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The hip-shaking, hit-slinging, all-out appeal of Earl Turner

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Earl Turner believes in show business, giving everything you have, every song. For him, that includes singing, dancing, playing instruments, telling jokes and looking sharp. “You need to take people’s breath away when you walk out.”
Photo: Sam Morris

It was after midnight inside the Havana Room at the Tropicana, and I was checking my watch. Despite the who’s who of Las Vegas entertainment taking shots and tearing through songs and comedy sets like no one on Earth had to work in the morning. Assembled for Stifler, Stratosphere golden boy Frankie Moreno’s freestyle smorgasbord, talents like Lorena Peril, Geechy Guy and Melody Sweets were killing it. But when you’re not in the mood, you’re not in the mood.

The staccato lick of Prince’s “Kiss” made me turn from my friends to a man in black. Curling his voice around the falsetto tease, he popped, dipped and spun his body like the music was trying to bust through his ribs. He jumped offstage and back on like it was nothing, summoning James Brown.

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“Who is that?” I asked. I had never seen anyone sweat so much for one song. It was exuberant and classic, the kind of show I’d been hoping to see ever since I moved to Las Vegas. (When the Strip headliner balancing a chair on his face while juggling a sex toy isn’t the act that stands out, you know you’ve seen something special.) In under five minutes, Earl Turner got me in the mood.

The Missouri-born, multi-threat entertainer started touring with show bands at 19 and has since shared the stage with the likes of Lou Rawls and Philip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire. As a solo artist, he had a dance hit in Europe in the ’80s, and his band has performed at nightclubs and casinos across the country. A YouTube montage shows him shimmying, kicking to the ceiling and letting Sam Cooke possess him to the point of knuckle biting, all while wearing head-to-toe electric red or silky white. Earl is from another era of show business, one that wasn’t cynical.

How had I missed him? And what ever happened to entertainment that’s actually entertaining?

I CAN BE WHAT I WANT TO, AND ALL I NEED IS TO GET MY BOOGIE DOWN -Al Jarreau

“He would leave at 7, 8 o’clock in the evening, clean—I mean sharp … the suits and the flair, the puff-sleeve shirt and the shoes shined. I wouldn’t see him again until the next morning. And I thought to myself: I don’t know what he does, but I want to do that.”

It’s two weeks before his two-night showcase at the Suncoast, and Earl is talking about his step-grandfather Speedy Huggins. Speedy was a celebrated Kansas City jazzman who tap danced and drummed with some of the greats, Ella Fitzgerald included. The fantasy of that life stuck in Earl’s young head, next to the sound of his dad’s guitar, his mom’s piano and his grandmothers’ gospel hymns. “Always, always, somebody was singing.”

At 13, he landed his first gig at the American Legion hall in his hometown of Fayette, Missouri. He’d taught himself to handle a bass, and with his brother on drums and a friend on guitar, they played for some old folks in the afternoon. “I think we played the same four songs for about three hours,” he says, chuckling at the memory and the 50-cent tip that launched his career.

Earl Turner - from YouTube.com

At 15, playing bass and singing a little harmony in a band called Universal Reign, Earl saw the payoffs climb to $25 or even $50 for a night of hits, everything from Motown and pop to Iron Butterfly and Cream. During Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” they’d set off flash pots made from bricks and gunpowder and had a guy dance on his hands with lit sponges glued to his shoes. But in a factory town of 3,000, not even that could get you further than police balls, sorority parties and open mics in the church basement. “It wasn’t a town that was long on dreams, that’s for sure,” Earl says.

Unable to afford college, the 19-year-old worked at a hotel as a handyman, at a burger joint and in the mail room of an oil company for $1.25 an hour. It was comfortable, but as his dad might say, Earl’s heart was fixed on something better. And his life changed in one 38-mile drive. A bandmate wanted him to see a Chicago R&B outfit called the Earl White Revue, and they talked their way into a Marshall nightclub to watch thick horns blow the roof off.

“I was completely beside myself, like, I need to play with that band,” says Earl, who told Earl White he played bass, guitar and drums and just needed enough to cover food and the $50-a-month payment on his Chevy II. “He got me the hell out of Missouri. He gave me an opportunity and believed in me when nobody else did. Even though he knew I wasn’t necessarily an exceptional musician, I think he felt I would be an exceptional asset. He knew that I was dead serious in my determination about what I wanted to do.”

I WAS ALONE, I TOOK A RIDE, I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT I WOULD FIND THERE -The Beatles

The floor is vibrating. A dozen musicians are warming up a day before Earl Turner Encore! hits the Suncoast. Keyboardist Brian Hicks counts them in, and horns blow heavy into “Got to Get You Into My Life.” “Come on!” Earl shouts, changing tempos and cues on the fly. The band got the music about a week ago, and this is the last of only two rehearsals before the big night.

“I love it. Jump in and do it,” says vocalist Diane Gordon, who met Earl while singing backup for Wayne Brady. Next to her is honey-voiced Patty Janura, who fronts her own band. Jason Levi’s trumpet serves Holly Madison’s 1923 Bourbon & Burlesque. Eddie Rich plays sax for Strip productions like Vegas! The Show and Boyz II Men. Steve Meyer and Chris Coleman have backed Earl on trombone and bass for years. Everyone in the room commands the spotlight. As they run through radio gold I know by heart, the bigness of the sound surprises me. I never appreciated these layers: the romantic swell of violins and cello, the sick whine of guitar hanging on the ends of notes, drum intros tumbling hot. Earl says it’s a recipe, bringing together “really, really good people” and asking them to dig deep.

“Soon as y’all come in, get busy. On every song, get busy,” he says, pointing out when they’re too close to the studio track. It’s tricky making someone else’s song your own. Earl has written and recorded original music, but covers are his bread and butter. He looks for material he can arrange and style and let marinate until it’s personal. “Mean that,” he says to the band. “I need you to just mean it.”

This is not the same guy who went by E.T. from ’72-’78 with the Earl White Revue. That guy kept his head down. He didn’t sing lead. He definitely didn’t dance. The initials stuck when he joined a band called The Vann Company with a regular gig at a country-western bar in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was covering guitar while frontman Charles Vann fought leukemia. When Vann passed away months later, E.T. began transforming “out of necessity.” “That’s when the dancing and the real singing started to develop,” when Earl Turner stepped to the mic.

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The bar’s regulars weren’t always keen on his weaving The Commodores and Eric Clapton into the rotation of hits by Kenny Rogers and Mickey Gilley, not to mention the color of his skin. Handshakes were sometimes rejected and insults mumbled or spoken out, depending how much the person had to drink. Earl says in any kind of crowd, you can’t win over every doubter, but you can show them you’ll work your ass off.

“Look, Sammy Davis Jr. once said, not everyone’s going to like what you do, but don’t let ’em leave feeling like you didn’t work hard,” he says. “It’s supposed to be show business. It’s 90 percent business and 10 percent show.” Audiences, he adds, are like children and animals. They know when it’s real.

I'M NEVER, EVER GONNA QUIT 'CAUSE QUITTIN' JUST AIN'T MY STICK -Barry White

By 1983, Earl was fronting his own band and crisscrossing the country on the nightclub circuit. He says they traveled so much that if they weren't working, they were homeless. They wanted to break into Las Vegas, but in ’89, Laughlin was as close as they could get.

Their manager called entertainment directors up and down the Strip, and Karen Dorsey was the only one who promised to see the act at the Colorado Belle. Now president of Ellis Island Casino and the family of Village Pubs, she booked talent for the Dunes back then. Even in a grainy VHS tape, Earl had gotten her attention.

The night she was supposed to catch his show, her group was starving after a day on the water. “I said, ‘We’ll just run into the lounge, listen to a song or two and go have dinner,” she remembers. “And we stayed. We were so enamored and entertained. He was so absolutely incredible. I sat there and said, I’m watching this star that just needs a door opened.”

After the show, Karen booked Earl’s band for a four-week stint at the Dunes. She says he packed the lounge and took Vegas by storm on his own, but she’s proud to have cracked the door. “I’ve watched so many great entertainers over the years, and he just stood out above and beyond everyone. ... The quality, the resonance and the range of his voice is phenomenal. The likability factor is huge, his energy, his dancing—he’s nonstop.”

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The Dunes booking led to others, at the Desert Inn, Sands, Aladdin, Luxor, Excalibur and Rio, where Earl turned his lounge act into a ticketed show in 2001. The tagline came to him in a dream: Las Vegas has found its soul. Right before the transition, a young artist who’d one day headline himself caught four nights in the lounge.

“Earl Turner was the first show I saw when I came to Las Vegas,” says Frankie Moreno. “The band was killer, the arrangements were killer, and this guy—I’ll never forget—he jumped on the stage and he did, like, 50 or 100 push-ups just to make himself sweat.” What song was punctuated with this feat of stamina? “Kiss,” the same one Earl sang at Stifler.

Frankie says what’s often missing in the production-show era of Vegas entertainment is one-on-one connection. From classical composers to vaudeville, he says the great entertainers have shown their passion partly by looking you in the eye.

“It’s about going up there and just pouring your soul out on the stage. It’s very rare to see that these days with anybody. ... And [Earl’s] still doing it?” he says. “I think he’s fantastic, and I wish we had more of him.”

Frankie came out of the lounge just as Earl did, and Wayne Newton before him. But it’s uncommon. Despite packing the room, Earl says convincing Rio execs to charge $21.95 when his act had been free in Vegas for a decade was tough. They gave him a month to prove something. The show ran from April through August before the casino closed it.

The next month, Earl was diagnosed with prostate cancer, six days before 9/11. He took out a second mortgage to maintain the band’s full pay while they were in a holding pattern of two off-nights a week in the Rio’s main showroom—which Earl says went to The Scintas after Danny Gans left for the Mirage. “Sometimes you don’t get chosen for the job that you want,” he says. “It may come to you another way.”

For him it came in 2004 at Harrah’s in New Orleans, in a showroom with his name on it. Even in that insular music scene, the show built momentum for more than a year. Then Hurricane Katrina struck, on Earl’s birthday. With the casino closed, he and his family and the four bandmates who’d moved with him returned to Las Vegas to rebuild.

The band has since dissolved, though some of the guys still play with Earl for special performances in Vegas among regular fly-on gigs on cruise ships. He says he gets paid to be on vacation and has time and energy to do what he likes. He’s working on an album of original songs and covers and a “symphony meets soul” project. He’ll do another double-header at the Suncoast in September, and in October, he’ll perform in his old New Orleans showroom with son Aaron—a monster tap dancer and So You Think You Can Dance finalist—by his side. Whatever he feels about what is lost or might have been, it doesn’t show.

POUR A LITTLE OUT NOW FOR THE LOVE THAT WE'VE MADE -Justin Timberlake

The lights come up, gleaming on an iridescent seam of Earl’s jacket. He looks sharp, Speedy Huggins sharp. Of course, he asks if the crowd is ready for this. It’s an older set, but there’s no lack of energy beaming to the man and his band, also dressed to kill. “Y’all remember when we were sexy?” he says to the darkness, grinning.

For nearly two hours, Earl gets busy. He seduces the air during a three-song block of Barry White, leads a “My Cherie Amour” sing-along and boogies into the audience to shake hands and kiss his wife Christine. He punches the air on fat chords and holds one high note forever. After a flurry of footwork, he pretends to be winded for laughs.

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It’s an unselfconscious intensity, different than what I’ve seen in the huddle at the club, watching Avicii work. The superstar DJ has passion, but it’s restrained. The cool of 21st-century entertainment is about seeming unaffected, like you rolled out of bed awesome and don’t really notice there’s a show happening around you.

“Old-school entertainers believe in the entire package, from dressing to engaging the audience to telling the story of a song to dancing,” says Skye Dee Miles, a powerhouse singer at the Tropicana Lounge who’s from Boonville, Missouri—a tiny town 10 minutes from Earl’s. She credits his aerobic style to growing up with gospel music requiring “an entire body experience” to get the message out. “He’s really throwing the microphone, twisting and turning, doing the splits and doing jumping jacks and singing at the same time. … He’s amazing.”

Along with Sonny Turner of The Platters, Sante Fe and the Fat City Horns, The Imperials and The Treniers, Earl was in Vegas before the Celines and Eltons got onboard. The old guard set the bar high, Skye says, and she hopes she and Frankie and even mega-stars like Bruno Mars “emulate that excellence.” Not everyone wants to go to the nightclub, she says. If a casino can make a million dollars from the crowd hungry for a show like Earl’s, “respect that million.”

His Suncoast crowd includes his original drummer Curtis Wilson, his dry cleaners, the woman who babysat his kids and singer Phil Flowers, who joins him for a hard-charging cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” He does a spare “All of Me” by John Legend and mauls his guitar (his first love) on a big, brassy version of Justin Timberlake’s “Drink You Away,” but the setlist is mostly throwback. Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” has him unflinchingly crooning “You’d be like heaven to touch” to a bald gentleman who’s thrilled. Even Christine, who has probably seen this a thousand times, is looking at Earl like he’s magic.

He says today, May 3, is the birthday of James Brown. So he does a call-and-response, throwing in, “Get an enema!” before we can stop ourselves from yelling “Yeah!” The show ends with a Prince medley. No encore.

Earl says he used to need the ovations to feel he’d done his job, but after so many years in this business, he’d rather leave you wanting. Looking at the stage instead of your watch.

“Tom Jones, James Brown, Little Richard, Elvis—they all had it, that something that made you freaking pay attention. It was a connection you made, eye contact, a relationship,” Earl says. “That ability to make you feel something.”

I see the contrast between the guy cracking up about those flaming sponges back in Missouri and the one wearing the glittering jacket. Earl has seen it, too, backstage at the Desert Inn eating chicken wings with The Temptations. One minute they were just normal guys, and right before they walked onstage, they were more. That’s what we pay to see, and some entertainers earn the hell out of it.

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