleader enjoyed what he heard enough to offer Bronson three unrecorded songs.
“He said, `I’m going to give them to you. The only stipulation is that you have to record an album,’ ” Bronson recalls.
“I just wanted to light a fire under him,” confirms Kupka, who plans to help distribute the disc through his Strokeland Records label. “I’m really glad he’s doing our tunes. I’m a big fan of his.”
The two have become blue-eyed-soul brothers who even plan to get together this weekend to write songs they can pitch to other artists.
And it’s almost certain that Tower players will be jamming onstage Saturday at the Golden Nugget. Tower is in town for its own shows at The Orleans today through Sunday, and its players like to wind down at the Bronson band’s late-night Saturday sessions at the Nugget.
The trumpet-playing Bronson had listened to Tower since the early ’70s. Seeing them live at the bygone concert club Calamity Jayne’s “inspired me to do a homegrown version, at least as a starting point,” Bronson says.
That in itself isn’t so unusual. “Most of the horn bands I hear sound like us or Earth, Wind & Fire,” says Kupka, who pioneered the band’s “East Bay sound” in 1968 with saxophonist Emilio Castillio, fusing the Bay area’s parallel schools of psychedelia and soul. Kupka estimates the 10-piece band has seen more than 50 players come and go over the years.
What might be more unusual is Kupka’s helping another band within the same narrow niche instead of saving the songs for himself.
Tower enjoyed its share of ’70s airplay for tunes such as “What is Hip?” and “You’re Still a Young Man.” But Kupka now says the band’s most likely opportunity for mass exposure would be to place a song on a movie soundtrack.
He says it “behooves everybody to let them do it. The more songs (Bronson) does of mine the better I like it.” After all, he has written more than 1,000.
“We keep doing CDs because if you stop, you instantly become an oldies band,” Kupka says.
Musicianship is something that’s became less valued on both the rock and hip-hop side of the fence, not the best news for a band whose trademark is the meticulous blend of its five-piece horn section.
But time also has helped Tower become more prized by its loyal fan base. The group plans to tour this summer on a co-bill with the like-minded Tom Jones (currently working the MGM Grand).
“They say it’s better to be 20 years behind the times than two years,” Kupka says.
It was far tougher for the band in the late ’70s, when it was still a major-label recording act and faced “enormous pressure to play disco.” As the disco era gave way to “Miami Vice,” the 1987 “Power” album reflected “big pressure for synthesized sound.”
Kupka says he recently saw the Janet Jackson video for “Rhythm Nation” and “it was just ironic. It sounded so dated and (the dancers) were all marching around in their `March of the Wooden Soldiers’ outfits. It sounded way more dated than our stuff.”
Kupka and Bronson first met not in Las Vegas, but on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, when Bronson’s band played a wrap party for “The Drew Carey Show.” Carey had discovered Bronson at the Riviera, where he was a fixture for 14 years before moving to the Golden Nugget last year. Kupka’s wife works as a stylist in the TV and film industry.
“We’re disciples but we have our own slant on everything,” Bronson says of his 13-piece band with a six-piece horn section. He likes to cover familiar rock and pop tunes, such as “doing `Stairway to Heaven’ as interpreted by Frank Zappa as interpreted by us.”
Fee Waybill of The Tubes even agreed to record a guest vocal for the Bronson band’s remake of “White Punks on Dope” for the CD, due in February. Most of the tracks were recorded during live sets at the Nugget, and Bronson credits both the Nugget — which will buy a number of CDs to use for promotion — and revolutions in recording software for making the project affordable.
“Everything came into play at the right time,” he says.
BY LON BRONSON
The Las Vegas lounge scene is not completely dead, but it smells real bad. With few noticeable exceptions (Stations properties), most casinos are shunning our glorious Vegas heritage of providing free lounge entertainment. This hasn’t happened overnight; ever since the Mob lost out to Howard Hughes we’ve been descending on this not-so-slippery slope. Think about it: Forty years ago you could see Louis Prima for a two-drink minimum. Today? Right. Why not? Intangibles. It’s problematic for accountants to show a paper trail from an excited lounge patron to a gaming table — and register his losses as a result of hearing the Count Basie Orchestra. Intangible. Tourists who fly in from all over the world for the sole purpose of seeing a favorite lounge act might tell a casino host — but it’s never put into the lounge’s revenue column. Intangible. The perceived concept of getting something for nothing from the megaresort — which is relentlessly harvesting your cash from the second you enter. Intangible.
As a result, in the pursuit of tangible profits, the megaresorts have done one of three things with their lounges.
1) Pay to play: This is sheer genius. Rent the lounge, at a premium price, to fledgling acts with Vegas stars in their eyes. The act’s only source of revenue is whatever ticket sales they may get. The casino supplies no marketing/advertising support (that would cost money). Result: Revolving door of mediocrity. No individual act can possibly compete with the thousands of dollars being spent weekly on headline entertainment marketing. Nobody buys the tickets, so the act runs out of cash in short order. Survivors of this scenario include hypnotists and impersonator track acts. Advantage: Bad Hypnotists. Disadvantage: People won’t pay to watch lame acts. Thus, an empty lounge.
2) Disco nightclub: Turn your lounge into Vegas’ newest craze, “The Club.” Looks like nothing but easy money here: Charge a $20 cover, rape everybody on the drinks (water: $10), and get $500 for a table near the action from conventioneers who equate real estate location with *** acquisition. Advantage: Dorks with lots of money who still can’t get laid. Disadvantage: It costs money to get your lounge to resemble Studio 54. A lot of money.
3) *** off: No lounge entertainment, period. Put in slot machines. Now people might start going to your pricey new Broadway production. Advantage: Steve Wynn. Disadvantage: Steve Wynn. Look, I’m not advocating socialism here. We’re all in the game to make a buck. All I am saying is give the ghost of Louis Prima a chance. Find a way to cook the books so the lounges do show a small profit (we all know that can be done). Hire Prima’s contemporaries. Give away Kansas, Flock of Seagulls and Three Dog Night for two drinks (and along the way, even some lesser-known acts that merit it — guess who? No, actually I meant Burton Cummings’ The Guess Who).
The Mohegan Sun hotel-casino in Connecticut has been doing just that. You should see the line that forms for the free David Cassidy show 24 hours before downbeat. And what is within arm’s reach of that long line, my friends? Gaming. Shopping. Restaurants. Talk about a captive audience. It’s classic bait and switch. Baby boomers will spend even more money once they’ve heard Steppenwolf and had a few Smirnoff Ices. The corpies could still learn a thing or two from the carnies. Make it tangible. Harvest on. Thanks for listening. I’m here all week.
THE LON BRONSON ALL-STAR BAND PERFORMED AT THE RIVIERA FOR 13 YEARS BEFORE MOVING TO THE GOLDEN NUGGET IN 2004. HIS SHOW WAS CANCELED IN OCTOBER.