With its bright lights and bustling atmosphere, Las Vegas has become one of the most incredible cities to visit in the world. Of course, it's a famed casino haven thanks to the likes of the Bellagio, the MGM Grand and Caesars Palace all boasting quality gambling facilities, but there's something else these casino complexes excel in – live entertainment. And nothingstands out more than the calibre of musical talent which the city attracts.
From the key-tickling Liberace to the hits of pop princess Britney Spears, the Strip's casinos have welcomed the many of the biggest acts ever to grace the planet.But who has come away from Vegas carrying the casino jackpot winnings under their arms? Here, we look at four of the most famous, from the head-spinning contracts to the most iconic performances of all time.
OL' BLUE EYES
It's hard to find anyone who helped shape the Las Vegas we see today more than Frank Sinatra. His Sin City debut came in 1951, and from then on he built a musical empire within the city, playing to packed houses in casinos for the next 40 years.
Sinatra is said to have been the "spark that changed Vegas from a dusty Western town into something glamorous", but his first live appearance in the city wasn't due to demand and popularity– it was purely down to financial and career needs. It's like he had one chip left and threw it on the live roulette table in an attempt to strike it lucky. The singer had gone through a messy divorce with former wife Nancy Barbato and his record sales were rapidly declining. Even after this first string of gigs at the Desert Inn, the venue was only half-full and it looked like Sinatra's career was teetering on a knife edge.
But thanks to the success of the film From Here to Eternity, Sinatra saw his stock rise, and wouldtake up a residency at the Sands Hotel and Casino – a venue he had a long-standing partnership with. Playing out of the casino's Copa Room, he belted out classics like 'I've Got You under My Skin', with the swing rhythms suiting the vibe of booming Las Vegas. Not only was Sinatra the Sands' headline act, but he became part-owner too. He was the first to find the perfect blend between casinos and music, where his sophisticated swing tunes made a perfect match for the adult-only playground of gambling, drinking and having a good time.
But the singer didn't just stop there. After the Sands was bought out in 1967 much to Sinatra's frustration – apparently he drove a golf buggy through the casino’s front door – he went all in with a deal at the newly-built Caesars Palace. This move meant Sinatra would make his mark as the performer in the gambling haven. His work in the city upped the stakes for all the other casinos, who now had to compete to get the finest acts on the circuit in an attempt to get anywhere near Sinatra's level – by the turn of the 1970s, he had become a Vegas institution.
The Rat Pack leader’s next move took him to the Golden Nugget – one of the Strip's most iconic casinos - where he took the stage in the recently renovated gambling hall in 1982. The more intimate 500-seater Copa Room was a bit different to his previous shows in Vegas, but provided some of his most memorable performances – all captured on the Live from Las Vegas album, taken from a show in 1986.
Sinatra called time on his Vegas career in 1994, with a final performance at the MGM Grand adding to his roll call of venues in the city. It's safe to say no man has done more for the casinos of Las Vegas, drawing crowds in their millions to watch him perform, than Ol' Blue Eyes himself.
VIVA LAS VEGAS
A man so fond of the city he wrote a song about it, you'd struggle to find a figure who epitomises the true essence of Las Vegas more than Elvis Presley. Bellowing out lines about blackjack, poker and the roulette wheel, and singing about the fortunes won and lost on every deal, The King understood the glitz, glamour and casino gaming of Vegas.
Making his first Vegas appearance inApril 1956 at the New Frontier Hotel, Presley's debut was widely panned by local publications, who believed the singer was far, far out of his depth. One journalist even said, "Elvis Presley, arriving here on the wave of tremendous publicity, fails to hit the promised mark" – hardly what you’d expect for such a soon-to-be global icon. It was believed the middle-aged audience wasn’t in touch with the rough blues sounds Elvis brought, thinking he was just making an ungodly racket – even with his mega hits like 'Heartbreak Hotel', 'Blue Suede Shoes' and 'Hound Dog' already on the set list. His planned two-week residency was cut short, and Elvis was sent packing having played just half of his dates. Aged 21, Elvis knew things could only get better from here on – and he wasn't wrong.
But after serving his time in the US Armed Forces, Elvis' emphasis switched from touring his music to becoming a major name on the silver screen, and over the next decade the star appeared in over 25 films – with some receiving more critical acclaim than others, it's safe to say. But, as box office figures dipped, Presley knew what he had to do. He had to make his return to the music scene.
And where better to make your comeback than in the heart of the world's greatest casino haven? A deal was struck for The King to play a four-week residency at the International Hotel (which was still under construction at the time) with a $500,000 wage going to the singer. As expected, the dates were completely sold out, with 2,000 set to see the return of a musical icon after a 10-year absence.
Sources close to Elvis said they had never seen him look more nervous than on opening night – frantically pacing up and down his dressing room before the show. But when he stepped out in front of the audience on 31st July 1969, it was a different story.
Backed by the TCB (Taking Care of Business) Band, Presley came out like a man with a point to prove, playing hit after hit, throwing himself round the stage like a possessed being. It was a performance full of passion, determination and charisma – Elvis was back, and boy did we know it, it's like he'd struck it big playing perfect strategy blackjack and won the jackpot. To this day, it's regarded as one of the finest concerts of all time.
That fateful Thursday propelled Presley back into the public eye, and marked the start of his Vegas dynasty. Over the next seven years, he went on to perform 837 consecutive shows in the International Hotel and dominated the booming Sin City like no other artist before or since.
ROCKET MAN TICKLING THE CASINO IVORIES
When it comes to flamboyant performers with a back catalogue of hits and crowd-pleasers, you don’t need to look further than Elton John. He has been producing dazzling hits for the last 40 years, so much so thatthe singer hasn't held just one residency in a Las Vegas casino, but has been the headline act on two different occasions.
From the early records likeMadman across the Water, to the synth-inspired pop tunes of the 1980s and his work on The Lion King soundtrack, Elton John's discography has something for everyone. Originally a pub pianist and songwriter, the star was renowned for his onstage performances in his early years, wearing rather unusual ensembles from a Donald Duck outfit to careering across the stage in a pair of roller-skates. So, headlining his own residency in one of the most out-of-this-world cities should suit him perfectly, right?
Originally signing up to a 75-date run in 2004, The Red Piano was to be the first of John's stints in Vegas. Held at Caesars Casino's Colosseum, John worked with David LaChappelle, a renowned photographer, to bring his dreams to life. Centre stage was the singer's piano (red, of course!) and the stage was supported with performers flying around in the background and props galore to create a spectacular show. The music was on-point too – opening with the chunky piano chords of 'Bennie and the Jets'. The Red Piano shows were such a success that John signed up for more – the residency would last for a huge 248 performances, with a 99% sell-out rate and grossing $170m.
No eyebrows were raised then when the casino asked John for another roll of the dice at the craps table, returning forThe Million Dollar Piano residency in 2011. Gone were the rude props and visions of LaChappelle, however, replaced with a larger emphasis on John’s music. At the time of writing, the singer had amassed another 141 shows, and with the headliner closing the curtains for the last time on 30th April, don't be surprised to see John grace the casino stage one more time before calling it a day.
FROM EUROVISION TO THE COLOSSEUM
Widely regarded as the greatest residency in Las Vegas since the King wiggled his hips onstage, Celine Dion's appearances in the city have been a huge success story. During two residencies, Dion has sung toaudiences for over eight years, grossing almost $600m in ticket sales.
But it wasn't all bright lights and big audiences for Celine Dion. The Canadian-born star rose to fame for her singing skills back in the 1980s, featuring on French records before winning the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest, representing Switzerland with the track 'Ne partez pas sans moi'. But it wasn't until the early 1990s that the singer made a name for herself on the UK and US music scenes, producing her first English-speaking album only two years after originally learning the language. After an already successful career, trying her hand at the English-speaking markets was like twisting on 16 in a game of blackjack – a big risk.and you don’t want to misplay that blackjack hand, when you have so much to risk.
After her breakthrough hit from the Beauty and the Beastsoundtrack in 1991, Celine began her rise to prominence throughout the decade, but even she wouldn’t have expected the critical acclaim she received for one track in particular. 'My Heart Will Go On’ from the epic filmTitanic made Celine the world's best-loved voice, earning Grammy and Oscar prizes for her performance.
But after visiting Las Vegas with her husband to see Cirque du Soleil at the Bellagio casino complex whilst on a hiatus from the music industry, she was left in awe of the performance and wanting to do just one thing – take up a residency in the Bright Lights City.
It was then A New Day… was born – a Franco Dragone-directed spectacular show combining a mesmerising blend of music, theatrics and stage production, to be held in the heart of the gambling Strip, in the Colosseumat Caesar's Palace Casino. Originally signing up to a three-year,600-show deal, earning her a cool $100m, the show first hit the stage on 13th August 2003. A New Day… took huge inspiration from Dragone's work with Cirque du Soleil, with the action-packed 90-minute show featuringacrobats flying above the stage, spectacular visuals on the screens behind, and fantastic lighting and sound to top it off. Critics felt that the team of Dion and Dragone were trying too hard and the show was a bit over the top for a performer who was more renowned for her beautiful singing voice than her theatrics and dancing. But the duo didn’t rest on their laurels, as constant changes were made to the billing and show to keep on improving the experience in the Colosseum.
The show was a total sell-out, with Dion performing to the packed crowds five nights a week. It was so successful in fact thatDion’s residency was extended by another year to December 2007. Running for a whopping 717 shows and grossing $385m at the box office, Dion had become a Vegas megastar. For most performers, that would be enough – but not for Celine, who returned to the Colosseum's stage four years later in 2011 for another residency.
In contrast to the A New Day… residency, Celine was much more focused on the musical experience for the casino goers, compared to the previous show’s flashy lights and circus-style dancing. With a huge onstage orchestra effortlessly entwining with her vocals, the resulting show was an instant hit when it opened in March 2011 – so much so that her second stretch on the Vegas Strip will run until November 2016, totalling just under 300 shows.
Come the end of this year, Celine Dion will have performed more than 1,000 shows in the Colosseum, making her a true Las Vegas showstopper.
Alongside the spinning roulette wheels and the tensions of the blackjack tables, Las Vegas has become home to some of the biggest names in the music industry. From the Kings of Swing and Rock 'n' Roll, to the ballads of Celine Dion and Elton John, the city's casinos have become the place for performers to take to the stage.