The Billy & Bernie show, played out only in Las Vegas
ZZ Top at Pearl at The Palms in Las Vegas, Oct. 7, 2016. (Edison Graff/Stardust Fallout)
Dusty Hill, left and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top are shown at The Venetian Theater on Friday, April 20, 2018. (John Katsilometes/Las Vegas Review-Journal). @JohnnyKats
Ex-New York Yankees great Bernie Williams jams with Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns on Monday, Apr. 23, 2018. (John Katsilometes/Las Vegas Review-Journal). @JohnnyKats
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Billy Gibbons asked to check out a video on my phone Tuesday afternoon.
Seem an odd request, yes. But in context, it made perfect sense.
It began when Marklen Kennedy, producer of the reality series “Gigolos” on Showtime and the miniseries “Texas Rising” on History, called unexpectedly.
“Want to meet Billy and me for lunch?” he asked. He followed with a text: “We are at Carlito’s, if you want to join.”
I couldn’t resist a call for burritos with Billy. The legendary guitarist and singer for ZZ Top, has been a friend and confidant of Kennedy’s for 30 years (both grew up in Houston). Gibbons and I have crossed paths a number of times since our First Friday downtown five years ago (including a memorable evening at Slash’s blazing birthday party at Bare Pool at Mirage in 2008 (Franky Perez was the singer that night, with Jason Bonham on drums and guest appearances from Fergie, Perry Farrell and Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains before Gibbons took the stage).
Late in our lunch confab at Carlito’s Burritos in Henderson, Gibbons mentioned that he’d heard of the studio facilities at Bootlegger Bistro and adjacent Copa Room, operated by Ronnie Mancuso.
“I was just there last night,” I told Gibbons, explaining that I’d gone to see former New York Yankees all-star Bernie Williams play a three-song jazz set with Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns that wiped the place out.
“I have video, actually,” I said.
“A Yankee?” Gibbons said, grinning. “OK, I have got to see this.”
So we watched Williams’ performance, which marked the second time he’d performed onstage with Santa Fe (the first was a year ago almost to the day at the late Lounge at the Palms). Williams and Santa Fe drummer Pepe Jimenez grew up together in Puerto Rico and studied music at the prestigious Escuela Libre de Música in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
So @bw51official is planning a gig in #VegasVille. Still taking shape. He and #PepeJimenez of @SantaFeBand grew up together in #PuertoRico. pic.twitter.com/bYHwgwrKYb
— John Katsilometes (@johnnykats) April 24, 2018
“Aaaah, this is great,” said Gibbons, who is onstage Thursday, Friday and Saturday as ZZ Top closes its five-show run at Venetian Theater. “I am loving this.”
Gibbons is a uniquely humble individual, frequently breaking conversation (and nacho noshing) to meet fellow diners. He walked over to one stunned couple and introduced himself as the real Billy Gibbons. Turns out the guy was in a classic-rock cover band that plays ZZ Top hits; the woman is the cousin of the late Latin artist Selena.
“I love strangers,” Gibbons said. “You learn a lot from them.”
He also shared a story from about 30 years ago, when ZZ Top was about to planning to release its greatest-hits album. Warner Brothers, the band’s label, wanted two additional songs to fill out the release. “A little pretentious of us, right? ‘Greatest Hits, Plus Two!” Gibbons said, laughing.
Gibbons wanted bassist and fellow vocalist Dusty Hill to take on an Elvis tune, because Hill is a notorious Presley devotee.
“Now, at the time, I thought ‘Viva Las Vegas’ was the corniest, worst song ever recorded by Elvis,” Gibbons said. “But I had this little music-making contraption and I programmed the music of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and it was so appealing, so robust, I had to work with it.” The band was closing a tour at the Hirsch Memorial Coliseum in Shreveport, La. Elvis had played that venue in 1954 and 1955, during the legendary Louisiana Hayride concerts.
“So I told Dusty, ‘I need your vocal charms on this Elvis number that could be a bonus on the greatest hits album,’ ” Gibbons said. “Dusty didn’t want to do it. ‘I’m sooooo tired.’ But when I said, ‘You’re standing in the same dressing room Elvis stood in during the Louisiana Hayride, it’s time for you to sing an Elvis song.’ And doggone it if he didn’t belt it out.”
Gibbons shook his head and added, “The version you hear now, the recording of that song is Dusty singing in that dressing room. It was perfect.”
The band plays “Viva Las Vegas” in its encore at The Venetian. Gibbons and his wife, Gilligan, have recently purchased a home in Rancho Circle. They are renovating the estate, once owned by Brigitte Bardot (and that is another story for another time). They hope to relocate to the city full-time in six months.
“I’m looking forward to getting around and enjoying the town,” Gibbons said. Don’t be surprised to see him at a Santa Fe show.
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.