It’s a crisp December day on the Las Vegas Strip, and pedestrians are getting something unexpected as they stroll past the faux Brooklyn Bridge in front of New York-New York casino. Cameron Calloway is there with his guitar, mic and amp—not to mention his talent and passion—and tourists are literally stopping in their tracks to take in his version of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” There’s something about his voice, pristine and comforting, conveying such a familiar and beloved song. It makes all of us wonder if this beautiful music is bouncing all the way up Las Vegas Boulevard, so everyone can get this experience.
It’s hard to believe that such a talented performer is doing the street-performance thing on the world’s most-traveled tourist thoroughfare, but that has become far more common on this part of the Strip since MGM Resorts built outdoor entertainment into New York-New York, the Park and the Monte Carlo. We’re not talking about the costumed folks hoping you’ll take a selfie and leave a tip. These are professionals hired by MGM to provide musical ambience to complement the landscape.
“You walk through that Park, and if it’s the right feel and the right time and weather, you’ll lose yourself and forget you’re in Las Vegas,” says Daren Libonati, vice president and general manager of MGM’s outdoor venues. “You might stumble across a wonderful violinist or guitar player. Those experiences and artists fit the aesthetics of that area, as Cameron fits and fulfills through his artistry. He is a unique guy.”
Away from the Strip, those who follow the local music scene know about Calloway’s unique talents. The 27-year-old Long Beach, California, native has been singing and playing guitar for less than three years, which you won’t believe when you hear his rich, soulful voice, reminiscent of some of his biggest influences like Al Green, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. The New York-New York gig—three-plus hours every Thursday—has been instrumental in helping Calloway develop a nuanced, experienced sound.
“It’s all that practice and all those gigs when you think no one is listening,” he says. “That’s why I’m so grateful for these [long gigs]—it forces me to practice, forces me to try new things with my voice and push a little harder than I did last time. Being uncomfortable at certain moments has helped me grow, not just as an artist but as a person.”
Calloway’s family moved to Las Vegas in 1992. He grew up thinking he’d be a football player but didn’t like playing much at Durango High School. While working in a chocolate shop, he thought about becoming a chef, a doctor or even a firefighter. Music eventually came naturally, and once he quit his day job, things started happening.
In the two years since, entertaining tourists along the Boulevard has become more than a way for this young artist to pay the bills. “As a performer there you really have to set the vibe,” Calloway says. “You don’t want to play too many slow songs or too many upbeat songs ... mapping out what to play for three hours can be a challenge, especially when there are moments when it seems like no one cares. That’s the tough part. But it helps me build that endurance, and it makes me appreciate it more when I play my own shows and people come to listen to my stuff.”
Calloway is set to release his first EP of his own material next month, a collection he calls My Neighborhood and will celebrate with a May 19 show at Vinyl at the Hard Rock Hotel. He’s been writing songs for as long as he’s been performing, and while you can catch him on the Strip with just his guitar, his recordings feature a full band: Brittany Valen on guitar, Bre Shen on bass, Jason Corpuz on keys and Chris Foster on drums.
“Original music is my focus right now. I just want to keep making music, and if something happens with a label later on, maybe I would consider it. But the way the business is changing, I don’t think that will be necessary,” Calloway says. “I just want to play some more festivals and [shows outside Las Vegas] and keep making music that brings people together.”
When asked about his farthest-from-home gig so far, he tells a story about a woman who sent him a video from her medical mission to Haiti. She was singing one of Calloway’s songs to children in an orphanage, teaching them the words and melody. That’s certainly not the typical gig, but he’s not your average young artist, and maybe his breakthrough gig is atypical, too.
“[On the Strip], I’ve been able to connect with people from France and Germany and Australia,” Calloway says. “I can give them my music to take back with them.”