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, SUPERFOOLæhad 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.
Now I'm eight and one half months pregnant and I want to produce a healthy baby. My labor pains were just beginning and boy was that kid kicking! Dr. Roscoe had examined the patient and was preparing for a natural delivery. This specialist had hopes of allowing the whole world to view his operation and my proud achievement.
This is about how I felt with only 10 days to lift-off. Ben was arranging news coverage, pictures, press and the things he did so well. My job was organizing a team of qualified persons to help me not only get through the marathon, but to make it go smoothly. Filming, recording, still pictures, instruments, song lists and signs were only a small part of what I had to be responsible for on May eighth.
Dennis Hamby scheduled the filming with a port-a-pack video camera plus the 16mm work was to be done by an associate. He and Loretta were put in charge of this department. So my worries were over as far as the filming was concerned.
Recording the entire event was another matter. It required changing the reel to reel audio tapes every 2 or 3 hours and I couldn't do that while continuously playing music. To my rescue came a couple I'd only known about six months. Jim and Sam Locke were almost the heads of my local fan club. Their faces were as much a part of the lounge during my show as I was. Many people had asked me if they were paid members of my entertainment show.
Jim and Sam quickly volunteered their services for recording my marathon as verification and for sentimental value. Jim had arranged to use a large reel to reel unit and stay the entire time to insure a reliable job. To both of them I owe a debt of gratitude for their moral support as well as their faithful job of recording on May 8 and 9.
The instruments were all in my possession before the event. I decided to use an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric organ, electric piano, bass pedals, trumpet, harmonica, banjo and several percussion instruments. I had representatives from the keyboard, string, brass and percussion families. Since the music stores I had approached all refused to volunteer to loan me any extra equipment for this one day, I made do with what I owned and borrowed from fellow musicians. With co-operation, I could have had on stage lots of other instruments to play from the families already mentioned. But there was really no more room to put anything else.
Using my card files of song lyrics and chord symbols from many years, I prepared an emergency kit of tunes in case my mind went blank after 12 hours. Luckily enough, 90% of the songs played in the marathon were off the top of my head. No more than 20% were instrumentals and I only repeated songs that were requested during the entire 18 hours and 16 minutes. God gave me a good memory bank and I really needed it for this challenge.
The week of the marathon, my stage was covered with informative signs and promo material for this Day of Days. Announcing the event every hour, I made sure I wouldn't be alone on Saturday night. People really don't listen to what you say until they've heard it 100 times. TV has brainwashed us into this type of habitual human flaw by its subtle, subconscious, repetitious, subliminal advertisements... advertisements...advertisements...advertise....Whoops!! There it goes again...See?
This last week I also had to pace myself in order to be ready for Saturday's chariot race. Unfortunately, my accelerator was hung and when the audience was cooking, I put out full steam ahead! Always trying to prove myself to responsive patrons, I stayed true to my Cooksey characteristics. I'm either all or nothing! My only sensible move was to begin taking my prescribed sleeping aids every other night of that week. My anxiety got stronger and stronger as the week progressed.
Also during the last week, Ben had set me up as a part of a special charity called Help Them Walk Again. Since his son was confined to a wheelchair, he was a member of the board of this organization designed to create motivation and to do further research for a cure for afflictions that impair the mobility of the legs. This included many persons struck by various calamities from accident to disease.
Already informed of my previous childhood ailments, Roscoe'd scheduled my marathon to correlate with awareness for the Help Them Walk Again campaign. He knew that for several years as a child, I was sidelined from walking due to Leg Perthis disease. My spinal cord had become detached from my hip and I truly appreciate today the privilege of walking. Ben also knew that I did all kinds of charity benefits along these lines each year. My support obviously could be obtained by just asking.
Wow! I'd not only be helping my career with my marathon, but more importantly I'd be assisting in building national awareness for many persons not as fortunate as I in regaining their mobile freedom.
Ben set up meetings for me with the originator of the charity, Joanne Toadvine. We met at the Peppermill Restaurant next to Silver City and reviewed both of our situations relating to helping the cause. Joanne had a son who was confined to a wheelchair and her motivation was sincere and dedicated. We seemed to agree on many ideas expressed at this afternoon luncheon.
The charity had planned a big function at the Convention Center on Saturday night to coincide with my marathon. Many quadriplegics as well as noted celebrities would be in town for the event. Tickets were sold and much advance publicity preceded the kickoff.
On Wednesday before the big weekend, Ben Roscoe had scheduled a news conference at Silver City to announce the correlation of all these events on one specific date. Not only handicapped persons and charity personnel were present, but also the TV, radio and print media were all out in force to cover this full scale program. At exactly 12:00 noon, on stage in the lounge Lt. Governor, Bob Rose, approached my microphone and commended all the participants for their generous contributions of involvement in assisting such a worthy organization as the Help Them Walk Again foundation. Ben Roscoe also spoke and introduced the other dignitaries present. He may have introduced me as the last speaker, for fear I might anxiously go ahead and begin the marathon right then. Having been around performers all of his life, Roscoe knew someone with the name Wild Bill could tend to be unpredictable. Ben also was aware of my paranoia about Lucas just up and calling the whole thing off!!! But Ben boldly shouted out my name and my turn at bat brought the undivided attention of every member in this selective audience.
I must say that I've never followed a Lt. Governor, but I knew the subject matter well. So I took the liberty to briefly explain how my marathon would supplement the publicity for the overall campaign. A complete two hours of questions and answers followed along with 20 or so interviews. The city would certainly be aware of what was going on this coming weekend.
Those last three days before the big event, I really don't remember much except I slept all day Friday. And most of Saturday I was totally zonkered out of this world in my bed thanks to the prescription for twilight time tablets. Oh, yes, I almost forgot to mention that on Thursday I ran into my friends Tom and Ellie who operated a wedding chapel on the Strip. After telling them what I was going to do, they agreed to conduct their own real wedding Sunday at noon during my marathon on stage in the lounge at the Silver City Casino. Now that's got to be the wildest thing yet. But it was all set up with a preacher and everything! You understood that correctly!!! This couple, who had been living together without a marriage license for quite a number of years, made their living convincing hundreds of lovebirds every month the way to go in life was to get hitched. Obviously, the idea that some bearded hippie they knew was going to attempt to set a world record in a Vegas casino by casting away all common sense and rational thought served to be the dynamic catalyst for them to look at each other and say, "Oh, Darling, this marathon of Wild Bill's has plunged my heart into such a romantic desire to wear a wedding ring that I can wait no longer to become your eternal mate!" Either that, or maybe they'd heard "Here Comes The Bride" one time too many while inhaling the rice they were supposed to be throwing at the customers. Excuse me, but my experiences in this life have led me to believe that 9 out of 10 folks running wedding chapels are coo coo for cocoa-puffs.
On May 8, 1976, I arrived at Silver City around 8:45 PM. I had a conference with Ben Roscoe and Tommy Fresch, another casino shift boss. With much professional experience on stage when he used to play a big stand up bass fiddle while swinging across the stage on a trapeze, Tommy agreed to do my introductions for the filming at the beginning of the show. So checking out all equipment in advance, I departed out of sight from the lounge area.
At two minutes until 10:00 PM, Tommy asked for a drum roll and then dashed on stage. Welcoming the audience that was packed to the walls for this world record breaking event, he stirred them up into a passionate frenzy. In the distance I could barely hear him, but I knew the cameras were already rolling in preparation for his big announcement. Finally, the moment for the gladiator to enter the arena had arrived. And at the top of his lungs little Tommy produced a first class P.T. Barnum impression. That was my cue to run across the casino with mustard on my sword!
"And now, Ladies and Gentlemen! Silver City is proud to present, in an effort to break the Guinness Book World Record for a continuous one-man musical performance of 16 hours, -----the fabulous WILD BILL COOKSEY!"
The whole crowd went wild! All rising to their feet while cheering and screaming the signature line I used endlessly on stage, while commanding that imaginary little two-inch man I invented inside my electronic percussion box to play harder and faster----They mimicked me by yelling "Get'em Drummer!" "Get'em Drummer!"
As if time had stopped and I was floating in slow motion through the air, my whole body, mind and spirit absorbed every drop of this triumphant ecstasy. I simply nodded my head in regal acknowledgment towards my adoring subjects. Who was I kidding? These people wanted blood! Powerfully raising my hands above my head and forcing my way through the crowd towards the stage, I knew this was my moment to be "Rocky". And I was determined to relish every pleasureful, exhilarating second!
With the veins in his neck about to explode, Tommy's face was red as a beet. Over and over, he kept shouting my name to incite the crowd. When I was only inches away from mounting my launch pad, my enthusiastic friend, Tom, reached out and aggressively shook my hand, slapped me on my left shoulder and with a sincere, lowered voice spoke directly into my ear. "Go get'em Wild Bill! You can do it!!!"
Finally, jumping on the stage and throwing on my guitar, I felt this flow of energy inside of me was going to ignite and send me off into orbit right through the roof of this casino. But with the kind of control I held over these fans, there was no way I was leaving this stage and breaking their hearts.
You're probably asking yourself what song did I play first? Are you kidding? I was so shaky I have no idea. It was just loud and furious enough to excite this already emotional audience. I seriously doubt if the crowd cared either. To them this was history in the making. And history makes its own music. Baby, that audience and I were tuned up together to make Beethoven roll over one more time!
Releasing hard-driving, ear-piercing sounds for the first 30 minutes, I quickly remembered my pacing theory. I backed away to something mellow and laid back. You'd think that the audience would catch on and be disappointed. No way, Jose! If I played the musical scales on a fish's back and hummed "Jingle Bells" through a Kleenex and comb, this die-hard bunch would have still done head stands for me. They came to encourage one of their own. And the home team could do no wrong.
As I alternated this slow song, fast song process, it wasn't long before Sam Locke put up a sign saying One Hour Completed! The crowd cheered and I smiled so big I almost broke my jaw. But big deal! I had 17 hours and 16 minutes left to go. Was I crazy or what?
The second and third hours went quite well. People stayed and applauded my non-comedy show with only continuous music allowed to be emitted from the stage in order to stay in accordance with the rules of the marathon. But by the end of hour number four, some fans became bored and began to depart. They proposed to return the next day for the big finish. Let's hope there was a finish.
By 4:00 AM we'd dwindled down to 10 or 12 people including our own staff helping with the marathon. But certain other lounge entertainers started dropping by to cheer for the local persistent idiot with the black hat. Ben Roscoe would come on stage periodically and read telegrams of encouragement from stars like Dean Martin, David Brenner, the casts of the Dunes Hotel's Casino De Paris show and the Stardust's Lido show plus numerous hotel executives and employees. But most important of all were the large number of just good friends who'd sent their best wishes for someone they believed in.
A highlight of the 5:00 AM segment was the appearance of the fantastic Imperials from the Sahara lounge. Since Little Anthony had left the group a number of years earlier, this talented trio continued to win acclaim everywhere they performed. No longer just the vocal backup group from those classic recordings of "Tears On My Pillow" and "Hurt So Bad", the Imperials could stand alone as a top notch headline act on anybody's stage. Without any big buildup, they quickly grabbed a mike and started singing background harmonies behind my lead voice as I sang some super soul goodies. My favorite was their addition to "The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me." It gave me cold chills and revived my every spirit. I'll be forever indebted to them for their unforgettable contribution to my event on that early Sunday morning.
I could see the BIG RED coming up through the side window and felt that other Big Red showing in my tired eyes. Playing piano with one hand and bass and drum with my feet, I still could drink beverages and take my vitamins. I began to get punchy and giggle a lot, but I realized that I had to keep cranking out the music. Perhaps with the crowds returning in a few hours, now would be a great time to set my mind and body on automatic pilot. Never allowing myself to miss one beat, the music kept on flowing as I took some deep breaths. Right here would have been the ideal time to just shut down and go home. c Ben Roscoe had joined a friend, Darryl Dryer, of KBMI the all news station, in observing my 6:00 AM antics. They sat watching and waiting for an immediate collapse or a quickie trip to the little boy's room.
Oh! But I had already taken that into consideration from the beginning. If Nature called, I was prepared to answer. If necessary, I'd page a security guard to monitor me as I made my trip to the little boy's room. Surely Bob Dylan, Jimmy Reed and Neil Young all qualified as making music when they played guitar and harmonica at the same time. And I had my trusty Harmonica holder that fit around my neck handy at a necessary moment's notice. Believe me, nothing that simple was going to stop me now.
As usual, my determined mind didn't even think about leaving the stage the whole time. In fact, the truth is that I became so caught up in the event that Sunday afternoon, I left the casino, went home to bed and never answered Nature's call until 12:00 noon on Monday May 10. One entertainer friend in Florida was joking about my never leaving the stage for five or six hours and said, "I finally figured out Wild Bill's secret. He talks in vapors."
Nevertheless, all those years of not taking breaks were only training for May 8 and 9, 1976. And this was nothing. Just think, I could have been an astronaut. I wonder if NASA knows I'll be available after this is over?
You know, at 7:00 AM regular people eat breakfast, the most important meal of the day. Why not me? So Ben brought me a bowl of soft scrambled eggs and a spoon. At this time I was stretched out on the floor playing a reclining version of "Malaguena". As I saw Ben approaching with my most important meal of the day, I quickly arose and went back to the keyboards, never missing even one note. Notice, I never claimed they were always the right notes. I placed the eggs above the surface of the top keyboard and proceeded to allow my tongue to lap up this fowl feast in true musical animation. It was the perfect combination. Some little chicken had given us the eggs. And Yours Truly added the ham. Sorry, I couldn't resist it.
A lot of pictures were taken of this, but it was basically the only food I really consumed during the entire marathon. Mostly liquids gave me the physical strength to carry on. Slurp! Slurp!
About 8:00 AM a very unique and friendly, black gentleman stuck his head through the open window of the lounge. My mind was beginning to fade, but here was what I needed to resharpen my wits. In the midst of playing New Orleans style songs on a keyboard instrument that were directed to my new friend, I began to question this Louisiana tourist and got some perfect comedy set-up lines. We did at least one half hour of pure nonsense and delight! Comedy's rough enough, but to have a casino roaring at 8:00 AM in the morning is unheard of. I sure enjoyed it! It put some gumbo in my get up and go. Merci, beau coups, my Cajun comrade!
By 10:00 AM I began my Sunday morning religious hour. All songs were inspirational in keeping with those who couldn't attend church because they were sitting through my marathon. I always loved Gospel music and could think of no better time to play it than now. Amen, Brother!
I believe my eyes were beginning to dim by 11:15 AM when the wedding party started stumbling in. They looked tired and they'd been to bed! What did I look like by now? Probably like shag carpeting in Atilla the Hun's mobile home!?!
Flowers, the preacher and all the wedding necessities were present. Uniquely, Joanne Toadvine and her son were maid of honor and best man, respectively. While I continued to play softly in the background, everyone was lined up for the noontime ceremony.
Tom and Ellie had requested that I sing "Tender Loving Care" for the service, so I gladly obliged with a very hoarse throat. Followed by "Here Comes The Bride", rice and lots of kisses, this was a touching sight in the lounge of a casino conducting a marathon with a guy about 12 feet away yelling, "Okay, hard six" or "the house wins".
An interesting footnote is that the participating minister had his own claim to fame. At the time of our big event, he held the uncertified record of being the only official licensed preacher around to have married a couple or couples in a plane as it flew above Las Vegas during the legal ceremony. So I guess you could say this marriage was a little below what he normally was used to.
By 1:00 PM I was wiped out! Forget it, man. This was the stupidest thing I've ever done! Lucas, the General Manager, was right. My fingers hurt. My head hurt. I was dead! And now that the wedding was over, I just knew I'd be all alone again until the end. Wrong!!!
Not only did the wedding party begin the honeymoon right there with liquid refreshment, but everyone from the night before returned each bringing their six most rowdy friends. It was reminiscent of a New Orleans funeral during Mardi Gras with all the revelers marching around, laughing and greeting each other with a feeling of unity. Sure these people on top of people had all come to view the body for better or worse. Depending on my ability to endure or not to endure, they were prepared to celebrate with either champagne or embalming fluid.
My voice got weaker and weaker. I turned up all the volume available on the amps. I played more instrumentals, but people started to request my hardest vocals. They had already begun to celebrate my victory three hours too early. They were to put it nicely----bombed!
"Look, Bill," Ben Roscoe said. "It's only 20 more minutes until you break the old record of 16 hours. You can do it!" Ben probably saw I was going down the drain fast and without his encouragement maybe I would have pulled the plug.
Whoopeedo! Man, I've had it!! Okay, I said in my mind. I'll break that record, take my bows and go home! Minutes seemed like hours. My voice was no longer discernible. My singing tones would remind you of Rice Krispies without the snap and pop. Oh, God, just one more minute!
At 2:01 PM, Roscoe jumped up on the stage and made the big announcement. These two hour alcoholics went wild! Yelling! Hollering! Ohhhh, my head hurt soooo bad. But maybe since they were so happy, now it would all be over at last. Hurry up, folks, with all your celebration noises. Let's go home. This one's in the record books now. But wait a minute!
Somebody tell Roscoe to sit down and get off that microphone. Ben, please stop! "Bill, just broke the old record," shouted Ben. "Can he make it two more hours and 16 minutes?" The Red Sea reopened! Everyone but Howard Hughes and Jimmy Hoffa shouted approval. So what if Neil Armstrong landed on the moon! They hadn't been there and if they had, they'd probably have tried to talk him into walking on the sun in Bermuda shorts!
"Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!," a furious crowd chanted relentlessly.
Are you kidding ? I was dazed as I still stood there strumming that dumb guitar. Well, maybe just a few minutes more. You know, to reach an even number. Then they really did it! They found the little button in my mind that jumps the starter! Boom! I jumped up and down and they went crazy. The more hyper I became, the more insanity this audience displayed!
Playing unbelievable blues licks on my guitar and falling on my knees to the floor, I realized that I was responsible for starting mass hysteria. Their energy poured into me and I was wired back to 220 once again. I knew I had them going and my ego wouldn't let my poor, tired body stop now. After 15 more minutes I remember complete dizziness hit me real hard. Hoping not to pass out, I sat down at the piano to play a few more instrumentals.
This bunch would have clapped if I had played a funeral dirge in A-flat minor. Everytime I'd get a little draggy, some yo-yo would stand up and give a cheer. It was then I realized they wanted me to die. Either someone had forged my signature on a million dollar life insurance policy or the Vegas sports books were taking bets on whether I'd drop dead before the seventeenth hour. Great! A wedding and a funeral within four hours under the same roof! Only in Vegas.
I love 3:00 PM because this part of the afternoon is so peaceful and calm. You're so close to evening's sweet bliss. But that's when the ultimate panic hit the pit of my stomach and my marathon almost ended completely. Guess what I finally lost? I couldn't even tell anyone. That's right. The old voice went "BYE-BYE". Now what would I do?
This was a time for creative originality. a la Cooksey!!! So looking at all those smiling faces screaming at me, I put one hand on the keyboard to play, and with the other hand I wrote a large note. The note said, LET'S SING!
A good old community sing-a-long would be just what the doctor ordered. I wished there was one in the house. So I began to play the first part of the tune instrumentally so could everyone to catch the name of the song. Then we'd all sing together. Well, they sang. I just moved my lips to form the words. I played everything I thought they'd ever heard in their lives. Still in my distorted whisper, I mumbled what I could on the microphone rather than push my voice by trying to sing. It was hilarious!
These people were really into it now because they knew that without them, I might not make it. Then 4:00 PM finally arrived and I only had 16 minutes to go! Oh, God, give me strength! People started clapping hands, dancing around and screaming in my ears.
"You're going to make it Wild Bill!", they yelled as they pierced my head with commands. "You're going to make it!" When the clock ticked off 10 more minutes, I came alive like Lazarus. I jumped ---I screamed---I killed what little was left of my raw throat! I was Richard Petty in the last lap! I was Roger Maris hitting his sixty-first homerun! I was Wild Bill Cooksey and I couldn't let my people down! If I had died right there, I felt it would have been worth it! That time in history was MINE!
I went into--"United we stand, divided we fall...and if our backs should ever be against the wall...We'll be together...Together...You And I"!!!
People were standing up with hands joined together held up high in the air. Bouncing up and down on top of chairs and tables, these uncontrollable Basket Cases were tripping out to real-life enthusiasm! Excitement personified itself into another dimension! Only three minutes left! They were about to explode !!! And so was I!!!
Here came "God Bless America". And, if possible, we all went even higher emotionally as the Bicentennial, patriotic pulses pounded with unlimited expectations! By now the whole casino had stopped. All the bosses were right there. It seemed that the whole world was watching ME!
Only thirty seconds left and I just banged the two bass strings on an A chord for 30 licks 30 29 28 27 My mind wondered off to the time in Daytona when I had performed on stage with Guy Lombardo, God rest his soul 19 18 17 I remember thinking, "Could even a legend like Guy ever have experienced this much excitement on New Year's Eve in Times Square playing "Auld Lang Syne?" 12 11 10 I'm Elvis! I I'm the Beatles! I'm Superman! 6 Can this really be happening to little Billy Cooksey, that cripple kid from Ahoskie, North Carolina??? 4 3..Look at these people! Everyone's kissing everyone! 2 Oh, no!?! This is it! 1 One? Did somebody yell, "One"? We made it! 17 hours and 76 minutes! I can't believe it! Thank, God! It's true! It's over! Hallelujah!
Not just one man had done something...No! It was a team effort all the way! Breaking this world record wasn't everything...It was the ONLY thing. The victory was not mine to glory in alone. This thing was bigger than all of us. It encompassed every living soul who ever tossed an encouraging word my way or acted as a positive role model by creating that endless desire in my heart to reach my greatest potential through persistence, determination and hard work. My mind flashed back to those early childhood years that I laid in bed all alone day after day with my leg in traction. The doctors at Duke University told my parents I'd never be able to walk, run or jump like other kids. But we were blessed to have a TV for me to watch while my folks were busy at work trying to get the money to pay all the medical bills. Now I realize that the images I saw and the ideas I received from that black and white television set then helped me to envision a day when I could rise above the reality of my physical limitations by setting goals. Simply put...I learned to dream! At last only two decades later walking was no longer the problem. The dream had come true! Today I was flying so dangerously high that I might never be able to come down to earth again. Wonderful! This is where I want to stay forever!
Instantly, Fred Crosley, a shift boss, ordered drinks for everyone. This was like the moments of triumph he had personally experienced many times as a very successful jockey. The General Manager, Gene Lucas, and Ben Roscoe were both on stage posing for pictures with me. There were tears of joy flowing from everyone! This was the happiest gathering of people I'd ever witnessed! Hallelujah! It's over!!!
Only one poor man, a dear friend from the Stardust named Don, sat through the entire marathon with the exception of those on our team with assigned duties. Needless to say, by then, old faithful Don was bombed! Thank you for staying Don!!! I sure hope you sampled some of that good, strong Silver City coffee before you headed home.Click here to continue!