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September 16, 2014

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He’s got the voice, but needs a chance

Down on his luck singer dreams of returning to big stage

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Tom Gorman

Randy Williams, left, with singer Genevieve Dew and guitarist Keith Neal performs during open mic night at the Tap House in Las Vegas on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012.

Randy Williams

Randy Williams is ecstatic after finding his video tapes of 1994 performances, which ended up at Las Vegas E-Waste, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012. Launch slideshow »

It’s open-mic night at the Tap House, where singers and musicians gather on their nights off to jam and perform for a loyal, if eclectic, base of fans. A skinny guy with a drawn face and shoulder-length hair approaches the mic. He’s 56 but you can’t tell unless you get up close to him.

His name is Randy Williams, and it’s a sure bet nobody remembers when he sang for the Toys back in the early ’80s. The band was popular in Japan and its music videos got play time on MTV.

Williams is being introduced by the house drummer. He tells the 150-some people, sitting at long tables and many of them munching on chicken wings and pizza, that Randy is a great singer who’s stuck in a streak of bad luck: he’s living out of his van, lost virtually all of his belongings when he fell behind on his storage locker payments, and now that he’s tracked some of the stuff down at a local thrift shop, he needs money to buy back what’s most important to him.

Let’s show this guy some love, the drummer says. Please slip him a few bucks. People applaud.

By now, Williams is holding the mic and starting into Journey’s anthem to San Francisco, “Lights.” People in the audience walk up and hand him cash. Three or four people, and then more, and suddenly there’s a line of people, handing him singles and fives and tens. There’s no hat, no open guitar case; they’re simply handing him bills, even as he’s singing.

Struggling to hold on to the cash, he piles it on the floor next to the keyboardist before starting another Journey song, “Don’t Stop Believing.” Gripping the mic, he’s hitting every high note, true, clear and confidently. People are still coming up, the stragglers who want to help him. I go up and hand him a ten and he works his fingers around it.

And then I wonder, who is this guy?

•••

The drummer, Laurence “LJ” Harness, tells me later he took a liking toward Williams because he himself had almost been defeated by rock ’n roll, playing for 50 years and touring for 26 and having kicked cocaine 12 years ago. Today, Harness does marketing for Cadillac of Las Vegas, and he’s put together these open-mic nights at the Tap House so singers and musicians can kick back and enjoy one another’s company and, when appropriate, support worthy causes. On Dec. 1, for instance, some of the town’s top entertainers will perform at LVH to raise money for Toys for Tots.

But this week, his project is Randy Williams. “I saw myself in Randy, someone struggling. But he needs tough love. I’ve dug ditches and worn a hair net in kitchens and served food. I’ve told him that he’s got to find work, too — it may not be very glamorous, but he’s got to find something.”

A couple of days later I track down Williams, and pick him up at a house on the west side of town, where he has stayed for the past couple of nights, doing handyman work and helping care for a woman with a broken wrist. Normally, he says, he’d be sleeping in an early-90s minivan, parked alongside horse stables on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

Over breakfast he tells me he was born in Toledo, Ohio, and attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where he fine-tuned his voice. He’s a countertenor, the male equivalent of a mezzo-soprano, and says he can sing Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand songs in their original keys.

He considered focusing on Broadway opportunities but ended up favoring rock ’n roll and talks fondly of touring Japan in the early ’80s. He never hit it big, but glows when recalling his performance at a 1994 fundraiser in Las Vegas for Golden Rainbow, which provides housing and other assistance for persons living with HIV/AIDS. He performed a Pink Floyd medley with 11 back-up singers and 35 dancers. He mentions the names of Las Vegas heavyweights in the audience and says, “They gave us a standing ovation.”

He wishes he had the video tapes to show for it. But they were in his storage locker and now they’re lost.

He says during the ’90s, he played various lounges in town and one-offs, but was derailed by the death of his wife of 20 years in 1998.

He’s never really regrouped. He says he makes money here and there, doing odd-jobs (driving a fork lift, custom framing, singing here and there), but he hasn’t landed steady work because he's "not a clock puncher." He says he manages to scrape through on a Spartan budget, and considers himself self-employed, "launching ships day after day. I'll get paid when the ships come in."

One of those ships? He wants to create the world’s biggest and best rock ’n roll tribute show.

“It would be on a scale of EFX meets Cirque du Soleil, with props, sets, dancers, all kinds of cutting-edge special effects like holograms, all incorporated into musical theater, a mega-show.”

Such a show would highlight some of his favorite artists: Steve Perry, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant, Lou Gramm, Greg Lake, Jon Anderson ...

“I can do what many of them can’t anymore,” Williams says. “A lot of them don’t have the range anymore. Age takes its toll. Some of these guys can’t breathe fire into those dying embers that they’ve left. But I’ve been vigilant in taking such care of myself. I might look skinny but I’m totally pain-free and have no health problems.”

Williams doesn’t want to knock the various tribute shows on the Strip, but he envisions something grander. “It’s extremely ambitious,” he says, “and this will require an incredible amount of capital.”

This, from a guy who couldn’t pay for his storage locker.

He offers an explanation, but makes no excuses: He was serving a 4 1/2-month jail sentence for carrying a concealed weapon, which he described as a stun baton for personal protection when sleeping in his van.

While behind bars, his possessions in the storage locker were auctioned off. He never figured on seeing his stuff again, including family heirlooms, stage costumes, demo tapes and a collection of still-sealed vinyl albums — including the Beatles’ entire collection and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — that he values at $30,000.

And this is where serendipity intervenes. A Dumpster diver, Thomas Gaule, was recently rummaging through a bin behind a Maryland Parkway strip mall when he found material with Williams’ name on it, and clues that he was a singer. Gaule asked Rocky Jackson, a singer/songwriter who performs at the nearby Island Grill, if he knew Randy Williams, and Jackson said he did. Jackson got the two men connected.

Gaule and Williams staked out the Dumpster and saw that it was used by a nearby thrift store. The two men went inside and found more of Williams’ belongings, including scores of books that Williams prized, furniture and clothing.

But he had no money to repurchase any of it. And that’s when Williams, who was a regular at the Tap House, asked Harness, the drummer, if he could solicit donations so he could buy stuff back.

•••

By the end of Monday night, Williams had collected several hundred dollars. The next morning he returned to the thrift shop. He bought back his grandfather’s tie, a coonskin cap from his childhood, a few CDs and some clothes. But the books, including ones on health and human potential, had been sold, and there were no other belongings of real value. Certainly no vinyl albums, and no video tapes of his performance at the 1994 Golden Rainbow concert that drew the standing ovation.

But there was still hope. The thrift shop owner, Ken Barry, told Williams there may be more of his belongings at Barry’s small warehouse. Later in the week, the two hooked up and the two men pored over piles of stuff, uncovering a huge prize: those concert videos.

Other treasures, including his vinyl records collection, were nowhere to be found. Williams and Barry speculate that someone else had purchased the contents of the storage locker, took the most valuable items and left the rest behind. When the storage company apparently put the locker up for a second auction, Barry, owner of Las Vegas E-Waste, a recycling company, purchased what was left.

And that brings us to this coming Monday night. Williams is again broke, and says he’ll be back at the Tap House, on West Charleston Boulevard.

He says he is humbled by the support he has received, which has helped him put his life back in order. But to reach his dream, he says he’ll need to land bigger fish.

“What it’s going to take, for me to pull off a mega-tribute show, is getting in front of the right people, so I can pitch it and get them on board,” he says. “The Tap House is a networking place, my chance to meet people and show someone that I can walk the talk.”

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  1. Great story about the kindness and generosity of the audience at the Ta House. They opened their hearts and wallets to show compassion and help support a brother down on his luck. Can't wait to see it in print honoring this great group of fans.