Vegas. It’s a word that conjures a succession of freeze-frame images: The glittering marquees that boast some of the world’s most dynamic performers; the smoke filled but lavishly decorated gambling casinos; the million-watt color of Las Vegas Boulevard, known as “The Strip.” The only place in the world, it is said, where one can stand on a corner and read newsprint at the stroke of midnight.
Like any place that’s steeped in fantasy and myth, the deeper one goes into reaching the reality, the more the mystery unfolds, revealing something which is many times more interesting than the legend itself. This became evident to me in my conversation with Adam Shendal, the drummer for the Wayne Newton Show.
Invited to the rehearsal, I walked into the Caesar’s Palace main showroom. Amid the plush surroundings and luxurious decor, I began to listen to the two-fisted honesty of Adam’s playing. At the time, his playing seemed to me to be the very antithesis of the environment I stood in. Where the room was geared so that an individual could sink deep into the velvet seating, the open throttle delivery of that 36-piece band driven by the cannon-fire backbeats of Adam’s playing, was more than enough to bring those individuals up and to the very edge of those seats.
After the rehearsal, I had the opportunity to speak to this innovative and provocative man. From that point, Adam Shendal, and Vegas, proceeded and continued to bloom.
RB: Didn’t you grow up around both Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson?
AS: Well, I was lucky because my step-father, Dean, grew to know Buddy, and I wanted to play the drums. At 11, I was always pounding on things. Then I got introduced to Buddy. Buddy and I became good friends and I practiced a couple of years. Then Buddy was appearing at Caesar’s Palace with Tony Bennett and I was, you know, really trying to copy his style, technique and a lot of his licks. So one time I said to Buddy, “Could I fool around on the drums a little?” I looked up and there were like 15 people standing there watching me, and Buddy said, “Wow, this kid can play!” Later on I grew to know him better and my playing matured. Then I met Louie Bellson which was a rare treat. He’s one of the finest guys in the world.
RB: Being around players of that caliber must have inspired you. What kind of goal did you set for yourself?
AS: I don’t know. At that age you always want to be the best you can be. You know what it takes to be good; you have to practice. At the time, I wanted to play like Buddy Rich. But as I went along I began to realize that to play that one style just wasn’t enough. You’ve got to be able to really reach out and listen to what everybody is doing and let yourself shine through that. After listening to so many great players, you realize that there are so many guys who are saying so much. I don’t play to be the greatest; I play to try to cover all the bases.
RB: You have to cover all the bases in the Wayne Newton Show because his act is so diversified, in terms of styles.
AS: Right. I think today’s drummer really has to be able to play everything. There are great players who are either great rock players or great jazz players. But today, it’s getting more to the point of being “good or bad.” You see more players coming up who can play bebop, they can play with a small group, big band, funk, whatever. They’re hip to the new Latin rhythms that are happening right now. Now I find it’s more just being a “player.” Having the conception to play any kind of music. Not only in playing, but in the way the drums sound.
RB: You’re playing with a large orchestra. What are some of the things one must keep conscious of in a band that size?
AS: Well, it’s something like 36 pieces: full string section, brass, two guitarists. You know, playing in a big band situation you really have to play to everybody in the back row. Wayne’s show is such that it gives the drummer a little more liberty than a lot of shows might. There are a lot of places to play drum fills and so on, but the important thing is to be able to set up the band. I mean, you can’t play something so avant-garde that the band can’t hear where “one” is. In a small group, it can be a little looser at times. But you’re so spread out with a group that size. You have to adapt your concept to that particular situation.
RB: When you first came to the Wayne Newton Show, did you have to make any changes in your playing?
AS: Basically no. I would say that I have grown playing with the Wayne Newton Show. As I matured in my playing, I found that many of the things I was doing. things I thought were great things to do before I began working with Wayne, drum fills and so on got in the way with the big band. Now I find myself doing less to achieve more. I’ve learned you’ve got to complement the orchestra. Listening back to myself on the tape of the show, I’d see that some of those things didn’t work and I’d say to myself, “Just play time through there.” You try not to get in the way. You pick your spots; when to do things and when not to.
RB: How do you create the spontaneity you do working nearly 40 weeks a year?
AS: Well, Wayne Newton is not the conventional type of entertainer that will go in and do a set show night after night. I’ve memorized practically all the charts in the show, but there’s still some stuff that Wayne will pull out that I’ll have to rehearse in my memory, or look at the chart for a second. You have to approach each tune as if it were the first time, without saying “Oh, we’ve got to play this again.” When the band takes on this attitude as a unit to approach everything fresh that energy and excitement is created. Like last night: Wayne called two or three tunes we haven’t done in maybe six months. So you’ve got to be right there at all times. You’ve got to know tempos. He’ll test you constantly. Consistency in a situation like this is very important. Some nights I’m drained. We’ve worked several weeks without a day off. It’s difficult.
RB: A lot of Vegas players are excellent readers. Do you think a dependency on charts can stifle a player’s ability to hear and play different styles?
AS: Yeah I do. Especially the way a lot of arrangers write charts. Don Vincent, Wayne’s arranger, is excellent and he gives me a lot of freedom. But many times an arranger will put the horn figures in a chart and musically speaking, a lot of jazz drummers will play it like it’s a Vegas big band chart. Just because a chart has horn figures marked, a lot of times these things shouldn’t be caught. A lot of drummers, because of their lack of concept with today’s music, will catch a figure where maybe they should just be playing time. It’s getting back to knowing what to play when. That goes for any kind of music, even jazz. I find that a lot of guys have different ways of catching figures. In rock and funk, the rhythmical aspect of the music is first. Many times, by catching things you really shouldn’t, you break up the flow of that pattern you’re trying to set. I feel it’s very important to know just when to play time.
RB: Do you think a lot of Vegas players are ignoring some of the newer styles, like fusion?
AS: Yeah, most of them are. They get left out of the big picture. That’s a problem with a town like this or any town, unless you’re talking about New York or L.A. Many players fall into a pattern. They have their families and playing is a job. They go to work. They can play anything you put in front of them on paper, and for them, that’s enough. Then all of a sudden times start changing and you have to be able to do different things. However, I think the newer drummer is continually growing. He’s listening constantly to all the new things. They’re gathering all these concepts in their heads, although they may never use them on the Vegas stage. To play the Vegas style, I mean, well, there are a lot of guys in recording, rock groups, whatever, that maybe couldn’t play the Wayne Newton Show because it takes a certain kind of ability. You see a guy doing a symphony and he just plays on a snare drum; he’s fantastic! He may never be able to play any jazz or rock. But for what he’s doing, he’s great.
RB: What kind of set up are you using in the show?
AS: I use Zildjan cymbals. As far as the drums go, I’ve actually cut down on the drums I’m using to do the show. Now I’ve come back to a pretty basic set. A 12″ and a 13″ on the rack, a 16 x 16 floor tom, a 22″ ride cymbal, a 16″ crash on the left, a 17″ crash on the right. On the hi-hat I’m using 14s—the Zildjan Quick Beats. The ones with the holes drilled into the bottom cymbal. It gives a little more “click” on the hi-hat. I find for the show, I really don’t need much more than that.
RB: The public is starting to get some strong images about Vegas now. What do you feel is the greatest misconception about Vegas style entertainment?
AS: I don’t really know if there is a misconception, to be honest with you. I mean, after you get a guy like Steve Martin on TV and he says, “Hey, I’m a groovy kinda guy and I’m a Vegas kinda guy… ” Well, a lot of it really is like that. But for the most part, that doesn’t take away from the fact that there are a lot of really great players working here. But basically, you’re playing to please a mass audience. If you made a huge mistake in your playing, maybe the guy from Omaha wouldn’t know the difference. But if you went into the Baked Potato in L.A. or the Bottom Line in New York, you have a discerning audience of people who listen to a certain kind of artist. It’s a different kind of entertainment. Not to say it’s good or bad or otherwise. Then again, more and more recording artists are coming here. Melissa Manchester, Anne Murray and Donna Summer, all work here now. They sell millions of records. Wayne Newton is the kind of entertainer that tries to cater to his audience on all levels. He does some jazz, some country, some rock, ballads, everything. Me, personally, I like to listen to Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, then I like to listen to the Police. To me, entertainment is either good or bad. And, like any business, Vegas is looking to serve it’s cliental.
RB: Has success changed your approach to the instrument?
AS: Success is a relative thing. To me, I don’t know if I’ve really achieved that much success.
RB: Well, you’re working with Wayne Newton. Last night you played Caesar’s to a packed house. Many would consider this a degree of success.
AS: I guess it’s a certain amount of success. It hasn’t really changed my playing. I never look at success or glory or people coming up to you and telling you how good you are because you better watch out. there’s some young kid coming by you all the time. It’s happened to me. It’s just diligence and hard work. Being able to keep on learning and keeping a positive attitude toward growing in a field. A lot of times you have some young guys who two years ago couldn’t even spell “drums,” than all of a sudden, two years later they’re like giants in the industry.
RB: Did your playing gradually improve or did you find yourself taking giant steps from time to time?
AS: When I started out, I was practicing six to eight hours a day. But since I’ve always loved sports, I began to divide my time between snow skiing and drums and going to school. When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I began to slack off in my playing. Which brings me to something we spoke about earlier: When I was in high school everyone was saying “Hey, you’ve got to see this kid play the drums!” My good friend, Walfredo de los Reyes, Jr. was playing congas and very little drums. I became a little big-headed about what I was doing. Meantime, Walfredo and I were playing in the high school jazz ensemble. He was playing percussion and I was playing drums. A year went by and all of a sudden, he came out of the woodwork. He had been woodshedding all that time and I slacked off! So he came out and was showing me patterns and stuff that created more enthusiasm for me to practice new ideas that were coming out. At that time I started listening to Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. But I was really gaining an understanding of the differences between the sound of the drums and what the drummer was doing conceptually to make that music sound good.
So, you find yourself slacking and growing, slacking and growing a little more. You just have to keep the door open in your mind that your ideas and concepts are not the only way to do things. That’s why I listen to what other drummers are doing. Even though you might say while listening to someone, “I can play that,” it doesn’t mean that you can place that as the right idea in the right spot, for the musical situation you’re in. It’s like the difference between doing a spacey kind of a fill versus doing something really fast around the toms, which means nothing.
RB: So discretion is very important. Can we talk a little bit about your style and technique?
AS: Well, like I said, I was around Buddy Rich a lot and technically he’s a phenomenon. Louie Bellson, as well. When you see their technique it makes you want to go in a corner and hide somewhere. So I was trying to copy their style a lot. But later, working with the rock beats I began playing matched grip a lot. I found I got a lot more power out of my left hand, although a lot of players today are playing the conventional way and getting the same amount of power. I can play both ways, depending upon the situation. In Wayne’s show, I play matched grip a lot because there are so many backbeats. It seems to be an easier way to go, for me. I’ve seen guys use timpani grip. I’ve seen guys who look like their hands are broken and, in their way, they get the sound they want. You’ve got to experiment to find what’s good for you. I really work on a lot of Latin rhythms, and independent patterns between my hands and feet. I feel that speed is important up to a certain level because you need it to play any tempo you need to play. But I also feel it’s important to have the freedom with your hands and feet to do anything that comes to your mind. It’s extremely important and a constant challenge.
RB: How much of your training is formal and how much is self taught?
AS: I took lessons in reading. But for my playing, I listened and watched. I took lessons with Irv Kluger, a brilliant teacher, who played with Charlie Parker, among others. He taught me a lot about jazz and reading. Then later on with a teacher named Joel Ross a fine reader and a brilliant technician. Joel took me through Jim Chapin’s book, which gave me a lot of independence. But for me, I learned the most just being in a musical situation. Individualism is generally what makes the player. A lot of problems players develop today are due to the fact that they are clones of other players. Buddy Rich said something to me years ago. He said, “Listen to everybody and let yourself shine through that.”
RB: Working with such a charismatic performer as Wayne Newton, how aware are you of your own showmanship onstage?
AS: Completely unaware. I do try to be exciting in my playing. I know Wayne is looking for a lot of energy in a show like this. Playing a lot of drum fills is very often not the answer. It’s a matter of laying it down so the band can work together as a unit and play together for him, so he has the freedom. In a show like this you might find yourself playing more than if you were going into the studio to create the excitement. But you’ve got to play in such a way that the band knows where the time is. You’re working together to create that type of excitement so Wayne can do his thing. Anybody who sees any field logically.my field being music knows you have to have a total concept.
RB: Do you think a drummer, while studying, should put equal emphasis on a harmony instrument?
AS: Yeah I do. And I’m sorry I didn’t do it. As a young kid growing up, I had a lot of interest in sports and I didn’t take the time to learn the piano. But I did listen to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Bill Evans all the time. I used to drive around in my car and sing their solos. I’d listen to what ’Trane was playing against the changes. I think that helped me in my approach to playing as opposed to just looking at the drums. Around Vegas, it’s not enough to be just a drummer.
RB: You mean the guys who can double get most of the work?
AS: Yeah. Most people in this town, like Walfredo de los Reyes, Sr., who’s a legend in the Latin percussion field and a great musician, plays all the percussion instruments. In this town, there are a lot of guys who double. They play timpani, vibes, bells and shakers. They play the total percussion as well as the drumset. Anything you can do like that is definitely important and will contribute to your growth as a musician. I have friends who are really amazing because they’ve taken the time to do everything. I can kick myself in the butt for not learning the piano.
RB: So we could say, “scratch the surface of the Las Vegas drummer and you have a fairly well-rounded musician.”
AS: To a point. He’s an excellent reader and within the confines of the element here, I’d say he’s got it covered. Now when you talk about going and playing with the Lee Ritenour band, I don’t think he’s got it covered in that area. There are a few guys who could do it. Then again, you look at the guys who are playing with Lee Ritenour, like Alex Acuna. Alex was working in the Hilton Hotel house band here in Vegas before he moved to L.A. and eventually played with Weather Report, Lee Ritenour and Chick Corea, among others. He’s a good friend of mine and, to me, one of the moving forces in music today. He’s got independence like you wouldn’t believe.
RB: What are some of your own traits that have perpetuated your success?
AS: You have to have the ears to listen. You have to be able to be inspired, therefore having the enthusiasm to want to practice; to want to grow. And the determination to be all you can be. It’s like the ones who don’t seem to have the ability at first, but they have a tremendous amount of determination and drive which pulls them through and puts them in a position where they can develop their strong points, and overcome their weak points.
RB: How much validity do you lend to the concept, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”?
AS: I don’t lend any validity to that concept. I think you have to stand on your own two feet in anything you do. You can’t fool the public. You can kiss somebody’s rear end for a while and play politics up to a certain point, and a lot of politics are played here in Vegas, but when you’re talking about the higher qualities of musicianship, I don’t place any validity on that concept. There it comes down to your ability.
RB: Do you think today’s musician must also be a good businessman?
AS: I think it’s important in life to protect yourself and to be knowledgeable about business; to have an understanding of where your money’s going. But speaking as a musician, there’s a job to be done and you have to go in and have the responsibility and the talent to do that. Be a nice person but stand up for what you believe in. Go out there and do the best job you can do every night. Rather than be shrewd, I’d say “be real.” That’s the best way to handle your business.
There are people in the industry who have used politics to get to where they’re at. There are a lot of people who are capable of coming in and playing the Wayne Newton show. I’m not the only one. I know how to play for Wayne, and Wayne must like the way I play. It’s been five years now. But you have to realize that there are a lot of guys who can do a job. That’s why in L.A., if they can’t get one guy to do a session, it’s not like they’re lost if they can’t get that one person. If anyone starts maintaining that attitude, they’re kidding themselves. You know that you are fortunate to have a job, and by having that job you must maintain a professional attitude in doing the very best you can. Louie Bellson has contributed more to the music industry in his lifespan than anybody I know. And he’s the nicest human being you’d meet in your whole life. To me, he’s the complete antithesis of the concept that you have to be shrewd to get anywhere.
RB: Where does Las Vegas stand in the face of changing trends in the record industry and show business in general?
AS: I see Vegas as a town that has established stars. It’s a place for them to work, call their home, make a lot of money and get as many weeks as they’re capable of getting. I don’t see anything highly creative going on here, versus a new Broadway show or a new album coming out. I mean, you’re not going to see Pavarotti coming here. I don’t know, maybe you will. You don’t see a lot of rock acts here, although Manhattan Transfer has been here and Melissa Manchester. These are major recording artists. But they’re the kind of recording artists who have a mass appeal. I do think Vegas is growing, it’s just not paving the way, unlike New York, LA., or places like that. Now we have some very good studios in town. Kenny Rogers comes in and records when he’s in town. Willie Nelson has done some tracks here. The studios are equipped to get the sound. I think you’ll be seeing more of that in the future. It might be established as a great town to record in. I have been very fortunate here because I’m doing a lot of different sessions on a local level. I mean, what’s happening here may not be on the caliber of New York or L.A., but who knows? Maybe some day it will be. I think within the next five years, as they’re doing more TV shows here and so on, there will be more and better things happening. More creative things. More clubs sprouting up.
Vegas, as far as the youth goes, is not unhip by any means. There’s a lot happening at the university. Right now the Jazz Society is bringing in a lot of groups. Having those talents come into Vegas, and seeing that more and more people are paying money to see them, I think that will create more of the same.
RB: When you have a highly talented young artist with a home base in Las Vegas, is he tempted to leave town to pursue the bigger and better?
AS: Well in the case of Alex Acuna, his talent exceeded that of just playing a show here. Same with Walfredo de los Reyes, Jr. He knew he had to go to L.A. Now Walfredo works for Ben Vereen. They play Vegas. It’s his job and he plays the show the way it should be played. When he’s in L.A. he’s working with Clare Fisher and doing different things in clubs, and getting involved in the studio situation there. And that’s the way it should be. If I found it was opportune for me, I’d probably do the same thing right now. It’s tough because you get locked into making money. Especially with a guy like Wayne, working as much as he does. You go to L.A. and you’ve got to struggle for a lot of months because there are already people who are established there. They’re going to get the first call. Rather than me putting up the struggle, I’m trying to take another route. I’m hoping the community will grow. Then hopefully doing more things in this community, therefore being one of the ones that gets called around here.
RB: There are so many great players in Vegas. Are there any jam sessions going after hours? Like New York in the ’50s?
AS: No. That’s what’s sad about the town. I’d like to see more of that.
RB: It’s unfortunate because there’s a veritable gold mine of great players here.
AS: That’s right. Like our concertmaster, Elek Bacsik. He’s one of the great jazz violinists of the world. He’s played with Dizzy, he’s played with Miles, and people of this caliber. He plays in a house band situation, playing single-note lines many times. But I mean, if you ever heard this guy solo…you’re talking about one of the great musicians of the world. Yet he knows he has a family and he has to do what he has to do. He’s made his mark and has been known by the greater element of people in the jazz world. Not to say he doesn’t like playing the Wayne Newton Show. I’m not saying that. Now he’s settled down a little to a good life and a good job. What I’m saying is that his ability far exceeds playing any Vegas-style show. And there are a lot of musicians in town in that same situation. Wayne Newton is the type of entertainer that gives Elek the opportunity to play and solo more. But there’s a difference between really stretching out and working a show where the man out front is the guy you’re working for. He’s the center of attraction. Wayne is good enough to let some of us stretch out and play, but still you know that it must be within the confinements of the show, unlike a jazz club situation.
RB: Do you think the excellent reader is a dying breed?
AS: Well, a lot of it is how much you are reading. If you can play and read something the first time as if you’re not reading, well, that’s a tremendous ability to have. There are so many drummers around today who are great readers. Charts leave a lot up to the interpretation of the drummer. Therefore you have to know which figures to catch; to know how to play the music at hand. But no, I don’t think he’s a dying breed. At one time I thought a lot of guys were just great players and not great drummers. But then it gets back to being able to do everything. A lot of guys on the scene right now like Vinnie Colaiuta and Terry Bozzio, as far as I know, they’re excellent readers. These guys are very futuristic players. To go to work and to go into the studio, you have to be able to read, and also know what to do with these figures. Reading is a very important thing and, if anything, is going to enhance your playing. In order to work today, you have to be able to read, play different styles—you have to have it all.