Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2014

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Columnist Jerry Fink: At Barbary Coast, The King is still big

Jerry Fink's lounge column appears on Fridays. Reach him at [email protected] at (702) 259-4058.

If Elvis hadn't left the planet more than 25 years ago on Aug. 16, 1977, he would have turned 68 this week. He was born Jan. 8, 1935.

Most fans observe Presley's death instead of his birth, but Pete "Big Elvis" Vallee is large enough to commemorate them both.

In August the 400-plus pound Elvis tribute artist hosts a kind of memorial to his mentor. Wednesday he held a celebration, a surprise birthday party for fans during his regular performance in the lounge at Barbary Coast.

The Barbary Coast supplied a cake, featuring an edible Elvis photo on the icing, and pink roses (not edible) for the women in the audience.

When Vallee steps out of his dressing room and onto the stage, looking like a grizzly in a sparkling jumpsuit, those who have not heard him sing may think he is only a Las Vegas novelty act.

But when Big Elvis drops down onto a sturdy stool, takes the mike in his beefy hand and sings "C.C. Rider," "Always on My Mind," "Moody Blue" or some other hit from the Elvis discography, the act ceases to be a novelty and new fans are born.

Vallee is as good at vocalizing an Elvis song as anyone half -- or even 1/3 -- his size.

The Barbary Coast is pleased with the crowds Vallee brings into the casino. He has performed at the hotel for the past nine months (Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and is working with management on adding a year to his contract.

Vallee is talking to an international agency that wants to book him for European tours.

Vallee is doing so well, he recently had a customized jumpsuit built for his gargantuan frame. There is so much material, sequin work and labor needed to make the costume that it cost more than $2,000.

Anyone who enjoys listening to Elvis music should drop by the Barbary Coast and see Big Elvis in his birthday suit.

Passings

While Elvis' birthday was cause for celebration this week, three recent deaths have left some in Las Vegas music circles in mourning.

Bass player Chuck Diamond, who led the Royal Dixie Jazz Band for many years, collapsed and died at his home Tuesday. Keyboardist Johnny Griffith, 66, a Las Vegas resident, died of a heart attack in Detroit Nov. 9. And Tom & Jerry's founder Jerry Gorman, 53, died in an automobile accident Dec. 22.

Gorman was not a musician, but he was a friend of musicians.

The retired New York City police officer opened Tom & Jerry's Grub & Pub on 4550 S. Maryland Parkway, in 1993. In October 1997 Playboy magazine named it one of the Top 100 College Bars in America. However, after falling on bad times the night spot closed a year ago.

Gorman, a Las Vegas resident for 22 years, reportedly lost control of his Corvette on a rain-slick street and crashed into a pole at I-215 and Las Vegas Boulevard South.

Chuck Diamond had been a fixture on the local music scene for decades. In addition to creating the Royal Jazz Band, he was the founder of the original Dixie Jazz Band that went from the Barbary Coast to the Gold Coast.

The Royal Jazz Band performed in June at the downtown Las Vegas Jazz Festival.

Diamond died Tuesday morning with his wife, Joan, at his side.

Griffith was born in Detroit and played keyboard for the Funk Brothers of Mowtown from 1963 to 1967. Among his most notable recordings were "Stop in the Name of Love," "Wonderful One," and Marvin Gaye's version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

The classically trained musician had made Las Vegas his home for the past several years, performing in a number of local venues -- including at the OXO restaurant with the big band, The Mellowtones.

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown," a documentary film about the Funk Brothers, was released last year. Griffith was in Detroit to help promote the film when he died in his hotel room.

Griffith's wife, Delma Reid, lives in Vegas.

Ben Tolly is a saxophonist with The Mellowtones. He performed alongside Griffith for about two years.

"John was one of the best-kept secrets going," Tolly said. "He was very unassuming. I miss him dearly."

Family and friends are saying the same for Diamond and Gorman.

Lounging around

Vocalist Andrew James performs at Caesars Palace's Galleria Bar from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., Wednesdays through Sundays. Pianist Billy Stevenson accompanies James, whose repertoire includes singing impressions of members of the Rat Pack, Bobby Darin and others.

Las Vegas-based singer/songwriter/lounge performer Marcus Dagan played keyboard in a three-piece band at the Dec. 28 wedding reception for actor/producer/director Michael Douglas' mother at Douglas' Ariel Sands resort in Bermuda. Actress Diana Darrid, 79, married Donald Webster, who was Treasury chief of staff for President Richard Nixon.

Bermuda agrees with Dagan. Following a stint on the cruise ship "Norwegian Sea" (from Jan. 30 to March 13, sailing from Miami to the Bahamas), he will return to the Ariel Sands for a gig that lasts from April 1 through the end of the year.

Joe Behar's Community Drama Workshop will present a free showcase of scenes performed by workshop students at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Gold Coast Showroom. The public is welcome. For those interested in studying acting, Behar's 90-minute workshop meets at 10 a.m. Saturdays.

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