Singer Denise Clemente gives voice to joy of season

This afternoon, old friends Tony Sacca and Denise Clemente plan to sing “Let It Snow” at Sacca’s annual “Merry Christmas Las Vegas” show, in which they have both performed most of the past 27 years.

But it never sounded better than it will this time — no matter how it comes out.

“This year is really special to me,” Clemente says. “If you’d asked me a couple of months ago, I never thought I’d sing again.”

For Clemente, it’s shaping up as the Christmas of Hallmark Channel movies. The well-liked singer spent five months in hospitals this year, and at one point was told to say goodbye to people.

Back in the day, Clemente toured with Liberace and headlined lounges on the Strip. Her mom drove her from New Jersey in 1975 to sing in the Stardust lounge revue “Sassy Class.”

Now she gives vocal lessons to youth who perform every month in “Rising Star” showcases at the Bootlegger Bistro. One student, Anna Christine, competed on “America’s Got Talent” this year.

At one such lesson this past spring, the student said, “Miss Denise, you don’t look well.”

It was the beginning of a major heart attack that came without warning symptoms.

“I was in great shape and had my heart checked a month before,” Clemente says.

It began an ordeal of complications that included methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, pneumonia and a leg infection.

“I had this one doctor who told me I was not a candidate for open-heart surgery,” Clemente says. “I needed a heart transplant and I didn’t have long to live.”

She didn’t accept that. She and her husband, Chuck Foley, started looking for other options. And hearing from old friends.

Before Bernie Yuman became the longtime manager of Siegfried &Roy, he managed Clemente in the 1970s. Hearing of her plight, “he was going to have me in a chopper to UCLA for a heart transplant.”

Yuman later got her to UCLA for the other problems. But first, she needed Dr. Robert Wiencek, known locally for taking on challenging cardiac cases. He performed the quadruple bypass to fix her 98 percent blockage.

Between the pneumonia in her lungs and a tube down her throat for so long, Clemente lost her voice for much of the ordeal.

“But then all of a sudden it started to come back,” she says. “They said it would, and it did. I started to sing one night and I just praised the Lord.”

Now Clemente is back to coaching about 20 youngsters. Sacca’s Christmas TV special, at 2 p.m. today at Boulder Station, is a local TV institution. Part of the money it raises compensates Clemente for lessons she gives to students “who don’t have the money but they’re really into singing.”

Clemente now says her ordeal just seems like “a really bad nightmare.” Like that famous Christmas story about a nightmare, it makes the morning after seem all the sweeter.

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