Art Vargas


Vegas Cool.

Just two words, and yet I would imagine everyone immediately created some sort of imagery in their mind. A haze hangs in the air of a dimly lit lounge. Round tables spread throughout the room, with candles at the center of each one. Two or four people are seated together at every table, drinks in front of them. And the attention of the 500 or so in the room is directed at a stage.

Vegas Cool.

A band is playingÖ crisp, tight, and perfectly tuned. In front of that band stands a man, impeccably dressed in formal attire. And whether you hear jazz, blues, swing or the golden standards filling the air, the joint is rocking.

Yeah. ThatÖ is Vegas Cool.

Itís a state of mind. An image that transcends time. A powerful connection between people and a laid back emotion.

Today at In My Backpack I am thrilled to be interviewing Art Vargas. He was kind enough to spend some time with me recently, discussing his work, his thoughts on music, and several other fantastic subjects.

Let there be no mistakeÖ put Art on a stage, back him with The Swank Set, andÖ yeahÖ Art Vargas is Vegas Cool.

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Detroit, Michigan. The 1960s. Across the country the titans of music history are either firmly established or rapidly ascendingÖ the names you could rattle off without thinking, that will live on for generations to come.

A young boy named Art Vargas is in the center of all this. Heís literally living in the heart of Motown, at the height of Motown. Heís listening to music with his parents. Heís being exposed to these giants. And on top of it all, heís experiencing the rhythm and blues, the jazz, the classics and standards, the innovative and newÖ and heís absorbing it all. This was a time when entertainers like Elvis and Sinatra were not only re-writing and re-defining music, but they were successfully crossing over into television, film and stage, with well-rounded careers that few have approached since. (Though many have tried.) Itís not about having the ability to singÖ itís about having that ability and passion and skill to perform, entertain and reach an audience.

As he begins performing on his own, Art finds that family and friends, including neighbors and fellow students, are paying attention to what heís doing. It gives him confidence and moves him forward. By the time he reaches high school, heís got a pretty good idea of what he wants to do for his living. At the age of 20, Art was still young, and he was also a bit of a veteran at being on stage.

By the 1980s, some of his efforts had begun drawing comparisons to Bobby Darin. He was approached by Legends in Concert, which for tribute artists is nothing less than the best of the very best, and his audition earned him a place with their original cast at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas. He continues to perform at times with Legends to this day, and has been at venues across the country with his tribute to Darin. So good is Art with his work as Darin that not only is he considered perhaps the best Bobby Darin tribute artist performing today, but members of Darinís band have become close friends of his and have appeared with him on stage many times.

When performing on his own, Art is regularly backed by The Swank Set, a dynamic and talented group of musicians that provides his showmanship a rock solid foundation from which to soar. And soar he does.

The Las Vegas Review Journal and Las Vegas Life magazine have named him their Best Entertainer in annual awards and reviews. PublicationsÖ too many to listÖ have run out of adjectives to capture the essence of his performances. Art Vargas and The Swank Set are, time and again, recognized as one of the best show bands in Vegas today.

I want to direct you to three links as we get started. One is Art Vargas on Facebook. Another is Art Vargas at Reverb Nation. And third is his personal site (http://www.varjazz.com/). Every so often I toss in some links during the course of an interview, and then offer a collection of them at the end. This time thoughÖ Vegas CoolÖ thereís a bit of atmosphere to create here. The Reverb Nation site is an all-in-one collection of information on Art, a playlist of songs from him and The Swank Set, and updates like concert dates. My suggestion is that you head over to the Reverb Nation site, pull up ďYou Perfect StrangerĒ (or another songÖ and then anotherÖ and then anotherÖ), and keep Art Vargas and The Swank Set playing in the background as you read.

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Vargasí Vintage Vegas is the name of your personal show when youíre performing with The Swank Set. I also think you could use it as a great summary of your approach to some of the music you perform so well. Can you give me an overview of that coolÖ that classicÖ that vintage Vegas appeal thatís part of your act?

I think most people point to the right names of the era, like Elvis, Tom Jones, Sinatra, Bobby Darin and so many of those great singers, singing the timeless music of Cole Porter, Gershwin and the great American songbook. Thatís been my bag and I find I stay very true to it.

On a personal level itís definitely a part of me. These are the entertainers I grew up idolizing and emulating. And I feel like Iím carrying the torch.

On a professional level, weíre talking about complete packages. These are the guys, like Sinatra, Darin and Elvis, that would sing, dance and act. They did it all, and they did it all well. There were few one-trick ponies that cracked those upper levels or stayed around for very long.

One-trick ponies. Can you expand on that thought a bit?

I think at times thereís too much of a rush to give credit to a fresh face. Someone that has a certain look, and the timing is right, and they run with it. Iíve found that over time if you arenít something more than just that, you wind up getting lost. The more talented you are, the longer you survive.

Many acts today canít work without the smoke and mirrors. If you take that away, suddenly they donít know what to do.

To me that talent and ability to rise to any situation is what makes a true performer. Can you perform with nothing more than a band and a microphone?

Iíve been doing this a long time now. You give me a band and a microphone and Iíll entertain youÖ just watch me!

Letís go back to when you got started. When did you begin to realize that you had talents and abilities when it came to performing? And how were you developing and learning your craft?

I guess it started for me around high school. I had been doing some things before then, but that was when I really began to notice my friends and neighbors commenting about my talents and creativity. At that age, when fellow students were talking about my singing and dancing, and they were really positive in their comments, it offered a validation of it for me.

I was born and raised in Detroit. And even more than discovering entertainers like Bobby Darin and others, I was right there in the heartbeat of Motown. It was a great time. Everything had a real passion and rhythm to it. From dancing at parties to just walking down the street, music was all around and felt very natural.

Whenever I had an opportunity, I was listening to live music and taking in live entertainment. Jazz clubs. Bars with acts playing rhythm and blues. Anything and everything, just waiting for some kind of opportunity to develop and grow, and to play.

When I was 19 years old I started getting on stage a bit more regularly and I found I was a quick study. Iíve been doing this since high school. Iíve always been an entertainer. And I credit alot of it to always looking for those times when opportunities were available to exercise and develop my craft.

I know youíve mentioned people like Louis Prima to me before, and how these people influenced you. What was it like to be soaking in these influences, and how did it create the opportunities youíre mentioning?

I am a sincere fan of the legends like Prima and Sinatra and Elvis. And in every case, itís more than just singing a song. For me, all of this is not just a career, but my hobby as well and itís fascinating. Itís part of my existence. It also means that I am aware of how much I need to constantly be applying myself and pushing myself. It fuels me, and it feeds me.

There is always a song in my head. And I guess the best way to describe it is to say that these greats kept me going in the right direction.

For instance, performing this music and immersing myself in it led me to Bobby Darin and ultimately to working as part of Legends in Concert. Through those efforts, I was fortunate to develop a reputation and get introduced to his friends and members of his band. Those introductions grew into support for my work and some wonderful friendships.

I suppose you could say every opportunity in my career has come from working hard during a different opportunity. Singing those fabulous songs from the 50s and 60s in clubs prior to Legends brought me to Legends. In 1993, after about six years or so of working with Legends, I had gained alot of confidence in myself and formed my own band, which became The Swank Set. Between Legends and The Swank Set Iíve had the opportunity to play on just about every hotel and club stage in Vegas.

You still perform with Legends in Concert regularly. Not just with them, but overall, have you always tried to maintain positive relations and connections as you worked? Has it been important to not be burning bridges along the way?

Absolutely.

When Iím not with Legends, Iíve got my band. I love performing with The Swank Set. But all of us, from myself with something like Legends to every member of The Swank Set, work other jobs as well.

Iíve seen definite areas where the economy has really made it difficult for performers to keep things going. Calendars donít fill up because places arenít booking gigs as far out as they used to. Budgets get cut back, and that changes everything from the number of shows being produced in a place to the size of the shows they might bring in. Itís difficult to maintain bookings and also be able to rely on them.

These days itís unstable out there. I find Iím working twice as hard to get the same number of dates booked. Thatís why reputations matter. You want to be known as someone that will come in and deliver. Having people believe in you is great, and itís important.

And you have to be flexible and able to move on. Some times the best performers donít get the best spots. Thatís just life. You work with it and keep going.

Iím really proud of my band. Theyíre always delivering the best they have all the time.

And, once again, paying attention to opportunities matters. You and I met on the East Coast, where I donít regularly play. On one of my days off I went in to New York City and caught up with some old friends and musicians. Even sat in with some of them. I donít know whether it will turn into any future engagements, but a few club managers expressed an interest in talking about the possibility. Iíll definitely be getting in touch with them.

Do you find youíre trying different things, say outside of working with your band?

Never say never.

If you look at my set plans for the future, there really isnít anything too different there. But you want to book that calendar, and that just isnít so easy to do as it may have been before. So you have to at least listen when something gets proposed to you, or when a possible opportunity may be in store.

And, keep in mind that it can be a tremendous experience. You might find yourself doing something you never thought of yourself working on, but you enjoy it. You have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone every so often. Itís important to be versatile and able to do different things, but many times the way to get better and stronger is also by trying something completely new. That experience of meeting new people and trying new things can only be a good thing.

Is there someone that has influenced you that many people may not know about?

Mike Corda. I owe a lot to him.

Mike just passed away a few months ago. He was an old school songwriter. I recommend looking him up and learning about his career. He really is an unsung member of that whole classic Vegas scene.

This is a guy that started out working way back on Broadway in the early 50s. Then he headed out to Las Vegas and wrote for some of the best. Robert Goulet, Sammy Davis Jr., and Nancy Wilson are just a few of them. And he was writing with the greats like Johnny Mercer, Johnny Burke and Jacques Wilson.

I met him in Vegas when I was with my first band. He saw one of my shows and introduced himself to me. As we talked and got to know each other, he told me he wanted to have me sing some of his songs. It ended up that I got to record some of his original material.

One of the things I always admired about him was that he never stopped pushing himself or his music. ďYou Perfect StrangerĒ is the song that starts on the home page of my web site. Thatís a Mike Corda song.

This was a guy that was from those days in the 50s that influenced me so much. He had some songs that were written in that time period, for that time period, and in the mold of people like Sinatra and Sammy. But they had never been recorded. So everything I knew and had worked on was important and had brought me to that point in time and place. Then Mike allowed me to take something and make it my own.

I enjoyed going over to his house. All over the place would be notes and pictures, on things like programs or even napkins. Iíd walk in and there would be a program from the Sands or Caesars off to the side, signed by Sinatra with a note saying they had to get together soon to work on a certain song, personalized notes on the back of albums, etc.

From that material, and his stories, and working with him, he became a true mentor for me. In fact, he really helped me find my own voice and define myself as a singer. Up until I met Mike, alot of my efforts involved imitating the great singers. I began by impersonating and emulating them. I was doing it well, and I was working consistently, but Mike helped me grow beyond that.

I learned a lot from him, especially about my voice and my relationship with the lyric. He was an important figure in my life, and a Ďclassí gentleman of song.

As far as other people, I really love the classic jazz vocalists. Sarah Vaughn, Mel Torme, Joe Williams, Della Reese, Arthur Prysock, and Johnny Hartman. So many to name. I love all the classics.

You just mentioned jazz, and that brings up something that I think your work really exemplifies. A friend of mine gets upset when he hears performers, especially jazz musicians, match studio recordings of songs note for note when theyíre on stage or with their live recordings, especially with their solos. The basic idea being that the music is so passionate, emotional, and in the moment that itís a shame to lose that power when performing live.

Yes, I agree. Thereís something about performing live, with a band, that creates magic.

I love the recordings of Mikeís songs that we have done. ďYou Perfect Stranger,Ē ďA Couple of LosersĒ and ďGet the Money.Ē Itís the overall atmosphere that they create and the interpretation of them that really hits me. Like I said a minute ago, these were songs that lived and breathed in another era, and Mike allowed me to make his original work my own. Performing them live though, itís something else.

I mean, the music of Sinatra and Darin, itís something everyone considers timeless. Right? Everyone thinks they know both of those cats and their material. But the music they played live was different every night. The solos in the songs are different, even if just slightly different. The sound of the theater is different every night.

And thatís really the joy of a great band. Even today, just like then. Itís not the same every night, and I donít think good music is supposed to be exactly the same every night. Let them play. I love listening to them. To the piano, the sax, the trombone. I love seeing them take some room in the middle of the songs and explore it, fill it in, and bring it together. Thatís real talent at work, it makes for a great show, and itís exciting to be a part of it. I know itís made me a better singer.

The big thing, the heart of it, is having musicians that arenít afraid. Even a mistake can be an opportunity, and something different is a chance to do great things.

Even with the supposedly live acts these days though, it doesnít seem the same. Something seems to be missing.

Definitely. No question about it, the traditional band is missing today. The grass roots are gone from them, and, honestly, many bands donít know how to play. Everything is pre-set and the show is exactly the same thing every night. The magic is missing, and itís sometimes replaced by overkill, overproduced tracks with too many bells and whistles.

For me, Iím always performing everything live and itís the real deal. No fillers or background tracks so I canít fake the singing. I take pride in the real elements of live performance. The truth. The honesty.

And itís the same thing when Iím recording music. I canít appreciate these people that press a button and itís all there. Whereís the musicianship? Whereís the craft? Sitting at a computer, especially with just the computer and no instrument in sight, no matter how many hours a person spends there it is just not the same as real playing.

Thereís a beauty to a live band. A magic with whatís going to go down and be delivered. As a group you make a statement and produce something magical.

Personally, I think itís a privilege to be on stage. People pay to see you. They donate their time to see you. If thatís not enough to give your best every night, well, then itís a cop out. I canít stand seeing people go through the motions and basically be cheating an audience.

For me, I want people to remember my performance. I want them to really feel it. I approach every night with an old school ethic and integrity. Anything less would just be lazy.

Is it too easy these days? Is it because it isnít earned?

Probably.

I suppose what Iím really looking to say is that so much of the music being released today has no heart and no soul. Itís done by formula. In the studio and on the stage. People are flipping switches, but there are no real human beings behind the music itself.

There is no stronger magic in music than listening to live cats play. Itís definitely not there when someone is sequencing the program with computerized music. And thatís just one reason why Iím such a fan of old singers. They didnít have technology to bail them out.

But when they had it working, it would give you goose bumps. It made you think. It made you cry. Those are very powerful elements, and to create that for an audience is incredible, and what they truly came for, a musical experience as well as a show. Itís a craft, true talent canít be faked, and itís a gift you share with your audience.

You have some dates coming up in Las Vegas. Iím wondering how much you rehearse. (Note: Art performs regularly at several Las Vegas locations, including the Rampart Casino. You can check his schedule by using the links to his web sites at the end of this interview.)

Thatís right. Iíll be at the Rampart Casino with The Swank Set performing the Vintage Vegas show. A lot of it is classic stuff. Bobby, Louis and Frank. Iíll also have a female singer, in a way taking on the role of Keely Smith. And the guys Iím using in the band are cats like me. Big in jazz and the era weíre representing. A lot of them spend their time away from The Swank Set working with major headliners and big production shows on the Ďstrip.í So thereís a great combination coming together, with versatile musicians that have been playing and performing regularly, preparing to play legendary material. Thatís good, because it means we normally donít have to shake any rust off.

Iím big on preparation and rehearsals though. About a week before the shows weíll get together and run through what we expect to include. Weíll tighten some things up, and I like to get everyone focused back on my bag.

We might change some song selections. And weíre always fine tuning things. The trick is, you want everyone on the same page. Each night we might switch something around. By rehearsing, we get ourselves ready so those moments are much more likely to work. We can edit the show, and change the feel, but I need to know these guys are with me so we can support each other. And rehearsing is a big part of that.

With so much great material available and a solid band in place, what do you look for in a set list?

Well first off, Iím always going to toss in one or two of the big hits. If you plan on playing Sinatra or Darin, you need to establish that link with the audience. So weíll have some songs like ďMack the KnifeĒ or ďIíve Got You Under My SkinĒ ready to go.

What I enjoy doing though is performing obscure and less known songs, or trying out new arrangements. I have the confidence in my abilities. I know I can sell it. And it all becomes part of that magic, that connection weíve been talking about.

I donít like standing in front of an audience and playing just the top ten, all in a row. I want to mix it up. And I love it when after a show people start asking about a song or two that we played and I can tell them that it was a flip side of a hit or a tune not played that often. I think itís great when my audiences are happily surprised, and I really like taking them on a journey and turning them on to songs they donít know as well.

You mention new arrangements. I was listening to Neko Case performing an old Harry Nilsson song called ďDonít Forget MeĒ the other day. Then I heard his version for the first time in quite a while. I was stunned by how different their songs are even though they each have the same foundation. Do you find when you change songs up that itís important to maintain a connection?

It depends on where Iím playing. For something like Legends in Concert, Iím not going to be changing anything. Weíre going to be true to the original. Thatís what that audience expects and deserves.

With The Swank Set though, I can take some liberties to expand on my interpretation of a song. Like I said before, in the last ten to fifteen years I really feel like Iíve found my voice and hit my stride as an entertainer. So I can take something, give it my personal spin, and bring some new life to the original. The familiarity an audience may have with that song almost becomes secondary, since I can count on them knowing the hits, but not necessarily everything I plan to play.

Has finding your voice and working with your own band elevated your performance?

Yes, a lot. There is nothing that beats the joy of performing with your own band. And itís something that is getting lost.

Out in Las Vegas so much is becoming the same. Set shows with the same program and production method. People are buying tickets to see it, so thatís life. But it is tough to watch great live acts not getting the chance to perform and develop a name.

I am dead serious about what I do. And Iíve got a freedom with my own band that the other shows donít provide. I really think of this as my purpose. I have a talent, my voice, and I can entertain an audience. I believe I can do it. I know I can do it.

I have great respect for my audience. I work with good musicians. I rehearse. And because of that, Iím fortunate to have many great moments, because I want my audience to enjoy the very best I can give to them. And when I can team up with great musicians and form a solid connection between us and the audience, itís a high unlike any other. Truly walking on air.

Hereís an interesting tidbit. As a general approach, I try to stay away from ballads. I love listening to classic ballads, but in my show Iím always afraid they might put the audience to sleep if they arenít introduced the right way and at the right time. I donít want to lose the audience. You and I were talking about Darinís ďIf I Were A CarpenterĒ the other day. Itís a great song, light and simple with a sincere, loving thought. What Iíve found is that my audience respects those songs and moments, and understands how real they are to me when I do perform them. I find that I really feel the lyrics when Iím singing them. Iím singing about a portion of my life. I can see myself in the picture of that songís moment.

Whatís the perfect place for you to perform?

Thatís hard to say.

Iíve been in tiny bars, blues bars, and in large theaters. I enjoy all of them and the variety of experiences. From my perspective on the stage, small or large venue, Iím still putting out the same energy to the crowd. And Iíve enjoyed so many nights in all of them.

I suppose if you forced me to pick it probably would be an old school supper club kind of place. The Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. The Copacabana of course. With the guys arriving in suits and the ladies in gowns, dressed up for a very special evening. The room would hold about 400 to 500 people. Thereíd be a stage and a dance floor. It would have a swanky vibe to it. An elegance.

You know, the biggest thing about a smaller room is perspective. For everyone. The audience is usually so close to you. And if you can create that feeling where everyone senses that something special is about to happen. Thatís cool.

What do you have lined up for the future?

We talked about Vegas with the band. Iím working on finalizing bookings until the end of the year.

I just recorded my second CD. Itís got a good blend of covers and more Mike Corda originals. Iíll be working to get that out.

My ultimate goal, the long term goals, would be to have a television variety show. You know the kind. A live audience and a live band. Special guests. Iím a big fan of those shows that arenít around any more, with the old school variety format. In the meantime I produce and perform that show live onstage along with outstanding musicians and fabulous talent, keeping the Las Vegas legacy of the greatest entertainment alive and swinginí!

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I want to thank Art Vargas for spending some time with me and working on this interview. Iím grateful for his assistance and patience, and really canít fully express my appreciation.

Iíve had the chance to see Art perform live, and can tell you that heís one of a kindÖ and the best kind at that. He truly respects his work and his audience, and takes pride in offering his best every night. If youíre looking to see a fantastic show and heís in town, donít hesitateÖ get to that show.

Here are some of the web sites you can use to get the latest information about ArtÖ

Art Vargas on Facebook

Art Vargas at Reverb Nation

The official web site of Art Vargas

Art Vargas at Legends in Concert

The Art Vargas photo gallery at In My Backpack

The pictures you see in this article have been provided by Art Vargas. All rights to these pictures belong to Art, and he has approved their use on my site. They cannot be used for any other purpose without his permission.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com