High-flying Gino Vannelli: more than meets the eye
High-flying Gino Vannelli: more than meets the eye
Onstage at Carnegie Hall in New York, three singers and seven backup musicians pile up an elaborate scaffolding of music for Gino Vannelli’s entrance. Joe, his brother and co-producer, sits in his cockpit of keyboards. At the back of the hall Ross, another brother and co-producer, mans the sound-mix board like an air-traffic controller, making sure the music gets off the ground safely. Gino walks onstage in black pants so tight you could read the date on a dime in his pocket; pants stretched and winched to trampoline intensity. Pants with the prehensile pressure to send Gino flying up into Carnegie Hall’s second balcony.
The music is tight, too. Flight music. Gino does not get down; he goes up. “Oh yes I know,” he sings with an irony that is hard to gauge, “how much you love me.”
That night, however, The New York Times reviewer did not love Gino, dismissing him as “basically a bigvoiced pop belter, like Tony Bennett or Vic Damone” while noting that “Mr. Vannelli does have a following.” Not only does he have a following that filled concert halls on his 34-city tour, completed earlier this month, but Mr. Vannelli also has six albums of his own material behind him, includ-
ing a symphonic suite performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under his direction; an album, Brother to Brother, that has gone platinum in both Canada (over 100,000 copies sold) and the United States (more than a million), a Top40 single, I Just Wanna Stop, and two 1979 Juno awards—one for best male vocalist and another, shared with Joe and Ross Vannelli, for best production on an album. Nevertheless, he is still lumped in by the press with less diversified singers such as Tom Jones, an analogy that doesn’t go beyond the dark Italian good looks and a welcome-mat of chest hair (which, in Gino’s case, lifts his shirt a full inch off his sternum, and probably deserves a special Juno in itself). Audiences in French Canada find it easier to relate to the romantic chanteur role with his kinship to someone like Charlebois, but in English Canada, the name Gino Vannelli means the guy with all the hair from Montreal. Open shirts; sort of disco. Rolling Stone wrote off Brother to Brother as “Las Vegas, weddingcake” music. What did Gino Vannelli, the first Montreal pop musician to “go platiiium” in the U.S., do to deserve such indifference from Canada, normally quick to pluck even unripened, one-hit stars from its native branches, and why does he inspire such a virulent reaction from the critics?
There is, admittedly, a small image problem. Like his native Canada, Gino’s tastes are far-flung and loosely confederated. At Carnegie Hall, for instance, this 26-year-old singer, now based near L.A., raised in a Montreal Italian family, was singing a romantic blend of jazz, rock and pop to a New York audience, perhaps a third of whom were an uptown black crowd. Record-store owners stare at Vannelli albums; which bin? In an age of disco and revisionist rock, he wants to try “more jazz, maybe another symphonic album.” While groups like The Village People are sending up masculine stereotypes, Vannelli is an unironic, undiluted, old-fash-
ioned male sex symbol, for whom that
role is both a source of power, and a trap. There is none of Rod Stewart’s Bgirl playfulness; Gino is the brown-eyed pin-up boy stuck in the boudoir mirror, lie gains fans and spectators with his looks, but he may lose listeners who don’t see past his image. Others suspect him of engineering this melodramatic masculinity, when really it is just street-corner Italian machismo, projected to stage size. (After his Toronto concert, Gino’s idea of relaxing backstage was to peel off his concert pants and shoehorn himself into another maroon pair, with a high sheen, just as tight. That’s his style.)
When Vannelli comes out onstage, as he did at Maple Leaf Gardens, dressed in white boots and a kind of Renaissance pageboy satin outfit, the critics (cynicism tuned high for any hint of a joke they may not get) can’t believe Vannelli is sincere. But he is. The excess, the high show-biz, are all Gino, the barber’s son doing a class act. Gino knows where he’s headed and the critics can eat his dust. “I’ll definitely be some
place else this time next year,” he says, meaning some place higher up, and at the time he is speaking from the 33rd floor of the UN Plaza Hotel in New York.
At noon, on the day of his New York concert, however, Gino’s black-andwhite stage confidence is grey. The dark hair sits around his face like a bad mood; interviews are a tour necessity, like getting typhoid shots. Oh the reviews, he says, they don’t bother him. “I don’t read them. It’s the music that counts. We have the music and that’s all that matters.” His brother Joe, 28, enters the room and Gino’s soft, wary voice takes on an edge. “Did you read
that thing in the Daily News?” he asks his brother. Joe runs his eyes over another Tom Jones treatise. Ross Vannelli, 23, joins the group and indignation runs high. Both brothers—indeed the entire Vannelli clan—are fiercely proud and protective of Gino, who returns their loyalty with songs like People I Belony To. His girl-friend Patty, blonde, beautiful, and with a manner, like Gino, that combines dignity with openness, slips in and out of the room. He met her four years ago in Portland, Oregon, where she was working in a jewelry store. She was putting Christmas decorations in the window and Gino walked by.
The room is pretty crowded by the time Gino’s parents, installed in the suite next door, come in. It feels more like a wedding reception than a concert tour. Joe is defending Gino. “One reviewer in L.A. said Gino’s concert was great, but he wished he sang more like
Rod Stewart Joe shakes his carefully scissored head — Gino wears the curls in the family. “Rod Stewart. That’s like comparing ... God with Satan!”
“This man,” says Ross Vannelli, as Gino sits between his brothers like a dark, silent godfather, “writes all the time. You have no idea how hard he works.” Considering that Ross wrote the hit that ushered Gino onto AM radio and helpedbreakhim into the mass market, this is a touchingly modest testimony. But the pride and sentiment are pure Vannelli. What
looks like show biz on the stage is all family sentiment off. “What we’re doing transcends music, really,” says Gino; the trouncing of the media has put some color in his eyes now, and he talks with a directness and a naïveté not so apparent on stage.
Gino’s father was a boxer, a barber and a vocalist (“the three things an Italian could be in Canada back then,” Gino says) who kept his sons in Frank Sinatra records. Growing up in Montreal, the Vannelli boys listened to Latin bands and went across the border to buy R&B records. (The soul sound lingers on; Vannelli was one of the few white singers invited to sing on the TV show Soul Train.) Everyone from Tchaikovsky to Bill Evans, from James Brown to Stevie Wonder, has left a ghost trail in Gino’s music. At 16, he had a recording contract with RCA, but “the music industry wasn’t happening in Canada 10 years ago” so RCA agreed to release Gino. At 17, he left for New York, where he rented a room with a piano and tried not to be Tom Jones. Which was what Columbia record company executive
Clive Davis wanted him to be. But Gino wrote away in his own vein (leaving behind deathless lyrics like “Felicia, I just can’t hack you no more”) sticking with romantic, fairly private songs. Then he went knocking—literally—on the door of Herb Alpert, the “A” in A&M Records, who signed him up.
The Vannelli brothers were able to spend about eight months, and $125,000 on the production of Brother to Brother, their most successful album. “The next album” Gino says “will have a ‘jazzrock-gospel’ sound. A bit more spiritual.” Always those hyphens, and the strange mix of the godfather role, the macho image and the choirboy face.
During the Carnegie Hall encore, he moves with a heel-flicking, arched-back dance that makes him look like a Greek centaur. But the physicality is tightly reined.
After the concert an orderly stream of women make their way down to the stage, where their arms reach up lazily to Gino.
Later, the fans crowded in backstage all look disconcertingly like Gino. This
is because most of them are, in fact, related: uncle Vic, two cousins from Montreal, and Father Higgins, a Harlem priest who once taught Joe Vannelli back in Montreal, wait to congratulate him. “Gino was always making music,” his uncle remembers. “When he was 12, he was already in a band, telling the leader how to arrange the songs. The trouble with Gino is that he tries to do too much. He worries about everything; very serious, a perfectionist. I said to him once, ‘Gino, take it easy, you’re only 19,’ and he said: ‘It goes by fast; 19 isn’t so young.’ ” And 26 is not very old to be crown prince and patriarch of so many dreams.
Near the end of the tour, at Maple Leaf Gardens, the audience is quiet, attentive. (“A listening audience” is how Ross diplomatically describes the typical Toronto crowd.) When Gino sings People Gotta Move, his 1974 avant-disco hit, sounding very contemporary these days, no one moves. People seem content just to look at him or waft along on the music. Although some of his lyrics are pretentiously poetic, Gino’s voice,
on songs like Feel Like Flying or People I Belong To can articulate feelings beautifully. For one number, Gino rises out of the stage floor dressed in white, seated at a white piano, in a swirling mass of dry ice; hardly anyone does that with a straight face anymore. Several times, Gino turns and dramatically counts the band into a number, like the sorcerer’s apprentice. The barber’s son is every inch the maestro of illusion: every girl’s prince, every mother’s pride, a boy’s dream of pop stardom. This is, Gino’s voice assures the audience, your pilot speaking. We are cruising at an altitude far above rock ’n’ roll. The earth, down below, looks neat and negotiable, like a problem viewed from inside a daydream. Gino onstage is dark but not too dangerous, someone whose parents are in the audience. Tonight they are. We are up in the Galaxy Vannelli: Oh my father he was a boxer/he worked his body hard to make ends meet/and my mother remains his lover/the things they did/the things they said/go round and round inside my head..
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