By: Hubble Smith
Step into Bootlegger Bistro on Las Vegas Boulevard and you feel a sense of Las Vegas’ glorious past, a nostalgic period when people wore suits and dresses, top-name entertainers mingled with commoners and the entire town exuded style and class.
The Bootlegger’s walls are decorated with black-and-white canvases of early casinos, a montage of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack and the Italian immigrants who established the restaurant in 1949. The smell of authentic Italian cuisine wafts from the kitchen where Bootlegger matriarch Maria Perry still keeps her hands in the mix.
What makes this place even more special is when longtime Las Vegas musician Charlie Shaffer and his singer daughter Laura take the stage on Sunday evenings. They turn back time with jazz standards that evoke a film noir atmosphere. They were featured on “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” that aired April 20 on CNN.
Charlie can rock the baby grand piano like Jerry Lee Lewis, swing like Duke Ellington and bring it down to a melancholy sound like Nat King Cole. He transitions from George Harrison’s “Something” to George Benson’s “Masquerade” to Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody” in his opening medley.
Laura wears a tight black gown and elbow-length gloves, styles her hair with a flower tucked into the side and sings tunes from the songbooks of Julie London, Cole Porter and Rosemary Clooney. She possesses that sultry, seductive kind of voice and can be totally captivating in her appearance. Her May pin-up poster, now available for sale, shows her revealing long legs on her backside.
Charlie said he feels “very comfortable” accompanying his daughter and enjoys watching her perform.
“She could always carry a tune, but she was very bashful,” he said during an interview at the Bootlegger. “When she decided to be a professional singer, it surprised me. You could have knocked me over.”
Laura has refined her act such that she takes you back to a time you really didn’t know, but you feel like you’re there now.
“She might as well have been born in the ’40s because she has got that era down … the clothes, the movies,” her father said.
Originally from Houston, Charlie came to Las Vegas in 1958 with Johnny Olenn’s rock-and-roll band. They had been playing a steady gig for years at the Hacienda hotel in Bakersfield, Calif., and were booked for two weeks at the sister property in Las Vegas. They were the first to play rock and roll in Las Vegas, he said. Showgirls would come in around 2:30 in the morning and the lounge would be packed with swing dancers, some of them making the trip from Los Angeles.
Shaffer appeared in the 1957 movie, “Born Reckless,” playing in a cowboy band with Olenn. He plays in several other bands around town, including Jeanne Brei and the Speakeasy Swingers, and leads his own band on occasion. The key to longevity in the music business is to play danceable songs, he said.
Shaffer has recorded about 15 albums, yet written only four or five songs.
“I never did feel the urge to write,” the crowd-pleasing piano player said. “They want me to play ‘Misty’ or something they know. Nobody asks me to play something they don’t know. I made a cassette (tape) back in the ’80s of dance music because people were always asking if I had an album they could buy. I made it a point to make it listenable and danceable at the same time.”
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