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John L. Smith On The Passing Of Joe Neal And Phyllis McGuire


2020 is finally behind us, but before it ended, it took two great Las Vegas characters. 


Phyllis McGuire led the McGuire Sister trio with number one hits such as "Sugartime" in the 1950s. Many more remember her as the girlfriend of mob boss Sam Giancana. 


And Joe Neal died on New Year's Eve. Neal was the son of a sharecropper in Lousianna and became Nevada’s first black state senator, a position he held for more than 30 years. 


State of Nevada contributor John L. Smith knew them both. 

“The best years for the McGuire sisters were really in the mid to late 50s. They were very big stars in a time before modern rock ‘n’ roll,” Smith said.

Many people believe it was the notoriety of her relationship with Giancana that led to the sisters breaking up the act. Add that to changing musical tastes and the sister fell out of favor.

“Interestingly enough, whenever Phyllis made solo appearances, in later years, or appearances with her sisters – they would go out on the road a few times a year – and the cities that they were once well known, including of course Chicago, which happens to be Giancana’s backyard, they would pack the house,” Smith said.

He said Phyllis and the sisters were always able to charm audiences even after their record selling days were behind them.

Smith got to know the famous singer while working on a book about the gambler and maverick casino owner Bob Stupak. Stupak is best known for building the Stratosphere Hotel and Tower

In the 90s, Phyllis and Stupak were dating. Smith wanted to speak to her about the casino owner. She played coy for several weeks, but one day, she called Smith from Chicago and agreed to talk to him - after she sang him a song.

“And she cut loose with a rendition of ‘Blue Sky,’ and it was beautiful,” he said, “She could have told me anything about Bob and I would have believed it after that song.”

Smith noted that besides being a performer McGuire was a force in raising money for charities in Southern Nevada. She lived in a mansion that was bankrolled by Giancana, but Smith said whenever you met her in public she was just a regular Midwest girl, who just happened to have a giant diamond ring on her finger.

On Joe Neal:

“Joe Neal was a guy who was raised on a farm in Louisiana. As a child, he participated in sharecropping. He grew up in the Jim Crow South. He was definitely a person from that generation,” he said, “In Nevada, he was a firebrand liberal. He stood up for workers’ rights, for organized labor. He was often on the short side of battles against the gaming industry, against insurance companies, against banking and health care companies. He fought for people for a long time.”

Smith said for a long time Neal was a polarizing figure in Nevada politics, but eventually, the state senator became beloved, which he believes Neal deserved.

Smith wrote a book about Neal called "The Westside Slugger." He said the former politician liked the book.

“It was a reminder of how difficult things were to gain any little bit of ground for Blacks in Southern Nevada, and really for working people, in general, in Nevada itself,” he said.

Neal joined the Air Force and gained the benefits of the GI Bill. That allowed him to get a degree in political science and history. He served as MP while in the Air Force. Smith said Neal "could take care of himself."

“He understood at an early time in politics that you had to basically elbow your way into the system if you were from a minority in Nevada,” he said.

Smith said when Neal started running for office - he ran unsuccessfully three times before he was finally elected - there was little interest in courting minorities to serve. The only concern was getting votes.

“No one was really all that interested in seeing Black and brown faces at the Legislature. Joe Neal changed that in the State Senate forever when he was elected," he said.

Neal told Smith that when he arrived in Carson City people were polite, but he was far from a political insider and that was okay.

“He was willing to stand up when others sat down. When others were willing to be polite, he was willing to demonstrative and say what was on his mind,” Smith said.

Neal stood up for returning voting rights to felons who had served their time. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment. He pushed for higher taxes on the casino industry and pushed year after year for the state to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

“There’s no question that his presence was a daily reminder that the state was changing, that politics in Nevada were changing, not just for the Democrats but for the Republicans as well,” Smith said.

Overall, Smith sees Neal's legacy as one of social justice. Now, the issues of social justice and racial equality are talked about a lot. Neal fought for those values his entire political career, Smith said.

"I think the focus on Black Nevadans as full citizens and minorities in general as having a full political voice. It’s a huge thing,” he said.

John L. Smith, contributor

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.