Definitive Guide to the Las Vegas blues scene

Thinking about heading west to sunny Las Vegas? Even if the notion hasn’t struck you yet, you may want to start looking at tickets. That’s because the blues scene here is one of the best in the whole nation. Seeing up-and-coming artists as well as old favorites playing on these stages is one of the best experiences you can give to yourself. But the blues is no recent addition to the Vegas showroom. In fact, it has a colorful history here that’s sure to fascinate any blues buff. Read on to dive into the musical past of Vegas and learn about the best shows going on today.

The Blues in Vegas: A Brief History

When Las Vegas first began to boom, the whole world witnessed the beginning of an era with glitz, glamor and twinkling lights, but also, an era of music. A different type of show was born, designed to wow the crowd and keep them entertained all night long.

The owners along the Strip realized they needed a kicker.  Something to keep players coming back time and again. Operating a casino in Vegas doesn’t just mean pulling cash out of the slot machines. To draw in a crowd and keep the money flowing freely, venues all over the Strip need to put on a show. Las Vegas casino music is a competitive business where many greats have made their name and left their mark. So, who has graced these silver stages?

Jazzy, bluesy showstoppers like Frank Sinatra practically made Vegas what it is today. Back in the 1940s, the Strip was a silent street rolling with the tumbleweeds of a small western town. But when Sinatra took to the stage in the early 1950s, all that changed. Vegas exploded.

Thanks to several lead-acting roles, Sinatra gained popularity both as a singer and as a modern American heartthrob. This made him an indispensable fixture on the Strip where he was soon joined by others of his ilk. The famous Rat Pack of Vegas performers (and actors in the original “Ocean’s Eleven,” filmed at the Sahara Casino) were set loose on the stages.

Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and the swinging Sammy Davis Jr. joined the throng. With their combined powers, nothing could stop the fearful fivesome from establishing the industry standard of Las Vegas blues. And they did. Their antics on stage included music, dancing and jokes, which were notoriously a hit with audiences.

In this vintage photograph taken in 1962, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra belt out a tune with the legendary Judy Garland.

Frank Sinatra used his celebrity to knock down the racial barriers erected by casino owners in Vegas, many of whom were reluctant to allow Sammy Davis Jr. to perform on their stages. Sammy Davis Jr., in turn, tutored famous Vegas showgirl Lola Falana. Falana became the Queen of Blues and the highest-paid showgirl in Vegas, rising through the murky waters of racial bias to leave her mark on the industry.

Many others have graced the stages of Las Vegas, and blues singers continue to make a name for themselves here with unabashed vigor. But why was it blues music that made Las Vegas casino music shows, and why does it continue to dominate the marquees every night?

The Unofficial Music of Vegas Casinos

The blues not only changed Vegas, it changed the world. It caused a shift from the mundane to the magical in live performances, with playful saxophones and bold trumpets and dancing strokes of the keyboard. It emulates the essence of Vegas itself. The blues are representative of the glitz and glory that can be had here as well the sadness, pain and hopelessness that also resides on these streets.

It’s not the only reason why casinos (and their patrons) seem to love the blues. It’s emblematic of the entire casino industry. In fact, the rise of Las Vegas in the early 1950s seems to coincide directly with the rise in popularity of blues music. Is that a coincidence?

Probably not. The two industries — gambling and blues music — are inextricably tied via social construction. They’ve both risen from an America striving for progress, scrambling for any foothold that might allow them to crawl up from rags and hardship and out onto the golden road of riches and a better life. Both Las Vegas and the blues seem to have made it; today, Vegas is one of the premier travel destinations in the world, and the blues are a thriving musical business.

Vegas has risen to great heights from its humble beginnings: Of the world’s 20 largest hotels, Las Vegas houses 12 of them!

Vegas had its beginnings in the Post-Great Depression-era 1930s, with men and women struggling to make a living in a desolate land. The blues had them in the post-slavery Mississippi Delta. Both gambling and blues music were symbols of the struggle against burdensome societal forces and the oppressive governing law, albeit in different ways. While early blues struggled to convey hardship, love and redemption, Vegas strove to provide a place where all those things were possible. And it continues to deliver today, with a lineup of artists as impressive as the past greats.

Get to Vegas and See them All

Today, Vegas offers a blues scene as spectacular as the early years. Though Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. are gone, there remains an impressive musical legacy that modern-day artists are doing their best to live up to. New players are strutting the Strip’s stages and they’re bringing their innovative technique with them.

The iconic Champagne’s Cafe in the heart of the Vegas Strip invites music lovers from all over the world to experience the blues styles like Walter Waiters while the duo of Shawna McCarty and Barry Levenson regularly headline here as well. Head over to Saddle N Spurs Saloon to hear an open jam session (the brave can also play in said jam session if they register). The infamous Sand Dollar Lounge hosts the likes of Smokestack Relics, The Bar Squad and Goldtop Bob. Of course, no trip to Vegas would be complete without a foray into the House of Blues, which has hosted some great blues and rock artists like Carlos Santana and Joe Walsh.

Head to Las Vegas to hear that bluesy sound you’ve been craving.

With so many blues artists in Vegas, you’ll probably never get to see them all. But it’s worth it to make the trip and have a try. Here you’ll find that the music seeps into every crevice of the city. Shows here will leave you open-hearted, open-mouthed and wanting more yet perfectly sated at the same time. The blues is alive and well in Las Vegas, and the music waits for you.

Marina Biljak

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