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Clint Holmes headlines, Davis Jr.’s spirit co-stars ‘Black In Vegas’ event

Updated February 24, 2023 - 10:01 am

Clint Holmes hosted. Sonny Charles of the Checkmates, and Bubba Knight of Gladys Knight and The Pips sang and told stories. Newly relocated Vegas entertainer Obba Babatunde joined the discussion and the improptu performance.

But Sammy Davis Jr. was also in the room, if in spirit, Wednesday night at The Stirling Club. It was all for a viewing party and discussion of ABC’s hourlong history exploration “Black In Vegas,” which aired Feb. 1 as part of the network’s “Soul of a Nation” series. The special is streaming on Hulu, and expertly produced.

Holmes was interviewed for the project, along with an array of entertainers. Usher, Smokey Robinson, Ne-Yo, George Wallace, Luenell and Anna Bailey (Vegas’s first black showgirl) were all featured. The series also delved into a rare 1988 interview with Davis from a balcony suite of the then-Bally’s hotel-casino (today’s Horseshoe Las Vegas).

In that classic clip, Davis led a tour of what is today’s History Westside Neighborhood, talking solemnly of how he was originally not allowed to stay in, eat in, or otherwise occupy the hotels in which he performed when he arrived in the 1950s.

As part of Vegas legend, it wasn’t until Davis forged a strong personal and professional friendship with Frank Sinatra at the Sands that integration to hold on the Strip.

“Sammy was the guy. He was the light. It all started with him,” Holmes said. “He was not allowed to come into the hotel, sleep in the hotel or eat at the hotel. When Frank Sinatra said, ‘Look if Sammy can’t come in, then I’m not going to perform here.’”

Knight said, “Sammy was responsible for us having a residency at the Aladdin hotel.” Gladys Knight & The Pips swapped engagements with Lola Falana (another trailblazer on the Strip). That show led to an offer for the act to host a summer-replacement show on NBC.

“They said, ‘The only way you will have this summer replacement show is that you won’t have any names listed,’” Knight said. Davis then stepped in and said he would do the show — but only if the act were specified in the show’s title.

“We called Sammy, he said, ‘I’ll do it!’ and when he did it, everybody wanted to do it. That’s how we got that show.”

As Holmes noted, he once ran the Davis-Sinatra story by his friend Harry Belafonte and asked if it were true. Belafonte said, “I think that’s true, but what people forget is there were a whole lot of other people who paid that price.” Sinatra and Davis were the ones who moved the needle.

And Charles mentioned Davis and also Nat King Cole as major influences as the Checkmates began booking shows on the Strip. Cole was the first black artist to host his own TV variety series in the 1950s, and also was one of the first allowed to sleep at his host hotel, the Flamingo.

Charles and the Checkmates were emboldened when they played the Pussycat A Go Go in 1965. This was a segregated club, in the shadow of the Riviera. White folks in the front, black in the back, or even kept outside, though the patrons danced together.

As rain fell on the band’s opening night, Charles demanded the black audience — standing outside — be allowed to sit with the white patrons. The Checkmates held the start of the show for several minutes until the club’s operators relented, allowing a mixed audience.

“The Strip was desegregated that night!” Charles said, adding that he’s never been able to recover coverage of that night, but that act — and many others — are still giving us a history lesson.

The show closed with all the performers, joined by stage vet Tony Tillman of New Sensation band singing an a capella cover of “Stand By Me.” More of this, please and thank you.

Throwing in the towel?

Charles and the Checkmates sang the national anthem at the “Thrilla in Manila,” the heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975.

Don King was starting a record company at the time, and the Checkmates were going to be featured on the label.

“Listen, that whole experience was totally nuts,” Charles said Thursday. “We were taken to greet Ali before the fight. He walks out, buck-naked, with a towel around his shoulders. He says, ‘Am I beautiful, or what?’ I said, ‘Champ! The towel!”

The band, Ali and King had dinner with Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos the night before the fight.

“We had carte blanche, and they too us on a tour of the palace,” Charles said. “We saw all of Imelda’s shoes, in this closet that was like as big as a master bedroom. She was very proud. Afterward, Ali turned to Macros and said, ‘You know, Ferdinand, you’ve got a pretty wife!’ And he just smiled. It was crazy.”

Powerful return

The Keep Memory Alive Power of love thrilled a sellout crowd of 1,600, ran on time (for the first time maybe ever) and most important raised millions for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. So, nothing shocking about this update: The 2024 event will return to the MGM Grand Garden. All other details will spill forth in due time.

Tease this …

A well-known Vegas nightspot is going to be the setting for a major reality show to begin shooting next month.

Cool Hang Alert

The Grouch & Eli hip-hop/rap duo plays Backstage Bar & Billiards at Fremont Country Club, 601 Fremont Street, at 8 p.m. Saturday. Backstage is built to party, especially on a Saturday night. Tickets start at $20 a pop, go to backstagebarlv.com for intel.

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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