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The 1970s was a decade dominated by glam, punk, heavy metal, new wave, disco and funk. It was a decade where notions of pop and rock authenticity and hipness were constantly being contested and redefined. In the midst of such a heady maelstrom, a handful of artists such as Gino Vannelli and Steely Dan opted to buck all the trends, writing and producing sophisticated jazz-inflected pop. In Vannelli’s case, such decade defining hits as “People Gotta Move” and “I Just Wanna Stop” came wrapped in elaborate arrangements dominated by multiple synthesizers while being totally bereft of guitars. While Vannelli wasn’t a favorite with the Rolling Stone wing of rock critics, he managed to rack up ten Billboard pop chart hits, seven of which also charted Adult Contemporary, three of which crossed over to the R&B charts. Gino Vannelli remains one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary pop music.
Born in Montreal in the summer of 1952, Vannelli grew up in a family headed by a jazz singing father and a keen eared mother. Enamored with a bevy of jazz drummers such as Joe Morello, Gene Krupa, Ed Thigpen and Elvin Jones, as a child Vannelli studied drums and music theory for five years. By the age of 12 he had formed a rock band dubbed the Cobras and a year later, with his brother Joe holding down the keyboard chair, Vannelli headed up the Motown-influenced Jacksonville 5 (note this is five years before the Jackson 5 recorded their first record). Along the way he picked up guitar and piano and began to sing.
By age fourteen he had fallen in love with classical music, attending concerts by the Montreal Symphony every last Thursday of the month.
“I had a double standard,” reflects Vannelli. “I used to defend Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr, thinking they were part of something new and exciting. Yet, when I’d listen to Dave Brubeck Live at Newport, my standards would be totally different. I also fell in love with the French Impressionists. I remember hearing the Montreal Symphony playing “Daphne and Chloe” and walking away saying, ‘What was that? I felt altered. What it really was all about was finding the magic in the down and dirty and the celestial.”
Before his seventeenth birthday, Vannelli had signed with RCA Records in Canada, releasing a single under the pseudonym Van Elli, “Gina Bold” b/w “Never Cry Again.” Bitten by the music industry bug, Gino and his brother Joe headed for New York and then later Los Angeles, pounding the pavement looking for an American record deal. While lots of record execs were suitably impressed by Vannelli’s songwriting abilities and his near three octave vocal range, no one was willing to take a chance on an artist who so clearly was working with music outside of the mainstream tastes of the day.
Discouraged to the point of giving up, the Vannelli brothers were ready to head back to Montreal to find work outside of music. In an oft repeated story, Gino decided make one last desperate effort to get signed. Early one morning he headed out to the offices of A&M Records where he waited outside the gates for any sign of company co-owner Herb Alpert. When Alpert appeared in the parking lot many hours later, Vannelli ran through the gates past a startled security guard and begged a slightly apprehensive Alpert for a chance to audition. Acting on a hunch, Alpert acceded to his request and Vannelli proceeded to play on acoustic guitar some of the songs he had recently written including “People Gotta Move,” “Crazy Life,” “Mama Coco,” “Powerful People” and “Lady.” All five songs would end up on the six albums Vannelli would record for A&M between 1974 and 1978.
Five of those six albums made the Billboard album charts, culminating with Brother to Brother (produced by brothers Gino, Joe, and Ross Vannelli) , which achieved a coveted Top 20 position in the fall of 1978. A classy, elegant and impassioned artist, on Vannelli’s A&M albums he recorded contemporary songs inspired by R&B and Jazz and developed a significant cross over audience. With his records climbing the charts, Vannelli toured as the opening act for Stevie Wonder, was the first white artist to appear on Soul Train, was nominated for a handful of Grammy Awards and soon headlined his own concerts at major venues in key US cities. In his native Canada, his talents were recognized with a plethora of Juno Awards.
With Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss getting ready to sell A&M, and a new CEO at the company informing him that he should follow Rod Stewart’s lead and record a disco album, in 1980 Vannelli elected to sign with Arista Records. His sole Arista album, Nightwalker, provided him with a #6 pop hit in “Living Inside Myself.” When Vannelli opted to follow it up with a stripped down edgier album called Twisted Heart, the powers at be at Arista refused to release it. For the next three years, in a move reminiscent of similar episodes in the careers of George Michael and Prince, Vannelli and his record company engaged in all-out war.
After a four year hiatus, Vannelli was finally released from his Arista contract and in 1985 he released the successful Black Cars album and single on HME. Two years later, he recorded Big Dreamers Never Sleep for CBS, whose single, “Wild Horses,” stormed its way to the Top 10 in several countries.
Black Cars and Big Dreamers Never Sleep proved to be big sellers in continental Europe and Vannelli spent much of the latter part of the decade touring overseas. To this day, he continues to have a large European following, usually mounting at least one major tour of the continent every year.
By 1990, Vannelli had grown weary of the music industry and Los Angeles and decided to move his family to the quieter environs of Portland, Oregon. He built his own studio, started his own label, on which he released the live Inconsolable Man in 1990, and spent a number of years studying a profusion of world religions and philosophers.
“I decided to pull myself out of the mainstream,” he explains, “and take the side streets.”
Signing with Verve, Vannelli’s commercial output took a radical left turn with the largely acoustic jazz albums Yonder Tree and Slow Love, released in 1995 and 1997 respectively. By the end of the decade his muse was taking him still further afield, toward one of his earliest loves, classical music. To prepare himself, he took voice lessons for a couple of years and began working on the material that would appear on Canto, released by BMG Canada in 2003. Featuring songs sung in English, Italian, Spanish and French, Canto was warmly received in Europe while also being purchased by a core of his faithful North American fans.
Satisfied with his forays into jazz and classical, Vannelli felt that it was time to return to pop and in 2005 signed a new deal with Universal Music. These Are The Days, a compilation that combined seven of his earlier classic hits with seven new songs, marked the debut of yet another phase of Vannelli’s continually fascinating career and a return to the pop genre that made him an icon.
Gino’s international recognition continues to grow as he continues to explore new boundaries of popular music. Whether he is performing with his jazz combo at venues across Europe or playing with his full band to throngs of enthusiastic fans in such diverse locales as Las Vegas, New Orleans, Indonesia, and South Africa, Gino Vannelli’s reputation as a high quality performer and brilliant music creator along with his engaging personality keep his career soaring to greater and greater heights.