Vegas Memories

Member to Member

Volume CVIII, No. 2February, 2008

Leo Ball

The first time I came to Las Vegas was back in the early 50’s as a member of the Xavier Cugat Orchestra. We were the hottest Latin Band in the country, and many musicians referred to us as the Latin Guy Lombardo.

Actually, the band was very good — in its style — as was Lombardo’s ensemble.

(Just a side thought: when Louis Armstrong was once asked what was his favorite band, he replied “Guy Lombardo — they play the melody!”)

Back to Vegas. There were only a few big casinos on the strip, and the one that presented the biggest shows was the Last Frontier, owned and operated by Jake Kossoloff, a tough businessman. The place was not affiliated with the mob: it was probably the only independent on the Strip.

(The “Strip,” as it was called, was on the road leading into Las Vegas proper from Las Angeles. First you drove by the airport, and then you would start seeing the big casinos.)

We traveled with our own show — starring Abbe Lane — and we would rehearse after the closing night of the previous extravaganza, as it was a seven-night-a-week gig.

The band we always followed was Tommy Dorsey, and we would always catch their last show before our rehearsal.

The first time I was there, I was knocked out by the lead trumpet player, a little fellow with one inch thick glasses, who blew the walls down.

We spoke some, but didn’t really get to know each other until I left the road many years later, and rediscovered him in New York, playing lead trumpet on lots of various venues, and still blowing the walls down. It was Johnny Frosk.

As the years wore on and the clubs multiplied further and further out onto the strip, they all employed full house bands, and the union was strong.

All the gigs were seven nights, but they were only allowed to play six nights a week, which led to the best gig in town — being a member of the “offnight” band.

This was the hardest job, but also the most interesting, as every night you’d rehearse during the day, and play the show that evening.

There were only two bands providing that service, and they were working practically every night as the nights off at each club were staggered, for that very reason. Also, they had a special scale, and made more money than any other gig in town.

The musicians’ hangout after the shows was the Silver Slipper, a smaller, seedier club than most, but the most fun.

My hangout buddy was Carl Fontana, and one night he walked in with another famous trombonist, Bill Harris, a notorious drinker, but always dressed to the hilt, looking like a very serious businessman.

They walked up the bar and Bill was holding up his pants, with his belt and zipper undone. He ordered a double Scotch, chug-a-lugged it, dropped his pants, and gasped “Hell of a drink you serve here.”

And there were girls! Yes, there were girls! No more about that.

There were sessions most every night at a small club out beyond the strip called the Blue Flame. Great players, and it went on till dawn.

Back then, Vegas was a musicians’ paradise. It gave work to a slew of cats that played great, but wanted off the road.

It lasted up into the 70’s, and then we lost it to self-contained shows, tapes, newfangled electronics, whatever. The Las Vegas heyday was over.

Many years later, I accepted a gig for the season at Aruba’s only hotel/casino, playing lead with the Argentinean house band.

Great bread, my own cabana, and only one show a night.

After the first rehearsal, an older cat walked up to me, smiled, and stuck out his hand.

Lo and behold, it was Jake Kossoloff, still independent, and still running an ace operation.

I did two seasons, and miss him. You always knew just where you stood with Jake. Just don’t screw up!

Trumpeter Leo Ball died on Dec. 15 at the age of 80. See his obituary in this issue.