Singing the occupational blues

As local casinos try to figure out how to deal with declining numbers of tourists, lounge singers say the glamour and prestige of performing in casinos ain’t what it used to be

Latisha Lewis is going to hold onto the night job, singing at the Roxy in the Eldorado Hotel Casino, but she’s starting a new career as an interior decorator, too.

Latisha Lewis is going to hold onto the night job, singing at the Roxy in the Eldorado Hotel Casino, but she’s starting a new career as an interior decorator, too.

Photo Illustration by David Robert and David Jayne

“Live music—what a concept!” singer Tanya Scarlet shouted over the applause of a Saturday evening audience. Scarlet and her group, from Nevada City, Calif., found the listeners enthusiastic at Siena Casino’s Enoteca jazz lounge. Midnight came, and after the end of her high-energy performance, Scarlet paused and laid a friendly hand on my shoulder.

“Lord, am I tired,” she sighed. Then she finished packing equipment and headed home.

Fans often fantasize about life as a professional musician. Those who take a shot at performing often discover that talent and business lie at opposite ends of life’s stage.

Many singers, attracted by the possibility of regular work, make their way in casino lounges and showrooms. But even steady jobs don’t eclipse the reality that being a musician, even a “successful” one, usually means hard work for low pay.

To get some insider perspective on what it takes to make it at a time when Reno’s gaming tourism is in decline, I spoke with several musicians who’ve made their careers in area casinos, where, lately, it hasn’t been all glitz and glamour.

Singer Donna Lynne, raised in Herlong, Calif., and Reno, was introduced to the blues by her stepfather and studied music with her blues-guitarist uncle, the late Little Joe Blue. The 5-foot-6-inch African-American musician performs internationally and around the United States, covering material by B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Etta James, with a few R&B, jazz and soul standards spicing the mix.

She sings in local venues, but she doesn’t think they provide the fairest deal. She remembers playing in Los Angeles for $400 a night. Local clubs tend to pay $50-$100 a night.

“There’s work in Reno seven nights a week for musicians and singers,” Lynne said, “if you’re willing to accept the conditions and pay offered.”

Sometimes she’ll decline an offer to play because the pay is too low. She’s also found it necessary to tailor her style to more general audiences than she did in California, where she could specialize in blues singing.

“Since I work a variety of venues, I diversify my repertoire because you need more than one tool hanging from your belt, if you want to work,” Lynne said.

Cherie Shipley, whose repertoire lists soft-rock favorites along with R&B and jazz, has found one way to make a living while making music: She’s kept her day gig. With a voice that fans compare to Karen Carpenter or Anne Murray, she doesn’t have any trouble finding work as a singer, but it’s Shipley’s day job as owner and manager of Lake Tahoe Entertainment, an entertainment booking agency, that pays the bills.S

Shipley’s not new to the idea of hard work. The 5-foot-7-inch blonde successfully worked the club scenes around Tahoe, Reno and Palm Springs, Calif., while raising her two children as a single mother. To say it was tough is an understatement.

“When you’re singing your heart out in smoke-filled rooms where they don’t pay enough, doing that for six nights per week and often working 13 nights in a row, getting as little as three hours of sleep, then making lunches for two kids and getting them to school, being a real mom because you know you can’t do anything less, all this while your marriage is falling apart, when the hell do you find time to work another job?” Shipley asked.

Terry Gerard sings selections from enough musical genres to satisfy almost any taste. She holds a degree in music from the University of Arizona and teaches music at Smithridge Elementary.

Cherie Shipley has no trouble getting singing gigs, but she’s keeping her day job as the owner of an entertainment booking agency.

Photo by David Robert

“I’d like to sing more often,” Gerard stated, “because it’s my talent, and I love it, but I also need to work a day job, so I teach what I know best.” But she still plays when she can.

Gerard began her professional career in Las Vegas, where she formed Terry and the T-Birds with her guitarist/bassist husband Gary Douglas. The T-Birds still reconvene once in a while, like for Hot August Night, when Gerard leads the oldies group with her saucy stage antics. (Fans report that the fun-loving Gerard sport undergarments with the T-Birds’ logo.)

“I used to be able to support myself singing and playing piano,” she said. Even though she still plays resorts, locally and in Tucson, they don’t add up to a decent living. And they don’t provide medical benefits.

“The day job is important, even though we work gigs all over Reno and Tahoe,” Gerard said.

Latisha Lewis is pursuing a whole new field to support her music career. She holds forth three nights each week at Roxy’s piano bar in the Eldorado. She works a day gig for Universal Entertainment, but her first love is singing for an audience.

“I’d like to sing more,” Lewis said, “but you can’t make a living at jazz with the economic problems some clubs are experiencing.”

She now studies interior decorating, a life-long ambition. She will graduate in 2005 and hopes to build a more profitable second career.

As the flood of gamblers who support Nevada’s clubs has changed course toward Native American casinos, local entertainers have had to adjust their career expectations. The level of prestige that casino playing once had has changed.

Billy Moran, former Renoite and former keyboard player for acts like Tommy Bell and Paul Anka, plays in Las Vegas at the top of the Stratosphere. Moran feels today’s club and cabaret players have a dog-eat-dog mentality, in comparison to the players of yesteryear.

“There’s too few rooms and too many anxious musicians and agents,” Moran said, “so when bands approach me and say, ‘We’re new here, how do we get work?’ I tell them if they want to be a lounge act, they’ve made their first mistake because the industry is now more about making money than entertaining.”

Moran added that it’s not always talent that fills rooms in the hotel.

“If a talented woman singer with average looks auditions down here, but her competition is a tone-deaf blonde with big tits, the management will almost always hire the blonde because they want something that’ll keep people excited,” he said. “That’s what keeps them spending money not good music.”

Jerry Spikula, entertainment director for the Siena, adds that casinos sometimes rely on disk jockeys playing CDs and two-man groups ("doubles") using recorded music sequences for backup to lower expenses. These acts cost about half what a live band would earn.

Casino musicians may be a dying breed. Venues that once hosted style-makers like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. are now counting their pennies.

But for some performers, like Cherie Shipley, casinos are still the place they want to be. The chance to entertain an audience must be a reward in itself.

“If you have a God-given musical talent, you need to find a way to use that, or you reap some heavy spiritual and intellectual consequences,” she said.