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TOM LEONARD: No wonder A-listers can’t resist the city where stars hit the jackpot every day

Sir Paul McCartney has the joie de vivre of someone half his age. But the 78-year-old couldn’t muster much enthusiasm when an interviewer suggested he follow Elton John’s example and do ‘a residency in Las Vegas’.

‘That’s something I’ve been trying to avoid my whole life,’ McCartney told GQ magazine recently. 

‘Definitely nothing attracts me about the idea. Vegas is where you go to die, isn’t it? It’s the elephants’ graveyard.’

Leaving aside what that says about 73-year-old Elton — who has had two very lucrative stints in Sin City — one can understand his reluctance. 

For many people, The Beatles occupy an unassailable place in the popular music pantheon. 

Musically, Las Vegas is famous for Liberace, Barry Manilow, Tom Jones and an Elvis Presley who’d seen better days — bloated, drug-addled and stuffed into a white sequinned jumpsuit.

Becoming the main attraction in one of the casino-hotels lining the Vegas Strip has long borne the whiff of desperation, greed and, of course, terminal cheesiness. 

Perhaps McCartney recalls The Beatles’ own chaotic visit to the city in 1964, or perhaps he heard the words of Cher, who once called Vegas ‘an elephant graveyard where talent goes to die’. And Cher, a Vegas regular, was talking about herself.

Playing the same hits every night, month after month — or even year after year — is the opposite of the artistic credibility to which McCartney still lays claim. 

Knowing you’re principally there to entertain people between stints on the nearby gambling tables must be a little deflating, too.

Cher has complained about the traditional Vegas audience, saying: ‘They’re not allowed to stand up and they’re very, very old. And sometimes they had walkers and oxygen masks. It took me a long time to realise that it may be the last concert they ever see.’

Yet playing Vegas is mind-bogglingly lucrative, and by no means everyone playing on the Strip nowadays has one foot in the grave — artistically or physically. With profits from records savaged by the internet, artists have had to rely far more on performing, and they’ve descended on Vegas en masse. 

Barry Manilow, Cher and Rod Stewart are still doing the rounds there but so, in the past few years, have Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani from the band No Doubt, Bruno Mars, Robbie Williams, and rappers Cardi B and Drake. All are established stars, but hardly retirement home material.

‘In a striking reversal, the announcement of a Vegas residency — whether it’s for five weeks or five years — is now considered a sign you’ve made it, not that you’ve lost it,’ says Variety magazine. 

The change is generally agreed to have started when Canadian megastar Celine Dion pitched up in the Nevada desert city in 2003, at the peak of her career.

Vegas shows had tended to be schmaltzy lounge affairs, but Dion and Rene Angelil, her late husband and manager, sought to copy aspects of one by acrobatic troupe Cirque du Soleil. The pair realised a show that stayed in one place could have high production values, and give their children a more stable life.

Celine’s first Vegas show, called A New Day, was staged in a 4,100-seat venue modelled on Rome’s Colosseum. It was specially built for her by Caesars Palace hotel for an eye-watering $95 million.

It featured pyrotechnics, Cirque du Soleil-style dancers and the largest LED screen in North America, with Dion performing five nights a week.

The show remains the highest-grossing Las Vegas residency for a musical artist, earning $385 million across its 717 shows up to 2007. 

A second residency, starting in 2011, was also a mega-hit, and a staggering 4.5 million fans came to see the two productions. The star couldn’t keep away, returning a third time in 2015 and extended her residency to 2019.

Celine’s success — her residencies are thought to have made $681 million — prompted many others to take the plunge. A glance at the sums often reveals that the casinos hosting the shows can never recoup their vast costs, but that’s not the point. Residencies tend to be seen as ‘loss leaders’, as they draw in concertgoers who spend (and lose) money when gambling.

However, the acts have actually been so successful that, nowadays, many people — especially a younger crowd — come to Las Vegas just for the entertainment. And money seems no object. Rumours persist that one casino offered ABBA, who last performed in 1982, $1 billion to reform and play there.

Elton John signed a contract for a three-year, 75-show residency at Caesars Palace titled The Red Piano in 2004, even as Dion’s original residency continued to play at the same resort. Elton’s act was sufficiently successful that the residency was extended until 2009.

Two years later, the British star returned for a second residency, The Million Dollar Piano — a two-hour spectacle featuring a piano with 68 LED screens — that ran for seven years. Elton’s two residencies combined earned $300 million. 

His deal in later years reportedly gave him 88 per cent of the door takings and control over ticket prices, which ranged from $55 to $1,000.

Cher has played Caesars Palace more than 200 times, with her residency earning a reported $180 million over three years.

Britney Spears mimed for much of her Planet Hollywood residency but still got a two-year deal worth $30 million.

Lady Gaga’s residency reportedly earned $1 million a show, while even the Backstreet Boys sold $600,000 worth of tickets each night.

Big stars may play smaller venues in Vegas than those they’d pack out while on the road, but they save on the cost of taking down and transporting sets — as well as themselves — every day.

With deep-pocketed casino groups footing the bill, artists have been able to let their imagination run wild — as, frankly, a Vegas crowd now expects them to do. Country singer Shania Twain’s Las Vegas show featured a motorcycle flying through the air, and her singing on a horse.

And if the stars don’t like Vegas much, they don’t even need to stay there. Rod Stewart reportedly flies home to Los Angeles every night after his show.

Flamboyant pianist Liberace, the real pioneer of the Las Vegas residency, first played there in 1944. It became his main base as, over the next few decades, he became the highest-paid performer in the world.

His kitsch act and look — furs, huge rings and that candelabra — was pure Vegas and visitors loved it. Even in 1955, his act was earning $50,000 a week. By the Seventies this had hit $300,000 a week.

His show became more outrageous, involving him flying in on a wire, or being driven on stage in a Rolls-Royce.

The next big name to leave his mark on Vegas was Frank Sinatra, whose reported Mob links made him a perfect fit for a town that was run by the Mafia for decades. When his career stalled in the early Fifties, Sinatra moved to Vegas and started headlining at the Sands Hotel and Casino.

At the time, the city’s idea of entertainment included past-it actors such as Ronald Reagan (who shared the stage with a chimpanzee) and Tallulah Bankhead.

Ol’ Blue Eyes inevitably shook the place up, especially when he was joined by other members of the ‘Rat Pack’ such as Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin.

When one singer had finished his show somewhere on the Strip, he’d often head to one of the others’ and sing a few numbers. They’d drink and smoke on stage, sometimes even wheeling on a bar. Some fans slept in cars and hotel lobbies just to get a chance to see them.

The casinos consequently treated the stars like kings. The famously venal Sinatra took full advantage, pocketing his winnings at the Sands’ casino tables but refusing to honour any losses.

When the casino’s Jewish boss, Carl Cohen, finally cut off his credit in 1967, a furious Sinatra made an anti-Semitic slur. Cohen punched him, knocking out two of the crooner’s teeth. The next day, Sinatra announced he was moving his act to Caesars Palace.

But of all the acts that came to symbolise Vegas kitsch, Elvis is surely the most famous. Though many say his long stint there marked the death of his career, increasingly some believe it to have been one of the highlights.

He first played there in 1956 aged 21 — and his raucous style didn’t match the more sedate taste of a clientele who expected singers to wear dinner jackets. Some people even walked out, complaining about the racket.

After that failed debut, Presley consulted Liberace, who told him to wear a flashier stage oufit. Elvis tried on Liberace’s gold lame jacket, then ordered an entire suit.

His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was furious when he heard Elvis was seeing Vegas burlesque stripper Tempest Storm, threatening to ruin his heart-throb image. ‘I didn’t date her,’ Presley told him. ‘I just spent the night with her.’ 

Elvis returned in 1969, five years after his film Viva Las Vegas. His career was floundering. He played at the International Hotel for $100,000 a week. Over seven years, he did 837 sold-out shows. It was estimated that half of the city’s visitors during that time saw his show.

Many insist his Vegas workload, which usually involved two shows a day, combined with his drug abuse, killed him. Presley died of a heart attack in 1977, aged 42.

According to Vegas lore, Elvis’s arms were lacerated by the fingernails of frenzied women in the front row whenever he reached out to fans. Stage hands held buckets of iced water out of sight so he could plunge his arms into them.

At his final Vegas performance in December 1976, Elvis — by then dependent on pills — barely moved. 

A few months earlier, he’d had to cancel several shows after becoming so overweight he couldn’t walk from his dressing room to the theatre lift. He often rambled incoherently on stage, talking about his love of karate or his divorce from Priscilla.

Author Richard Zoglin insists Elvis permanently changed the town. ‘After Elvis, everything [in Vegas] got bigger: higher salaries, gaudier productions, more musicians on stage, splashier publicity campaigns,’ he says.

Only one act has ever matched Presley in terms of planet-shaking star power, but the Fab Four played just two concerts in Vegas. Most casinos turned the Beatles down, possibly assuming they only appealed to teenagers. 

When they arrived in August 1964, their hotel, the Sahara, was surrounded by 2,000 fans, forcing the band to mostly stay in their suite. (The management brought up a few fruit machines for them to play).

They performed to 16,000 fans at the Las Vegas Convention Centre, the only venue big enough for them. Police brought in from as far away as southern Arizona surrounded the stage, and the screaming drowned out the music.

Although they never returned, the band’s short visit is credited with not only convincing Las Vegas that rock’n’roll performances could work there, but with introducing the city to a new concept — the arena show.

However, one Beatle appears to have made it perfectly plain he’s not going back for love nor money.

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