The Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender was launched in 1997 by British DJ and promoter Tom Ingram. He had organized festivals in the UK, and when he moved to Southern California, he started looking around for the right place to establish a stateside rockabilly shindig.
As he explained in 2015, “I looked at a lot of cities and decided Vegas was by far the best location… the freedom of restrictions in Vegas makes the difference, such as 24-hour bars.” The festival shares its name with the 1964 film starring Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret, both of whom would fit right in, either on stage or in the crowd.
The festival began with about 1,200 attendees but grew to over 20,000. What used to be a few dozen bands in two showrooms is now over 100 performers—not counting overflow gigs all over the city. A car show that filled part of one deck of a small parking garage now extends over several acres. Viva Las Vegas still has plenty of music, but now there are also pool parties, dance contests, burlesque showcases, bowling tournaments, guitar clinics, vendor ballrooms and more.
Vegas resident Lucky La Rue, a DJ who frequently played the festival, said, “It started out at the Gold Coast… with maybe 100 cars. Now it’s at the Orleans, and there are tens of thousands of people from seven continents, and the car show is one of the biggest in the country—for a subculture, the numbers they get every year are pretty impressive.”
Over the years, Viva Las Vegas has hosted a number of rock n’ roll legends, from founding fathers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry to throwback divas like Ruth Brown and Wanda Jackson. Performance spaces are spread throughout the Orleans casino—lounges, bars, ballrooms, pool decks and parking lots all host stages for a variety of acts. Music isn’t limited to pure rockabilly, with country swing, R&B, jump blues, and garage rock also represented. Performances range from solo guitar-slingers to stage-filling combos with multiple musicians, singers, and dancers.
The 2018 weekender takes place April 19–22 and features dozens of acts. Classic rockabilly crooner Robert Gordon and a lineup of Sun Records veterans are among those representing the old school, while newer acts include Shanda & the Howlers, Deke Dickerson, and Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys. The Saturday car show concert is headlined by the reunited Stray Cats and piano O.G. Jerry Lee Lewis.
Even if you don’t want to get a wristband for the weekend, individual tickets are available for the car show and outdoor concert. You can also just check out the scene; some of the lounges as well as the vendor ballrooms are accessible, should you wish to shop for a vintage leopard coat, an imported tin of hair pomade, Buddy Holly vinyl album or parasol adorned with Frankenstein’s face. It helps to take home a little bit of style to remember Viva by.