That Time David Lee Roth Did Las Vegas … About 15 Years Too Soon
In the middle of November 1995, David Lee Roth appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno with a short haircut in its natural shade of brown, a striking all-white suit and delivered a lounge-flavored version of “California Girls,” the Beach Boys song he had a hit with 10 years prior. Back then, he was the bottled blond, outrageously dressed quintessential sex god rock frontman of the mighty Van Halen, a post he abdicated later that same year.
His old band was doing just fine without him, having scored their fourth consecutive No. 1 studio album that January with Balance featuring successor Sammy Hagar. Even though it was a spotty work overall, the project still had Van Halen in the pole position of American rock outfits. Meanwhile, Roth watched his currency plummet with each successive record: His 1994 effort Your Filthy Little Mouth stalled out toward the middle of the Billboard 200.
Perhaps realizing his blossoming irrelevance, he picked up a 14-piece outfit dubbed the Blues-Bustin' Mambo Slammers and packed his bags for a Las Vegas residency. At 40 years old, Roth had gone to the land which was then still considered the last stop on an artist’s road to obscurity. “Las Vegas is what’s new,” the singer told Leno. "It’s what’s happening right now; it’s very hip."
He was, in fact, correct, though about 15 years too early. In 1995, Las Vegas remained a place where careers went to die, where Wayne Newton ruled the strip and people were gambling for one last shot at success. For Diamond Dave, that roll of the dice would be taking place from Oct. 19-25, 1995 at Bally’s Celebrity Showroom, a venue which held less than 1,500 people.
The show itself was unspectacular if not outright cheesy. Roth would deliver just two Van Halen originals, eschewing them in favor of standards from yesteryear. Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” and James Brown’s “Living in America” were staples, as was Edgar Winter – who played saxophone for the Mambo Slammers – with his hit song “Free Ride.”
He told bad jokes and made even worse double entendres. The onetime superstar who had once delivered macho anthems like “Unchained” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” had devolved into a persona that wouldn’t have been out of place on a night when Don Rickles needed a stand in.
This descent into a punchline didn’t last long; David Lee Roth was finished with the revue show in Vegas by early 1996. Still, though his diamond status was no doubt tarnished, Roth found himself in the spotlight once again when he briefly returned to Van Halen that September – recording two new songs for the band’s first best-of collection. He claimed later that a perceived reunion was nothing more than a publicity stunt orchestrated by Eddie Van Halen.
A re-energized Roth put out a best-selling autobiography, one of his best rock albums (1998's DLR Band) and even did the unthinkable with a summer tour alongside Sammy Hagar. Meanwhile, Van Halen floundered, first with the ill-advised and ill-fitting addition of singer No. 3 in Gary Cherone and then in years of inactivity punctuated by Eddie Van Halen’s increasingly erratic behavior. The proverbial tables had been completely turned, so it was only a slight surprise when Roth was welcomed back into the fold in 2007 – a belated move which gave everybody involved a much-needed shot in the arm.
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