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FROM WHITE TRASHY TO UTTERLY FABULOUS // THE REMARKABLE REINCARNATION OF DINO LEE 
Austin, Tex.; Nov 14, 1996
Austin American Statesman 

Mr. Fabulous, who conceived his Casino Royale to recreate the mood of a Vegas showband circa 1967, knows that it's all about working the room, getting the crowd into the show by making them part of it. Sometimes the tall, slender, debonair crooner strolls among the tables during his set, engaging women in suggestive chit chat (``All those curves, and me with no brakes``) and singing into their eyes. He also launches into requests like ``New York, New York``- the ``Free Bird`` of lounge life- knowing that overdone classics are what the people want to hear. Ending the first set with a jubilant medley of Tom Jones hits, from ``What's New Pussycat`` to ``It's Not Unusual`` to ``Delilah,`` Mr. Fabulous epitomizes almost every cliché about show biz perennials- He gives and gives and gives and when there's nothing left to give... he takes a break.

But, then, Mr. Fabulous is never really off the clock. When the music stops, the singer entices folks to join his fan club, then lets the room work him for a change. On this particular night at the Top of the Marc- one of three resident gigs Mr. Fabulous and Casino Royale have every week (Friday at the Bitter End and Tuesday night at the Continental are the others), the Fab one sidled up to the corner of the bar, drank club soda and greeted well-wishers like the couple from Dallas who've been to Vegas ten times and yet they've never seen anyone sing Frank (Sinatra) like Mr. Fabulous. Then there was the nightlife vixen in a skin tight dress who just had to ask: ``Is it true that you used to be in a punk band?``

On hearing this, Mr. Fabulous launches into a tirade, wink-wink, about how he would never be associated with that degenerate music. Give him Cole Porter over that loud, obnoxious nonsense any day. ``Whose spreading these vicious lies?`` he says, in a fake, self-important ``Sunset Boulevard`` tone. When the woman walks away, satisfied that the ``denial`` answered her question, Mr. F says, ``It's not that I'm ashamed of my years as Dino Lee, but this new thing I'm doing is all about romance. I don't want it to get around that my show used to have naked chicks eating raw meat and having simulated sex.``

It's ironic that Dino Lee, a tireless self-promoter who was once the town's biggest nightclub draw, spent the better part of the '80s beating his name into the consciousness of the Austin music scene and yet now seems to want the memories would go away. As the self-proclaimed (and unchallenged) King of White Trash, Dino staged spectacular tributes to Caligula, pioneered the merger of rock 'n' roll and pro wrestling and pretty much stole the show when MTV's ``Cutting Edge`` devoted an entire one hour program to Austin in 1985. Being Dino Lee was a double-edged sword, however, and the singer/ bandleader knows that to reminisce about the good times, when he was truly the titan of the town, is to also confront some of the ugly violence, backbiting and in-fighting which Dino Lee left in his wake.

``Way back in the beginning of the White Trash Revue, Michael Hall wrote a story about me in the Statesman,`` Lee recalled. (He still goes by Dino when he's offstage.) ``And the gist of the article was that everybody loved Dino Lee. We had everybody at our shows, from punk rockers to blues fans to funk people and everybody loved it because there was nothing else like it. I was the wild showman in the midst of the 'new sincerity' movement.``

Indeed, while most of the other bands featured on the ``Cutting Edge`` show-including Zeitgeist, Doctors Mob, True Believers, Poison 13 and Timbuk 3- acted shy and humble during the interview segments, Dino seized his moment on national TV. When host Peter Zaremba thrust a mike in front of Dino, with a crowd of more than 2000 looking on outside the Doll House strip club, the front man shot into a spiel about the new depraved and culturally deprived society he was leading-``the New Las Vegans.`` This was years before the lounge revival, but then Dino's vision was much more apocalyptic than finger-snapping. He was more apt to fill his martini glass with the blood of young virgins.

Lee held a special place in the hearts of Austinites because he seemed absolutely fearless. He always came through when the lights were on and someone said ``Go!`` Back when it was uncool to want to be successful, Dino was absolutely brazen about his ambition and you had to love such honesty. Dino Lee did it so we wouldn't have to.

But as his popularity grew, so did his detractors. ``This town is the capital of the backlash and I always felt that there were a lot of people who wanted me to fail,`` Lee said. ``They had to find something about me that they didn't like, and after the Steamboat incident, they went, ``A ha! That's why we don't like Dino. He drinks too much and starts fights.``

What happened at Steamboat on May 25, 1986 is what ended Dino Lee's honeymoon with Austin. It was a benefit for multiple sclerosis in Ronnie Lane's honor and although there were six or seven other acts on the bill, the crowd was mainly there to see Dino Lee. ``I was supposed to go on at around 10, but when the club owner saw all the people and all the drinks that they would buy, they pushed me back way past midnight,`` Lee said. Dino started drinking along with everybody else and by 1 a.m., when he hit the stage, not only was he plastered, but several guys in the crowd were wickedly inebriated. Things got ugly when Dino, with his outrageous pompadour combed down limpy, strapped on a bass and, backed by a pick-up band, started playing such songs as ``Stud Pony,`` ``Everybody Get Some (But Don't Get Any On Ya)`` and ``Wayne Newton`` without any theatrics. Where were the props? Where were the girls? Where was the horn section? Dino's fans started booing.

``The whole thing was billed wrong,`` Lee said. ``I never agreed to bring my whole show. It wasn't feasible with so many other bands, plus I didn't like Steamboat. I turned down an earlier offer of $3,000 because I didn't like the club, but it was a good cause so I thought I'd show up and put my two cents in and everything would be cool.``

But everything was far from cool. Dino started yelling back at the crowd. He kicked a heckler in the face, then swung his mike stand at another. And then a glass came flying up to the stage, cracking Dino square in the forehead and opening a red gusher. The force of the shattered glass was so great that it also cut a band member and someone at the side of the stage. Dino went to the hospital where he took 27 stitches. The next day his guitarist resigned from the band and the whole town was buzzing.

Dino's White Trash Revue kept going, but it was never as fun after the Steamboat incident. Violated by the very people he had worked hard to attract and disgusted with the almost gleeful retelling of his fall from grace, Lee became bitter with the fair weather fans of Austin. In 1988 he moved back to Los Angeles, where he acted in B movies and wrote a script. He also had a heavier, funkier band called Luv Johnson, which featured Billy White and Bobby Rock on guitars and a horn section containing veterans of Earth Wind and Fire.

In '92, Dino was back in Austin, trying to drum up excitement for Luv Johnson, but it just wasn't happening like it used to. After being stiffed on his guarantee after a show in San Antonio, Lee decided to retire from the music business and concentrate on trying to get his script, ``Jonah: A Hero's Life,`` made into a movie.

It was an out-of-the-blue phone call from Cedar Street musical director Jon Blondell in Oct. '95 that brought Dino Lee back to the music business. Blondell had an idea to turn Sundays at Cedar Street into a night of swingin' standards and he knew that Lee could really sing Sinatra songs, so he asked him to sit in. After two weeks of guest appearances, the night belonged to Dino Lee, as he was originally billed.

``One of the guys at Cedar Street used to make a big deal when I showed up, calling me 'The Fabulous Dino Lee.'`` he said. ``One time I told him, 'How did you know my first name was Fabulous?`` and it kinda grew out of that. There's too much associated with the Dino Lee name, so I decided to go with Mr. Fabulous. Dino Lee would play to all these young boys hopped on testosterone, throwing bottles, whereas Mr. Fabulous plays to beautiful women throwing kisses.``

Fans of Dino Lee from his ``White Trash`` days would be surprised at just how straight the Mr. Fabulous show is. There's a little bit of blue humor, but it's strictly from the days of the Dean Martin TV show, where Dino Lee's earlier act was more influenced by the films of John Waters. Dino-philes will also be shocked at just how well the former sultan of shtick can belt out the songs of Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Tom Jones and others. ``In the old days, people would always come up to me and rave about the show, but no one ever said, 'I like your voice' or 'You're a good singer',`` Lee said. ``So it's especially nice to hear those compliments today. I'm finally enjoying music for the sheer sound of it. When I started singing songs like ``I Concentrate On You`` and ``Summer Wind`` at the Cedar Street it was like putting on an old, comfortable pair of shoes that I'd misplaced for years.``

Before Mr. Fabulous and before Dino Lee there was Bobby Bird, Dino's real name, whose mother Joanne Bird was a popular nightclub singer in L.A. and still sings occasionally at the Dresden Room. She used to play Sneaky Pete's on Sunset Strip with the Art Graham Trio, and sometimes young Bobby would also perform. ``When I was around five years old, I'd get up there and sing 'Hello Dolly!,`` ``You Do Something To Me`` a couple other songs, plus I'd do impressions. Jimmy Cagney and John F. Kennedy were my main ones, but they're basically the same voice with just a twist,`` Lee said.

``That style of entertainment has always been dear to my heart and growing up we went to Vegas every single weekend.`` As a kid he saw Sinatra at the Sands and the experience weighed heavily on his decision to become an entertainer.

``I was a teenager when punk rock hit, then I had a rockabilly band (The Whirlybirds) for awhile, then I did the various big rock extravaganzas, but I never stopped digging Sinatra and that whole ``Rat Pack`` attitude,`` Lee said.

``I love his singing, of course. His phrasing is impeccable and he gives the story he's singing so much emotion. But probably the main reason why I love Sinatra is because he's a fighter. He's had so many ups and downs, been counted out so many times, had his reputation stomped on, and yet he still comes back swinging.``

 

 


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