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October 24, 2014

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It’s the Suncoast — but not the sunset — for Las Vegas great Earl Turner

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L.E. Baskow

Earl Turner belts out “Kiss” during Las Vegas Weekly’s Unscripted Party featuring Stifler in the Havana Room on Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at the Tropicana.

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Earl Turner, shown during his days at The Rio's RioBamba Cabaret.

I always place Earl Turner’s first Las Vegas venue as RioBamba Cabaret at the Rio, where I caught him tearing the room apart in a moment of happenstance as I hustled across the casino floor toward … a bar, probably.

That was in 1999, when I took notice of the horde of folks seated at slot machines and peering into the old RioBamba, long before it was turned into Bikini’s nightclub, Lucky Strike and finally KJ Dim Sum & Seafood. When Turner played RioBamba, the stuff was going down, every night.

Now, that RioBamba lounge is a memory. Vivid, maybe, in the distant past.

“Today the lounges need to be income generating, and that’s sad to me,” Turners says during a chat at the Starbucks at the entrance of the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. “I look around and there is very little resemblance to the RioBamba. It doesn’t look or feel like the same place."

By the time Turner had taken over that lounge, he’d already played Strip resorts for years, performing at Luxor during that hotel’s opening in 1995 and also opened Excalibur six years earlier. At each spot, he was handed a calendar and told to pick the dates he wanted to perform.

Those days are gone, as Turner picks his spots between lucrative cruise-ship gigs to play Vegas. He’s back this weekend, Saturday and Sunday nights at 7:30 at Suncoast Showroom. Turner returns with the same type of presentation he set up in February: A 12-piece band powered by a rhythm section, three horns and a trio of strings. At the center is Turner, at age 60 still in top physical condition and as busy as ever.

“I absolutely feel fantastic,” Turner says, convincingly. “Are there things I can’t do that I used to? Sure. I don’t jump off the stage anymore. I fake jumping off the stage, but I don’t really do it.”

Instead, his leap has been one of faith, taking to the oceans for regular appearances on Royal Caribbean liners. He started booking these performances, which range from three days to two weeks, back in 2008. Typical of these headlining engagements are his appearances on the Oasis of the Sea, where he fills that craft’s 1,500-seat showroom.

“You would not believe these rooms,” he says. “They are like Vegas showrooms, even nicer.”

Turner’s son, Aaron, will be in the lineup this weekend, still soaring from his run last fall on “So You Think You Can Dance,” where his tap-dancing artistry pushed him nearly to the Season 10 championship. Instead, he finished as runner-up. On Sunday, Aaron Turner is appearing at a fundraiser honoring the family of “So You Think You Can Dance” producer Nigel Lythgoe at the Pasadena Playhouse. That, too, will be a celebration of live performance that Earl Turner has instilled in his son.

“I could retire tomorrow and be content in helping my son attain his goals and schooling other people, teaching singers and musicians how to perform onstage,” Turner says. “That’s an art that is lost in this whole extra-sensory world of entertainment. There is a connection that’s lost, so I’m lucky to be able to still work with great musicians, do great material, get out there and do it and have a great time.”

As those who have watched Turner over the years, that is not misplaced hype or self-promotion. This man is the real deal, every time out.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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