New Sarah Sharp Album Unveiled During Amazing Time Travel Adventure

Posted June 29, 2016 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Music

Tags: , , ,

By Bill Oakey, June 29, 2016

Music fans will be glad to know that there is a new Sarah Sharp album coming. Following her fabulous stint as lead vocalist for the Jitterbug Vipers, her new direction foretells exciting releases in more than one genre. At the end of this blog piece, you will get the inside scoop on an upcoming Sarah Sharp album. What you are about to read first is a very unusual story. It concerns America’s first big adventure in time travel. The reclusive billionaire, Chester A. Thornwright, launched the top-secret project with what he assumed was absolute isolation from media attention. How this blog achieved exclusive access to the proceedings cannot be revealed.

The story unfolds just as Mr. Thornwright addresses the small, but exuberant gathering of time travel participants:

“Ladies and gentlemen…Quiet please…!”

“Ladies and gentlemen…”

“Thank you all for being here for this historic moment. When we first conceived of this remarkable project, our goal seemed to be nothing short of unimaginable. Mankind has written about and dreamed about time travel for centuries. The two most admired time travel novelists, Jack Finney and Stephen King, have told their stories with breathtaking realism.”

“But today, all of us gathered in this room will experience the thrill of actually traveling through time, and doing it in both directions. We will journey to the past and then we will visit the future. Everyone in our special group today has chosen ‘Musical Milestones’ as the preferred theme for both of our journeys.”

“That concludes my introduction. You will notice that each of your seats is bolted to the floor. At this time, I ask that you strap yourselves in and fasten your safety belts. And now, without any further delay, I thank you and humbly invite you to accompany me to the City of Chicago in August of 1941.”

Mr. Thornwright then turned toward the front wall and reached over to open a sliding wooden panel. Behind the panel in an alcove was a small screen, a keypad and a row of electronic switches. He entered a few numbers into the keypad and then flipped three of the four switches. After confirming a message on the screen, he flipped the fourth switch. Then, he joined the group at the remaining seat in the front row and strapped himself in.

A humming sound emerged from the walls, along the floor on all four sides of the room. The walls moved outward, as four large pieces of curved, dark green metal arose from beneath the floor on each side of the room.  Each of these four metal slabs arced upward toward the center of the ceiling. A very loud clanging of metal signaled that the slabs had all linked together, to enclose the travelers in a large pod-like chamber. The front section of the chamber contained a glass door. Behind the door, everyone could see the wall with the exposed alcove that housed the keypad, the screen and the row of switches.

Suddenly, the entire outside room beyond the chamber went dark.

Then, the single bright light inside the chamber slowly began to dim. The humming sound that was heard earlier changed to a more strident pitch, and began to fluctuate back and forth between a low and high volume. Within a few moments, the dimly lighted chamber turned completely dark. Nobody spoke a single word, even though Mr. Thornwright had forgotten to ask everyone to remain quiet.

The next sensation that the time travelers noticed was a rumbling sound beneath the floor that caused each of their seats to vibrate. But that didn’t last more than about seven or eight minutes, and neither did the darkness. The light snapped on at the center of the ceiling, and it caught everybody by surprise.

“We are almost there,” Mr. Thornwright announced. “But keep your seatbelts fastened for another minute or two. I will let you know when we have arrived at our destination.” Just when it seemed like everyone could take a deep sigh and relax, the chamber abruptly began to shake. And then very soon after, just as suddenly as the shaking had started, it stopped.

The time travelers stared awe-struck at the lighted sign that they could clearly see, just beyond the glass door of their chamber. It read, “Ambassador West Hotel.” They had arrived in Chicago after nightfall. Mr. Thornwright arose from his seat to speak.

“I would like to welcome everyone to our August 1941 destination, the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago. Although I have tried to explain it before, it is difficult to describe what you will see, hear and feel. We will not be visible to the people here, and they will not be able to see the chamber that we arrived in.”

“But, in previous traveling encounters, our development team has observed what appeared to be subtle reactions from some inhabitants of the times and places that we visited. These could have been caused by our presence in their time space. So, I must ask that you speak to each other very softly, if you find it necessary to speak at all. Our visit will be fairly brief, and I cannot tell you precisely how long it will last. In a moment, I will open the door and we will enter the Ambassador West.”

“You will not need any further instruction from me, other than to follow very closely behind me. I am aware of the musical milestone that will take place here, but I have left that to be a pleasant surprise for each of you. We will know when our stay is about to conclude, because the room and the images that we see around us will begin to slowly dissolve. At that point, we will be returned to our chamber automatically. So now, shall we begin our visit?”

Mr. Thornwright unsealed the latch to the door, then opened it and stepped out into the Chicago night. The rest of the time travelers followed behind him, in single file at first. Then they spread out into a cluster. The strange experience of walking in a past environment took a little getting used to. The activity of walking could be accomplished easily enough, because of the force of habit. But the sensations of normal weight and gravity were gone. The feel of the ground beneath their feet was unlike anything they had ever experienced. It was as if their bodies were almost, but not quite, lighter than air.

Mr. Thornwright escorted the group through the lobby of the hotel and into a restaurant and nightclub. The sign at the entrance read, “The Buttery.” It was an impressive and elegant room, designed to accommodate patrons accustomed to splendor. At the microphone on a small stage stood a man by the name of Frank Bering, the hotel’s owner. He addressed the audience in a very cheerful, upbeat voice.

the buttery

“Ladies and gentlemen, please let me have your attention. Tonight, here at the Buttery, we have a very special guest. Many of you may be wondering who Benny Goodman will select to replace Helen Forrest in his band. We cannot confirm that decision tonight, but Mr. Goodman has joined us for dinner and to listen to the delightful and very charming Miss Peggy Lee.”

Mr. Thornwright and his group of time travelers looked on silently from the left side of the room. They were totally mesmerized by the event taking place before them. There were nudges and smiles all around. Peggy Lee shined with her slender figure, adorned in a stunning outfit. She began her musical set with the established Benny Goodman hit, “These Foolish Things.” In her delivery, she displayed the soft, “cool” vocal style that had become her trademark at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California. The audience greeted her with enthusiastic applause.

But, to the amazement of every member of the time travel group, Benny Goodman did not seem the least bit impressed with Peggy Lee’s performance. He seemed to be concentrating more on his steak dinner. He never even cracked a smile. One of the time travelers was just about to whisper a question to Mr. Thornwright about Benny Goodman’s reaction, when suddenly a strange visual experience fell upon the group. The entire room and everything in it began to slowly fade away, as though it were merely the tapestry of a dream.

It wasn’t until they were back in their chamber that Mr. Thornwright answered the anticipated question about Benny Goodman’s cold indifference to Peggy Lee. “Let me point out that Benny Goodman was never the friendliest bandleader to do business with,” he explained. “But he probably considered himself lucky to acquire the talents of Peggy Lee. He hired her the next day after seeing her for the first time at the Buttery.” So, the time travelers had indeed witnessed a great musical milestone.

Soon, the totally enthralled travelers were back at their starting point in the present time space. Only a short period of rest and preparation stood between them and their next big adventure – a journey to the future.

Onward to the Future – A Brief Glimpse of a Moment In 2018

Once again addressing his anxious group of time travelers, Mr. Thornwright begins with an admission. “Future time travel capabilities are unfortunately very limited at this stage of development in our project. We will not be departing in the chamber. We will see and experience a musical milestone in the year 2018. At this time, it can only be viewed on a screen. Therefore, we will hand each of you a very special electronic tablet. These may look like iPads, but our technology far exceeds anything that you have ever imagined or encountered before.”

“On the screens of these tablets, we will be treated to a very unique moment in future music history – if you can appreciate that description. What we cannot tell you right now is precisely what that musical milestone might be. Our development team has thoroughly tested the equipment. But we have yet to refine the process well enough to predict the precise date or the specific event, in advance of our request for a journey.”

“So, I will be joining you in a surprise adventure that will transport our visual senses two years into the future. Is everyone ready to tap the ‘Begin Journey to 2018’ box on your tablet? We must all do it together on the count of three. If any one of us is too far out of range in the launch time window, we could jeopardize the entire project.”

“Ok…One…Two…Three!”

The tablet screens flicker to life. At first, the patterns that appear cannot be discerned. A few oddly discordant sounds emerge, but those too do not seem familiar to anyone in the room. Suddenly, a few lines of what appear to be text begin to show up on each tablet screen. The symbols look fuzzy and disjointed at first, but they do seem to be shaped like English language words.

Mr. Thornwright fiddles with a handheld device that is pointed at a bank of blinking receivers along the front wall of the room. Within a few moments, everyone’s tablet screen pops into crisp, perfect focus. In the upper left corner of the screen are the words, “Location: Austin, Texas.” In larger letters below, across the upper middle sits the heading, “Bill Oakey’s Music Blog.” Then, below that heading is the title of a piece dated April 11, 2018. The blog posting reads, “New Sarah Sharp Album Is the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.”

The time travelers settle back in their seats to read the description of the album, which begins as follows:

Here we are in the spring of 2018, and there is magic in the air. Following the highly successful launch of Sarah Sharp’s national label debut early last year, her fans will be pleasantly surprised to discover that her new release celebrates one of the most romantic topics ever conceived for love songs. It is all about dreams. The collection of wonderful standards comes wrapped in the simple title of “Dreamland.”

What better way to lead off an album devoted to dreams than the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer composition, “Hit the Road to Dreamland?” Next comes a 1931 song that has been recorded many times over the years by artists as diverse as Ozzie Nelson, Wayne King, Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, and Mama Cass Elliot, from the 1960’s group, The Mamas & the Papas. Then, allowing the Louis Armstrong influence to continue, Sarah comes in with the third selection, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”

You can toss your cares away and let your imagination get the best of you, as you glide through the rest of the album. Frank Sinatra had it right, and Sarah gracefully picks up the cue with “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, And Dream Your Troubles Away.” Not since Sheryl Crow’s stunning 2012 a cappella rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer,” has anyone exceeded expectations for an interpretation of that song until now.

There is no reason to stop dreaming yet. I haven’t told you about “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” that would surely impress Julie London, even though hers was certainly inviting and seductive enough. There may not really be a Munchkin Land or an Emerald City out there somewhere “Over the Rainbow,” but Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney would be proud to share the stage with Sarah for this beautiful remembrance of magic and fantasy. This is an album that will surely defy the passage of time, and you will not want to come back down to earth after your spirits have been lifted by it.

What Year Are We Really In Anyway?

The full truth is that all of your calendars have the date printed correctly. It is still June of 2016, rapidly approaching the month of July. On a typical Austin morning, Sarah Sharp may come downstairs with her hair pulled up to fix some tea, as she prepares to visit with a guest on her front porch swing. But her biggest fans know that when they listen to her music, she can fly up into the clouds and sweep them away to dreamland.

Links to Sarah Sharp and Her Music:

  1. Official Sarah Sharp Website: http://www.sarahsharp.com/
  2. SoundCloud link to “Phoebe’s Dream,” Sarah’s current album with the Jitterbug Vipers.
  3. Buy “Phoebe’s Dream” on iTunes.
  4. A sampling of other songs by Sarah.
  5. Sarah Sharp on Facebook.

Charlie Rich – The Stunning Versatility of An Underrated Sun Studios Legend

Posted April 24, 2016 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Music

By Bill Oakey – April 24, 2016

What style would you use to describe the 1950’s – 1970’s singer, Charlie Rich? Well, with any number of potential lists, the correct answer would be “all of the above.” Take your choice between rock, rhythm and blues, jazz, pop and country. It’s been over 40 years since the “Silver Fox” achieved huge national acclaim for his 1973 number one hits, “Behind Closed Doors,” and “The Most Beautiful Girl.” But a sampling of the album containing those songs does not begin to tell the story of Charlie Rich’s legacy. For that we would need to pay a visit to Sam Phillips’ Sun Recording Company at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis in 1958.

Sun Record Company

We all remember the “Million Dollar Quartet,” comprised of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. But the Sun Studios gave birth to other famous artists, such as Roy Orbison, Bill Justis and Charlie Rich. In the case of Charlie Rich, all of his issued vocal sides were released on Sam Phillips’ “Phillips” record label. His one big hit from this period was “Lonely Weekends,” which made the top 30 pop charts in 1960. This song has achieved “oldies radio” status and can still be heard on the air today.

Lonely weekends

What you’re about to discover is the remarkable talents of a lyricist and pianist, as well as a singer. Inspired by jazz orchestra leader, Stan Kenton, Charlie started out playing jazz and blues in an early 50’s group called the Velvetones, backing his then-fiancée, Margaret Ann on lead vocals. Once he set foot in a recording studio, unlimited possibilities opened up. It’s fun to explore the various roots and branches of Rich’s musical archives and sample the incredible breadth of styles. Let’s start with his unissued rendition of “Break-Up,” which reminds us of Jerry Lee Lewis. Yes, Lewis is the one who charted with the song. But it was Charlie Rich who wrote it and he too who hammered out the infectious rock and roll piano on his own version. I actually like it better than the Lewis rendition. Another early Rich foray into rockabilly is “Donna Lee.”

1960 picture

Charlie Rich in 1960

For a journey over to the rhythm and blues side of Charlie Rich, there is no better example than the self-penned killer ballad, “Who Will the Next Fool Be,” from 1961. If you are not familiar with the tune, check it and out and see if it doesn’t grab you and then grow with each new listening. Then savor the horn arrangement in Bobby Bland’s version. Just one short year later, in 1962, Charlie wrote and recorded, “Sittin’ and Thinkin,'” a fine country love song, dressed up in a pop arrangement. In my opinion, he “owns” the best vocal version, despite the later releases by Bobby Bare and Ray Price.

Before we get too far afield on Rich’s evolving variety of genres, it’s important to note that he was a jazz pianist at heart. In fact, Sam Phillips originally turned down his application for work at Sun, branding his demos as “too jazzy” and “too elegant.” Only one of Rich’s jazz piano instrumental singles slipped through and got released, that being “Sad News” backed with “Red Man” issued on Sun in 1960 under the alias, Bobby Sheridan. Things didn’t click into place until Sun musical director, Bill Justis, who had discovered Rich at the Sharecropper Club in Memphis, offered him a stack of Jerry Lee Lewis records to learn from.

CharlieRich_Studio

Charlie Rich In the Recording Studio

It’s worth taking a brief time out to mention the significant influence of Bill Justis, not only on Charlie rich, but on the music field in general. Justis reached number one and two on the Billboard R&B and Pop charts in 1957 with the instrumental, “Raunchy.” It was the note-perfect performance of “Raunchy” by 14-year-old George Harrison in 1958 that prompted John Lennon to invite him to join himself and Paul McCartney in their band called the Quarrymen. Bill Justis also co-wrote “Cattywampus,” which became a wonderful 1962 instrumental hit, retitled “Tuff,” for Ace Cannon. If not overtly, then certainly the underpinnings of jazz can be felt on all of these records.

Raunchy

Now it’s time for a casual and entertaining romp through the years with some Charlie Rich numbers that you might not have heard before, along with several of his hits. You can decide which genre they belong to if you wish. But I prefer to just call it good, fun music. I recommend reading through the list before playing the songs. You might find some surprises.

  1. “Midnite Blues” – Phillips Records, 1962
  2. “Big Boss Man” – Groove Records (RCA subsidiary), 1963. Cover of Jimmy Reed’s 1960 R&B hit. Also recorded by Elvis Presley in 1967
  3. “There’s Another Place I Can’t Go” – Phillips Records, 1963
  4. “Mohair Sam” – Smash Records, 1965, Dallas Frazier composition, peaked at #21 on Billboard Hot 100. Also, a favorite played by Elvis Presley and the Beatles at their only meeting in August 1965
  5. “Man About Town” – Smash Records, originally unissued sequel to “Mohair Sam”
  6. “Only Me” – Hi Records, 1967
  7. “Down and Out” – Smash Records, 1965
  8. “I Almost Lost My Mind” – Epic Records, 1969. #1 R&B hit written and recorded by Ivory Joe Hunter, 1950. Also a #1 pop hit for Pat Boone in 1956, and a beautiful album cut for Barbara Mandrell in 1971
  9. “A Woman Left Lonely” – Epic Records, 1971. A Dan Penn composition first recorded by Janis Joplin for the “Pearl” album, 1971. Also recorded by Irma Thomas, 1979
  10. “On My Knees” – Phillips Records, 1960. Re-recorded as a duet with Janie Fricke, #1 country song, 1978. Plus a mysterious duet with familiar-sounding voice not credited
  11. “Pictures and Paintings” – Sire Records (Warner Brothers), 1992. Title song from his last album, a critically acclaimed set, taking him back to his roots in jazz and blues

The style that Charlie Rich is most remembered for is the “Nashville sound” or “Countrypolitan,” a soft brand of country pioneered by producers Chet Atkins and Billy Sherrill. This 1970’s period stands out because it brought Charlie multiple Grammy awards and his biggest commercial success. But we could argue that it does not represent his most interesting or most innovative work. Upon Rich’s death in 1995, L.A. Times music critic, Robert Hilburn, observed that he was “shy and insecure” and that he “never felt comfortable in the spotlight.” We can all be thankful that he unleashed his inner thoughts and feelings through his songwriting and in the studio. Charlie’s magical treasure trove of versatile recordings is a hallmark of what many call the “golden age of popular music.” And until one of our future generations pulls off a successful revival, a Charlie Rich title from December 1973 says it best…“There Won’t Be Anymore.”

Further Reading and References

  1. Extensive Sun / Phillips International discography – Contains many unissued titles
  2. Charlie Rich LP discography
  3. Bear Family Records Listing
  4. Oldies.com CD page with album track listings
  5. Official Charlie Rich Website
  6. WCNS Radio, Latrobe, PA – Fabulous Charlie Rich biography
  7. BlackCat Rockabilly Page
  8. “Charlie Rich (1932-1995): The Smash Hits That Never Were” – Online article from “Elsewhere,” (New Zealand) Jan.09, 2012
  9. Biography on AllMusic.com
  10. L.A. Times article on the death of Charlie Rich – July 26, 1995
  11. News article on Charlie’s wife, songwriter Margaret Ann Rich – Thecliffedge.com, July 23, 2010

For Collectors Only

If you could manage to get your hands on a copy of the 1973 album, “Behind Closed Doors” in the U.S. quadraphonic version, you would have something valuable on your hands. It was issued by Epic Records in March 1974 as Catalog # EQ-32247. I have not even been able to find a picture of the cover online. It is often confused with the European edition, shown here.  Good luck…

 

Personal Memories Of Merle Haggard – “Silver Wings” And Other Things

Posted April 7, 2016 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Music

Tags: , , ,

By Bill Oakey – April 7, 2016

After growing up as a rock and roll “child of the 60’s,” I suddenly found myself at a crossroads in 1969. The guitar sound in popular songs had morphed into a screeching, wailing siren. Whole sides of albums were devoted to single, stretched-out jam sessions of head-banging noise that I simply couldn’t relate to. Then I walked into my college dorm room on the first day of the school year. “Who is this roommate that they stick me with?” I wondered. “And what is that cowboy hat doing on the shelf?”

By the time I went home that Christmas to visit my family, they must have thought I had gone crazy. Merle Haggard had become one of my favorite singers. It may have started with the novelty of “Okie From Muskogee.” Even the few long-haired “hippie” students on our conservative campus loved it because they thought it was hilariously funny. Later I learned that Capitol Records tried to pigeonhole him as a strident “anti-hippie” conservative evangelist. Fortunately, he backed away after two more similar-themed singles, even publicly denouncing cultural divisiveness. His next direction sealed his legacy as one of the greatest voices in country music. If somebody had told me back then that I would later wind up on his bus chatting with him, I’m not sure I would have believed it.

It was in the dance halls of Central Texas that I got hooked on the mixture of cold beer and good country music. The Bob Wills style of Texas swing was all over the place, but the next best thing on the jukebox or the bandstand was anything by Merle Haggard. In those early days of the late 60’s and early 70’s, two slow numbers by Haggard absolutely had to be played – “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Silver Wings.” There were plenty of toe-tappers too, like “Mama Tried” and “Swinging Doors.” A few of my best honky-tonk buddies got used to the idea that any conversation we had was subject to periodic interruptions. If a Merle Haggard song came on the jukebox, I would pull back my chair and stand up briefly to acknowledge him.

His music catalog reaches across decades of country music history, as he released fabulous tribute albums to the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. And his song covers of classics by Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb and the pen of Bill Anderson will stand forever. Then of course, his own body of original music ranks at the top of the list for any serious traditional country music fan. Over the span of his career, Haggard racked up 38 number one country singles. Ensuring the endurance of his musical stature and influence is the wide-ranging spectrum of styles in his repertoire, including western swing, country, folk, gospel, blues, jazz, and even hints of rock.

His first album, released in 1965. The title song, "Strangers," written by Bill Anderson, inspired the name of Haggard's band.

His first album, “Strangers,” released in 1965. The title song, written by Bill Anderson, inspired the name of Haggard’s band.

Heck, even many of the album cuts he did that never became famous will easily pull you in. Check out “Montego Bay.” Or, how about this whale of a version of a lesser-known Bob Wills song, “Stingeree.” (misspelled on the record). When the horns start swinging in the knockout arrangements of a Merle Haggard tune, it’s just not easy to sit still. And by golly, who says that you have to? But if you find yourself without a dance partner and want to pretend you’re sitting in a famous New Orleans Bourbon Street nightclub, just take a trip there with Haggard’s live album, “I Love Dixie Blues.”

So, how was it that I wound up chatting with Merle on his tour bus? Well, to make a long story short, I went from being a subscriber to several country music magazines in the mid 1970’s to becoming a feature writer and record reviewer. Like any other pursuit, I had to get my feet wet first. Eventually, my interview request for Merle Haggard was granted. I met him backstage in Houston around 1980 and made it through without any major stumbles.

Once back home in Austin, I had just about finished the article. But before I mailed it in to the magazine, I went to the Austin City Limits studios on 26th Street (now Dean Keaton) to see a live Merle Haggard taping. After showing my guest pass, I walked over to the elevator and got a huge surprise. When the doors opened, the only person standing there was Merle Haggard. He greeted me by asking, “Did you get all of your questions answered in Houston, or would you like to talk some more later tonight?”

I didn’t try to write down any ideas while the show was going on. Instead I decided to just make it a conversation between two music collectors, discussing their favorite passion. He started off by telling me what it was like to be in the studio for Bob Wills’ last recording session before he died. That’s when I found out how a big star describes being a fan of another big star who came before him. Then he brought up the song called “Leonard” from his then-current album. Leonard Sipes recorded under the name Tommy Collins, and Merle’s song was a tribute to him, as the pioneer of the “Bakersfield sound.” That style took off big time in the mid 60’s, first with Buck Owens and later by Merle Haggard. In the heartfelt tribute song, Merle describes how Leonard “taught me how to write a country song” and “he even brought around a bag of groceries, back before Muskogee came along.”

To wrap up the interview, I had just one final question and I wasn’t quite sure how he might react. I asked him if he had a “wish list” of hard-to-find favorite old records. And could we perhaps swap a few of those record titles and scoop them up to send to each other if we found them? He rattled off his short list without hesitation. Those titles as well as mine have escaped my memory. And neither of us found those rare, elusive gems. But it’s still fun to thank about that long ago conversation between two music collectors.

RIP

Further Reading and References

  1. “My House of Memories” – His second autobiography, from 1999, following his earlier and now out-of-print “Sing Me Back Home” (1981)
  2. Official Merle Haggard Website
  3. CMT – Includes links to music videos, interviews, news items, etc.
  4. Album Discography (not including box sets) with full track listings
  5. AllMusic.com– Includes bio and extensive song listing with composer credits
  6. Billboard – Chronological list of 38 number one country hits
  7. iTunes
  8. Amazon.com
  9. Wikipedia

Don’t Go To Las Vegas – Unless You Stay At The Cosmopolitan!

Posted April 26, 2014 by Bill Oakey
Categories: General Fun

Tags: , , , , , ,

By Bill Oakey – April 26, 2014

The buzz is on about all of the modern places to check out in Las Vegas. If you haven’t been there in a while, you might not know where to start in choosing a hotel. So, let’s get that out of the way right now. You owe it to yourself to stay at the Cosmopolitan.
Cosmo Sign

As a veteran Vegas visitor with particular tastes, I have made the choice to stick with the Cosmopolitan. OK, you need to know why. Words like Fun! Style! Pizazz! all come to mind. It’s a lively atmosphere, whether you are in the casino enjoying interactive slot games with other players, or strolling through the lobby taking in the incredible floor to ceiling pillars with LED screens. The intriguing moving images are not like anything you have ever seen before.

Pillars

But once you enter the casino, especially in the evening, you might as well not plan on going anywhere else. It’s just too darned much fun. Do I dare say that you should try a cosmopolitan at the Cosmopolitan? Heck yeah, you should. They’re awesome!  But my favorite thing is to meet with my sister and her husband about an hour before dinner and indulge in their house wine. It comes in a big, sumptuous glass and it goes down as smoothly as you would ever want.

Casino

Before I go any further, I need to mention the most important thing. The service. When it comes right down to it, nothing matters more than good service when you are on a vacation. Who wants to be around dull, drab people who don’t act like they care if you are on their property or not? They’ve got plenty of money in the bank, so why should they care about you? It’s not like that at the Cosmopolitan.

Here’s how I like to start my day there. I take the East Tower Elevator to the Overlook Grill, which is a really cool poolside restaurant that is open in the spring and summer. It’s breezy and relaxing and the perfect place for a nice breakfast. Now, this may not happen to you in exactly the same way, but I can tell you how friendly the hostess and servers can be. On a recent trip, I stopped at the hostess stand and asked for a table. I noticed a bag of candy on the counter and asked if I could have a piece. She encouraged me to take more than one of the licorice ones, since those were my favorites.

During my meal, the hostess came over for a brief chat and it really felt like I was a valued guest. But what happened as I left the restaurant really made my day. The hostess wouldn’t let me leave without handing me a take out box filled with those licorice candies. Have I been back to the Overlook Grill since then? You tell me!

Overlook

Pool Next To The Overlook Grill

I mentioned something earlier about style. You will see style everywhere at the Cosmopolitan, and plenty of fine art installations as well. Can you dress casually? Certainly. But you will find yourself taking casual glances at the guests who really do come dressed in high style. They say that women dress for other women. But I challenge you guys to walk by the Marquee Nightclub in the early evening as the ladies are lined up to get in. You won’t be disappointed.  (Sorry, no picture…you will have to come and see for yourself!)

Here’s one more personal adventure that I can’t leave out. A few years ago, I entered a casino promotion to win a $500 Apple gift card. I came in for the evening drawing and arrived just 5 minutes before it was scheduled to happen. I was out of breath by the time I made my way from the lobby entrance clear across to the Chandelier Bar. The drawing began and they did not call my name. So I decided to have a drink and relax. Then I heard an announcement. The person whose name was drawn had just one minute left to claim the prize. If they didn’t claim it, another name would be drawn. I looked up at the video screen and suddenly there was my name, with glittering fireworks things going off all around it. How cool was that!

Gift Card

Enough about me. You are the one who needs to check out the Cosmopolitan. When you get there, you are going to want to have dinner one evening at the Wicked Spoon. It’s a killer buffet, one of the best in town. And if you are a regular Vegas casino player, you couldn’t ask for a better host than Brian Baran. What you really ought to consider is making a group reservation. You can do that by calling Claire Nagel at 702-698-7000. In the meantime, take a look at their website and explore all of the features available.

See you at the Cosmopolitan…

New “Side By Side” Show Open Through November 6th

Posted September 21, 2013 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Artwork

“Side By Side – New Works” Art photos by Bill Oakey with oil interpretations by Debbi Smith Rourke

Old Bakery and Emporium, 1006 Congress Ave. in downtown Austin

Street parking available

Exhibit on view thru Nov. 6th, open Monday – Friday, 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM

Also open Saturday & Sunday Oct. 26th – 27th, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM during the Texas Book Festival

Both artists’ works for sale in the downstairs gift shop and in the upstairs gallery

Invite

Other samples of my work:

Twilight 2_B
“Port Aransas Twilight II”

Autumn Gold_B
“Autumn Gold”

Skyline_B
“Skyline”

Austin American-Statesman Endorses Affordability Effort

Posted August 19, 2013 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Austin Affordability

On August 17th, the Austin American-Statesman published a lead editorial, along with my guest editorial calling for property tax relief and a stronger City and County focus on affordability. See both editorials below, and then use the provided email addresses to contact City Council Members and Travis County Commissioners. We should ask for reasonable cuts in the ongoing budget discussions. There is still time for some tax relief. Please be courteous and respectful in your correspondence with the local officials. The facts in the affordability issue are on our side. Our voices are being heard. So, let’s give it our best shot!

Austin American-Statesman, August 17, 2013

City, County Must Stop Its Binge On Tax Hikes
BY EDITORIAL BOARD

The Austin City Council is either unable or unwilling to stop itself from raising taxes to near or at maximum legal levels — despite larger revenues, windfalls, and growing tax bases. In doing so, city officials have shown themselves to be drunk on tax hikes, and it’s time to implement a 12-step program.
How else can their actions be explained? Year after year, without much — if any — consideration for the public’s ability to pay through-the-roof tax bills from the city, county, school districts, hospital district and Austin Community College, elected officials have continued to impose steep tax hikes. Other cities, such as Round Rock and Cedar Park, have held the line on taxes, even while giving employees a pay raise and expanding city services.

Certainly, well-financed local governments provide services to residents and take care of parks, libraries, schools, roads and people in need. But there are limits – points at which more harm is being done than good when taxes are raised beyond certain levels. As local contributor Bill Oakey notes in his commentary below, the current system is not sustainable for most city residents whose wages have not kept pace with ballooning housing costs, electric rates and tax bills. It’s disheartening that the public’s ability to pay has been an afterthought in budget decisions.
That concern continues to be trumped by other priorities, such as providing substantial yearly pay raises and benefits for city and county employees and, in some cases, pay raises elected officials have awarded themselves; tax rebates for private companies that relocate to Austin or Travis County; and tax breaks for homeowners of historical homes in upscale neighborhoods. The steep and continued increase of tax bills is curious given all the additional money generated by new construction and businesses, a rebounding economy and larger revenue from higher property values. Elected officials tout growth as a counterbalance against such steep tax increases. Yet that benefit is not showing up in our tax bills.

That situation caused Austin City Council Member Laura Morrison to pose this question, “What do we have systemically in our business model that, even with growth, we can’t keep up with expenses … and (because of higher rates) are taking more and more of a bite out of people’s incomes?”

That question deserves an immediate answer. And neither the council nor the commissioners court should approve budgets until that question is answered and budgets are adjusted to reflect the financial realities of people who are paying the bills. Taxpayers should be getting a break, given all the extra money the city and county are taking in.

But the binge continues.

American-Statesman writer Sarah Coppola reported in recent editions that Austin’s property tax rate would increase from 50.29 cents per $100 of property value to 51.14 cents. That rate is just below the highest rate the city could choose under state law — 51.34 cents — without triggering a possible election to limit the increase.

Under the proposal, the typical Austin household would pay $173 more in property taxes, utility bills and other fees next year if the budget is approved in September. Austin would add 365 jobs to its nearly 12,400-person payroll, including 23 jobs in the planning department to review, inspect and permit new construction. Local attorney Bill Aleshire has a good recommendation to address planning department expenditures, including new jobs: Make the department a self-supporting enterprise from user fees. Council Member Mike Martinez, citing 900 positions in the city that are vacant, doesn’t see the need to add hundreds more. We agree. Council Member Bill Spelman is challenging the idea that Austin needs an additional 47 police officers in jobs that can be filled by non-civil service employees, who earn considerably less than police officers.

To give taxpayers a break, the council should take the long overdue step of granting home owners tax relief through a homestead exemption, as the county already offers.

For its part, the county also is on a bender regarding its expenditures. Earlier this month, two county commissioners, Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis, voted themselves and about 40 other elected officials a 3 percent pay raise. They were joined in that arrogance by retiring County Judge Sam Biscoe. The proposed budget for the next fiscal year also includes 3 percent across the board pay raises for all employees, though employees received hefty pay raises this year and the year before.

Though county tax bills will rise nearly 3 percent for the average homeowner, the tax rate will decline by a wee bit, about 1.1 percent. Taxpayers could and should get a bigger break, given the windfall to the county budget from rising property values. Officials seem unaware that most residents don’t share their affluence or ability to pay ever-increasing tax bills.

We’re not advocating that the city, county and other taxing entities practice strict austerity. Perhaps smaller tax increases are warranted in some cases, but they should be justified. We are arguing for tax sobriety.

OTHERS SAY: AUSTIN AFFORDABILITY

Oakey: Dollar signs can be danger signs

BY BILL OAKEY – LOCAL CONTRIBUTOR

Let’s get straight to the bottom line. The Austin city budget has increased a whopping 73.7 percent in the past 10 years, from $1.9 billion to $3.3 billion. Travis County’s budget increased 93.6 percent between 2003 and 2013, which means that it nearly doubled. Right now, the Austin area is experiencing one of the biggest economic booms that the entire country has ever seen. The glow looks great in the national spotlight. But look out for the danger signs.
We surged from becoming America’s 17th largest city in 2000 to 11th place this year. But not without a hefty price. The layer upon layer of related cost increases and future spending proposals can be summed up with one word — unsustainable.

Local property taxes have increased 38 percent in the past decade, and rents have skyrocketed 49 percent. And yet, the median income in Austin, adjusted for inflation, has stayed virtually flat since 2000. The tax rates for the city and county alone have gone up 25 percent in just four years. Homeowners whose tax appraisals have increased during that period have seen even higher increases. And that does not include Austin Community College, Central Health, area schools, and water and electric rate increases.
When many people think of 21st-century Austin, they envision young high-tech whiz kids and innovative entrepreneurs who bring new companies with good-paying jobs to town. We hear about Formula One and the X Games, and an impressive schedule of music and cultural festivals that attract more tourists every year. But beneath the veil of prosperity lies an inescapable fact. The Austin population is a diverse demographic mix.

According to U.S. Census figures, one in five Austinites lives in poverty. Interestingly, poverty has spread to our suburbs at a growth rate that ranks number two nationwide. The Brookings Institution released a report that shows we have the nation’s fastest-growing population of “pre-seniors,” ages 55 to 64, and the second-fastest-growing senior population. And yet, our city and county older-than-65 homestead exemptions have never been indexed for inflation or rising home values, and are woefully inadequate.

Estimates of the number of people moving here range from 100 to 158 per day. Those who landed a good job or who sold their home in a West Coast market can live quite comfortably in Austin. But their arrival in older neighborhoods has driven up property values and priced a lot of longtime Austinites out of their homes. Many of the tens of thousands of residents who were already here before the boom started now face economic uncertainty.

Some of these problems are not unique to Austin. San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and other cities have gone through similar growing pains. But the accelerated pace of the Austin transition gives reason for local government officials to wake up to the harsh realities of affordability. If anyone thinks the past 10 years of tax increases and high housing costs were hard to swallow, just ask yourself this. How long could you sustain the same pace, if not even higher costs going forward?

Over the next 15 months, voters will need to decide on some very expensive bond propositions. ACC is considering a half-billion dollar bond election for building renovation and expansion. Next year, we may see a $275 million election for the first phase of the urban rail project. Add to that a proposed new Travis County Civil Courthouse for $300 million to $345 million. More water and electric rate increases are forecast. Worst of all, the Austin City Council continues to raise property taxes to the legal maximum year after year.

So, what can be done to bring the area’s perceived needs and the cost to fund them in line with the public’s ability to pay? I have read dozens of consultant reports and internal planning documents. But nowhere have I ever encountered the phrase “the public’s ability to pay.” Policymakers should heed the warning signals. For many Austinites, there are only two options: cut the family budget, or load up the car and watch Austin fade away in the rear view mirror.

If local officials really want to tackle this problem, they must first recognize how serious it is. Then they need to schedule some joint planning sessions and get down to the business of doing whatever it takes to make Austin more affordable.

Oakey is a retired accountant and a consumer advocate
—————————————————–
Contact members of the Austin City Council:

Mayor Lee Leffingwell: lee.leffingwell@austintexas.gov

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole: sheryl.cole@austintexas.gov

Council Member Kathie Tovo: kathie.tovo@austintexas.gov

Council Member Mike Martinez: mike.martinez@austintexas.gov

Council Member Laura Morrison: laura.morrison@austintexas.gov

Council Member Bill Spelman: bill.spelman@austintexas.gov

Council Member Chris Riley: chris.riley@austintexas.gov

Contact Members of the Travis County Commissioners Court:

County Judge Sam Biscoe: sam.biscoe@co.travis.tx.us

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty: gerald.daugherty@co.travis.tx.us

Commissioner Bruce Todd: bruce.todd@co.travis.tx.us

Commissioner Margaret Gomez: margaret.gomez@co.travis.tx.us

Commissioner Ron Davis: ron.davis@co.travis.tx.us

Las Vegas Panorama From My 50th Floor Terrace at the Cosmopolitan

Posted October 2, 2012 by Bill Oakey
Categories: General Fun

Taken With the New iPhone 5


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