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Get revved up for Viva Las Vegas 17: interview with Tom Ingram

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I’ll never forget my first trip to Viva Las Vegas. It was while I was living in California doing research for my dissertation. I made the drive (in my Honda, not in a classic car), got a speeding ticket on the way, and showed up at the Orleans, not knowing what to expect at all. I was in awe at the sight – tattooed greasers sitting at slot machines right next to elderly women with blue hair and oxygen tubes. Within a couple hours, I had run into friends from all walks of life – people that I did not expect to see at this rockabilly festival. I practiced the Stroll in a ballroom with several hundred women. I saw Chuck Berry for the first – and probably only – time in my life, and giggled as he got the audience to sing along as he played one of my favorite novelty songs, “My Ding-a-Ling.” I wandered around the massive car show and vendor booths, and bought a psychobilly onesie - it showed the Bride of Frankenstein playing upright bass - for a friend's baby. I witnessed Wanda Jackson symbolically pass the torch to Martí Brom. I caught glimpses of pin-up models and burlesque dancers as they wandered to and from events like Burlesque Bingo. And I experienced my first Deke Dickerson Guitar Geek Show, something I look forward to every year now. That was in 2010, and the memories haven't faded.

While I had a great time enjoying the bands and various events, what really stuck with me was how people from all over the world came together to share their passion for this subculture. People didn’t remain strangers for long, making new friends that they would catch up with next year, same place, same time. On my way back to California, I noticed several vintage cars broken down on the highway. But by every stranded car, several Viva people had stopped, pulled lawn chairs out of their trunks, popped open a few cold ones, and lent a helping hand. It’s something I’ve always admired about this scene – how everyone is bonded by a shared sense of difference and alienation from mainstream society, and a love for American roots music, history, and culture. There's nowhere better to reinforce that bond than at Viva Las Vegas, one of the largest rockabilly weekenders in the United States.

I had to miss Viva Las Vegas 2013, when Little Richard, Dick Dale, and the Rockats performed, so I’m already itching to get back to Sin City for VLV 17. Mark your calendars now for April 17-20, 2014, buy your ticket for the event (3-day passes always sell out!), and book a room. The Orleans is already sold out, but you can get a room with VLV rates at the nearby Gold Coast.

I may be a little over-excited for the next Viva Las Vegas, so I decided to talk to the man behind it all and see if I could get any hints about what’s in store for 2014. I didn’t get any leads about who might be headlining, but I did get a chance to learn a little more about how Tom Ingram got involved in promoting rockabilly events, what the London rockabilly scene was like in the 1980s, and the weirdest request he’s received from a Viva Las Vegas participant:

Obviously we know that Vegas has an Elvis connection, but is there another reason why you picked Sin City for the destination for this weekender?
Mainly because the party can go on all night. In Los Angeles, we’d have to shut down at 2 am. But in Vegas, it’s 24-7.

What has been one of your favorite aspects of running and organizing Viva Las Vegas?
I love just seeing all the people who come together and have a good time.

What are you looking forward to in terms of next year’s event? [Can you tell I was trying to get some hints?]
We’re working on the acts right now for VLV 17. Then I’ll get excited. The bands will be announced within the next month or so.

Past headliners have included Jerry Lee Lewis, Wanda Jackson, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Dick Dale. How do you pick the headliners?
We use a lot of feedback from the fans, so it’s a combination of listening to the suggestions of attendees and also our own choices. We definitely look at what people post on Facebook to see who they are interested in.

One thing I really like about Viva Las Vegas is that there is always some representation of the African-American contribution to 1950s rock’n’roll. One year I saw The Teenagers, of doo-wop fame. I also saw an amazing R&B band, The Royal Rhythmaires, with a powerhouse soul singer. I appreciate that Viva Las Vegas doesn’t only represent the “hillbilly” background of rock’n’roll.
When I first got to the States, people were more into Western swing and hillbilly. But now people want to hear a bigger cross-section. I will take some credit for that since that was always what I was playing as a deejay. At Viva Las Vegas, we represent that by having performers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard and the Cleftones.

Has attendance fluctuated with the recession?
It’s increased every time actually. When the recession hit, I thought to myself, "I’m not going to be beaten." So I put more money into headliners and ads. The first events started off at about 12,000. Now we have about 20,000.

Do you have any particular goals or hopes for the future of Viva? Is there anything you are thinking of changing or adding?
The main thing is that I want to change with the times, so as the scene changes, I want to continue to adapt.

Complete this sentence: Rockabilly makes you think of ….
London in the ‘80s. I‘m too young to have been around in the ‘50s, so I don’t have a personal nostalgia for that time. I do, however, have great memories of the London music scene in the ‘80s when I was deejaying ‘50s record hops. It was a special time. I wish I knew then what a special a time it was. It was an explosion. That was a one-off. And it will never happen again.

The rockabilly scene was at a peak then because there had been a large Teddy Boy scene in the early ‘70s and a handful people of people were buying 45s from old warehouses in America. They were bringing back that music to England, records that Americans didn’t care about. Most of it we’d never heard before. And a few of those guys were great at PR. The media even latched onto it. It was very prominent in the mainstream.

[By the way, pick up a copy of Rockabilly Deluxe No. 5 when it comes out. You can read about some of the hairy situations Ingram got stuck in because of the groups that did not get along with rockabillies. London in the ‘80s sounds like it had its tough bits.]

Was there a pretty big divide back then between the punk and rockabilly scenes?
Yes, definitely. One of my regrets is that I was right in the middle of the punk explosion and never went to any of those shows then. There were also the psychobillies, who were into punk first and foremost, and started using influences from rockabilly. But they were still mostly separate from the rockabilly purists, as were the bands like the Polecats, who were mixing with new wave, and identified as neo-rockabilly.

What do you think members of the rockabilly culture have in common, other than, of course, their love for rockabilly music?
I don’t think it’s necessarily about “nostalgia” for the Fifties because most of the participants were not around in the 1950s. I think it’s more about choosing what they want to be into instead of following the mainstream. And because it’s not covered in the mainstream, people really have to search it out. That makes for a pretty tight-knit community because they have all personally searched out something that is not the norm.

What type of music is your favorite to listen to today?
Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. Really, any Sun Records rockabilly.

How about something we might not expect you to listen to. Any guilty pleasures?
‘70s English punk and ‘70s glam rock

Who have you been the most starstruck by?
Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis

What’s the weirdest thing someone has approached you about at Viva Las Vegas?
I get all sorts of requests for bands that have no connection to the type of music we showcase at Viva Las Vegas. When that happens, I just politely tell them that it doesn’t suit the nature of the event. Also, someone once asked me to do a religious service on Sunday morning.

Because Viva Las Vegas always ends on Easter Sunday, right? Is there a reason for that?
A very simple reason: the hotel rooms are much cheaper because Easter makes for a pretty quiet weekend in Vegas!

I’m looking forward to seeing which performers will be appearing in 2014 at VLV 17. Keep an eye on the Facebook page and the Viva Las Vegas website to find out. Don’t forget to buy your tickets for VLV now by clicking here - it sells out every year – and book a room not too far from The Orleans. The Gold Coast has VLV rates and runs a shuttle between the two hotels every 10 minutes.

Read some of my reports from previous Viva Las Vegas fests:

- 2012 Guitar Geek Show

- 2010 Chuck Berry, Wanda Jackson, and Guitar Geek Show

- 2010 The Chop Tops, Martí Brom, and The Teenagers

- 2010 The Rip'em Ups and Big Sandy

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