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Working the Lounges

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Earl Turner likes to say that he's the first singer since Wayne Newton to graduate from the Las Vegas lounges to headliner status. And not 50 yards from the Earl Turner Theatre is a reminder of Turner's past: the Jazz Court, Harrah's lounge.

The Jazz Court sits in the center of the casino, bordered by wrought iron trellises. The stage is perhaps a foot off the ground, with fake ivy winding behind it. Unlike the Earl Turner Theatre, no lobby separates the Jazz Court from the casino action. In fact, there are even slot machines in the lounge. A bar with inlaid poker machines faces the stage, so players sit with their backs to the performer. To the right of the stage, a big-screen television airs major sporting events. When an important game is on, the lounge performer waits until it's over before starting up.

Among the most famous Las Vegas lounge performers was New Orleanian Louis Prima, whose career enjoyed a renaissance when Bill Miller invited him to play the lounge at the Sahara in 1954. "The ceiling was so low, the performers could easily touch it," writes Billy Vera in his liner notes to the Bear Family's Louis Prima, Keely Smith and Sam Butera: The Complete Recordings. "To top it off, at the edge of the stage, the bartender was ringing up change and operating the blender."

It's hard to imagine Jazz Court performers Loren Pickford, Mark Braud or Topsy Chapman touching the ceiling -- it's two stories high, domed and painted to look like the night sky. But the casino's sound distractions are all there. "It's awfully noisy, but they don't care," says Chapman, a New Orleans jazz and blues singer who appeared in the original off-Broadway hit One Mo' Time. "We're there to give somebody something to do when they're not gambling."

A lounge singer is primarily a distraction, not a destination. That wasn't always the case. "Back in the day, with the Louis Primas and Wayne Newtons, the lounges are where you saw the up-and-coming stars, the Shecky Greenes, the Don Rickles," says Earl Turner. "They were like mini-showrooms. They played to the open casino. The difference by the time I went to the lounges was that the word Œlounge' had a different connotation. The corporate structure had come into Las Vegas real strong instead of the family-run business. They didn't pay as well, and you were there to draw a crowd and more or less entertain a crowd, but you're not there to disturb the casino. You were an adjunct to the casino and the machines."

Kellie Karl appeared in Harrah's nightly second-line parade when the casino opened; now, she's a lounge entertainer in Las Vegas. "A typical lounge act can go anywhere from four-part Motown harmony guys who can sing and dance with a band, or two people with tracks," she says. "I work in a lounge. I go by myself with my computer, turn everything on and boom, here I am, the lounge act. Just me by myself, but they won't pay -- certain places -- enough for a band. Some places do pay enough and you have a five-piece band with a couple of singers up front. Sometimes it's dance music, sometimes it's karaoke."

Whatever the case, Turner says, lounge performers are in a difficult spot. They're expected to be entertaining enough to draw a crowd, but not so entertaining that they hold it too long. "If you're too loud, the pit boss will come up and either tell you to turn it off, fire you on the spot or unplug you," he says, speaking about casinos in general. "And if you happened to be in a lounge across from the poker room, God bless you." Once, when Turner was asked to turn down his sound, he almost quit. It's hard to imagine Chapman and her trio being loud enough to disturb anybody at Harrah's over the ambient noise. "It's difficult, but it's a job," she says. -- Rawls

"Let's face it," Earl Turner says, "Las Vegas is the only - place that makes stars out of people you've never heard - of before."
  • "Let's face it," Earl Turner says, "Las Vegas is the only place that makes stars out of people you've never heard of before."

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