The Johnny Vegas All-Star Band is one of Ottawa’s favourite musical acts. Patterned after Rat Pack crooners Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Vegas brings back a style not seen since the early sixties in Las Vegas. Johnny’s witty banter and thoughtful insight into the music bring the audience back to a time when they were part of the show. Complete with a thick catalogue of standards from Sinatra to Presley, and styles that include country and disco, Johnny Vegas is the consummate lounge entertainer. The band, made up of seasoned performers, is one of the best groups in the city. Beki Lantos sings and plays percussion, Marty Newman plays electric bass, Gino Scaffidi plays guitar, Peter Beaudoin plays the drums and Eddie Bimm plays piano Visit the website at www.jvegas.com
Ottawa Life: Give us a quick sketch of the progression of your career to date. How did you get your start as a bandleader/crooner/guitarist/percussionist?
Johnny Vegas: The original idea for Johnny Vegas (when I came up with it over 20 years ago) was as a semi-washed-up Las Vegas entertainer living in the past, chain-smoking on stage (which you can’t do anymore, but I used to), consuming copious amounts of cocktails, singing the old standards.
OL: How have you managed to make a living as a musical artist in Canada’s Capital? Many have tried and given up.
JV: It’s difficult. The only way to do it is you’ve got to be really diversified. In my case, I do fairly well with the band. I have a regular gig at Maxwell’s on Elgin Street, I’ve been performing at Maxwell’s for over 17 years now on Wednesday nights. In fact, we just had our 17th anniversary back in November. It was my 850th performance at the club. But I also work at Maxwell’s on Thursday nights… I book bands in, run the sound system and promote the show. It’s hard to be a self-employed musician for sure. For the past three years, things have turned down a little bit in the entertainment industry. But luckily I have a lovely fiancée with a good job who loves me, so we can make ends meet. That’s kind of where I sit right now. But the business is cyclic. It will bounce back. It always does. There have been downturns before.
OL: I quote from your website: “Of course when Johnny sings these classic tunes, he adds his own flavor.” Describe what you bring to songs like Elvis Presley’s A Little Less Conversation, Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally, and all the other songs on your playlist.
JV: Our repertoire is up to about 250 songs now. On a typical night, in a bar or at a wedding or a private party, we play about 45 songs. At Maxwell’s, there is a core of 15 songs that I play almost every week. The rest of the songs change from week to week. So if you came to see four shows in a row, you’d see four different shows. We don’t just do Rat Pack music. We do seventies funk and disco, eighties pop and rock, music for all tastes…When you have a 250-song repertoire, you can actually tailor the set list, depending on the musical genre the people want to focus on.
I don’t sing the same song exactly the same way twice. The songs are performed mostly like the original recording listeners are familiar with… because people like familiarity. We do the original version of A Little Less Conversation that Presley performed in the movie Live a Little, Love a Little in 1968, rather than the remix that came out a few years ago. Now that we actually have a female singer in the band, a lot of the Elvis tunes sound great, because Elvis always had female backing on his big production numbers. Mustang Sally is one of those songs I play almost every week. We play it straight up, like The Commitments. Usually we want to keep the beat up so people will dance. That’s the primary objective, particularly at a Maxwell’s gig, is to get people up on the dance floor.
OL: What are your favorite songs… the ones you really pour heart and soul into?
JV: Sometimes it’s not so much the song. It’s who’s in the audience when I sing a particular song. For example, if my mom’s in the audience and I know it’s a song she really likes, for me, I’m putting a little bit more into it because I’m singing it for Mom. I tend to close my eyes when I sing, which is one of the reasons I wear the sunglasses. I don’t want people to know my eyes are closed, so I can focus on the song and not be distracted. One song I don’t do too often but really love to sing is Love on the Rocks by Neil Diamond. It’s very melancholic and has a lot of power. When I do it, I really try to belt it out.
OL: You have a good rapport with the audience. Are you just naturally at ease or did you have to work at it?
JV: Part of what you have to do when you’re dealing with an audience is you have to connect with them. You have to interact with the audience. You can’t just introduce the next song. Everything I say is ad lib. I’ve got a couple of gag lines, comic bits that I’ve worked out with the band, but I’m no stand-up comic.
OL: What are Johnny Vegas’ plans for the future?
JV: If all goes well, I’ll be playing my Maxwell’s gig well into the future. One of the things I’d like to try and do more of is play with a big band. The real issue is that bands like that cost a lot of money and very few galas and weddings or what have you have the kind of budget to hire a band that large – say, a 22-piece band. And if you don’t have a place where you can actually go play, it’s really hard to put a band like that together. If you can get the gig, if you can get the paycheque, you can put the band together! Anyway, that’s where I’d like to see myself playing down the road. I was just made for the stage!
TOP PHOTO: Paul Couvrette