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Claude Trenier, a Las Vegas pioneer

November 30, 2003


They didn't dim the lights on the Las Vegas strip when singer Claude Trenier died Nov. 12, although rock 'n' roll lost one of its primal sparks.

The lead singer of the vocal group the Treniers, Claude jumped and jived with Bill Haley, Louis Prima, Jerry Lee Lewis and other high-lifers. The original Treniers consisted of Mr. Trenier, his identical twin Cliff (who died of cancer in 1983), Buddy (who died in 1999) and youngest brother Milt, who lives in Skokie and ran the now-defunct Milt Trenier's Lounge on Rush Street.

Mr. Trenier, who died Monday at age 84 of bladder cancer at a Las Vegas hospice, lived in that entertainment oasis for 55 years, shepherding his brothers through the Las Vegas Hilton, Riviera, the now-defunct Hacienda and Mint, the Frontier, Sahara, Tropicana and the Orleans. The Treniers were one of the first black groups to perform regularly in Las Vegas, which was still segregated at the time.

But it was Chicago where the Treniers were first pegged as a rock 'n' roll group. In 1948.

"We started singing a song called 'Good Rockin' in 1947," Mr. Trenier told me during a stopover at Milt Trenier's in 1983. "We came to Chicago to play the Blue Note. No one knew how to describe what we did. So the owner of the Blue Note, who had been booking Duke Ellington and Count Basie, said, 'How can I introduce you?' We told him to say anything he wants. So he says, 'We'll just call you the the rock 'n' rollin' Treniers. Now that's long before Elvis even thought about it."

Swinging off a 2/4 big-band beat, the Treniers found a fun-loving niche. Their wacky songbook included "Hadacol, That's All," "Poon Tang," "Day Old Bread and Canned Beans" and "Go, Go, Go," which was the group's only Top 10 hit, in 1951. In 1954, the Treniers scored a novelty hit for Epic Records with "Say Hey, Willie," featuring then New York Giants outfielder Willie Mays on guest vocals.

The Treniers also appeared in films such as "Don't Knock the Rock," "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Calypso Heat Wave." Bill Haley wrote "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie" for the Treniers in 1954. Of the Epic album "Go! Go! Go! The Treniers on TV," Haley liked to say that it inspired Alan Freed to call a new form of music "rock 'n' roll."

A native of Mobile, Ala., Mr. Trenier began singing with Jimmie Lunceford's big band in 1944. He was drafted into the Army soon after he joined the group and was replaced by Cliff. When Mr. Trenier returned, both brothers sang with the ensemble, deploying defined beats as well as engaging melodies. In 1946, Mr. Trenier expanded his repertoire to sing on "Weird Nightmare" with Charlie Mingus and His Orchestra. By 1948, Buddy joined the twins after pursuing a solo career in Milwaukee. Then the first incarnation of the Treniers was formed.

The Treniers' spins and turns influenced the late Charles "Cholly" Atkins, who choreographed the Four Tops and the Temptations at Motown. At other times during a live show, the Treniers would settle into the stance of a football team's offensive line and break into dance. The Treniers were never seen without a smile.

This shtick is what endeared them to the wide-open Las Vegas lounge scene. Although the Treniers debuted in Las Vegas in 1947 opening for Myron Cohen at the Flamingo, they didn't become fixtures on the strip until 1955.

The members of the Las Vegas Academy of Variety and Cabaret Artists gave their Lounge Act of the Year Award to the Treniers in 1974 and 1975. Sammy Davis Jr. presented the first award saying, "These guys have paid some kind of dues."

Last week, Nevada Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "I can't imagine how many shows they did and how many people enjoyed them over the years. Claude was definitely among the pioneers of our Las Vegas entertainment scene."

But the Treniers' record sales suffered because they were such a strong visual act. "Some people didn't buy the records because they couldn't see us," Mr. Trenier once told me. He referred to "Buzz, Buzz, Buzz," which he recorded with the Lunceford orchestra in 1945. Mr. Trenier and Cliff were appearing at an East Coast club. While singing "Buzz, Buzz, Buzz," he dashed out of the club, still singing and ran around the building. Before he got back in, Mr. Trenier was arrested for disturbing the peace.

"I came back an hour and a half later to finish the song," Mr. Trenier said with the smile of a satisfied man. He knew the timeless joys of the Treniers will never end.

Mr. Trenier never married. In addition to Milt, he is survived by another brother Harold and two sisters Jessica and Antoinette Burnette. Services were Tuesday in Los Angeles.

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