The Bluesman

Terry O’Halloran

“I’m a gambler, so I’ve always enjoyed coming to Vegas,” says Terry O’Halloran. “But I’m also a big music fan, and whenever I’d ask a cab driver where the good reggae and blues was, they’d say, “I dunno.” Inspired, the Omaha, Neb.-based businessman opened Fremont Street Reggae & Blues in 1993. For a moment, it was Las Vegas’ hottest music venue, and not just for blues and reggae fans; you were just as likely to see Warren Zevon or Tripping Daisy on one of its two stages as you were Pato Banton or Doyle Bramhall. But the financial and operational hardships faced by Fremont Street clubs today were insurmountable obstacles 15 years ago, and Reggae & Blues succumbed to them in 1996.

Once I decided to open a club in Vegas, I began looking at available spaces. I always liked going to downtown, and when I found out that the Fremont Street Experience was on the way, I was optimistic that the area would become attractive.

Initially, we were bringing in bands for three-day runs. That’s something you hardly ever see anymore, but the bands really enjoyed it. Whenever we had a really big draw like Dread Zeppelin, Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Buddy Guy—those big nights when we had a packed house and everybody was so into it—a lot of the customers would thank me just for being there.

We always got the weirdest celebrities visiting the club. It was never A-list. We had “Doogie Howser,” whoever that actor was. We didn’t get Connie Chung; we got her husband, Maury Povich. And John Wayne Bobbitt is one of the strangest celebrities we ever had in there. He showed up while the Beat Farmers were playing, and word got to [lead singer] Country Dick Montana that he was there. And Country Dick starts singing about some guy who got his junk cut off! Bobbitt left a full drink and took off with his party.

The construction of the Fremont Street parking garage put 8-foot walls in front of our place. And once the Fremont Street Experience got going … well, being a free attraction, it didn’t really bring down people with pockets full of money.

I clearly recall being overwhelmed with emotion when Curtis Salgado was performing. It was when we were struggling. They were singin’ the blues, and the guitarist was playing down-and-dirty blues riffs, and I can remember breaking down and having to walk into the backroom. I was really feeling the blues.

Maybe I should have researched the market a little better. I was surprised to learn that locals avoided downtown. I figured that the locals would be less afraid of the unknown; that they’d know where to park, what side of the street to walk on. But I don’t have regrets. It’s better to have taken my shot than to always wonder if it would’ve worked.

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The Downtown Cocktail Room’s doors are impossibly un-door-ish. You walk up from the intersection of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, happy to join the buzzing downtown camaraderie—the urban revolution taking hold of Las Vegas—and you’re faced with walls of one-way glass and no apparent door handle. For the uninitiated, it makes for an awkward moment. Had this happened to me, and I’m not confirming that it did, the larger metaphor wouldn’t have been lost: Maybe everyone doesn’t fit in here.



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