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Usher, Smokey Robinson talk Strip headlining in ‘Black in Vegas’

Big stars make big statements. Usher, a star for generations, has turned a famous phrase on its head in an upcoming ABC News special.

“They say you make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,” says the resident headliner who has played the Colosseum at Caesars Palace and Dolby Live at Park MGM. “You make it to Las Vegas, you’ve made it for a lifetime.”

Usher makes this case in “Black in Vegas,” the return of the Emmy Award-winning series “Soul of a Nation.” The special airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

“Black in Vegas” examines and celebrates the advancement of Black entertainers in the Strip’s history. Former and current Vegas headliners Usher, Smokey Robinson, George Wallace, Luenell, Ne-Yo, Anna Bailey (Las Vegas’ first Black showgirl, at Moulin Rouge), the Fifth Dimension’s Florence LaRue and Clint Holmes are among those interviewed.

Gauging from promo clips and those featured, the special is Strip-centric, focusing on major headliners. No small-venue, or off-Strip entertainers are featured.

The broadcast revisits era when even such legends as Sammy Davis Jr. could not sleep in or even walk through the main entrance of a hotel-casino in which he worked. This is required material in any retelling of the Black experience on Strip stages in the 1950s and ’60s.

But “Black in Vegas” has unearthed a never-before-seen clip from its news archives of Davis himself talking about that discrimination. Asked about not being able to rent a room on the Strip, Davis matter-of-factly says, “You could work the place — (but) we couldn’t even eat in the place.”

That segment marks a moment in the past. A Harrah’s headliner for six years in the early-mid 2000s, Holmes was asked, before seeing the final edit, whether Las Vegas is a more fertile ground for Black entertainers today than in past generations.

“It’s better. It’s definitely better, but that would be a real conversation about how incrementally better it is,” said Holmes, whose bio — his father was a Black jazz singer and his mother was a white British opera singer — is widely known. “If we’re talking about what it was in the ’50s, it’s obviously a lot better. Look, some of the biggest stars who play here are Black — Bruno Mars, Lionel Richie, Usher — that level of superstar are playing here.”

Wallace’s most recent headlining run as at the off-Strip Westgate Cabaret, where he headlined for about a year and a half until shutting down his show during the pandemic. But Wallace broke ground as one of the first headliners to four-wall — or lease — a venue on the Strip, at the Flamingo.

Wallace ran that show from 2004 to 2014. He has vowed never to return under the four-wall business model. The veteran comedian said of modern-day Vegas, “In Las Vegas, the only color is green.”

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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