As recently as the early ’90s Las Vegas was considered the place where headlining bands went to die. Despite its reputation as the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” the city was all but devoid of major touring acts, as the paradoxically conservative instincts of casino bosses and city fathers made it difficult for cutting-edge bands, especially rock ’n’ rollers to gain a foothold. In 1991, Las Vegas sold 200,000 tickets to live music events. In 2016, the city sold over 3 million.
Gary Naseef—Rockin’ the Boat
It was Gary Naseef’s first week on the job as the assistant entertainment director at Caesars Palace, which had recently opened. Naseef’s boss, Dave Victorson, had challenged him to find a band to play in the typically dead time right before Christmas. Victorson was looking to do something atypical. With little experience and only what he heard on radio, Naseef recommended several acts, though he didn’t believe any would show up.
“In those days, you couldn’t get a rock act to play Vegas,” he says. “It wasn’t big enough. And it was too plastic for the hippie bands. They didn’t want to be associated with the place.”
Caesars’ choice: Blood, Sweat & Tears
Naseef wanted Caesars to commit to an aggressive six-night stand. Caesars went for three. However, the shows were so successful that Blood, Sweat & Tears ended up playing those six shows, two per night. It was the first rock band to play in a Vegas hotel-casino. Caesars’ Circus Maximus showroom became something Las Vegas hadn’t had until then—a hip venue. Naseef’s stock was quickly rising.
Naseef’s upbringing was far from routine. His dad, known as “Fast Eddie,” owned a chain of package liquor stores and a bar that fronted for his real source of money—illegal bookmaking.
When Naseef was 13, his father was throwing a regular “party” in the basement of their home in Illinois. “There was a knock on the door. My mother talked to these people. It was the feds. They wanted to search the house. Meanwhile, my dad’s downstairs throwing all the parlay cards in the furnace.”
The next day, his father announced they were moving. First stop was Daytona Beach, Florida. A short while later, they were on their way to Phoenix. But they were really headed to Las Vegas, where Fast Eddie drove a cab and continued to do what he loved most—gamble.
Ironically, Naseef had a normal life in Las Vegas. He didn’t care much for high school, but he met a girl who captured his heart and whose father had a major influence on his future. Naseef explains, “I didn’t know it at the time, but Sandy Carter was the daughter of a powerful Teamster boss. He didn’t like boys getting too close to his daughter. So we ran off and got married unannounced.”
When Bill Carter went to retrieve Sandy, the newlyweds approached his car. “I went up and said, ‘Sandy, get into the car. It’s your father. You should show respect.’ From then on, he liked me. Not many people went near Bill Carter’s car.”
He and his new father-in-law became close, but Naseef wanted to join a friend who lived on the beach in L.A. Bill didn’t want his daughter to leave, so he got Gary a high-paying job driving a truck on the Caesars Palace construction site. That position led to steady employment when Caesars opened. Gary trained on every job in the hotel-casino: cleaning rooms, dishwashing, cooking, catering, receiving, purchasing, sales, advertising. He finally landed the plum position of assistant entertainment director.
The successful Blood, Sweat & Tears performances not only looked good to Naseef’s boss, they made a strong impression on the group. Naseef was at their beck and call throughout their stay. He formed friendships, especially with lead singer David Clayton Thomas. Appreciative of Gary’s work, they wanted to repay him. Naseef had an idea. “Do a concert for me.”
Thomas said, “Sure!”
Their manager happily agreed, adding, “We get $15,000 a night.”
Naseef didn’t have 15 cents, much less $15,000. But it was the moment he knew he wanted to be a concert promoter.
During a brief stint at Caesars Tahoe in 1969, he met the agent of the group the Carpenters. The agent offered Naseef one of the biggest rock stars of the ’60s—Janis Joplin. No female exemplified rock ’n’ roll more than Joplin. With a voice like Steven Tyler and moves like Tina Turner, she quickly found her place near the top of the developing rock scene.
With no money, little experience, and his signature on a $15,000 offer, Naseef launched his new concert company, GANA Productions Inc., and set out to put the pieces of the Joplin concert together in Vegas. He added B.B. King, Country Joe McDonald, the Young Rascals, Jessi Colter and the Youngbloods—all these great acts, just a few months after Woodstock.
The Las Vegas Convention Center was unavailable, so he set his sights on Cashman Center, a sports venue just north of Downtown on Las Vegas Boulevard. In those days, the venue had concrete bleachers, a sparse concourse and a plain green fence. But its capacity was 30,000.
Once again, Gary’s father-in-law, Bill Carter, stepped in. He helped raise the money to advertise and stage the concert and secure Cashman Center. (Though Gary and Sandy divorced after a few years of marriage, that never interfered with his relationship to his ex-father-in-law; indeed, Gary was a pallbearer at Bill Carter’s funeral.)
Rock was rolling into Vegas. Or was it? Unfortunately for Naseef, its reputation preceded it. It was too new and different to sit well with a city whose performers had short hair, wore tuxes and fronted full orchestras. Eventually, the owners of the Downtown casinos, especially cowboy Benny Binion, got wind of Cashman Field “bringing all these damn hippies to town.”
“Woodstock scared the hell out of them,” said Naseef, who was about to experience one of his many run-ins with authority.
Ticket sales were in the tens of thousands, but a showdown loomed with a newly formed Commission on Rock Concerts after the city passed an ordinance that gave it the power to cancel the concert. Naseef lost all his investors’ money.
The leadership in Las Vegas was sending Naseef and rock ’n’ roll a message. But Naseef wasn’t listening. He jumped right back in.
Whether it was his proficiency in promotion, the onslaught of rock, or both, he managed to put together a string of successful shows, most of them at the Convention Center.
“The [Convention Center] Rotunda was one of the best facilities I ever produced a show in, acoustically and intimately. We sold seats all the way around the stage,” Naseef reminisces.
The Rotunda had a box office, but it was really just an office—no computerized ticket system, no phone sales, no ticket sellers; just a room.
Also, unlike today’s venues, the Rotunda didn’t provide services to the promoter. The Convention Center rented Naseef the building, but he had to secure all the services to produce the concert. For that, he hired Tycho Brahe from Hermosa Beach, California, for sound and lights. The sound was stacked on wings on each side of the stage and the lights were suspended by a custom truss system they built. These were critical to his success, because, as the promoter, Naseef was responsible for the quality of the production.
In the ’70s, loading in a concert and coordinating the production of sound and lights with the band were inconsistent and challenging. Each show had three or four bands that came from different parts of the country. “They all had their trucks, and they were all late, and they were all stoned. But I had my own guys who were good and sober,” he says.
The system for scheduling concerts at the Las Vegas Convention Center was primitive at best: All the promoters’ names went into a hat and someone picked them out, establishing the order in which they could rent the Rotunda. Naseef’s GANA Productions came out last. With six promoters ahead of him, it looked like he and his crew wouldn’t put on a show for seven months. But the first three promoters couldn’t deliver. The fourth show’s promoter, Bob Jasper, was pursuing the Grateful Dead, but couldn’t get a commitment. Naseef approached him about co-promoting his next show—Deep Purple, Fleetwood Mac and Rory Gallagher. Little did Naseef know how much this show would change his life and the course of Vegas rock history.
Rock Concert Riot
April 27, 1973, started like most of GANA’s concert dates. All 7,800 tickets for the Deep Purple concert were sold. Naseef was delivering the bands’ $10,000 checks when he got the first bad news from Deep Purple’s manager: The lead singer, Ian Gillan, was sick; they weren’t going on.
Panicked, Naseef convinced Gallagher and Fleetwood Mac to play longer sets, while he worked with Deep Purple to reschedule a free show for later in the week at the Las Vegas (now Sam Boyd) Stadium, where the UNLV Rebels football team played. All that was left was securing the stadium, so he could announce the new date to the crowd.
The stadium date had to be approved by the chairman of the Convention and Visitors Authority, Bob Broadbent. Broadbent, however, wanted the concert cancelled and all the ticket money refunded.
Naseef told him, “We can’t refund the money. There’s no money in your so-called box office. It’s in the bank. I can’t access it till tomorrow.”
Broadbent didn’t understand the precariousness of having nearly 8,000 fans, lit up on various kinds of dope, disappointed. He said, “You tell those kids to exit single file.”
Naseef said, “Listen, you’re going to have a problem here. People are going to get hurt.”
Broadbent got angry. “If you ever want to do another show in this facility again, you’ll do what I say.”
Naseef said to himself, if it’s a riot you want, it’s a riot you got.
It was after 10 p.m. The crowd was fully juiced and growing impatient when Bob Jasper and Naseef walked onto the stage. Jasper announced he had some good news and bad news. The good news was Rory Gallagher and Fleetwood Mac would jam together. The bad news: Ian Gillan was sick and Deep Purple couldn’t play, but a makeup date would be announced.
“Just then,” Naseef recalled, “a bottle of wine came sailing over our heads, hit Mick Fleetwood’s drum, and broke. Behind me, I heard Mick say, ‘I’m out of here, man!’ And I think he flipped off whoever threw the bottle. The audience thought he was flipping them all off, which he might have been doing. I didn’t see it. But many in the crowd did.
“Well, it was the fastest teardown you ever saw in your life. The bands, the equipment, the roadies, they were out the door and gone.
“By then, chairs were flying everywhere and it became a contest to see who could throw a chair the farthest. And that was just inside the Rotunda. In the corridors, the crowd was breaking glass display cases and outside they pushed over police cars. They even tore off the metal sprinkler heads and threw them through the windows of the ticket office where we were cowering.”
The riot made national news. Shortly thereafter, the county passed a stringent Rock Concert Promotion Ordinance, requiring promoters to secure a license to produce concerts.
Under the ordinance, a minimum number of police officers were required, along with a bond. In 1973, while the rest of the country was adapting to rock concerts, Las Vegas took a big step backward. For the next 10 years, Las Vegas would host half the shows it did in the past.
Though that was his last concert at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Gary Naseef had paved the way. “We were setting the tone and the way it was done. In Las Vegas, we pioneered it.”
Rockin’ Vegas Through the Years
April 23, 1956: Elvis plays the Venus Room in the Frontier. He returns to the International Hotel to sell out 636 straight performances from 1969–76.
August 20, 1964: The Beatles play two sold out shows at Las Vegas Convention Center. Tickets cost $2.50–$5.50.
April 27, 1973: Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac play Las Vegas Convention Center. Deep Purple lead singer Ian Gillan was sick and could not go on. With no plan to refund, the crowd rioted, throwing chairs, breaking glass displays and turning over cars. Subsequently, Clark County passed a new rock concert ordinance.
1974: Gary Naseef begins a run of concerts at Sahara Space Center including Earth Wind and Fire, Fleetwood Mac, KISS, Al Green and Linda Ronstadt.
July 2, 1976: Neil Diamond opens Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts.
December 18, 1983: Thomas & Mack Center opens with its first concert—Loverboy. The new 18,500-seat arena offered locals bigger concerts.
1984: Then the Las Vegas Silver Bowl, Sam Boyd Stadium installs a retractable AstroTurf which allowed the stadium to produce any event without covering the turf.
1987: Caesars shifted gears and broadened their talent lineup from Circus Maximus. They erected a 9,000-seat outdoor amphitheater and opened with the Beach Boys. The next year, they booked acts like Crosby Stills &Nash, Steve Winwood, and Hall & Oates.
April 12, 1987: U2 plays the first of five U.S. concerts during its Joshua Tree tour at Thomas & Mack Center.
April 27, 1991: Grateful Dead plays the first of several sold-out shows at Sam Boyd Stadium. While not all in the city embraced the Dead, hotels and agents took notice of the stadium’s abilities to sell tickets out of market.
April 14, 1993: Paul McCartney plays Sam Boyd Stadium. The venue hosted other acts including the Eagles, Metallica, Lollapalooza, U2, Dave Matthews Band.
June 5, 1993: Lael Fray and KKLZ launch JuneFest. Classic rock bands like the Allman Brothers, REO Speedwagon, Journey, Styx and BTO headline with cheap tickets and cheap beer.
December 18, 1993: MGM Grand opens, with Barbra Streisand as its Grand Garden Arena’s first act perfoming on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Ticket prices were record-breaking—up to $1,000.
1999-2000: Over the New Year’s week, Las Vegas venues booked the highest priced acts in its history including two Barbra Streisand shows, Bette Midler, the Eagles and Elton John with Tina Turner. Unfortunately, due to high room rates with five-day guarantees and high ticket prices for concerts, there were promoter casualties.
May 25, 2003: Orleans Arena opens with Brooks & Dunn’s Neon Circus & Wild West Show. The arena averaged 16 concerts each year for six years including Van Halen, Rise Against, Joe Cocker, String Cheese Incident and ZZ Top.
March 11, 1995: The Joint, a 4,000-seat venue at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, opens with the Eagles.
March 25, 2003: The Colosseum at Caesars Palace opens with Celine Dion. It would add residencies with Elton John, Rod Stewart, Shania Twain, Reba and Brooks & Dunn and Jerry Seinfeld.
October 29-30, 2005: Superfly Productions launches Vegoose at Sam Boyd Stadium. Headlining that year: Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident, Arcade Fire and the Killers.
November 15, 2005: The Pearl at Palms Casino Resort opens with Gwen Stefani, Avril Lavigne, Morrissey, Goo Goo Dolls and Deftones. In its first year, the Pearl did 71 concerts.
June 24-26, 2011: Electric Daisy Carnival sells 300,000 tickets. Easily the most experiential festival in the world, it combines incredibly creative stages and production with top-name EDM performers. In 2017, the festival sold 400,000 tickets.
New Year’s Eve 2010: The Cosmopolitan opens with a $30 million entertainment budget including Jay-Z co-headlining with Coldplay and Beyoncé as a surprise guest. Also showing up were John Mayer, Channing Tatum, Brandon Flowers, Rihanna, Jared Leto and Kanye West.
March 10, 2012: The Smith Center for the Performing Arts opens.
March 8, 2014: Brooklyn Bowl opens at The Linq Promenade on the Strip. The two-story venue has a capacity of 2,000 with 32 bowling lanes and six bars.
October 3-5, 2014: Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival launches in the 15-acre Las Vegas Village across from Luxor.
October 26-27, 2013: Life Is Beautiful Music & Art Festival creates an 18-square block music festival which includes art, education, culinary and live music. Over the years the festival has hosted the Killers, Imagine Dragons, Stevie wonder, Beck and Mumford & Sons.
May 8-9 and 15-16, 2015: Rock in Rio launches in a specially constructed festival site across from SLS. Headliners include Taylor Swift, Metallica, No Doubt and Bruno Mars.
April 6, 2016: T-Mobile Arena opens with local heroes the Killers. In its first year, the arena hosted 36 shows including Guns N’ Roses, Garth Brooks, George Strait and the Rolling Stones.
December 17, 2016: The Park Theater opens with Stevie Nicks and the Pretenders.