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Chicago’s drummer rose from Las Vegas lounges

Updated February 23, 2023 - 10:13 am

Walfredo Reyes Jr. is a Las Vegas guy who brings the beat to Chicago.

Reyes famously backed Debbie Reynolds when he was still a teenager. By the time he attended the UNLV School of Music, he was kicking around the Vegas lounge scene, jumping into shows hosted by the early version of Santa Fe. His father, Walfredo Reyes, arrived from Puerto Rico in 1970, fronting the band Latin Fire and backing Wayne Newton for nearly two decades. He also performed with Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dionne Warwick, among many superstars.

With that lineage, the younger Reyes joined Chicago in 2012, having years earlier moved to L.A. as a touring and session musician. The legendary rock band is back on the Strip at the Venetian Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and for seven more shows March 1 to 11.

Reyes is excited to return to the stage in his hometown. Highlights from a recent chat with the drummer known as “Wally” to his friends:

Johnny Kats: The band has not played in several months. How’s it feel to be finally returning to the stage?

Walfredo Reyes Jr. I can’t wait. This is the longest we’ve been out other than the pandemic. Nov. 1 was our last concert.

Does Chicago ever need to rehearse?

(Laughs.) Well, we are actually going to rehearse, which is a miracle because these guys are allergic to rehearsing. That’s something we never do. You know, I’ve never seen a band like this. I mean, it’s not that they don’t care; it’s just that they’ve been doing it for 55 years. So, their thing is, “You learn the songs. I’ll see you at downbeat. We know the songs already.” (Laughs.)

You were in high school when you got your first job on the Strip, right?

When I was 16 years old, the “Casino de Paris” (adult revue) was at the Dunes, and had Ron Lewis as the choreographer, who was a total badass. He had a dance studio off the Strip for all the showgirls, which was like a boot camp. Somebody recommended me to play percussion. I was going to Valley High School. I got my percussion congas and we’d do “5-6-7-8!” We were doing that, and I was a good-looking young kid with long hair. And Ron goes, “You’d be perfect for my new Debbie Reynolds act.”

You had the stage presence for that show. Along with the bongos.

There was a song called “Come Rain or Come Shine” that was really fast. He says, “I need you to be out front with her, to play the bongos really fast, and then play in the band.” I said, “OK!” That was my official start. I joined the (musicians’) union at 16 years old, I had a sheriff’s (work) card, and I worked with Debbie Reynolds.

This had to have led to a lot of other jobs.

I was working in the Strip lounges, playing Top 40 music, through high school. By the time I was in my senior year, a funky little band had come to North Las Vegas called Santa Fe. We used to play at Dirty Sally’s, next to the Palomino Club, until 4 in the morning, and rush to go to Santa Fe. We were way off the Strip. In those days, rock ’n’ roll and funk didn’t play the Strip. All the acts I saw, like Chaka Khan and the Guess Who and Chicago, were either at the Convention Center or the Ice Palace in the Commercial Center, who had a bunch of rock bands in the late ’60s.

You played at the Aladdin Showroom, just after it opened, right?

By the time I entered UNLV, I was working the all-black “Guys & Dolls” show with Leslie Uggams and Clifton Davis at the Aladdin. In that show, the musical director said he knew the manager for Lola Falana and was looking for a drummer. So I auditioned, and I got the gig with Lola Falana.

Everyone I talk to who saw Lola Falana perform said she was an absolute force.

Amazing performer. We worked the circuit, what I call the Big Triangle in those days, Atlantic City, Reno-Tahoe and Las Vegas. In Vegas, I played the Aladdin with Lola Falana, then got the next gig with Connie Stevens, and played with her in the same showroom. It was four weeks with her, then four weeks with Lola, seven nights a week, two shows a night. No nights off. It was good money, but man, it was hard work.

You’ve been in a unique position to see the evolution of live music in Las Vegas.

We had Rufus and Chaka Khan playing at the Sahara, early ’70s, and we had kids with big Afros and me with the long hair and bell-bottoms. We were all in there. And the next day it was like, the end of an era. The hippies had taken over the town. (Laughs). They are paying money to go and see music, and the musicians were telling me, “Rock ’n’ roll and you young hippies are gonna ruin this town.” And now, I say to the young kids, “You DJs are gonna ruin this town!” (Laughs.) But we’re still here, playing rock ’n’ roll.

PodKats! Episodes

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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