They played. They died. They rocked, rolled, and wrote songs. This week, with the festival season starting, we turn the volume up to eleven and ask you to show your appreciation for some classic tales of ‘when rock Gods met the roulette table and the blues man played blackjack’.
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#1. Smoke on the Water
One of the most bizarre stories, that combines casino with rock star, is the curious tale of Frank Zappa, Deep Purple, and the Montreux Casino. It’s also a story that inspired – arguably – one of the greatest heavy rock songs ever written.
In 1971, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing a concert at the Montreux Casino, on the shore of lake Geneva. About 80 minutes into the show, halfway through Don Preston’s keyboard solo, an audience member fired a flare which hit the building’s wooden roof and started a blaze.
The fire spread rapidly and Zappa told the audience to ‘head calmly to the exits’. Fortunately, everyone escaped without serious injury. Also safe was the British rock band Deep Purple who were in Montreux at the time recording an album.
The band witnessed the fire from their nearby hotel room and saw the proverbial ‘smoke on the water’. The song’s lyrics also refer to ‘some stupid with a flare gun’ and calls the casino the ‘gambling house’.
With its iconic guitar lick, Smoke on the Water is widely regarded as one of the best rock songs of all time and the fourth best guitar riff ever. There is a statue, erected in the song’s honour, by the lake in Montreux.
#2. Diana and the Dogs
In the late 1960s, the Latin Casino in South Jersey, New York, was the epicenter of cool. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, James Brown, Richard Pryor, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole all performed there. Louis Prima met his wife in the club. Jackie Wilson had a heart attack on stage.
In 1969, Diana Ross and the Supremes were booked for two weeks. Ross’s entourage also included her beloved dogs L’il Bit and Tiffany. Unfortunately, an over-zealous pest control officer had left rat poison on the floor of the venue.
The two dogs ate the poison and died. Ross immediately flew back to her home in Los Angeles and left the Latin Casino’s owner having to cancel two week’s worth of bookings. Ross also went on to sue the club for $27,000. It was an unlucky trip to the casino for Diana.
#3 Elton’s Hissy Fit
The Casino Estoril is one of the biggest casinos in Europe, offering visitors to Portugal the chance to enjoy a game of blackjack, craps, or roulette. It was also the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s 007 book Casino Royale.
In 2000, ivory tinkling pop legend Elton John was booked to play in the casino’s concert hall but had a last minute case of the wobbles and wandered off into the night.
The gig was a dinner and concert combo, at about £160 per head. Although no one knows exactly why John went walkabout, it’s believed the pint-sized performer peaked through the curtains at about 10.30pm and saw an empty hall.
In fact, the 1,200 diners were still finishing their food. The actual gig was sold out. Elton John and the Estoril Casino eventually made up, when he performed in 2009 and shook hands with the casino’s president Assis Ferreira. The Rocket Man returned in style.