Gino Vannelli: From hazy, crazy life to digital audio maestro

Lee Herald Favicon 16Committed to excellence, perhaps more so as each day passes into the next, Canadian singer/songwriter/producer, Gino Vannelli, is a musical enigma of sorts.

Surely capable of resting upon the laurels of an adorned career consisting of Juno Awards, Grammy nominations and multiple gold and platinum albums, Vannelli’s need to grow…to augment his skills…to improve upon yesterday’s accomplishments separates him from the bulk of his musical contemporaries.

Moreover, his consistent reinvention and his eagerness to venture into uncharted musical space serves as a testimonial to his unmatched divergence.  His abilities, paired with his intensity, has yielded just shy of two dozen remarkable albums.

It is, however, his enchantment with digital engineering, at age 65, that generates a wondrous and youthful enthusiasm.

Gino will be performing at the Southwest Florida Event Center in Bonita Springs on February 22.  In advance of his performance, he was kind enough to chat with us about everything from his early days in Montreal up to and including his current-day music production in Portland and his upcoming album.

Gary Levine:  Gino, it’s always best to start at the very beginning so let’s travel back to Montreal in the early 1950’s.  I believe that you and your brothers, Ross and Joe, were kind of spawned into the music industry.  Your dad was a singer who performed with a number of prestigious jazz-trumpeters, Maynard Ferguson being one of them.  Would you tell us what growing up, in that environment, was like for you and your brothers?

Gino Vannelli: “Well, music was…to us…or, to the household…like rain is to Portland.  It’s every day…from a fine mist to a downpour.  It was like that, every day, for us.  My father was an incredible music aficionado, so we had all kinds of records.  I think we had one of the first, you know, stereos in 1960, 61, when they were just introduced to Canada.  My father had to have the first one…at least in Montreal.  I gravitated toward instruments early in my life…at five or six.  I was very serious about the guitar and drums.  By the time I was nine or ten, I was taking drum lessons and I was an all-out drummer…learning my craft.  I played in my own band all through my teens.  Then I picked up the piano.  Musical instruments just seemed so endemic to my nature that, one day, in our high school, the upright bass player who played and sang with the glee club got sick.  Our conductor was beside himself, not knowing what to do.  We had to rehearse.  I said ‘Well, I think I can play it.’  I was 12-years-old and 5’3″.  So, I got on a chair and picked up that big double bass.”

So as to provide a precise visual, it is meaningful to know that a full-sized double bass would stand nearly a foot taller than the pre-adolescent Vannelli.

“I figured out the frets.  It must be here…it must be there.  This is where my ‘E’ is, so this must be my ‘A’ and so on.  I just started playing ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”  And it seemed to make a lot of sense to me. And knowing that about myself, I just tended to lean towards my strengths.  The only problem for me…and for a lot of kids that age…was the discipline to practice and really learn my theory correctly and really get such an incredible structural beginning that I could build upon it.  That was a hard juggle because I wanted to be a kid, too.  I wanted to play hockey and I wanted to play soccer and I wanted to play football.  I wanted to go out dancing and so on and so forth.  It took hours and hours and hours of playing on the drums or the piano or the guitar or bass to really learn them properly.  So, it was a constant juggle.”

Gary Levine:  If the timetable in my mind is working properly, while North America was in the throws of the British Invasion, you were reportedly passionate about Italian opera, Russian composers and the Montreal symphony.  Did you get beaten up a lot at school?

I immaturely chuckled.  Gino did not.

Gino Vannelli:  “I mean, I had no problem with consuming it all.  I remember the ’12×5′ record, you know, Rolling Stones with ‘It’s All Over Now’ and all that.  I remember really liking that record.  Not only from a vibe point of view…and the band’s performance…and the kind of rawness of the songs, but I liked it from an engineering point of view.  I remember thinking to myself ‘That’s interesting, I don’t hear rock records with really pronounced hi-hats and bass drums and guitars…so sharp.”

Vannelli shared a list of several artists, belonging to varying genres, that he enjoys listening to.

“Different parts of the body can be tickled,” he declared.

Gary Levine:  While you have been asked this before, I’d be remiss, and cheat our readers out of a wonderful story, if I didn’t inquire about your studio parking lot episode with another renowned trumpeter, Herb Alpert from A&M Records.  Would you mind sharing this story with us?

Gino Vannelli:  “Well, I had been getting some interest from record companies in New York, but I couldn’t close the deal.  So, by the time I turned 20, I had saved some money and my brother (Joe) and I went to Los Angeles.  We had been there for almost three or four months and we ran out of money.  So, the day before we had to leave, I sort of pulled a Hail Mary and waited outside the gates of A&M Records.  Which, at that time, was at Charlie Chaplin Studios on La Brea and Sunset. I waited for Herb to come out of his office and I didn’t understand exactly what I was doing, but I sort of felt compelled to go with my instincts.  I was warned, repeatedly, by the guard, you know, not to go through the gates.  But, I did go when I saw Herb and I accosted him.  The guard finally caught up with me and he tried to drag me off.  But Herb took pity on me and asked me what I wanted.  He gave me a little slip to come back in 30 minutes and play for him…and, I did!  I came back…I took my guitar and I played for Herb.  He just looked at me and said ‘Welcome to the family!’  So…long shot…something very unorthodox that could never be repeated or done again.”

An attestation to Vannelli’s resolve and tenacity, the incident gave rise to an exceptional career approaching its fifth decade.

“The difference with a lot of people…presuming that you have some sort of skill or talent…it’s that you just can’t give up.  You just don’t know when your time is going to come.  And, if you’re going to be a little downcast…you’re going to be a little depressed one day ’cause it’s not happening and it’s drizzling outside and nobody loves you, you just gotta suffer through that and keep picking yourself up, by the bootstraps, and keep thinking and devising ways to further not only your station in life, but further your knowledge, your understanding, your depth of commitment.  That has a way of affecting everyone around you.  It has a way of attracting really fine people and good musicians and good souls around you.  It’s almost like a light that people are attracted to…like a moth.  I found that to be really true because I was attracted to those kinds of people.  They were not only ‘can-do’ people, but people that would never be stopped from doing what they wanted to do.  To me, that was my greatest inspiration…whether I met them, in person, or read about them.  Whether it be a musician that I met from New York of LA or reading about Walt Whitman.”

Gary Levine:  Both of your brothers have been a big part of your life and career.  Looking back over the last half century, how have Joe and Ross contributed, both professionally and emotionally to your success?

Gino Vannelli:  “Well, the thing about my brothers…the three of us…really always understood that it wasn’t a question of blood.  And it wasn’t a question of being family.  It really was a question of can you actually do what is needed.  Can you live up to the commitment?  Can you pull it?  That understanding applied to everybody and, therefore, we never used family or blood as an excuse to actually have an unnecessary relationship or an unhealthy relationship.  The relationships have always been good because we understood, from the get-go, that everybody had to pull his own weight.  That was never a problem.  My brother Joe and I had a real fine association in the ’70s and partly in the ’80s, of producing together.  And then, later on, Ross wrote ‘I Just Wanna Stop.’ Later on in life, seven or eight years ago, my brother, Ross, started managing me.  And I could find no better manager than my brother, Ross, who is an all-encompassing manager because not only is he a writer and producer, but he understands the business side very, very well.  And we have a really great relationship and I attribute a lot of my later touring success, in the last seven to ten years, to my brother, Ross.”

I have been interacting with Ross, of late, as we arranged this interview.  When I shared his brother’s sincere appreciation for his efforts, Ross responded by saying “To say I love to see Gino perform is an understatement. It is truly amazing to see Gino performing better than ever! When we were growing up I saw how hard Gino would push himself and it became contagious. His drive for excellence never stopped and still exists!

Not only is he intelligent and such a talented songwriter, producer, arranger, but Gino is a beautiful person that I am proud to say is my brother. It is easy to manage Gino, in my eyes Gino was a star way before he was a successful musician!”

Gary Levine:  In 1973, you released “Crazy Life,” a nine-track debut jazz album very different from the pop hits that you are most known for.  The following year, in 1974, you released “Powerful People” with “People Gotta Move.”  I suppose times change and, I suppose with “Brother to Brother,” there were songs like “The River Must Flow” along with…and I guess I’d call “I Just Wanna Stop” a ballad.  The genre kind of shifted as you moved forward. With the coming of the 1980’s, and your “Nightwalker” and “Black Cars” albums, it seems, and please correct me if I’m incorrect, it seems as if you were playing to a more contemporary audience.  Can you tell us about this period around 1978 and this transformation?

Gino Vannelli:  “I just wanted to do something that I hadn’t done before.  You know, when I hit 31 or 32, I went through a very, very early mid-life crisis.  I had been recording since 20.  Where a lot of people were not even getting going in their lives, I was already going.  I had my first album done at 21.  I had my largest success when I was 26 with ‘Brother to Brother’ and ‘Nightwalker’ came out when I was 27, 28.  I had two top-ten…two top-five records much before I was 30, so it was time to pivot when I was 31, 32.  I found that I just didn’t have the stomach to record those more complex/fusiony kinds of songs and lyrics.  I felt that it had been done and I had no more left inside of me to do it…especially after ‘The Gist of the Gemini’ and some of those records.  So, I want to look at music differently.  I approached ‘Black Cars’ and ‘Big Dreamers’ in a different way…in a more technically…I wouldn’t say ‘distant,’ but I didn’t have to use my method writing as much…whereas, in the ’70s, I used method writing.  I really dug down deep, into my personal life, to write a lot of those songs.  And I wanted to learn how to write from whim or from fancy.  And, I learned how to do that in the ’80s.  It started with ‘Black Cars.’  It really helped me because, by the time I got into the ’90s and 2000s, I could choose to write the method style of really actually going through the emotions or just look at something and correlate it and come up with a great theme for a song that didn’t necessarily put me through the straits.  It was really a pivotal time for me in the ’80s, as far as being a writer.  And, then also, as the producer, I started to learn the digital language.  I started understanding computers, software…the whole 1’s and 0’s.  By the time we get to 2018, I’m recording my new record, I’m equally comfortable hiring a band to do a track or sitting down at the computer and calling up all these great, wonderful sounds that have been recorded, so meticulously, by engineers.  And doing it all through digital apparatus and coming out with a record that’s every bit as good as old school.  In some cases better but, at least, as good.”

What appears to extricate Gino from many of his contemporaries is his proficiency with and comprehension of digital audio.  More so than any other singer songwriter that I have had the opportunity to chat with, Vannelli is a digital virtuoso who has morphed from band to bandwidth over his distinguished career.

“You have to,” Gino remarked.  “When we were kids, recording some of those new albums, Joe and I were really impassioned by the science of music because we came up with all of those interesting orchestral synth-sounds.  ‘People Gotta Move’ was really an experiment.  That brass sound…some of those trombone sounds…some of those string sounds…some of those bass sounds…that was really science of the times and a lot of those companies came to us and asked us how we even did it.  We were always looking for something new.  That search for something new is part of the passion that I feel about music.”

Gino paused.

“Some familiarity is okay.  But, you have to add…you have to push the envelope a little bit.  Recording in a new way pushes the envelope in different ways for me.  I could sit down and start to imagine things and call up a bass or a piano.  Sometimes I just sit down at the computer and I have this great wonderful piano sound that I come up with and I just sit down and I start writing and I start coming up with ideas.”

Gary Levine:  “Parole Per Mio Padre” is a lovely piece.  For Americans, like myself, who struggle with one language, it translates to “Words for My Father.”  You were asked by Pope John Paul II to perform this in his presence during the 2000 Vatican Christmas show.  First, can you tell us about this beautiful tribute to your dad and what it meant to perform this piece for the Pope?

Prior to Gino’s response and on behalf of those of our readers who depend heavily on computer language translation, I advised Gino that I attempted to use an online translator to translate the lyrics.  One of the lines of “Parole Per Mio Padre” translated as “I’m going to go to one of the 18 bathrooms in this place.”

We laughed for a moment.

“I had written poetry.  And I sent the poetry to some of the translators.  Then, I sat with them, as far as scansion and all that.  But, the original intent of the song…I’ll give you an example, Gary.  There was a song on the ‘Canto’ album…a song called ‘Il Viaggio’ meaning ‘The Journey.’  The expression that I wanted to say to the Italian translator, I wanted to say ‘I have traveled through time and space’ (to be with you).  He said there is no such expression because to say ‘time and space’ in Italian would actually mean ‘I’ve traveled through clock and air.'”

Gino explained that the closest one can come to traveling through time and space, in Italian, was to travel “across a thousand nights.”

“It’s okay but, through time and space, meaning hell or high water,” Gino quipped.  “So, I was faced with all those kinds of things on the ‘Canto’ album.  I want to say these things that were said in English but could not be said in Italian.  And that’s why you’ll see translations that are odd if you translate them literally.”

Gino continued.

“I got a call one Sunday morning, from a Bishop, and I thought it was a prank call…and I hung up on him.  Then he said ‘please, please don’t hang up’ in his thick, Italian accent and that the Pope wants me to sing that song for him. He invited the whole family so myself, Trish and Anton went.  It was very difficult for me because two days before the show, I had contracted the flu.  The day of the show…an hour before the show…they asked, ‘Can you do it?’  My wife looked at me and said that 100 million people will be watching and you’re gonna miss that?  And that was precisely my trepidation…I’m going to go on with 100 million people watching and hit that high A flat and just crack through it…’cause my flu was so bad.  I had 103 temperature.  The Vatican sent a doctor and they said ‘well, we could give you a steroid injected directly into your throat.’  And, that’s what I did.”

The image of an injection into one’s throat caused me to involuntarily emit a bizarre sound…half moan, half squeal.

“I know,” Gino said.  “It was risky.  And my throat opened up in about five minutes.  And I sang that song.  And after coming down or out or detoxing from the steroids, I was down for a week.  But, I was happy that I did do it.  But, if you look at the video, I’m white as a ghost.”

Gary Levine:  In 1978, “I Just Wanna Stop” received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance (Male).  And, interestingly, Maynard Ferguson was nominated, that year, for the “Theme from Rocky.”  In 1981, you were nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Accompanying Vocalist…I believe that the category has changed names about a hundred times.  In 1975, ’76 and ’79, you received prestigious Juno Awards.  While this may be like asking a parent to select a favorite child, was one award or nomination more meaningful to you and why?

Gino Vannelli:  “Not really, Gary.  I was so committed to getting better at my craft that they were fleeting pats on the back.  And not much more than that. It was always nice to go to the shows and be recognized, and things like that.”

Vannelli’s parting words were most indicative of his work ethic…of his devotion to his craft.  and of his genuine desire to continue progressing within his industry:

“I learned early on that it really wasn’t about what other people thought about you.  It really was about putting your nose to the grindstone and being able to reproduce what you’re hearing in your head.  And that brought me the most satisfaction.”

A limited number of tickets are available for Gino’s performance on February 22.  Click here to purchase tickets.

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