Casinos have always epitomised glamour and high living, with the traditional representation of casino-goers being well-heeled high rollers that can afford to risk hundreds and thousands of dollars on the roll of the dice. It’s no surprise, therefore, that casinos attract some of the highest profile players in the world, from film stars and sporting legends and, of course, rock and roll stars.
Casinos have been linked with almost every type of music, perhaps starting with the infamous Rat Pack who brought casinos to the forefront of popular culture. The group comprised some of the most famous singers of the time, including Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin alongside actor Peter Lawford and comedian and talk-show host Joey Bishop.
The news media and cultural commentators of the time referred to this high-living group as the Rat Pack – a name that was coined by Lauren Bacall which stuck so well that it has endured the subsequent half a century. However, they themselves preferred slightly more salubrious terms such as ‘The Clan’ or ‘The Summit’, but these never stuck in the same way.
It was in 1951 that Frank Sinatra first performed in Las Vegas, at the Desert Inn, but the link between the singer and Sin City was really forged when he began performing at the Sands Hotel and Casino. Gambling had only been legal in Nevada since 1931, but the post-war economic boom drew attention and visitors to Las Vegas in a way that had never happened before.
Frank Sinatra was one of the first to truly embody the glamour of casino life, elevating the image of casino goers with his inimitable style and fondness for tuxedos and high living created an association between glamour and casinos that has never gone away. Vegas was the place to be seen and this image is still the same to this day.
Once the Rat Pack were established as the movers and shakers of Las Vegas, it strengthened the link between music and casinos. Recordings by artists such as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday were played as background music in casinos throughout the strip.
Music and casinos – a match made in Vegas
Live music was also becoming more and more popular in casinos, adding another layer of entertainment to some of the hottest spots in the city. This practice has also continued to this day with some of the world’s top artists undertaking residencies in the most popular casinos, including:
- Celine Dion
- Lady Gaga
- Gwen Stefani
- Janet Jackson
- Elton John
- Backstreet Boys
- Diana Ross
- Bruno Mars
- Britney Spears
But musicians that enjoy performing in casinos may not always be the ones that are writing songs about this popular pastime. Although many genres have been associated with casinos, from jazz and pop to techno and heavy metal, rock and roll has had an enduring relationship with casino life, not least through some of the most famous gaming fans in the business including Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, Scott Ian from Anthrax and Ace Frehley from Kiss.
While some of these players like to enjoy the excitement of a crowd around them and the adrenaline rush of winning, others channel their love of games of chance into their music. Although some of the newcomers to the casino scene, such as slingo games, may not have made their way into song lyrics just yet, there are lots of classic rock and roll songs that really espouse the highlights of casino gaming.
Elvis Presley – Viva Las Vegas
As the king of rock and roll, it’s no surprise that Elvis’s song Viva Las Vegas has long been associated with the most famous gaming centre in the world. He summed up everything that was exciting about Las Vegas at the time: the excitement of gaming, the one-armed bandits, the bright lights and the thrill of every opportunity to win.
The Eagles – Desperado
Although they originally released this song in 1973, it was The Eagles’ reunion that saw this classic casino song really resonating with their fans. Combining some, admittedly potentially dubious, advice about playing card games, with some observations about the realities of casino life, Desperado became a lasting hit that has wowed casino gamers for decades.
Leonard Cohen – The Stranger Song
This classic rock song, from one of the most famous singer-songwriters of the 20th century, describes the warm welcome that casinos offer to travellers and ‘strangers’ from all over the world. The song draws parallels between a burgeoning relationship between two people and the thrills and excitement of casino gaming with players hoping that their next hand will be a winner.
Jerry Garcia – Deal
As a musical pioneer in his own right, Jerry Garcia embraced every aspect of rock and roll living, including frequenting casinos. His depictions of the stories that players collect when they spend any length of time in casinos are some of the most accurate ever put to music.
BB King – Gambler’s Blues
As the king of the blues, BB King eschewed the heavy drinking that many of his peers embraced, instead choosing gaming as a way to blow off steam while on the road. He was a well-known face in casinos all over the US and the rest of the world, so it’s no surprise that he drew heavily on his experiences when it came to his songwriting.
While there are some songs that appear to be about gambling, Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ by Katy Perry don’t really focus on the important aspects of gaming. For that, you need a rock and roll band that can capture the excitement of the game in both their lyrics and the music.