This came out of the "Tuesday Night Music Club," a gathering of Los Angeles musicians who got together on Tuesday nights to write songs. Crow named the album after the club and gave the members songwriting credits on this and six other songs on the album. Credited on this track are: Bill Bottrell (also the album's producer), David Baerwald, Kevin Gilbert and David Ricketts.
The title came from a 1990 novel written by John O'Brien, a friend of Tuesday Night Music Club member David Baerwald. The book is about an alcoholic who essentially drinks himself to death in Las Vegas. O'Brien himself was an alcoholic, and by the time this song came out on the album, he was in the throes of addiction.
The novel was just a modest success, but in 1992 a producer named Stuart Regan discovered the book and began the process of making it into a movie, which ended up being the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas starring Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue.
On April 10, 1994, O'Brien killed himself. This was a few months before the movie began shooting and a few weeks before the song started getting steady airplay. Interviews with O'Brien's family revealed that the writer was deeply depressed, and even the impending success of his novel could not shake him out of it.
The lyrics reflect Crow's life, but are not literal. She left a small town in Missouri to make it in Los Angeles; "Leaving Kennett" wouldn't make a great song title. Since this was Crow's first album, many fans assumed the lyrics were her life story rather than a representation.
David Baerwald wrote a piece in L.A. Weekly explaining his contribution to this song and why he used his friend John O'Brien's book as the title. Wrote Baerwald: "My basic job on this inoffensive pop record we started was to sort of come up with a 'shiny phrase,' a topic, a hook line, a chorus. I thought John would dig it if we did one on his book. So on the way to Pasadena, where we were recording, I started humming, 'Death springs eternal on a gaudy street,' blah blah blah. I picked up one of the guys in Hollywood, and we took a couple of hits of acid and went into the studio. We cut the song that night. 'Leaving Las Vegas, lights so bright, palm sweat, blackjack on a Saturday night.' It was cool."
Crow got a big break when she performed this song on Late Show with David Letterman on March 21, 1994 (also on the show that night: Bill Cosby). Crow's performance earned her an interview with the host, who told her it was a great song and asked if it was in some way autobiographical. Crow replied, "yes, actually" and went through some banter with Dave about how she's never lived there but has lost a lot of money in the city. Crow explained:
"Originally, the song was very metaphorical for Los Angeles. People move there with these great dreams and they wind up being very disillusioned. That's what Las Vegas seems to exemplify."
Dave then asked the perfect follow-up question: "Then why didn't you call the song 'I'm leaving Los Angeles,'" to which Crow replied, "I have too many friends there."
Letterman was clearly smitten and Crow came off as very likable and talented. The appearance gave the song a lot of traction, but it also caused some friction in Crow's camp.
Her appearance was solo - she was backed by the Late Show band and not the Tuesday Night Music Club. She never mentioned any of her collaborators, and didn't say anything about John O'Brien's novel, which provided the title.
According to David Baerwald, John O'Brien simply wanted credit for the title, and he was incensed after seeing Crow's Letterman appearance (O'Brien wasn't mentioned in the liner notes of the album either, which infuriated Baerwald). In his L.A. Weekly article, Baerwald says that O'Brien got drunk that night and drove off looking for him, getting arrested in the process. Three weeks later, he killed himself.
Crow said that Baerwald's article "destroyed" her, and she was deeply distraught after leaning of O'Brien's death. O'Brien's family absolved Crow, however, explaining that while the author was upset about the Late Show appearance, other factors were responsible for his suicide.
Tuesday Night Music Club
is one of the most successful debut albums in music history, but it took a while to produce some hits. The first two singles released from the album were "Run Baby Run" and "What I Can Do For You," and neither charted. "Leaving Las Vegas" was the third single, and while it only made #60 US and #66 UK, it garnered significant airplay and built anticipation for Crow's next single, which was her breakout hit "All I Wanna Do
Since this was never a huge chart hit and thus didn't get oversaturated, the song came in handy as a B-side for later Crow singles. Live versions appeared as the flip sides to "What I Can Do for You
" (1995) and "A Change Would Do You Good
Crow had heard her voice on the radio before - singing the McDonald's jingle "I'm lovin' it" - but this was her first real song she heard. She told Rolling Stone in 2010, "I was driving my beat-up Corvair in Beverly Hills, and I heard it from the car next to me. I followed the car for as long as I could."