Las Vegas Sun

July 21, 2019

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In the end, guitar great Tony Drake did not play solo

Tony Drake

Courtesy of Jake Klein

Guitar great Tony Drake, shown in performance in Las Vegas, died April 16, 2015, at age 70 after suffering a stroke just days before his birthday was to be celebrated at a party at Bootlegger Bistro.

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Lisa Gay, widow of guitar great Tony Drake, appears at the Copa Room at Bootlegger Bistro during a memorial show for Drake on Sunday, May 31, 2015.

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Tony Drake and Lisa Gay perform during the taping of "The Dennis Bono Show" live for radio before an audience Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014. The show is produced every 2 p.m. Thursday at South Point Showroom.

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Tony Drake, Dennis Blair, Lisa Gay and Dennis Bono do the "South Point" backstage before the start of taping "The Dennis Bono Show" live for radio before an audience Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014. The show is produced every 2 p.m. Thursday at South Point Showroom.

The news of Tony Drake’s death hit our large pond in April, splashing down heavily like a boulder of bad news. Several weeks later, we are still feeling the ripples of sadness.

The guitar great who was part of the entertainment scene, and even part of its very scenery, died April 16 after suffering a stroke from which he never recovered.

He was to be honored just three days earlier, on the event of his 70th birthday, by a party at Bootlegger Bistro. This is where many of us grew to know and appreciate Drake as Kelly Clinton-Holmes’ stoic and soulful guitarist during her Monday night open-mic cabaret performances.

Instead, on Sunday afternoon and evening, there was an outpouring of affection and, naturally, music at the Bootlegger’s Copa Room. This is the performance space linked to the restaurant, and nearly 300 entertainers, friends and fans of Drake’s poured in to the party.

Topping the list as the party’s hosts and emcees: Drake’s widow, Lisa Gay-Drake, long a top-notch singer who frequently performed with her husband, and Clinton-Holmes, a Las Vegas favorite who has turned the Bootlegger into an entertainment destination each Monday night.

The lineup of musicians and singers who turned out to sing, play and pay tribute to Drake was nothing short of staggering. The names are familiar to anyone with an even passing interest in Las Vegas entertainment.

Among those to take the stage: Clint Holmes, Jeff Neiman, Clarence McDonald, Sonny Charles, Bill Fayne, Elisa Dease, Roy Hamilton Jr., Gregg Austin, Ronnie Rose, Avana Christie, Billy Ray Charles, Lorraine Hunt Bono and her husband, Dennis Bono, Mark OToole, Reggie Gonzalez, Terry Forsythe, K.C. Cousin, Kat Ray, Mark Giovi and Toscha Comeaux. The backing band and backing singers were a conveyor belt of talent.

The ripples of this show spread for more than five hours, beginning at 3 p.m. and ending at nightfall. “I feel like I am still floating,” Gay-Drake says, even days later. “It’s like I’m having a long, out-of-body experience.”

Lisa is not the only one floating, as memories of Drake have washed along the shore for the past several weeks. He loved the water, for sure. Drake was an avid angler and enjoyed being on the boat almost as much as he loved playing the guitar.

He was an unassuming man but also something of a renaissance man, an expert archer, a marksman with firearms and an accomplished scuba diver who had trained with the Navy SEALs in San Diego. He was an electronics wiz, something of a techno-geek, but he was not the type to talk much about himself or his seemingly boundless list of achievements.

“He was such a simple man. That’s the thing about Tony,” Gay-Drake says. “He was just always there, always part of something special going on.”

The ripples of Drake’s career had expanded far and wide by the time Lisa and he married in 2007 and had become well known around Las Vegas. The couple met 35 years ago while touring with Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.

A product of Compton, Calif., Tony studied classical guitar for two years at Dawkins Conservatory of Music. He also studied privately with John Blaylock in the Bay Area and served as a staff musician for 20th Century Fox, playing for such TV shows as “Julia” (starring Diahann Carroll) and “The Lucille Ball Show.”

He was later hired as a musician at A&M Records, recording with such an assortment of stars as Herb Alpert, Merry Clayton, and Cheech & Chong. He also was a member of the Count Basie Orchestra. As a TV performer, his credits grew to include the “Lou Rawls Parade of Stars,” the American Music Awards and the Grammy Awards. He played on the soundtracks of “Mother, Juggs & Speed” and “American Hot Wax.”

Drake’s strongest Las Vegas affiliation was likely with The Checkmates, playing behind Sonny Charles and Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith.

He later toured with some of the biggest names in the music business, including The Fifth Dimension, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Connie Stevens, Ray Charles, Joe Williams, Etta James and Rawls. Drake was Rawls’ exclusive guitarist throughout the 1990s and until Rawls’ death in 2006.

Drake’s hit parade was similarly impressive. He played on Carl Carlton’s “Bad Mamma Jamma,” Little Johnny Taylor’s “Part Time Love,” Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear,” Cher’s “Half Breed,” Joe Williams’ “Here’s to Life” and Charles’ “A Song For You.”

For those who recognized Drake on stages across Las Vegas, the response to this awe-inspiring list of credits is often, “Who knew?” But he was a go-to player for anyone looking for versatility, experience and education.

When Take 6, Nnenna Freelon and sax great Kurt Whalum joined Holmes for the “Georgia on My Mind” Ray Charles tribute production at the Venetian last year, Drake was the natural choice to play guitar on the gig. We sometimes called him “Drake the Great,” but never did he refer to himself as such.

“Tony was a loving guy who loved people, who loved the guitar and who just enjoyed what he did,” his widow says. “He was a simple man, so simple. There was nothing complicated about Tony. He was always about the music, and that’s the way people will remember him.”

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