Through the rise and fall of the Las Vegas Blues Society, the people behind the music have kept the scene alive by
In 1985, Las Vegas had only one blues band. "Smug Johnny and the Dynatones" played weekend gigs at the Fast Break Lounge. They were good. Real good. Word got out during that one year run and the band's popularity grew. After a name change, the "Blues Kings" moved to Bobby's Lounge and were playing five nights a week. The crowds kept getting bigger. That was no surprise. The Blues Kings were all high-grade players.
With names like Scott Rhiner, Avian Kee, Troy Beatley, Bobby Mercereau, Tony Filiponi, Little Joe, Nic Farkas and John Earl (who wasn't an original member, but was in the band for few months in the early years) the old Blues Kings roster reads like a Las Vegas Blues Hall of Fame. "We would get good crowds, especially on the weekends," says guitar player Scott Rhiner, who now fronts the Moanin' Blacksnakes. "But it was sort of a drag, because there was no -scene- here. We were it."
It was obvious to the kings that there was a market for the blues in Las Vegas. But as long as the Blues Kings were the only game in town, the odds of a blues scene spontaneously combusting were slim. During the run at the Fast Break, all sorts of ideas to build a blues scene bounced around among the musicians. Talk of putting together a "Blues Society" came and went. While everybody agreed that the potential for developing a blues scene was good, nobody wanted to do anything about it.
One night at an after gig happy hour and strategy session held at Rhiner's house, the idea to start a "Blues Society" came up again. Someone suggested putting on an outdoor picnic with live music to kick-start the scene. That sounded good. Everybody had ideas and the brainstorming raged into the wee hours. Sunrise adjourned the cocktail table board meeting and era of the Las Vegas Blues Society dawned with the light of the new day.
Blues in Vegas?
"Back in the '80s Las Vegas was pretty much off the map for touring bands," says local attorney Mark Hafer. "There was a need for something like the Blues Society at the time." A lawyer with a passion for the blues, Hafer was part of the Blues Kings social circle. When the decision was made to put on the picnic, Hafer was the first person they called. "We incorporated the Las Vegas Blues Society as a non-profit organization in 1987," says Hafer. "We invited a lot of local luminaries to an organizational meeting and went from there."
Lamar Marchesy, manager of KNPR, was voted as the association's first president. The group's goal was to raise money through a membership drive in order to promote blues concerts that would feature top blues artists. Members would get reduced admission prices. The plan was to run semi-annual blues picnics at Sunset Park. The first picnic was in October of '87 and it was a grassroots effort. "Me and my buddy Ernie built the stage," recalls Rhiner. "Mark went and bought a bunch of hot dogs, somebody else bought a keg of beer, and that was it." Although the picnic was an intimate affair, with under 200 people ("it was our friends, about 30 other people and about 50 bikers," laughs Rhiner), they broke even. Everyone was encouraged by the potential.
In April of '88 the 2nd picnic was held and the crowd grew to over 500 people. As the picnics continued to get larger, the Blues Society began a series of concerts at Bobby's Lounge featuring top touring blues bands from around the country. Charlie Musslewhite headlined the first show with the Blues Kings as his backup band. "It went over like gangbusters!" recalls Rhiner. "It was a Sunday night with two shows. We had a line out the door and down Jones Blvd. for the 2nd show." "We made a bunch of money and life looked good," confirms Hafer. "But from there things dropped off. We broke even at best."
Although the concert series faltered, the picnics just kept getting bigger. Attendance broke 1,000 and continued to climb. In addition to being fundraisers for the society, the picnics were networking free-for-alls for the general music community. Club owners, musicians and others on the periphery of the scene were mingling at these events while having fun under the sun. As more people became active in the Blues Society, the need for a weekly open jam session became apparent. Longtime Society Vice President Dennis "Monk" Andriaccio was one of the people involved with the jam sessions from the start.
"At first, my main thing was to get the picnic going, get memberships and start putting on events," says Monk. "Then my goal became getting all these cats together at these jams and put bands together from them. From there we could get more clubs involved and develop a blues circuit." The first jam sessions were held on Monday nights at the 19th Hole. They were an immediate hit. "At that time it was very important because this was when the musician's strike was happening," says Monk. "They were starting to put that Casio recorded shit in the lounges and stuff, so these cats would come down to our jams and that was great! That's when we came out with the Blues Society "Live Music is Better" T-shirts!"
Buildin' the Blues - The Bill Cherry Era
"I saw a little blurb in the paper that they were having a picnic in Sunset Park to start a blues society," recalls former Blues Society president Bill Cherry. "I said, wow, there's other people here that are into the blues? Cool!" Cherry went to that first picnic and became a Blues Society charter member. When elections for officers came around, Cherry was interested. "I was one of nine people to show up to the meeting and there were nine seats on the board of directors," laughs Cherry.
The following year in '89, he was elected president. He held the post for six and half years. Cherry is a blues fanatic. At one time he lived in Chicago, where he met many of the legendary blues players from that area including Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and Otis Rush. After a short stint in New Orleans he moved to Vegas. That was 1971. Also a guitar player, Cherry began to play at some of the society's jam sessions. During Cherry's tenure the Monday night jam sessions blossomed into a five nights a week phenomenon that involved several of the local venues.
"Some nights there were up to 50 jammers!" recalls Monk, who was involved in running many of the sessions. "Soon bands were forming. It was just so cool. It was beautiful to be part of." Although John Earl became active in the society a few months after it formed, he was also instrumental in the organization's early growth. "I thought it would be something that would spark the interest of everyone in town and get a new scene going," recalls John Earl. "The players came out of the woodworks for the jams sessions and there were bands springing up everywhere."
The last piece to Blues Society puzzle was its newsletter, the "Blues News." Through Cherry's efforts, the newsletter became more than just a promo for the local scene, featuring well written, informative articles and outstanding cover photos. Cherry's work also resulted in the society's involvement with the National Blues Foundation out of Memphis, and he represented the group at the blues scene's prestigious Handee Award ceremonies. Under Cherry's leadership, not only had membership peaked at somewhere around 1,500 members, the picnics were attracting crowds upwards of 8,000 people.
The Slide - Blues hit rock bottom
Scott Rhiner moved to Texas in '89, just as the Blues Society was hitting its stride. When he came back to town in '94, things had changed. "I asked some of the guys about what was going on with the Society and it was weird," says Rhiner. "Some people weren't too happy." By the mid '90s, the Blues Society had become a victim of its own success. As more clubs and bands got involved, a price war broke out. Some of the newer bands were undercutting rates that the established bands had worked to set. Another unanticipated problem was the massive turnouts for the picnics.
"When we hit around 8,000, that got the park people a little bit nervous," recalls Hafer. "The Sunset Park people decided that they wanted to work with the Blues Society. Basically, it was, 'We'll take it over, we'll put money into it, we'll bring in some name acts instead of just local acts.'" Up to then, picnics had been free and featured local bands. The society made its money off the beer sales. Under the County's plan, the picnic area was fenced off and a ten dollar admission fee was set. Attendance dropped to 1,500-2000 people and the County lost money. The spring picnics were moved to Lorenzi Park, which is in the City of Las Vegas.
"The fall picnic in the county wasn't working," says Hafer. "They washed their hands of it after three years." Not only was the society unhappy with the way things worked out at Sunset Park, some of the membership were unhappy with Cherry. After Rhiner left for Texas, there were fewer and fewer musicians on the board of directors. "Bill gets a lot of shit for basically taking over the jams, and getting gigs with his own band, 'Blue Cherry,' explains Rhiner. "But he did so much administrative stuff for the Blues Society… he was the editor, he was the president. He did a lot of shit that nobody either could do, or had the time to do."
"Internally, we were too reliant on volunteers," says Hafer. "People were doing a lot of work for free, and putting in a lot of hours to pull off these semi-annual events, and also putting together the newsletter. Nobody was making any money, it was taking up more and more time. It was an administrative nightmare! Finally we just said, our sanity won't permit this anymore." "It was a lot of work and a lot of hours," agrees Cherry. "There were rumors going around that I was making a lot of money doing it which was totally false."
Burned out on the never-ending administrative workload and unwarranted interpersonal crap, Cherry tendered his resignation in mid '95. There was no one to step up to the leadership role and the organization folded. "I had two basic goals," says Cherry. "Getting the membership over 1,000 and getting national recognition. And we accomplished both of those." More worn-out from the experience than bitter, Cherry would do things differently given a chance. "There were times when an event came together smoothly and I looked out at a huge crowd enjoying themselves, I thought: yeah! This feels good! But would I do it again? No."
In the end, Cherry arranged to purchase the society's PA system and computer. He also purchased the rights to the publication. Cherry still hosts an open jam session with his band "Blue Cherry" on Wednesday nights at the Double Down Saloon. That gig just celebrated its fourth anniversary. He's also known as the "Blues Crusader," when hosting his long running "Blues Legacy" radio program, which airs Sundays on KUNV 91.5 FM from 2-4pm.
The New Blues
"When Bill stopped doing the picnics, there wasn't anybody to carry it on," says Darby Pearce of the Las Vegas Jaycees. "As a fan, I saw a need to bring these things back." Last year, under Pearce's guidance, the Jaycees held "The First Annual Las Vegas Jaycee's Blues Jamboree at Lorenzi Park. The event was modeled after the original picnics, featuring local bands. "Bill Cherry has helped me tremendously with the planning and details," says Pearce. "That's made a huge difference."
Pearce's attachment to the Blues Scene goes beyond loving the music. For her, it's personal. Three years ago in May, Pearce had surgery. In an effort to help with her mounting medical expenses, John Earl organized a benefit at the Sand Dollar Lounge. "Most of the bands played," says Pearce. "So for me, it's a way to give back to the blues scene, as well as to help the Jaycees." The 2nd Annual Las Vegas Jaycee Blues Jamboree is coming up on Sunday, May 16th at Lorenzi Park. Blues fans can check out John Earl and the Boogie Man Band, The Moanin' Black Snakes and The Ruffnecks among others.
Local concert promoter AJ Gross is also working to keep the blues alive in Vegas. Gross ran the now defunct Fremont Street Reggae and Blues Club and has been putting together Boulder Blues Mondays for the last two years at Boulder Station. "After Bill Cherry had left as president, it was basically done," says Gross. "I'm a concert promoter. I know how to put on an event and do it within a budget and take of all the little details and logistics of putting on a show." He's also putting on an outdoor blues event, The 2nd Annual Blues BBQ happens on Saturday, May 29th at Sunset Station.
Gross feels that there may be enough interest in the community to resurrect the Blues Society. He's met with Mark Hafer and is currently working with Monk to position the society in the event that people want to bring it back. "We are taking a portion of the proceeds from the show to put in a fund expressly for developing the Blues Society. That way if people want to so something, they'll have some funds to work with." Gross has also posted a web page for the Blues Society on his website (www.ajpresents.com). Ultimately, Gross would like to develop a "nationally recognized blues 'fest," that would surpass the size and scope of even the largest picnics the society has held. "The direction this thing takes is all in the hands of the people," says Gross.
Whether or not the Blues -Society- ever reemerges, John Earl will be doing his part for the blues -scene-. The former host of "Cruisin' for a Bluesin'" radio program on KKLZ and leader of the Boogie Man Band is celebrating the 9th year as the Sand Dollar Lounge house band. A soulful frontman with a gravel and molasses voice, John Earl's down-home harp style and stellar band deliver a very potent dose of blues.
John Earl is also the driving force behind the Lee Canyon Summer Concert Series. "This is the 3rd year up there," says John Earl. "We're going to do seven shows this summer starting June, 13th. We're opening with the blues groups that have best established this town, and that's Scotty Rhiner and the Blacksnakes, The Ruffnecks and the Boogie Man Band."
"The blues scene is at a high point," says John Earl. "And it just keeps getting better. There is an -underground- society if that's possible. There's not really a figurehead like there was as far as the Blues Society goes, there's no board of directors or any of that, But the musicians all keep it alive. And of course, most importantly, so do all the fans."