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Bandleader Johnny Haig dies of cancer

Johnny Haig, a bandleader who for more than 40 years backed up most of the legendary headliners on the Strip, died Friday of cancer. He was 81.

During the heyday of casino house orchestras, the Johnny Haig Orchestra was the relief band that allowed other in-house bands to have a night off.

In 1987, Haig became musical director at Caesars Palace and remained until the casino closed its original showroom in 2000.

He was born John Haig Eshow on June 4, 1926, in San Francisco. Kicked out of his grade school choir for talking, he switched to band, learned the trombone and became part of San Francisco’s professional music scene while still in his teens.

Haig served in the Army during World War II and moved to Las Vegas in 1955, playing trombone at the New Frontier and Dunes and in the city’s relief band, led by Jack Eglash.

When Eglash became the Sahara’s bandleader in 1970, Haig took over the relief band, backing up the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett and Elvis Presley.

Haig left Caesars when the Circus Maximus showroom closed in September 2000.

“I don’t mind leaving because it’s become sort of a bookkeeping job,” he said of the years that followed a crippling musician’s union strike in 1989. But, he added, “the Circus Maximus was sort of the soul of the hotel.”

In 2000, the Nevada State AFL-CIO named Haig the Bill Bennett Employer of the Year.

The award cited his generosity and fairness, helping local musicians “to pay off mortgages, provide retirement benefits and assist in children’s education costs.”

Haig pulled a band together for occasional dances and special events, performing his final show in June 2006.

He is survived by three sisters, Ruth Upton of Monterey, Calif., Lily Hays of San Jose, Calif., and Violet Ramezzano of Menlo Park, Calif.; and three daughters, Michelle Eshow of Sunnyvale, Calif., Joanne Taylor of Boise, Idaho, and Danielle Kugler of Las Vegas.

Services will be at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Palm Mortuary, 7600 S. Eastern Ave.

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