August 1, 2018

You Can’t be a Christian and Work in Las Vegas

The year 1970 was a momentous year for the Imperials. We were singing with Jimmy Dean and Elvis and trying to juggle our gospel concerts in between. That year we were with Jimmy two full months and with Elvis for two full months, for a total of four months in Las Vegas. I’ve heard some say, “you can’t be a Christian and work in Las Vegas.” Ironically, we found a great church away from the Las Vegas strip and though I got to bed quite late on Saturday night, when I could, I made my way to that church on Sunday morning. Some really special friends were made there. Also, there was a chaplain who had a bible study every week right there in one of the hotels on the strip and though there were only 10-12 people, it was a very meaningful time for me. When you’re bombarded nightly with the “evils” of casinos, as a Christian, it was important for me to insulate myself from their attractions. Avoiding the gambling part was the easiest part because I HATE to throw away money that I could have kept in my wallet. Nightly I saw poor souls playing the one-armed bandit and the majority never won. You hear about the one or two that won big but you never hear how much it took for them to win, nor do you hear about the thousands who never win but keep trying because they are so deeply in the hole they have to try to get back to even. I never had an attraction for gambling.

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Because I looked like a teenager, I also had trouble being taken seriously. I actually got stopped one night walking through the casino after the second show on my way to my apartment. They were sure I was underage and because I was, in their mind, an unaccompanied minor, they checked my ID to see if they were right. Of course, they weren’t, but I was amused at their attempts to put me out of the casino. I am not perfect by a LONG shot, but if I had my way, I would NEVER darken the door of a casino. Think about it; they don’t build those huge, plush casinos by losing more than they take in.

May 17, 2018

Larry Gatlin Stepped In

Our concert with Elvis in Houston came at about the time Roger Wiles, our baritone, was considering an exit from the group. We happened to run into an old friend while in Houston. He was singing locally in a venue as a soloist while attending the University of Houston. We approached him a little later about filling in for us when Roger left and he enthusiastically accepted the offer. I think he was ready to escape Houston or the job he was presently in, so immediately upon Roger’s exit, Larry Gatlin stepped in as our baritone. Because he was raised singing gospel music with his family group in Odessa, TX, he knew many of our songs so the transition was made quickly.

While with us for only a brief time, we worked at the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas with Jimmy Dean on a month-long appearance. Jimmy’s supporting artist was Dottie West, the great country singer. She was very nice to us and the show went well with sold-out crowds every night. At the close of that month, Larry decided to move to Nashville and as his songwriting was just beginning, he worked out an arrangement with Dottie to write his songs and place them in her publishing company. So while his stay with us was short, he does credit us with kickstarting his career in country music. Larry was there for the Elvis show and the Jimmy Dean show before he left us. We were getting used to the crazy life that Las Vegas offered, which was to work most of the night and sleep late the next day. Because I wasn’t a gambler at all, the hotels there in Vegas didn’t make much from me and I was able to save most of my salary. I have a saying to this day – those huge hotels in Las Vegas didn’t get built by losing more than they took in.

May 2, 2018

The Imperials and Jimmy Dean

During our almost three years with Elvis, we were also heavily booked with Jimmy Dean. I told you about our first engagement with Jimmy here. It was a three-week run and sold out almost every night. We did many dates on the road with Jimmy. Many were fairs but most were hotels in Las Vegas. We appeared with Jimmy at the Desert Inn, The Frontier, and The Landmark Hotel. We would do one full month with Jimmy with two shows a night with no nights off. In 1970, we wound up doing two months of the year with Jimmy and two months with Elvis, so we practically lived in Las Vegas that year.

The Imperials with Mike Douglas and Jimmy Dean

It was that same year that the Imperials were blazing new trails on television with Jimmy Dean. We were featured on a nationally syndicated show filmed in Philadelphia called The Mike Douglas Show. We did The Merv Griffin Show out of Los Angeles and the Joey Bishop Show on the ABC network. Joey was considered in competition with Johnny Carson but never reached Carson’s ratings. We were on the show with Jimmy and the chance to sing was made available for us. We decided to sing He Touched Me to that national audience. The response was very gratifying. The famous actress, Greer Garson, was on the set as we sang that song. At the close of our number, the cameras went back to Joey and Greer at the desk. Greer Garson offered, without solicitation, her observation of the number she had just heard. Her first words were, “Well, isn’t it nice to know the devil doesn’t have all the good music”.  It was a verification to us that we had picked the right song.

April 27, 2018

Blog 28: Jimmy Dean & The Lennon Sisters On the Road

After our first month in Las Vegas with Elvis, the Imperials went back on the road to fulfill contracted dates we had established with promoters. Our schedule was full with two months a year with Elvis, our gospel dates, and also our dates with Jimmy Dean. Jimmy was a country singer who had a very successful network show on ABC where he featured famous country music artists who had never made it to network television before. From that very successful show, he also added the very successful song, “Big John”, to his list of successes. He hired us a year after I came with the group and we immediately went on the road with him. This was a year before Elvis called. Our first appearance was a theater in the round in W. Covina, CA with special guests, The Lennon Sisters. They were regularly featured on the Lawrence Welk show weekly and had a huge following. At that time, Jimmy had employed a group of twelve men with doctorates in music who were called the Cimarron Singers. They would sing songs like Maria, Shenandoah, and other songs that were received very well.

Since we were the new kids on the block, we were added to the male chorus. In the middle of the show, the Cimarron Singers would be featured on their songs. After those songs, Jimmy introduced the Imperials and we came out from the group and sang our song. We chose He Touched Me. The response was amazing!  We were instant successes. The local newspaper had a review on the show that was enlightening. The reporter wasn’t used to power voices and he described us as the Imperials, a male quartet with “shotgun voices”! Because of the responses from the audience, on the next tour, the Imperials were the only supporting act for Jimmy Dean. He saved a lot of money on flights and he gained a group that added much to his show.

April 19, 2018

Life on the Road with Elvis in Las Vegas

Our first month in Las Vegas with Elvis came off beautifully.  There were no incidents to speak of outside an occasional woman bounding up on the stage and running to Elvis. They were always tackled by the “Memphis Mafia” our staff, before they made it to him. He always took it in good stride and found it amusing. We spent many nights in the penthouse after the second show, listening to gospel music and singing around the piano. Elvis would demonstrate his black belt karate prowess to us in full karate garb and we were very impressed with his skill. He had studied with a master named Ed Parker who would show up occasionally in the penthouse to do a demonstration with Elvis on what he had learned. We would be there in the penthouse sometimes until 5 or 6 am or until Elvis got weary or sleepy. It was reported he had to take sleeping pills to go to sleep at that time. He would sleep all day and wake up around 4 or 5 pm, or about sundown, eat a meal and get ready for the shows.

When we left the penthouse early in the morning, we would make our way to our rooms. We didn’t stay in the Hilton like the TCB band and the Sweet Inspirations. We were about three blocks away at a humble little motel called the Bali Hai. It was modestly furnished with a bedroom, living room, kitchenette, and small bathroom. It was situated just behind the Desert Inn so it was just off the strip.

I liked it because it had a pool and a tennis court in the middle. My daily schedule consisted of getting up around 11 am, eating breakfast in the room, then playing tennis for two hours in the hot Vegas sun, and then either eating an early dinner out somewhere or cooking in my room. Doesn’t that sound exciting? It may not have been that impressive by today’s standards, but I was in the best shape of my life. Plenty of sun, exercise, and food enough for a 128-pound muscleman.

April 11, 2018

He was just being Elvis

The first month for Elvis in Las Vegas was memorable in so many ways. The anticipation of his return to live performances led to the intense excitement by the fans and friends of Elvis and the entire entourage. No one knew what to expect after his long absence from live performances. The media had played this up to be a huge comeback and the pressure on him to prove he was worthy of all the attention he was getting was intense. You could sense it in his actions on opening night as we made our way to the side of the stage. When his body was still, his fingers would be twitching. He would look around for assurance and confirmation that he was doing the right thing. He had moved away from the black leather suit of the ’68 Comeback Special and had opted for the one piece jumpsuit with the high collar and flared sleeves and legs. Intricate embroidery was utilized to make those suits interesting and white was used quite often because they thought it would show better under all the stage lights. The problem with leather was that it was heavy (about 10 pounds) and under the stage lights it was unmercifully hot for him. With all the karate moving and jumping,  Elvis told us he lost about 5 pounds on every show. He wore high top patent leather boots and colorful scarves to share with the ladies during the show.

The Sweet Inspirations were dressed in shorter skirts and the Imperials had paisley black and white shirts with black slacks. It was an informal look for us while he garnered all the well-deserved attention at center stage. Many leather suits were made for this show and he picked a well-known designer, Bill Belew, to come up with the suits he wore on stage. There’s no telling how many jumpsuits are now worn by ETA’s across the world. Elvis was a trend-setter but he didn’t know it. He was just being Elvis. He always did it far better than anyone else who copied him.

March 28, 2018

Our First Month With Elvis

Our first month with Elvis in Las Vegas was hectic. Elvis was getting into his rhythm on the songs he had decided to do in the show. Many songs were culled and he ultimately decided on a list and an order of songs he felt comfortable with. We did two shows a night for a month. Our first show started at 8 pm and ended around 9:45. We would have a two-hour break and start the second show at midnight. That meant we didn’t get through until around 2 am. Almost every Saturday or Sunday a third show, a matinee, was added and it made for a busy schedule.

That first month, there were movie cameras everywhere filming the show. They filmed almost every night. This filming ultimately became the movie, “That’s the Way It Is” and it was a huge success though it took at least a year of editing it before it was released.  At least once or twice a week Elvis invited us up to his penthouse after the second show and we stood around the piano and sang gospel songs with him. Food was provided and Elvis occasionally would don his karate outfit and do a demonstration for us using poor Charlie Hodge as the guinea pig.  Elvis had a black belt in karate and he was in great shape. By the time the demonstration was over, Charlie wasn’t in so great a shape.  

Often, we would sit around and listen to Elvis’ favorite gospel quartets. One of his favorite groups was a very popular group, the Harmonizing Four. They were a great group with an even greater bass singer, Jimmy Jones.  One of his favorite songs by this group was a song entitled, Farther Along, featuring Jimmie on the lead. He had these amazing low notes that almost rattled the speakers but then he would get into an upper register and sing notes that no bass could even think of singing. And, as a plus for this great singer, he had a soul! It was a great combination and Elvis loved his singing. We did too. I’ll tell you a tragic story about this great story next week. 

March 9, 2018

We Got a Call From Elvis

After a year with Jimmy Dean, we got a call from Elvis. He had decided to return to live performances as he was not enjoying the movies as much as he did when he started. When he decided to put together his group, he called James Burton, the greatest guitarist available at the time. He asked James to put together a band for him. James hired Ronnie Tutt on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, John Wilkinson on rhythm guitar and Larry Muhoberac on piano. I’m told he originally wanted the Blossoms as his black female backup group but they turned him down. The Sweet Inspirations were available and the group that opened with Elvis consisted of Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell, and Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney Houston. Elvis had called Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires for his male quartet. At that time, the Jordanaires were very busy in the studio recording backup for almost every country artist in the country music world. They feared that if they accepted his invitation and went to Las Vegas, these artists would find other backup singers and never call them again. They weren’t sure Elvis had a long-term plan for concerts and so they turned him down. The next call he made was to the Imperials. Joe Moscheo was the manager at that time and with very little persuasion, the Imperials said yes.

On July 31, 1969, Elvis came back to live performances to rave reviews at the Hilton International Hotel, the largest showroom by far in Las Vegas. The band named themselves the TCB Band, the Sweet Inspirations, the Imperials, Millie Kirkham on the soprano parts, and a huge 40 piece orchestra behind him. The original conductor of that orchestra was Bobby Morris.

The order of the show brought the Sweet Inspirations out for three songs.  Elvis had a comedian that came on next named Sammy Shore. I will never understand how he got there, but I think the Hilton had him under contract so they had to use him. There was a short intermission and then the one everyone was waiting to see walked onstage to the 2001 Theme song. It was electric every night, but especially opening night.