From military bases to TV shows, jazz artist Billy Slais has played in most corners of the Earth. Now you can catch him playing down the street, along with the steady stream of national acts he brings to Reno.
Billy Slais’ love for what he calls “real music”, began at his father’s knee. Bill Slais Sr. played sax and clarinet with both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Recently, at age 91, the senior Slais called his son and asked, “How many gigs you got this week? I’ve got three!"Among music talents in the Reno area, Billy Slais’ name generates recognition and respect from both musicians and fans. Measuring 6-feet-5-inches tall and sporting long hair in a pony tail, he boasts not just a distinctive look, but also a professional history based in R&B and rock (everything from the Beatles to funk bands like Cold Blood and blues-rock legend Elvin Bishop), influenced heavily by jazz artists like Stan Getz, Grover Washington and Kirk Whalum.
When Billy was 10 years old, his father had a gig at the 1600 Club in Slais’ hometown of Memphis. Bill Sr. brought young Billy to the club, and the rest was musical history.
“I’d been playing clarinet at school, and Dad let me play Woody Herman’s ‘Woodchopper’s Ball’ with him,” Slais recalled. “I was so nervous I played with my back to the audience.”
Slais Sr. once told his son, “You know, this young guy dropped in last night, and he could really sing, but he couldn’t play guitar for shit!” The “young guy” turned out to be Elvis Presley.
Billy Slais had played for several big Elvis events at the Thunderbird Lounge in Memphis. That led to him being featured on the television show Where the Action Is, appearing with top-40 artists like Billy Jo Royal ("Down in the Boondocks") and Roy Head ("Treat Her Right") and singing backup with the Paul Revere and the Raiders Show on tour in 1968.
Three weeks into the tour, Slais discovered he had been drafted. He soon became music director for the U.S. Air Force’s entertainment troupe Tops in Blue, touring U.S. and foreign bases. As a result of his work, Tops in Blue was permanently reinstituted after its post-WWII swansong, and Slais received the Air Force medal of commendation.
In Vietnam, Slais checked out a jazz and blues band playing at the Apena Base Airmen’s Club. The “prayer meeting” turned out to be an all-black band, Mustang Brown and The Untouchables, playing for an audience of black service members.
“I walked in, and there wasn’t a white kid in the place except me,” Slais said with a laugh, “and the sax player looked at me and asked, ‘You don’t really want to sit in, do you, kid?’ When I said I did, he respected my guts and said, ‘All right, then come on up, brotha!'”
The audience went wild when Slais performed James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” without missing a single break. After that, he would sneak off-base to play with other groups.
At Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, Slais played with a bunch of kids in an R&B horn band called The Jets, with a young singer named Mickey Thomas. Slais and Thomas developed a friendship that has survived the rigors of their lives as professional musicians.
“It was a great coup for us to find Billy because he could not only play sax and keyboards, but he could arrange music and had a history of touring already, which elevated our level of sophistication,” Thomas said.
“One of the guys would be leaving the base,” Slais said. “And me and my horn went into the trunk of the car. Later that night, when the gig was over, I’d slip back onto the base again the same way.”
After his stint ended, Slais returned to the Memphis club scene. Thomas joined the Elvin Bishop Band in California and later brought Slais on board.
“Billy can sound like an entire horn section, and he brought that big brass power to the band,” Thomas said, “which filled out our sound and drew big crowds.”
“I used to play two saxes at the same time in Elvin’s group,” Slais said, “but that was mostly show, just some upstage bullshit more than real musicianship.”
In 1975, Slais and Thomas produced the No. 2 hit in the nation, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” from Elvin Bishop’s album, Struttin’ My Stuff.
Slais’ association with Thomas continued into another San Francisco horn band called Omega, still fondly remembered for its many gigs at Lake Tahoe venues. Omega members, hand-selected by Slais, included Bret Bloomfeld (Starship), Steph Burns (Huey Lewis, Alice Cooper and Sheila E), Dave Matthews (musical director for Etta James) and Mickey Thomas doing lead vocals. In 1979, Thomas received an invitation to join the new version of Jefferson Starship. Thomas brought Slais on board with Starship, but that incarnation of the band lasted for only one final album.
Soon after, Slais joined Lydia Pense, and they reformed the popular funk/soul band Cold Blood. The band overflowed with talent and, once Slais embraced the project, it flourished.
Slais and Thomas plan to work together on at least two projects within the next year, a tribute to Thomas’ roots in gospel and an R&B/gospel album with Reno keyboardist Kevin Tokarz under the moniker “Sons of Thunder.” (A massive heart attack in 2002 inspired Slais to return to his Christian roots, kindling his interest in gospel music.)
Slais has collaborated on various projects over the years with Steven “Doc” Kupka, baritone saxophonist and founding member of Tower of Power. They have published at least 15 arrangements together and maintain a fast friendship, which has survived their adversarial relationship across cribbage and Scrabble boards.
“Billy’s got a great ear,” Kupka said, “which means he can really hear the music, and that’s why when we played R&B, like when I backed up him and Mick Gillette on trumpet; it was always real tight.”
As entertainment coordinator for Siena Hotel Spa Casino’s Enoteca jazz lounge, Slais has been responsible for bringing such major talents to Reno as Roger Smith, keyboardist for Tower of Power and producer of the Jazz Roscoe album series, keyboardist Dave Matthews, also of Tower of Power, and Paul Williams’ Grammy-nominated keyboardist John Lee Sanders. When such notables play Reno, Slais arranges for local performers to sit in. Slais himself often accompanies other members of the Enoteca Jazz Ensemble with innovative keyboard performances and his soulful saxophone talent. He also directs and arranges music and rehearsals for regional talents like Laurie Thomas and the Trick.
“One thing the musician’s life will teach you is that it’s what you’re doing today that counts,” Slais concluded. “I’m glad people in Reno know my history, but, in this business, your credits mean nothing if you can’t play well right now. You’ve got to be on your game!”