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.
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.
ThatÖ is Vegas Cool.
a state of mind. An image that transcends time. A powerful connection
between people and a laid back emotion.
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
there be no mistakeÖ put Art on a stage, back him with The Swank
Set, andÖ yeahÖ Art Vargas is Vegas Cool.
~ ~ ~
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
~ ~ ~
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?
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
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
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.
ponies. Can you expand on that thought a bit?
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.
acts today canít work without the smoke and mirrors. If you take
that away, suddenly they donít know what to do.
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?
been doing this a long time now. You give me a band and a microphone
and Iíll entertain youÖ just watch me!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
really proud of my band. Theyíre always delivering the best they
have all the time.
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.
you find youíre trying different things, say outside of working
with your band?
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.
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.
there someone that has influenced you that many people may not
Corda. I owe a lot to him.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I agree. Thereís something about performing live, with a band,
that creates magic.
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.
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
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.
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.
with the supposedly live acts these days though, it doesnít seem
the same. Something seems to be missing.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
it too easy these days? Is it because it isnít earned?
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
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
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.
so much great material available and a solid band in place, what
do you look for in a set list?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
finding your voice and working with your own band elevated your
a lot. There is nothing that beats the joy of performing with
your own band. And itís something that is getting lost.
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.
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.
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.
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
the perfect place for you to perform?
hard to say.
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
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.
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.
do you have lined up for the future?
talked about Vegas with the band. Iím working on finalizing bookings
until the end of the year.
just recorded my second CD. Itís got a good blend of covers and
more Mike Corda originals. Iíll be working to get that out.
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!
~ ~ ~
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.
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.
are some of the web sites you can use to get the latest information
Vargas on Facebook
Vargas at Reverb Nation
official web site of Art Vargas
Vargas at Legends in Concert
Art Vargas photo gallery at In My Backpack
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.