Earl Turner practically defines “almost famous.”
He has cultivated loyalty with Las Vegas locals since 1989, when some casino lounges were still a big deal. Turner worked his way up to ticketed headliner, first at the Rio and then in a casino showroom in New Orleans, until Katrina sent him back to Las Vegas in 2005.
Now the old-school entertainer makes converts out of captive audiences on cruise ships and plays twice a year at the South Point.
It’s fine by him.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t watch television and think, ‘I want to be on it.’ I wanted to play music,” he says. “I wanted to maybe be in a band, but I never cared about being famous. All I cared about was music.”
It’s something you hear a lot of musicians say. And in Turner’s case? Mission accomplished — plus a little extra.
But what’s this?
When Turner comes back to the South Point Feb. 17 to 19, his show carries a bombastic name, “The Journey.” And it won’t just be his usual classic-rock and R&B favorites, unified by little more than the desire to make people forget about their problems and their wristwatches.
This time, Turner is telling his own almost-famous story.
He is dividing the show into segments separated by video introductions. One will re-create the first time he ever performed to a live audience, at a coffeehouse in Columbia, Missouri.
The next follows his life on the road with a barnstorming soul show, the Earl White Revue. Because he played guitar, bass and drums as musicians came and went, he will play those instruments in this segment, too.
Another will explain how his showman’s instincts emerged. “Because I was about to become a dad and I needed a job,” the black singer took a gig fronting a white country band. “That’s when I learned how to draw from these other performers, how they would engage the audience,” Turner says. “And I figured I better move, because it’s harder to hit a moving target.”
Don’t you have to be just a little more famous to do something like this new live memoir?
“I think everybody has an interesting story if you listen,” he says.
And he hopes there is more than one lesson to be learned about listening.
“See, I could get into all about what I believe,” he says, leaning in at a restaurant booth. “I believe there’s a certain pre-destiny. I believe we are guided, spiritually. I believe that the universe speaks to us, I really do.
“The problem with us is that we’re not listening. Particularly when we’re young. We’re not paying attention at all. But we are still guided.”
That first predestined push came from a stranger who heard the 19-year-old singing with his guitar in a park in Columbia, Missouri. Growing up in nearby Fayette, Turner was a “townie” working three jobs but taking no classes in the college town.
The stranger steered him to an open-mic night in The Chez, a church-basement coffeehouse.
“Had that guy not walked by?” he shrugs. “Looking back, that was an actual turning point.”
Turner says he wasn’t directly inspired by his friend Clint Holmes’ two fully produced theatrical memoirs, even though he played Holmes’ father in one of them, “Just Another Man.”
This idea was just on his bucket list. Even though Las Vegans know him, “they really don’t know how I got here,” he says. “What I have learned over the years is to trust myself. You can talk yourself out of something, but you don’t know unless you try it.”
Could this attempt to deliver a story with a message also be a reaction to a career spent singing other people’s hits?
“I have over the years become less and less concerned about being a cover artist, because I consider myself an entertainer,” he says. “Where I think a lot of performers miss the mark is (not understanding) that it’s not about me.”
“Most of us, our lives are time-stamped with a song. You can hear a certain song on the radio and it can take you right back to that time in your life.”
Where will “The Journey” lead? If it begins and ends at the South Point, Turner at least stays true to that lad who never wanted to be on TV.
“I know there’s a difference between fame and success. I’m the most blessed man in the world to be able to have lived this life. You’d have to be crazy to not appreciate that.”