Portsmouth bred founder of 'biggest rockabilly festival' awarded Key to the City of Las Vegas for its success

The founder of a rockabilly music event which has seen the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard grace its stages has been granted a prestigious honour.

By Hollie Busby
Tuesday, 26th July 2022, 2:33 pm
Tom Ingram was awarded the Key to the City of Las Vegas for his promotion of the festival he founded. Credit: Steve Pue
Tom Ingram was awarded the Key to the City of Las Vegas for his promotion of the festival he founded. Credit: Steve Pue

Music festival promoter Tom Ingram, raised in Portsmouth, spent his youth captivated by rock and roll music.

At about 14, he was so struck by the genre that it didn’t take long for him to find his feet in doing what he loved most – DJing.

In 1976, Ingram started as a rockabilly DJ in London. It began in youth clubs and pubs before he rented out rooms in pubs in South London before travelling up and down the country to do record hops in cities like Brighton, Edinburgh and Bristol.

Key to the City.

Fast forward to today and Tom, now living in California, has been handed the Key to the City of Las Vegas for his work driving thousands of revellers to the city’s weekender he founded and helping make it the ‘biggest rockabilly festival’ across the globe.

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In 1988, Tom founded the Hemsby Rock ‘n’ Roll Weekender near Great Yarmouth which has been running for more than 30 years.

On moving to the United States, he was eager to start up a rockabilly festival in California. However, due to ‘restrictive’ licensing laws, Tom took his grand plans to Las Vegas.

Tom Ingram with mayor of Las Vegas Carolyn Goodman.

The promoter and businessman says: ‘Vegas has everything 24 hours.

‘But in the ‘80s everything then was basically made for over 60-year-old’s.

‘It was very boring and safe. There was nothing for a younger audience.

‘We were the first one in 1997. A lot of people from other music scenes were coming to Viva Las Vegas because it was the coolest event in Vegas. That's when the numbers started to really pick up.

Tom Ingram with mayor of Las Vegas Carolyn Goodman. Steve Pue

‘We're now the longest running music festival in Vegas. We were the first one to reach 25 years.’

In April of this year, Tom was presented with the Key to the City on stage at the Viva Las Vegas Classic Car Show by the mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman held in the New Orleans, before the headlining bands performed.

The key is awarded to people, like Tom, who Las Vegas want to recognise for their significant contributions in entertainment, sports, business and philanthropy.

From April 14 to 17 the festival celebrated its 25th successful year.

Talking about where it first began, Tom says:

‘There were about 1200 people. We had about half a dozen old cars.

‘It was very simple and there was one room which we used for vendors in the day time and DJs at night time.

‘That was enormously popular. Each year it just grew from that. We got a lot of the old original '50s acts, the lesser known ones in the rockabilly scene. We outgrew the first hotel which was the Gold Coast Hotel and New Orleans is owned by the same people - so I moved into New Orleans and it just grew from there.

‘That enabled me to book people like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lewis, Little Richard and Duane Eddy and a lot of those big acts.

‘It really became a massive event. The car show became bigger than the massive event inside the hotel.

‘We added pool parties, we added burlesque.

‘It became more than just a festival it became a lifestyle festival.’

Ingram’s Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend event draws up to 20,000 people annually from all over the globe who love rockabilly, 50s music, classic cars, vintage fashion, dancing, burlesque, pool parties, and the lifestyle it brings.

He brings his entire trusted security staff to Las Vegas from the UK each year, and many UK residents come to Las Vegas for the festival year on year.

Tom is proof that following your passions, taking risks, and tireless dedication can create community, a thriving business, inspire others, and result in high honours.

The 61-year-old says his passion for Rockabilly music started when he was living in Purbrook as a teenager.

His family lived in the Portsmouth area throughout his childhood, having been born in Leigh Park, before moving to Emsworth, Hayling Island and then Purbrook.

Tom even used to deliver The News’ Sports Mail around the area as a boy. It was on sharing news with a neighbour that he opened up to rock and roll.

‘I'd been saving up to buy an Elvis EP and I'd just about got enough money,’ he explains.

‘[My neighbour] came back and she had this pile of original Elvis LPs that she gave me. I still have them to this day.

‘That was a big boost.

‘I still listen to them occasionally because they remind me of that time and how lucky I was to have said the right thing to the right person at the right time.’

Tom feels ‘proud’ to represent someone from the promoter scene with his flagship event Viva Las Vegas festival as its success has encouraged others to establish their own grassroots rockabilly themed events.

‘I never expected it to grow this big,’ he says.

‘The rockabilly scene in the general scheme of things is a small thing. ‘Even the biggest ones are still small within the general population.

‘For this to reach this level of success is important for the scene.

‘It's important for there to be a big flagship event for the scene because it gives everyone something to work towards.

‘Bands want to play it, DJs want to play it and then what we do supports the local events and the local events support us.

‘We've had a lot of people around the world who have started up smaller festivals because they've seen what we've done at Viva Las Vegas and they wanted to have a festival as well.

‘I'm just an average person who's been on the rock and roll and rockabilly scene most of my life. Seeing someone from the scene do that has given people the incentive to try themselves.’

In his promoting work, after the MySpace era came to an end, Tom lost the ability to send newsletters out virtually to inform people of the Viva Las Vegas festival and he saw his group of 10,000 rockabilly fans vanish from the social media platform overnight.

It’s then that he decided he never wanted to rely on social media, unlike many other promoters, to spread word of the event.

Instead, he grew an extensive mailing list which would see physical flyers arrive at the recipients address.

‘We’ve stayed true to how I set it out at the very beginning,’ explains Tom.

‘I always listen to people’s ideas. We never drifted away from the style of music. Every year we send people their flyers which fold out into posters. Everyone's posting pictures online of where they've hung their poster.

‘It creates more online presence. But I won't rely on social media that can suddenly change their minds on how things are done.’

Today, Tom plans to continue developing Las Vegas and the rockabilly community it brings from many corners of the globe. ‘[To receive the Key to the City] is a massive honour,' he says.

‘I never expected anything like Viva Las Vegas and what it's brought.

‘It's getting a little bit tougher each time, as I’m 61, but it will continue there's not question about that.’