THE PLACE TO GO-GO
By Byron Craft
For many of us, the hottest thing we can think of might be the core of the sun. But broiling as it is, its order of magnitude would be colder by comparison to the hottest rock ‘n’ roll club in Las Vegas. Notable rock icons of the sixties and seventies frequented the club’s stages that included: The Checkmates, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Ike and Tina Turner, The Fifth Dimension, James Brown, Bobby Darin, plus many others—and Jim Morrison was even arrested there.
The Pussycat a’ Go-Go was also the hottest dance club Las Vegas ever had.
The Pussycat a’ Go-Go was opened in 1964 by Garwood Van, a longtime musician and legendary bandleader, and “Happy Harry” Haneman, a colorful Vegas character best known for his energetic over-the-top television commercials. The Pussycat was the first live rock and roll dance club on the Strip. It featured two stages, a back-bar stage for smaller musical groups, and Go-Go dancers that alternated with the larger bandstand on the dance floor.
The club didn’t really start kicking until after 2:00 a.m., when the dancers, showgirls, musicians and those who worked the Strip would arrive. After their shows were over for the night, stars from the headlining acts at the main casinos made the Pussycat their playground. By 1965, the Pussycat had earned its reputation as “The Place to Go” for dancing and socializing. It was not out of the ordinary to find several of the Vegas Strip headliners like Johnny Carson, among others, bumping and grinding on the dance floor. The Pussycat a’ Go-Go was the place in town to see and hear the newest, up-and-coming groups and artists perform the greatest rock music in Las Vegas. Sly and The Family Stone played the Pussycat beginning in 1967 as a six piece group, and The Checkmates LTD, with Bobby Stevens, performed their first Vegas gigs there.
As one of the first African-American acts to play the Strip, The Checkmates headlined the Pussycat and was, later, partially responsible for the club’s decision to eventually desegregate the seating areas (the dance floor was always integrated). That is where Marvin Smith, of the group, acquired the name, Sweet Louie. Sweet Louie and Sonny Charles, childhood friends from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, who have been the soul of The Checkmates for more than 40 years, were playing at the Pussycat A Go Go in 1964. It was their first gig in Las Vegas. “We were there for eight weeks,” Smith recalled. “One of the songs I sang was ‘Louie, Louie.’” A black lady named Mary came in every night to see us perform. Whenever she came in I would greet her with ‘Hello, Mary. You look nice.’ And one night she said, ‘You know, you are so sweet. I’m going to call you Sweet Louie.’ And the name stuck.” Smith liked the nickname so much that he wears glasses that the frames spell out “Sweet Louie.”
The Pussycat was the most notorious place in town. It would be packed until eight in the morning. Right after signing with Epic Records, Sly and The Family Stone played a three-month engagement at the Pussycat, during which they tightened up their famous sound. On their days off they recorded their debut album, A Whole New Thing. Their gig ended abruptly when Sly had an altercation with the owner of the club that ended with the group quitting and Sly escorted at gunpoint from the premises.
Stark Naked and the Car Thieves was one of the Pussycat’s hottest acts, playing from 1967 to 1969 and again in 1971. Their reputation attracted a celebrity audience from as far away as California. In January of 1969, Jim Morrison of The Doors came from Los Angeles to see the band play. He got into a fight with the doorman at the Pussycat a’ Go-Go and was arrested. Ironically, Stark Naked and the Car Thieves had the night off.
The Pussycat started the trend of dance clubs—that the major hotels now enjoy. Its success was quickly copied by other venues elsewhere on the Strip, as well as Downtown, but none captured, then or even now, the excitement of the Pussycat a’ Go-Go. The rock ‘n’ roll club also featured a small restaurant and a tiny casino, two or three Blackjack tables and a couple dozen slots.
Some groups left to audition for Caesars and other major hotel casinos, but most returned to the “Cat” to play with bands like Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, Six the Hard Way and Fifth Cavalry. Bassist Phil “Fang” Volk’s first gig with Paul Revere and the Raiders was at the Pussycat. Ted Neeley, star of the film, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Corey Wells of Three Dog Night also had gigs there early in their careers.
Almost immediately the club became the setting for some of rock’s legendary moments. One of Michael Schivo’s first bookings took place at the Pussycat. Schivo, one of America’s most durable concert promoters, was hired by Jack Entratter, the entertainment director and front man of the Sands Hotel. Entratter handed Schivo a thousand dollars and said: “You are young and hip—make sure you have the hottest band this money will buy for Sammy Davis’ birthday party.” The party was to be held at the Sands Ballroom. Schivo marched into the Pussycat a’ Go-Go and hired an eleven-piece horn band. Sammy Davis Jr. personally gave Schivo a big embrace and kiss, thanking him for making his birthday party “such a gas.”
Vegas has a way of bulldozing history to make way for the future. More than one hotspot from that era has fallen victim to the inevitable march of progress, and the Pussycat a’ Go-Go was no different. The club sadly closed its doors for good in 1971, leaving only a few faded pictures and a lot of fond memories. It is now part of the site of Wynn Las Vegas.
The Pussycat remains a symbol of a wonderful time when the Rat Pack dominated the scene and Evel Knievel jumped the fountains at Caesars Palace.