This father-and-son tale isn’t a Christmas story per se, but it does involve a disco version of “White Christmas.”
The Whispers’ version of the Christmas classic is the one for which Thomas Austin did a breakout dance in a Japanese supper club some 20 years ago. It was the second time Gregg Austin had called upon his young son as last-minute help for his Motown cover band, and the second time a crowd went wild.
The week ahead is a big one for the Austin family. Tuesday brings a special edition of “M Town,” the weekly revue that Gregg helms in the South Point showroom. At least 10 guest artists will help ring in Gregg’s 67th birthday (which falls on Thursday).
The band will be back on the same stage New Year’s Eve for its fourth countdown show. But in between those two nights?
Get down to the Golden Nugget on Friday, ready to do “The Bird.”
Morris Day and The Time’s return to the Nugget is a homecoming for Thomas Austin, who is now playing Day’s sidekick and stage foil, Jerome Benton.
That’s right. The Time is now one of those groups that blend original members with those called up from tribute bands, a move most famously employed by Journey with singer Arnell Pineda.
“What’s really funny is I get a lot of people who actually think I’m him: ‘Remember me and you, we hung out in 1976,’ ” says Austin, who is not quite 35.
Fans of The Time and the “Purple Rain” movie in particular know that the shout “Jerome! Bring me my mirror!” sets off a precision ritual that is funk’s version of the Changing of the Guard.
It’s a job that Austin knew well from eight years with the Prince tribute band Purple Reign. Jason Tenner’s tribute at Westgate Las Vegas offers a full show by including The Time and tapping into the “Purple Rain” plot rivalry between Prince and Day.
The real Benton parted ways with Day at the end of 2006, under circumstances still cloudy to fans. He was part of a Flamingo reunion of the original Time members in 2008. But for the most part, Jerome is now “like it’s a character almost,” Austin says. “I’m Jerome, but I’m not Jerome. You got the mirror in your hands and you’re with Morris? You’re Jerome.”
Two years ago, the job came open and Austin was recommended by drummer “Jellybean” Johnson. He and keyboardist Monte Moir are The Time’s other two remaining originals, and Johnson loves to check out Purple Reign whenever he is in town.
Austin met with Day at a Las Vegas dance studio and showed him his moves but didn’t hear back for a long time. His wife kept asking, “You think anyone else might have the job? How many other Jeromes are out there?”
He didn’t know, but the good news eventually came. At first, Austin says he was trying too hard. “In Purple Reign I had to really put it on, because I was trying to be those guys. When I got with the Time, I was still trying to prove myself.”
But Day eventually declared, “You got it, brother Thomas.” “He said, ‘You’re already cool, you already got it, you don’t have to do nothing else. Just relax. They gonna love us no matter what.’ ”
After Prince died in April, “it seems like everybody wants to see Morris now,” Austin says. People come up and tell him, “Take care of that man. Make sure nothing happens to Morris.”
But he tells them that 59-year-old Day doesn’t need his help. “He’s gettin’ better. Not slowing down at all.”
Such an oddly specific job might seem weird in any other family. But Gregg Austin hasn’t had a day job since 1988, when he took a six-month leave from 14 years as a Milwaukee mail carrier after his moonlighting band Second Wind was hired to play the Flamingo lounge.
The old-Vegas show lounges were in decline, but Austin’s band made an easy transition to a new opportunity. Instead of just covering Temptations songs with their matching jackets and synchronized footwork, they became an official Temptations tribute act in the long-running “American Superstars.”
One night, the Madonna impersonator injured her foot while “Superstars” was playing up in Reno. Producer Donny Lee Moore told Austin to stretch and fill her time. Gregg let 10-year-old Thomas suit up as Michael Jackson to sing and dance to “Billie Jean.”
“The place went nuts,” he recalls.
It was supposed to be a one-time thing, and Austin says Moore wasn’t happy to hear about it. But the next night, the hotel’s general manager showed up with his own kids to see Thomas. An emergency call to Moore got Thomas back onstage again.
A few years later, when Thomas was almost 14, Gregg’s group was booked for a seven-week Christmas tour of Japan. But one of the group members injured his Achilles tendon.
“One day I came home from school and he said, ‘Think you can do the show?’ ” Thomas recalls.
“In the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that.’ ”
To prove Thomas belonged up there, Gregg again had him come out and do his splits, spins and moonwalks during “White Christmas.” And again the place went nuts.
Thomas finished Silverado High School and played football during a championship season at Moorpark College in California before deciding show business could be a serious career for him.
Years of watching his dad do it “makes it real,” Gregg Austin agrees. “This is what I was making Thomas understand: When you’re working for yourself, what you’re doing is gambling on yourself. And if you gamble on yourself, make sure that gamble works. You’ve got to put the extra time in, do whatever needs to be done.”