After entertaining up and down the Boulevard for more than half a century at hotel-casinos that no longer exist, there must be days well-traveled pianist Charlie Shaffer feels like he’s faded into the neon-lit mist of Las Vegas history.
Fortunately, he’s no ghost. But it was no small irony that he found himself opening a Chautauqua program before a capacity audience Saturday at the Boulder City Theatre. With scholars Peter Small playing Thomas Edison and Doug Mishler as Henry Ford, there was plenty of history in the air.
Thanks to Shaffer’s remarkable skill, there was plenty of music from the 1930s and the Great American Songbook, too. From George Gershwin and Fats Waller to Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, Shaffer had the theater owned by Desi Arnaz Jr. humming and singing along.
It wasn’t the biggest crowd he’s played for in a career spanning six decades, but I’ll wager it was among the more appreciative. The mostly older audience that turned out to watch scholars render the lives of two American inventors doesn’t often get the chance to hear great songs rendered at the highest level.
Shaffer was in the neighborhood — he and wife Martha are longtime Boulder City residents. For a guy who has spent endless nights in Strip lounges and showrooms, or on cruise ships around the world, it was practically in his living room.
Shaffer plays with such unabashed enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to wonder how he’s remained so passionate about his music after so many years. With a dozen recordings to his credit, he’s written and arranged for top talent in Strip showrooms, “The Tonight Show” and many other stages. At 76, he’s earned a decade of evenings off.
“There was hardly a place in the old, original Las Vegas that I didn’t play,” he recalled. “For a while it was a running gag for me that all the places I played were destroyed, they were all imploded.”
For the record, Shaffer has an alibi for every detonation. Like a generation of Las Vegas players who thrived in the live music era in the lounges and showrooms, he was very likely working.
Born in Texas, as a college kid in the 1950s he traveled for a time with future rockabilly hall-of-famer Johnny Olenn and wound up at Warren “Doc” Bayley’s Bakersfield Hacienda. By then Bayley had his attention and his bankroll invested in the Hacienda on Las Vegas Boulevard, and within months Shaffer was introduced to Las Vegas during its golden era.
“I was introduced to Las Vegas totally through the backdoor and by accident,” he said, smiling at the memory.
Shaffer eventually left the rock ‘n’ roll band — he got tired of conjuring Jerry Lee Lewis and “pounding on the piano all the time” — for a more grownup sound that was not only more challenging, but greatly improved his opportunities.
The jobs followed. Name it, and he played there: the Sands, the Riv, the Stardust and more than a dozen years at the Desert Inn.
He didn’t do it for the money, but for a long time the money was good. He had a fan club in Houston and a cult following in Albuquerque. You can still catch his music on satellite radio and buy it on his www.charlieshaffer.com website.
Like many of the best musicians in Las Vegas, Shaffer was never out of work, respected by stars and cherished by aficionados. Thanks to changing technology, satellite radio and an active website, he receives contacts from music lovers from around the world who share his affection for the standards.
These days, though, he’s satisfied to accompany his daughter Laura on Sunday nights at Lorraine Hunt’s Bootlegger and admits that he doesn’t “want to work more than about one day a week.” After years of nightclub success singing Top 40 hits, she’s fallen in love with the American classics, too.
Charlie Shaffer is living proof that the good stuff gets older, but never really goes out of style.
Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at email@example.com or call 702-383-0295.