Q&A: Zowie Bowie’s Chris Phillips
Chris Phillips has been getting the party started on the stages of Las Vegas for more than a decade since making his Vegas debut as Zowie Bowie, an act that started out as his alter ego but is now a “high-energy nightclub dance concert” featuring top musicians, vocalists Jamie Lynch and Christina Amato, and Phillips as frontman for a continuous live mix of infectious pop covers designed for drinking and dancing. And drink and dance Zowie Bowie fans do, as Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen found out.
How was your weekend?
Well this weekend, like pretty much every weekend for the past 11 years that I have been here, is getting to … I guess you might say making as many people as happy as possible, and the fact that I get to be able to call that my job and be able to get paid to make people happy is pretty extraordinary, and it’s what keeps me going to be quite honest.
Are you about to be a dad?
I can’t even believe that I’m saying yes (laughs).
Duncan Jones (whose father, David Bowie, originally named Zowie Bowie) had a son last year. I think he named him Chris Phillips Jones.
(Laughs) Wouldn’t that be funny?
So, you’re going to be a dad?
I am. I’m very happy and proud to say, all within a month and a half, I turn 50 years old, I got married and found out I’m going to have a child. All within weeks. It was kind of a day to grow up and mature, at least to some degree, which is something I’ve never done and never thought was going to happen. But like I said, I’ve been so fortunate and so lucky to kind of live out my dream, my Vegas dream. As you may have read in past articles, ever since I was a kid, I’ve always dreamt of being a Vegas entertainer because, and I’ve said this many times, instead of my parents taking me to Disneyland and the beach, we would go to see Don Rickles, Tony Orlando in Las Vegas in the ’70s, so it had a tremendous impression on me. Not just wanting to be a Vegas entertainer, but even more importantly I wanted to live the Las Vegas lifestyle that I thought was so cool back when I was a kid. So long story short, I put something together out in Scottsdale that, thank God, turned into a huge success. The Fertitta family caught wind of that, brought me out here and changed my life to open Red Rock Casino when it opened 11 years ago, and I have essentially been the show there since. Throughout the 11 years I’ve been out here, I’ve ventured out, certainly performed at various other properties throughout that time as well, including various hotels on the Strip.
Your current gigs include your long-time residency at Red Rock Resort, the Fremont Street Experience and, as of November, Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars. What differentiates the shows?
What’s interesting is it’s the exact same show, but when you play to different demographics, you change your attire and you change your banter, and it becomes a completely different show with the same music (laughs). Caesars Palace, we wear suits and dresses, certainly speak in a different manner and a different tone to the demographic that is there after seeing Celine Dion, compared to people out on Fremont Street Experience at one o’ clock in the morning from all over the world. That’s a different set of circumstances out there, different energy level. So even though, like I say, it’s the exact same music and set of songs, I think the energy you bring to it, and particularly the things you say in between songs becomes a different thing altogether. Regardless of where we play, whether it’s a corporate party or a nightclub, we don’t necessarily consider ourselves to be a show. We’re more of a party that plays music, and our intention is to make people feel good. I’ve always found it’s not about us but it’s about the people that come to see us, and we’ve always been very aware of that. When you come to Las Vegas you want to feel good, you want to have a good time, you want to forget your problems, and you want to party! That is what I think has led to my continued longevity and success. I think we understand the principle, the primary principle of why people come here: to have a good time and party. And we like to facilitate that for them. It creates kind of a drug that you become addicted to yourself. You can’t get enough of that energy and that feeling, that Vegas energy, Vegas party atmosphere. It allows you to do this four or five nights a week without stopping for months and decades on end.
How did the Barge gig come up? I know Matt Goss’s residency ended, but how did you secure that stage on Tuesdays and Wednesdays?
What’s interesting is one of the first hotels I walked into in the mid-’70s was in fact Caesars Palace. To me, Caesars Palace embodied the absolute spirit of what this city’s all about in terms of the live entertainment they have had there throughout its history and just the grandeur of the opulence of what this city is all about—the sophistication, the class and the style. I think Caesars Palace has always represented all those things that are sort of stereotypical Vegas traits, so for me, I’m such a Las Vegas fan, in order to really become indigenous with this city and be branded a Las Vegas act, there’s no better property to perform at than Caesars Palace.
Cleopatra’s Barge has been there since the late-’60s, and it’s one of the few remaining lounges in Las Vegas that still caters to live entertainment and has that old vintage Vegas vibe, yet with a modern-day energy, which is kind of what our show is about. It’s a show that has modern-day music and energy, yet I think we embody the old maverick spirit of what this city used to be about. I think, when you marry those two things, our show is a perfect fit for Cleopatra’s Barge. To me, there’s no other place in town that I’d rather play. To some degree I enjoy being there than in some big showroom where people have to just sit and watch. The great thing about Cleopatra’s Barge is that people could get up and dance. That’s primarily what we do, is we create a party-dance atmosphere where people can either watch or they can get up and dance—primarily drink and dance and have a good time, and enjoy what Vegas is all about.
So, Caesars is like a classic sheen on your show, but …
It is. It’s the epitome of what Vegas is all about, and I want to represent Las Vegas in its truest form. I have no intention of touring around the world or going to Hollywood. I came to Vegas to be a Vegas guy and stay here, so to me it’s a dream come true to get to perform at Caesars. What happened is that when Matt Goss vacated the room back some months ago I contacted the entertainment directors at Caesars Palace and said, “You know, I love this room, I love this property, and I think we’d be a perfect fit.” And they said, “Chris, coincidentally we’ve been talking about you in our meetings the last couple of weeks, and I can’t believe you called because we were going to reach out to you too.” So this is like fate, and within hours we were on the schedule.
What’s so cool is I was kind of under the impression they were going to renovate the room and do something different with it within the first couple of months of Matt leaving, and what happened is they brought me and my buddy Dave Perrico in. If I understand correctly, things have gone very well and I think they’re going to keep this going, at least for a while longer than they had anticipated because of the success, thank God. I couldn’t be more happy to hear that, because I’d love to stay there as long as they’ll have me.
Isn’t this related to the shows you’ve done at Bally’s and South Point?
No. As you may have discovered, I do two very different shows. The one I am most known for and quite frankly earns me my living and has been my career, is the high-energy nightclub dance concert, which does all the current music that’s on MTV and classic dance music. It’s performed in a similar way to a DJ where it’s just medleys of songs and people never leave the dance floor. That’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it. It’s a great way to make a living and a lot of fun. However, my true passion and the reason I came to Las Vegas was to create a show that represented, like I say, the classic entertainment I grew up watching here—the Rat Pack, Paul Anka, Elvis and Tom Jones. And these Vegas headlining entertainer that I was so influenced by—I wanted to do a show that represented that feeling, that spirit, that vibe. And so I do a 15-piece vintage Vegas big band as well, and when I do that it’s simply called my real name, which is Chris Phillips. And the show is called Vegas … Straight Up and it’s a very authentic, hardcore vintage Vegas show that you would have seen, essentially, at Circus Maximus at Caesars Palace in 1978. It’s very similar to Steve and Edie, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra type or sound/feel. I have special guests, celebrity guests, that come up and sing with me, like Rich Little, Frank Marino, these kind of guys that come in and just kind of have fun, joke around, drink too much. Again, it’s still a party, but it’s nice to, for once, be able to put on a show that people can actually watch and clap at the end of the songs, compared to being a dance machine. It’s two very different shows, two very different types of music. Obviously with the big band show I’ve got a five- or six-piece horn section and stuff like that, and we’re all in tuxedos. It’s a very classic Vegas look and sound, whereas Zowie Bowie, that brand is all about being current and edgy, fun and very current, but you know what? I kind of take the same attitude to both shows, of this Vegas character that comes up and … in neither show have I ever had a scripted word, any choreography or any preconceived notion of what I’m going to say or do. And so every show is different and authentic to that night, that audience, because I play off the people that come to see us. I don’t have any predesigned notion of what I’m going to do at all. I just go with the flow of the night, and some nights are great and some nights are not, but at least every single show is real.
The Red Rock Resort show, that’s your local audience, right?
It is. It’s essentially the one night a week we get to perform to pretty much 95 percent locals and friends, some of which have now been coming there for 11 years. We’re coming up on our 11th anniversary in early April.
What do you have planned for that?
(Laughs) Just an extra bottle of vodka as far as I know. I’m sure we’re going to have some kind of a party, but nothing that would be that different than any other Friday really, other than just promoting it a little bit more. We’re so incredibly grateful to Station Casinos and the Fertitta family because they literally not only brought me out here and created a career for me, but made my dreams come true, created an existence for a brand I think has in turn influenced other acts and bands over the years in terms of formula and the type of show that it is. I’ve seen a lot of bands try to kind of create the same mold, but at the end of the day, it’s really not about the music. It’s about the personality of the people onstage and how much they care for the audience and the people that come to see them that really makes the difference in a successful show. If you look up and down the Strip at the shows that have been here for 10 years you see people who really care about the people that come to see them.
In January of last year, shortly after the death of David Bowie, you announced you were leaving Red Rock and returned in August. What brought you back?
I realized at that point that I had been doing the dance thing for about 20 years, and I wasn’t really pursuing my passion, which is the vintage Vegas act. Just to be very blunt, I then shut down my dance thing other than one night a week just to keep some revenue coming in, and I put all my focus and effort into creating this new Chris Phillips Vegas … Straight Up show, which I did. I put it together and I started performing with it and having a great time, but within five, six months later … it’s kind of like the mafia. It pulls you back in (laughs). And I was missing it, and just to be very blunt, that’s the way I make my financial living. In this town, and the way I do things, I don’t sell tickets. I sell cocktails. The blunt truth is the vintage Vegas show doesn’t sell cocktails nearly as much as the nightclub dance concert, which is what you would find in a major nightclub where you’ll have people buying bottle service, not sipping on one martini but buying a round of 10 drinks for everyone around them. So the amount of money I’m able to generate at the bar with my dance show is considerably more than the vintage show. … I kind of just needed a temporary reprieve, a break for a couple of months.
Your current band is Dan Walker on keyboards, James Caselton on guitar, Tony Carboney on bass and Earl Campbell on drums, right?
That is absolutely correct.
Are you working with David Perrico, too?
No. I work with him on New Years when I need a horn section, all these special events where I call him in. I use all kinds of horn guys from all over town, but the thing that has evolved and changed for me over the years is the female singer, my counterpart. I’ve gone through several.
I’m having a little trouble keeping up with your singers since Marley Taylor’s departure.
Marley was with me for a long period of time and she was the one I came out here with, but after her being here for a couple of years she got tired of Vegas and wanted to go back to Phoenix, and didn’t share the same passion and dream I had for being this Vegas guy. At that time, that was like six years ago, I brought in … I auditioned many gals and went with a girl named Nieve Malandra. She got pregnant and is now a couple of weeks away from having a baby girl, so her being pregnant is certainly not conducive to our kind of show, the high energy of it. … So I went and I brought in two other gals, the main one that I use four out of five nights is Jamie Lynch, who used to be the singer of Pussycat Dolls, and still currently is a sub at Fantasy. She was in that show as well. The other gal that I use, her name is Christina Amato. Gorgeous young lady who is only like 23 years old. She’s awesome, and I use her at Caesars Palace on Tuesdays.
You’ve often talked about not growing up, but what do you see ahead after you become a dad?
I think the only thing that’s going to change is I’m not going to be able to sleep as much as I’d like to (laughs). That’s about the only thing that will change. To be quite blunt with you, if I grow up and mature I’m out of business, and I mean that sincerely in the sense that my job is rather juvenile. It’s got youthful energy to it, and quite frankly I’ve got to be 50 going on 15 for the rest of my life if I want to do what I’m doing.