Reporting from Las Vegas —
The place is packed when singer Mark Giovi takes the stage as emcee of the Monday night open-mike at a little roadhouse on a dusty stretch a few miles west of the Strip.
Fronting a tight backup band of drums, keyboards and tenor saxophone, the veteran showman's voice is piano-key smooth as he launches into two Ray Charles standards, "You Don't Know Me" and "Georgia on My Mind." But there's something peculiar about the way the 43-year-old New Jersey native moves about the room: his mouth droops slightly, his left hand hangs limp, his left leg is somewhat stiff.
Giovi has cerebral palsy, a condition he believes has hurt him in the hard-hearted music industry. But not here at the Tap House bar and restaurant; not among this standing-room-only crowd of 150, including some thick-necked types with expensive suits and slicked-back hair, guys who voice their approval with throaty hoots and applause.
"If anyone said anything unkind, it might become a little dangerous for them," Giovi says half-jokingly. "I don't think they'd get out of here unscathed."
Giovi is a regular at this weekly open-mike that's known for attracting an impromptu collection of seasoned performers who have recorded and toured with the likes of Lou Rawls, Joe Cocker, Barry White and various rock bands. At one point, many of them — mostly musicians and tribute artists, with a few comedians mixed in — have touched the big time. But few have commanded the marquee all by themselves.
Still, they are good enough to rule almost any local stage in America. When a tribute artist takes the Tap House stage to do Elvis, Marilyn or Sinatra, patrons will sometimes ask: "Who needs the real deal?"
Some of these performers do get regular gigs and even national tours — like comedian Steve Rossi, who with partner Marty Allen was once an "Ed Sullivan Show" regular, and Rob Garrett, a Neil Diamond tribute artist known as the "King of Diamonds."
Others face hard times in the city that calls itself the entertainment capital of the world. Major casinos are shrinking their house bands or hiring solo entertainers accompanied by a computerized beat. That leaves many artists to compete for a diminishing number of lower-paying, off-the-Strip lounges and restaurants.
In this environment, the Tap House provides a haven and a job network. Entertainers perform without pay before a crowd that often includes talent agents.
"I get a lot of work out of this scene," says Sid Smith, known to Tap House regulars as "Sid the Kid," a saxophonist who has backed Gladys Knight and other A-listers. "It's a gold mine for me, seriously."
But even more than getting gigs, playing at the Tap House is about making music, about grabbing the spotlight, just for a few songs.
The place is anything but Strip glitzy. Patrons sit at what look like converted card tables, not far from a roll-your-own cigarette machine. On a recent night, a waitress discarded her tray for a slithery dance to a rendition of the 1962 hit "The Stripper."
On most nights, the Tap House is just another Italian restaurant. But on Mondays it harks back to another era in Vegas.
L.J. Harness, a drummer who works days at a car dealership, plays the Tap House with the look-at-me easiness of a "Tonight Show" couch regular.
"This is a Vegas tradition that goes back to the Rat Pack days. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin didn't make their initial reputations on the Strip, but in little joints like this one," he says. "After singing, they didn't go backstage; they mingled. Billboards announced that Dean Martin was performing with 'maybe Frank and maybe Sammy.' It was all impromptu. And that's our concept: whoever comes in, comes in. We never know."
Open-mike performers might include the homeless singer who's become a regular or the aging guitarist who always ordered room service on tour and now can't afford a car. Most had settled in Vegas because they had grown tired of the road.
Many roll into the place with attitude, like they were walking atop a Grammy Awards red carpet. They have large personalities, big egos and thin skins. Business cards are pressed into hands.
"Come see my show," one singer says, with a slight whiff of desperation.
"If I'm not playing myself, I'll be in the building," comes the reply.
There are earnest types as well. Despite his moniker, Sid the Kid is no showoff as he plays his riffs, taking a seat outside during breaks. Affectionate diminutives are the rule. Nobody is simply John. The room is full of Johnnies, Frankies and Bobbies.
One patron says he was chatting with a nondescript character, only to be later told, "That was Vinnie Falcone — Sinatra's old music director."