Lounge legend Johnny Vegas is aging gracefully

By Denis Armstrong

Happy birthday, Johnny Vegas.

Johnny Vegas, the story-telling crooner and alter ego of 62 year old singer J.P. MacDonald, turns 28 next week.

With a setlist of more than 250 songs, primarily old classics, rock favourites and anecdotes, all delivered in an original and uniquely charming character, Vegas channels the glamour and carefree fun that was the Las Vegas of the Rat Pack era. In doing so, MacDonald's proven to be a surprisingly durable performer in the city that fun supposedly forgot.

Dressed in a shimmering tuxedo and sunglasses, MacDonald's attitude, apparently, is when all else forget fun, make your own.

In addition to the live gigs he performs every week, he's appearing in Lee Demarbre's latest film 'Enter the Drag Dragon', premiering at The Mayfair on Friday, January 27 at 9 pm. It's Vegas' third time in a Demarbre film.

“I'm in it for about four seconds, singing “I Will Survive”,” he laughs. “But it's fun, as all of Lee's films are.”

Twenty five years ago, Vegas was the Frank Sinatra of Elgin street. Night club royalty. These days, you're more likely to find MacDonald entertaining in retirement homes and the occasional private gig.

Playing Vegas gives MacDonald the chance to live a bigger version of himself.

“I'm a shy guy,” MacDonald admits. “Johnny Vegas is pretty confident and friendly, he's a nice guy. He's got a swagger people love. He's my alter ego. The only thing I didn't like about Johnny Vegas is that he was a heavy smoker and drinker. I don't do that anymore.”

Shy about going on as himself, MacDonald first performed as Johnny Vegas in 1995 at The Manx pub with pianist Peter Kiesewalter. The Vegas schtick didn't take long to catch on. What began as a tribute to the swing music evolved post haste into a big band concert experience at Maxwell's Mix every Wednesday night.

Those gigs were famously smoky, saucy, heavy drinking affairs, a place to hear classic songs from the 1940s to the 1970s, meet new friends and dance. By the time I came to Ottawa in 2000, the shows at Maxwell's were so popular, the lines to get in extended up Elgin street before every show.

“By Maxwell's, I knew I wasn't going back to my job at Song Bird, that I had found what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”

Over the years, MacDonald's entertainment business grew, booking shows at Zaphod's and running a retro '80s dance at Barrymore's. By 2010, MacDonald was one of the hottest talents working in Ottawa's live music business.

“Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, so those shows were popular,” he says. “I know how to show an audience a good time.”

He recalls the night in 2009 when the actor Cuba Gooding Jr. hand delivered a drink to Vegas with a $50 tip for the band.

“He showed me the money,” MacDonald says, amazed, quoting Gooding's famous line from the film 'Jerry Maguire',

About the same time, hockey legend Mario Lemieux and 26 members of Team Canada dropped by after a game to check out MacDonald's show. They ended up ordering 26 Coors Lites and joining the band in song. Another local crooner, Dick Maloney was an occasional collaborator.

These days, you're more likely to find Vegas/MacDonald performing in a retirement home than a casino. He stopped smoking a couple years ago, and cut back on the cocktails he used to embellish his performances with. Catch him in action on his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/johnnyvegas222

“I'm a better singer now than when I was performing in the clubs,” he says. “The thing about performing for seniors are the memories they relive and share with me. There's nothing more flattering than a 95 year-old woman asking for my autograph. It warms my heart every time I do a show.”

“I can't imagine being any happier,” MacDonald, 62, adds.

In the meantime, he and his wife purchased a motor home and plan to take the Johnny Vegas experience nationally.

“As long as I'm working making people happy, I'm happy,” he says.



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