Who would believe that Las Vegas, City of Excitement, would seem like just another place to work? But when you're grinding out six hours night after night, it's easy to fall into that everyday rut that comes with steady employment. Only three days back at Silver City and I was bored stiff with the routine. This nightly drudgery was necessary in order for me to be available in Vegas to pursue my other ambitions. And you'd better believe, I was more determined than ever!
Stronger than anything was the pressure of not taking a break in my show. Now it was almost a religion with me. For over five years I was best known all over the U.S. as the only Act of its kind to perform continuously without a pause in the action. Most entertainers deservingly take a short break for 20 minutes every hour. However, SUPERFOOL had more endurance than anyone and he had to prove it every night for every audience. Everyone loves a martyr......especially the martyr!
Tracing my roots back to the days when my parents were in the florist and nursery business, I remember them constantly complaining about their 18 and 20 hour work days. Everyone sympathized with them and patted them on the back, congratulating them on their excellent work. But these same sympathizers were the first to demand perfection at any cost of health and reason. When something wasn't just right, they were the first to criticize and put down my martyred parents. You'd think I would have learned something from all this. I could only remember the compliments received for giving your all and being a little bit better than your competition for the extra effort.
My situation grew worse every night. If I took a break, I'd lose the audience. If I stayed on stage, my mind would break. Again pride and ego overtook my common sense and reason. I could play 20 instruments, do comedy, sing, compose, mesmerize any audience for hours, and yet my security blanket was in the fact that I could play endlessly all night without a break. Other entertainers saw no need for this type of sacrifice. Thank God they were much smarter than I! Before l976 was through, I found out most people really wanted everything for nothing! But for now, I had to deal with this problem at hand. How could I remove such a valuable part of my Vegas success?
"Good morning," I mumbled, "Are there any packages here for Cooksey?"
"Yes, Sir, they came in last night. Just sign here!" responded the Delta Air Freight manager.
Here it was 7:05 AM. and I was at the airport to pick up the boxes from Nashville with my new records. Quickly I checked the labels. Yeah, it looked great! Silver City Records!
In late December I had called Major Riddle's offices to get approval to use the casino's name on the label of this new release.
TENDER LOVING CARE is a song I wrote in the early Seventies and recorded in Nashville with a number of Elvis' original musicians including the Jordanaires, his drummer D.J. Fontana, and guitarist Scotty Moore. The session always seemed like a dream because I remember looking out of the sound booth watching these same guys that were with Elvis on those first Ed Sullivan shows. Never in a million years did I think they would be backing me up on my original songs. A couple of the cuts had been released on Chart Records in '73 hailing some success. However, I wasn't happy with the mixing of instruments and voices for a contemporary crossover type record in l976. So I'd called a studio in Largo, Florida, while at the December Clearwater job.
"Is this Classic Sound Recording?", my voice questioned the party on the other end of the phone.
"Yes, I'm Walter Priest, the owner. May I help you?", a pleasant sounding, male voice replied.
Well, his real name is Walter T. Priest, but his friends call him Tom. So you'll find me referring to Tom Priest throughout the rest of this book. Our relationship is a strange, but unique one, commissioned by fate.
Tom set up an appointment to hear my Nashville tapes and we rendezvoused a few days later. He seemed to really get into the music and talked of ways to improve it for a better commercial product. We both could use a hit record since neither of us owned our first Rolls Royce yet.
Classic Sound Recording was a struggling business of six years with no fancy office or state of the art studio. Only hard work and determination had kept Tom Priest's dream alive. I guess the underdog philosophy was part of what drew us together in the first meeting.
I laid it out for Tom. If he could re-mix this "Tender Loving Care" tape to be more on the order of something like "Feelings", I felt we'd have a hit. At first I don't think he understood, but he gave it a try.
Our second meeting showed his hours of laboring over my baby. He played six or eight different versions of the same song for me. Some had more violins. Some had more voices. It was a good cross-section showing that the man knew his business. Most of all, he cared about the product. More love than technical ability appeared to be his motivation in each of the finished versions of this song.
Because of Christmas work already scheduled, Tom had to burn the midnight oil to get a mix down of the version we preferred. Immediately, I mailed off the tape to Nashville to have it pressed into the record with the Silver City label.
Hoping to gain Major Riddle's support and influence with his property name at the top of my T.L.C. disc, I planned out a definite promotional schedule for the record.
Jim Walker, a local DJ in Vegas, had been in the lounge many times with his wife, Barbara, to catch my show. So, when I brought the record to his attention, he escorted me around to see the program directors at the major radio stations. As usual, most of them either turned it down or played it occasionally. Only one FM station, KVEG which hailed a modern country format, played the record with regularity. Slowly, I began to get people asking for my song which they'd heard on the radio.
Another local DJ, John Paul, tried to get his bosses at KENO to air the song. But they received their play list from Miami, where their parent company was located. John and his wife, Bonnie, truly loved the song, but that was not enough to get cooperation from KENO to play the record.
However, I also put the record in the hands of important people in Vegas. I let them see that a clown could also write and sing a good song. Besides casino people and agents, I went as far as carrying it to the local recording studios.
Hank Castro, one of the owners of the Las Vegas Recording Studio, listened intently to my lyrics and the arrangement of T.L.C.. I valued his opinion since his studio is the location of many major recordings by artists like Wayne Newton, Paul Anka, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bill Cosby. Hank had seen my comedy act at Silver City and would tell me the truth.
"Bill, you are one of the most intricate lyric writers I've ever seen," Hank exclaimed. "Only Paul Anka has a stronger talent than you in that area. Of course, that's only my opinion."
Mr. Castro, your opinion is super, because Paul Anka has written great songs like "My Way". I really felt humbled to receive a compliment like that from him. Immediately, I rushed to a phone to share this ego booster with Pam.
Without a hit record, I had to reinforce my own belief in my talents. Time is the only thing that could change something of merit into fame and fortune. And patience was needed. That's too bad, because I have never known the meaning of the word patience. Isn't that the people you find in a doctor's waiting room?
By the end of January, lots of new fans had joined me at the club. I'd built a new stage in the corner of the lounge with a ramp leading out into the audience. Progress was being made nightly in obtaining more and more quality and precision in my act. Doing some of the original routines every night can be bad unless you have a new audience every third day like the kind one finds in Vegas. I will always add at least 25% different material each night because I work so closely with the audience.
My most requested bits like The Frogs, The Massage Contest, The Rubber Ducky and Johnny Cash Imitation were high on the list of what people wanted to see. When I came on at 11:00 PM, I was following a trio of musicians. But it didn't matter, because the uniqueness of being convincingly crazy seemed to be a bigger draw than any form of straight musical offerings. I definitely knew how it felt to be KING OF THE HILL.
Appearing on several radio and TV shows locally, I soon came close to the end of my six week job at Silver City. It was mid-February and my task was to leave for three weeks to perform in Daytona Beach during Race Weeks. Again the hassles of packing up and hauling it all to Florida by plane were upon me. This time there was no fear of returning since they already had me booked back in Vegas in three weeks.
Daytona Beach had been good to me in the past and this time would be no exception. Pam had arranged for some loyal fans like Chester Conrey and Jerry Masters to meet me at the airport in Florida. Loading up Chester's truck, we were off to deposit this entourage of cases at the club.
The In Crowd was not the Clearwater Hilton. New owners had changed the name of a very familiar place I'd previously worked. Before I left for Vegas in July of 1975, Skip Vaughn had employed me in this large, out of the way nightclub that was formerly a giant garage. With seating for over 300 people, there was a chance for me to make a few dollars. Race week was always a big draw and lots of fun. Setting up on stage in the middle of the room, I was prepared to do my thing.
Initially, the first few nights many local Daytona fans showed up. Nine months had passed since they'd seen me and it was a super homecoming. But it wasn't long before those yearly race tourists began to trickle in.
I must explain at this point about your basic DAYTONA BEACH 500 February racing fan. This is indeed a special breed. Picture if you can, six husky men from the Carolinas, Tennessee or Georgia. Now put these guys into one Volkswagen with each one dressed in white socks and matching formal farmer's attire. All of them have three dollars and a desire to obtain the amorous attention of every woman that breathes. They leave their wives and kids at home, departing with the loyal oath of seeking out the KING RICHARD PETTY CRUSADES.
Arriving at Daytona on Monday or Tuesday, these gallant, lug wrench fanatics check into a motel, preferably the same one they've stayed in for the last ten years. Why should anyone drive so far to go through the same dumb rituals year after year? But alas, on to the bar to meet and greet all the same help whom they still know on a first name basis from last year. Trust me, the local bartenders and waitresses don't remember or care to remember the names of these tourists who annually act like corn cob clods. However the Daytona bar employees are delighted to see anyone at all, since they've been starving for business since Labor Day!
Quickly, our Knights in White Socks spend their three dollars and wonder why they can't get the balance of the week's pleasure on their looks. They never really cared about the races. Shucks, you could see it replayed on the TV set next Saturday back home. They only want to display their impressions of Don Juan on every chick they feel is anxious to make eyes with an aggressive agrarian. Most of them never see the race and have to pitch in to buy a radio so they can tell the wife about what happened during their eyewitness account of the big event as they personally saw it from the grandstands. Generally the details of their similar stories are composed by the tractor pool as they finish their last evening's conference high atop local barstools.
Fortunately, these clowns find me on their second day in town. They're a fun bunch and I have a lot of laughs with them. They leave the club raving about how wonderful I am. Meanwhile the waitresses are biting their fists at these yo-yos who have flat stiffed the service. But this is the game and how it is played.
The 1976 race fans were no exception. By Wednesday night everyone was broke and somehow they're just not as much fun when they're not drinking. As the week wears on, their necessity to prove their manhood becomes vital. Usually, these people are easy to motivate into marching and shouting, and the 1976 group was right on target. Singing "Dixie", "United We Stand" and the religious medley, produced ultimate hysteria all over the room. Night after night with my impulsive suggestions, I had these people doing every crazy thing I could think up.
Car races led right into motorcycle races in 1976. A completely different crowd of people come to Daytona then. Your stereotype motorcycle freak is in the minority, because most bikes are pulled into town on trailers by big cars. The drivers are lawyers, doctors or middle class Americans who have their cycles as a hobby. There aren't as many spectators as for the car races, but overall there's probably more money with bikers than with the four wheel farmers.
However, before I knew it, my three weeks here were gone. It's good-bye again to Pam and the kids and hello Mr. Airplane. Tear down, set up -----when will it all end? My only problem is that my Vegas goals seemed to have gotten into a rut. I didn't feel I was accomplishing very much. There had to be a way to gain more productive attention. I realized that If I allowed my mind to dwell on this situation, then eventually I'd come up with something good.
Touchdown number two in 1976 at McCarran Airport was a little better planned than number one. I did carry my own stuff in Old Off-Whitie down to Silver City to set up. I still had retained my apartment so that was no problem. Hey, it was all running smoothly!
While bringing in my equipment to the stage, I overheard people talking about a union strike. The Culinary Union was due for a new contract and a big raise. And the Musicians' Union would have to honor the picket lines. How could I not work? My funds were always low and I couldn't afford the time off now!
Well, I just stayed right there until 8:00 PM to see if the strike would be effective at Silver City. Somebody was looking after me that night, because the union announced no grievance with Silver City since it hadn't been open for an entire year yet. However, almost all major casinos closed and we stayed open.
Strikes are a lot of fun the first few days. Then the party fades into illusions of poverty. Needless to say, we had beau coups of business at first. But when money got short and tourists canceled because of no main room shows, things went back to a medium crawl.
Seeing a chance to make more money, the Silver City management decided to add six more "21" tables in a new mini-pit. Did they take out slot machines or move the restaurant ? No! They chopped my lounge in half! In one day the rebuilding was done and our seating was cut from 90 to 45 chairs.
Worst of all, my super ramp stage was given notice to depart and replaced by a postage stamp platform with a thyroid condition. I was forced to remove half of my equipment due to an immediate shortage of space. As you guessed, all of this didn't set well with me. More than ever, I had to get things cooking.
Working right through the strike, I found the weeks dragging by. Silver City business was at an all time high since all the casinos employees were allowed to function regularly without repercussions from the strike. Lying to myself, I was convinced that someone with pull would catch my act one night and the rainbow would follow.
Now you can leave it to me to meet interesting people. And starting a conversation is no problem for a 'yapper' like myself. One of the most unique people I met in this period was Dennis Hamby. Being a scholarly looking hippie, he was working at the MGM photo lab. He and his friend Loretta Locke regularly stopped in after they got off work to relax and enjoy the show. It was inevitable we would be putting our thoughts and ideas together.
Dennis had come to Vegas fresh from a TV job in New York where he produced documentaries in the big city. Upon finding our common denominator of video, we exchanged stories and fished each others mind. Both of us found we had the same brother, Poverty. When you deal in video even at the lowest level, it takes big bucks.
Explaining how my TV show had worked in Florida a few years back, I presented my desires to again do a variety show from a night club with a participating live audience. Pros and cons were discussed through a number of sunrise sessions arriving at the same conclusion. Union costs would make a television production impossible in Vegas. But all we could think was how commercially attractive a show from the Glitter City would be if it was distributed around the country.
In between our fantasy seminars, I found myself thinking out proposals about video involvement so as to present them for Dennis' opinion. Walking through the large Boulevard Mall, I remember stopping one day just to make a call at a convenient pay phone. I couldn't get an answer, so I decided to wait a few minutes and call back. To kill time I wandered into the bookstore to browse. While my eyes looked at the covers of books, my mind was constantly pondering what I could do to make things happen for my career.
Thumbing through the "how-to" books, biographies and humor sections, I amused myself as usual, not suspecting that the solution to all my problems was about to pop into my life. And there on the shelf was the Guinness Book of World Records. For some reason I did a double take at this unique piece of literary achievement that I'd seen a thousand times before. Why I picked it up, I'll never know. But the book opened up right to the section on musical stunts. Call it fate or whatever, I'm glad it happened.
Glancing down the page, I came to a paragraph on the longest performance by a one-man band. I've always hated that term because it sounds like a jukebox with arms and legs. But somehow, this time I must have been desperate, because I read every word about this particular record. Oh, I play lots of instruments, but I also have many other talents that put me in a lot more categories than just being a musician.
Hey, look! The longest endurance for a clown playing continuously is only 16 hours.! I've done 8 or 9 hours many times under pressure and at full steam. If I paced myself, that would be a cinch. It was then I realized that Wild Bill Cooksey could not only be in this silly book, but my name would gain the attention of the general public worldwide. And that would compute into big dollars. You mention the Guinness Book of World Records and people sit up and listen. Perhaps it's all those network TV specials with David Frost presenting the tallest man, the fattest woman and a two-headed giraffe that brings out the carnival mystique in people. Who knows or cares why? Not me!
My mind was instantly into interplanetary travel. At the speed of light, all I could think of was how I could pull this stunt off. In Las Vegas it would have more merit because of the musical theme surrounding it. Even more unique was the fact that for years I was already known for playing hours without end on stage. This was a natural! No one could accuse me of trying to achieve fame through some off the wall stunt, when this is exactly what I'd been doing as part of my act.
Upon purchasing the book, I was shaking all over as the potential of this idea began to reveal itself. Only 16 hours! That would be a piece of cake. All I needed were the details worked out and I was on my way to fame and fortune.
Trying to take a nap before work was impossible with all my tossing and turning. My brain just wouldn't stop. This had to be the answer to all of my prayers and dreams. Finally, I could see there was a reason for all the years of training on stage for an endurance marathon! Whenever I finished a long show, people would always respond with true appreciation for my work by complimenting me for giving them a full evening's entertainment without taking even one break. The truth is it was easier for me to just stay on stage doing what I came there for, rather than to allow the audience to leave when I got off stage after forty minutes. Otherwise, when I returned from my break, I'd be working to empty chairs and I'd have to recapture the attention span of the remnant that stayed. Now ask yourself, if you came in and saw all the seats full in a place with people laughing and having fun..."Wouldn't you want to join the party too?" But if you walked into an almost empty room and saw the entertainer scraping to get a few heads to turn his way..."Wouldn't you think maybe there wasn't much going on here tonight?" And better still, what was I going to do on a break? I didn't drink or smoke or take dope. So the only place in a club I wasn't a misfit was on that stage. And now all that persistent practice was going to pay off big time!
Everyone I saw was bombarded with my newly found idea. Some looked strangely at me as if to verify their belief that I was a Heath Kit with missing parts. Others joined in with enthusiasm and moral support. The first 24 hours was like a ride on a roller coaster. No matter how many times I went up and down and all around with this plan, I always ended up with a big smile in my mind. Hyper energy flowed through every vein in my body and I loved it!
A Guinness Book marathon in Las Vegas sounded great, but I had to live through this day to day process called life. A vital need was daily rest. Who could rest? I was just so excited! Two days passed and my eyes had not stayed shut more than two minutes at a time. The price I paid for insomnia and enthusiasm began to show in my nightly exhibitions at Silver City. By the third day I could hardly drag myself to the casino. And the job almost literally killed me.
I remember one night especially well as my whole body limped off stage to depart for the evening...or should I say morning?!? I passed several fellow employees on the way to the exit. Then my eye caught Silver City's public relations director, Ben Roscoe. Somehow I found new strength, enough to hail him down and rendezvous in the restaurant.
Now, Ben Roscoe is another all time promotional person with enough experience to give him some pretty impressive credentials. Ben was long associated with the famous Republic Pictures in Hollywood. Republic made all those great westerns including many that featured singing cowboys. In as much, Ben became Road Manager and PR man for such legends as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers back in the days when the stars of the movies made personal appearances in cities where their new movies were playing. If you mention names like Gene and Roy to me, you'll have my attention because I grew up idolizing both of those super good guys on TV and in the movies.
Roscoe then became affiliated with Las Vegas and served in several capacities in the hotel and casino industry over the years. His name is a strong one all over the city. Not many last in Vegas long enough to have people respect their names. Ben had been accepted into this elite club. Now he was working for Major Riddle in a lower pressure position because as I earlier stated, the Major relies on the talent and experience of his employees to make his operations work successfully.
Over the months I had known Ben, I found he always had a story to tell about his past. My favorite concerned his part in one of the old Republic westerns where he was a bit player in a saloon. Seated at a table with others playing cards, he was in the background of the scene featuring the hero. Not until after the movie was released did anyone notice his attire. I suppose it was difficult for an audience to reason why an 1800's western saloon would have a card player dressed in a flashy, short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt! This makes me look closer today at the background scenes of old movies on the late show.
Anyhow, Ben and I discussed my idea of performing for 18 hours continuously in order to attain a new, substantial world record. For the first time I saw the reflection of the gleam in my eye in someone else's. The faster I talked, the more he responded. Any doubts I had about this ordeal were all put to rest. When a man with Roscoe's background approves, it's time to set a date. I wanted to never stop this conversation, but we soon agreed to make an appointment for another meeting the next day.
Well, things didn't seem to move in my favor for the next several days. Ben and I couldn't get together and my tenseness was unbearable. Dennis Hamby came by one night and was briefed on my plan. He loved it and added the dimension of having this monumental event filmed for our own private use. Stimulated and then deflated, it was an hourly battle to either do it or not. Could I do it without a lot of coins for complete team coverage of the marathon? Who would want to play 18 hours and have three people acknowledge your achievement with a yawn?
One big problem still determined the outcome of this whole deal. The General Manager of Silver City, Gene Lucas, had to be consulted and had to approve the details of the event or NO SOAP!. And again my timing was as good as the Post Office. On this busy weekend night, right before I began my shift, I spotted Gene over by the casino cage. This was my chance and I sprang it upon him at about 90 miles an hour. I knew I only had one brief moment to win Lucas over to saying, "Yes!!!". Every slot machine was ringing. The laughing and screaming of the crowd sounded like an amplified Super Bowl. And the constant flow of shoulder to shoulder patrons bumping into us kept Gene and me totally off balance. Yes, the scene was set for the launching of my international career and the man who held the key could hear at least every third or fourth word I said. But I knew positively, no one could be negative when I explained how much free exposure the casino would receive from my earth shattering marathon!
After rattling on for two or three minutes, I should have realized something was wrong by the look on Lucas' face. What I didn't know was one of his closest friends, Elmer, had passed away earlier in the day. Elmer had worked in the casino cage and was loved by everyone. In fact, Fred Kaiser, another cashier, had approached me about doing a benefit to raise funds for Elmer's family during his time of illness. Boy, had I picked the wrong time!
"No, absolutely no!", the General Manager spoke with unchallenged authority. "I think it's a stupid idea to start with."
Bill Cooksey became an instant vegetable. My whole world fell apart while hearing those words of doom. Hate, aggression, self pity and depression all occurred in my mind at once. But what little bit of enthusiasm I had left immediately popped right out of my mouth in a last second effort to save a drowning man.
"But, Gene, it can't cost the casino any money and think of all the media exposure!", I blurted out to this irate man already under extreme pressure.
Again he returned the same serve. This time with a much stronger force he responded with clenched teeth. The case was closed and he requested no more words about it. Obligingly, my sense of survival warned me to back away from the confrontation. May I tell you what kind of a night I had on stage? My heart was broken and my defenses were obvious to the poor customers who were attacked relentlessly by me during my act.
Disappointment is nothing compared to the hurt I felt from this situation. Two days elapsed and still I only functioned as a body and not as a complete human being. Somehow I found the courage to meet with Ben Roscoe again to try and understand why the walls of Jericho had fallen on my head. Was my marathon plan really that stupid?
Through Ben, I was able to understand the mental strain that Lucas was under when he verbally crucified my idea. Roscoe agreed to mention it to Gene when he was in a better frame of mind. My feelings were still hurt, but it helped to think that someone cared enough to go to bat for me at this point.
Roscoe, as a mediator, was excellent. He arranged a meeting between the three of us to reconsider the possibility of Silver City supporting my idea. The wheels began to turn slowly again in my head. But once you've been burned, you try and avoid contact with the flame. In a few days I had it all on paper ready to present in Lucas' office.
The day of atonement found a General Manager with a more open acceptance of the pros and cons of the scheduled program. With some interjections by Ben, the overall meeting was very successful for all parties present. My 18 hour proposal was agreed upon, but Roscoe put the icing on the cake with his ingenious PR mind.
"Bill, could you perform for 16 more minutes than the 18 hours scheduled?", Big Ben asked with apprehension.
"Sure, Ben," I replied. "But what possible difference could 16 more minutes make?"
"18 hours and 16 minutes is the same as 17 hours and 76 minutes and this is the Bicentennial year," Roscoe answered with a hint of assurance in his voice.
How could I have overlooked this gem in the whole program? 1776 in 1976! Now, how American is that? My adrenaline flowed unceasingly as my mind registered Ben's statement and my eyes absorbed Lucas' approving smile. Truly this was the icing on the cake! Now, Cooksey, all you have to do is get in that kitchen and start cooking!
May 8th and 9th seemed the most logical dates to hold the marathon. So it was officially set. I would perform continuously from Saturday night at 10:00 PM until Sunday afternoon at 4:16 PM. The casino bosses would serve as timekeepers with the entire public relations handled by my friend, Ben Roscoe. My wounds had begun to heal already and I knew it was only a matter of time before I would be the world champion for a one man band continuous musical performance. Had all this hassle been worth it? Only time would tell.
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