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Columnist Jerry Fink: Sun Spots bring back memories at Plaza lounge
The Sun Spots were performing on the stage in the Omaha Lounge at the Plaza.
A mass of elderly women with silver hair -- sipping beer, smoking cigarettes -- surrounded me.
They were swaying in their chairs (a sign above the stage warns against dancing).
I was having flashbacks.
I was there from 1964 to 1965, patronizing Army bars from Seoul to Chunchon to the DMZ in an effort to protect America against the Communist threat. Every club had a band, usually Asian musicians performing popular American songs. There were some good groups, but more often, performances turned into a hunt for the right key in which to sing -- usually a futile search.
The Sun Spots were in Korea in 1964, playing at military bases along the DMZ. I don't recall, but surely it was among the many groups that played while I danced.
The band's last performance in '64 was on the DMZ. From there, they went to Seoul and caught a flight to Las Vegas, where they have been ever since.
It took more than 35 years, but I finally caught up with them.
The sign above the stage says I can't dance, so I join the elderly ladies sitting and swaying, enjoying the lounge performers who have been together professionally for 40-plus years.
Well, three of them have been together from the beginning: Julio Obinque Jr. and brothers Roger and George LaTorre.
The trio grew up together in Manila, where they developed a common bond in music appreciation.
Keyboardist Gerry Valero and drummer Ed Grell joined the Sun Spots nine years ago. Valero has a solo act on Monday afternoons at the Omaha Lounge. Grell performed with the Righteous Brothers in the 1970s.
For the past four years the group has been at the Plaza. Although lounges don't pay as well as they used to, the Sun Spots are happy to have a steady gig where they can do their thing.
It's hard to describe what that thing is.
There's a kind of charisma about them, or if not charisma at least something infectious about the fun they have onstage.
After 40 years the Sun Spots have a repertoire of songs that may be unmatched among lounge entertainers. Their storehouse of music allows every show to be different. They tailor their performances to those who are in the audience on any given night.
"We play for everybody," Obinque said. "New songs, old songs, polka -- anything. That's why they come back. We adjust to whatever audience we have, so we're not a burned-out group. We have no set lineup. You play a showroom and you play the same thing every time. We always change."
If they have a younger crowd (usually the later shows), they do songs that will have the young people rocking in their seats just as the older crowd does at earlier shows.
The men from Manila interact with their fans -- they sing "Happy Birthday" (in English and Chinese), they joke, they chat.
Infused in the music is a lot of stage business: gestures, side comments, risque play.
People love it.
The Sun Spots may not have the greatest voices in the world, but it is hard to beat them as all-around entertainers who are having fun helping their fans have fun.
"Aren't they the greatest?" a woman named Marie, who was either pushing-or-pulling 80, said.
Marie lives in Southern California. She said she comes to Las Vegas to see the Sun Spots once a week.
The audience is filled with Maries -- Sun Spot worshippers who can't get enough of the music and the fun.
Most older Las Vegans probably have seen the group.
"We've played most of the casinos in Vegas, except for the newer ones because we've been at the Plaza the last four years," said Roger LaTorre, who does an interesting imitation of Willie Nelson. "When we first came to Vegas we played the Castaways, the old Castaways on the Strip.
"We used to tour the country, you name it we've played it -- showrooms, lounges. We were one of the first to perform in a lounge in Atlantic City -- at the International Hotel."
The Sun Spots were hot during the years of Louis Prima and other legendary lounge performers, playing all over town and spending months on the road touring.
Today they perform three shows a day (dark Mondays) with the same enthusiasm they had in Korea, playing at military bases where patriotism was a given.
The Sun Spots may have been having flashbacks themselves this week, as their fans repeatedly asked for patriotic songs in reaction to the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.
Only the enemies today are not Communists, but zealots claiming to be doing the work of God.
The last song of the first set of one recent performance by the Sun Spots was Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," one of their most requested numbers since Sept. 11.
On the first note of the song, the elderly men and women in the audience rose in unison and sang with the Sun Spots, many with tears streaming down their faces.
"God bless America," the Sun Spots said as they ended their first performance of the evening.
The list of benefit performances is growing: