In the late 1970s pop singer Gino Vannelli was considered a disco sex symbol, with his thick, curly black hair, flashing dark eyes, chest-baring outfits, and a macho attitude. During this period, Vannelli had several top hits, including "I Just Wanna Stop" and "People Gotta Move." However, by the late 1980s this image had grown stale, and through the 1990s Vannelli underwent a spiritual quest that resulted in a new life as well as a new singing style.
One of three sons of Joseph and Delia Vannelli, Gino Vannelli grew up in Montreal, Canada. His father was an aspiring singer who passed on his talent and interest to all three of his boys, but when Vannelli was ten, his father abruptly quit singing to take over the family barbershop business. However, Vannelli continued to hold his own dream of a musical career. He was performing in his own rock band, called the Cobras, by the time he was 12 years old. With his brother Joe he formed another group, which performed Motown-inspired tunes. When he was 16, Vannelli signed briefly with RCA and moved to New York City. He told Pat Colander in a Chicago Tribune article posted on his website, "I used to go back and forth to my home in Montreal. I'd sing with a group for a while and get some money, or I'd get some money from my parents, even tho [sic] it made me feel guilty, and come back to the city and try to write music."
The venture eventually fell through and Vannelli returned to Montreal, although he continued to send out demo tapes. He was rejected by several labels, and was fairly desperate by 1973. One morning, he waited at the gates of A&M Records with his guitar. When executive Herb Alpert showed up, Vannelli ran after him. Vannelli recalled on his website, "The guard came running after me—it was chaotic. I think Herb saw that glint in my eye and knew what I was really about, and he let me play a few of my songs." Vannelli added, "As I sang, he just smiled. When I finished, he said, 'Okay, let's do it, on one condition—that I produce your first album.' The next day I went home to Montreal with a record deal."
During the next few years, Vannelli had several hit songs, including "People Gotta Move" in 1974 and "I Just Wanna Stop" on his Brother to Brother album in 1978. He toured as an opening act for Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips, and was nominated several times for a Grammy Award. His brothers also continued their own musical careers, and while Vannelli won five Juno Awards as Canada's top male vocalist, recording engineer, and producer, many of these awards were shared with his brothers Joe and Ross.
During this time Vannelli was widely viewed as a "sex symbol," according to Nicholas Jennings in Maclean's. Jennings noted that Vannelli, "a hairy-chested prince of synthesizer rock and disco pop," drew "thousands of screaming female fans to sold-out concerts across North America."
Vannelli continued to perform into the 1980s. In 1985 he released Black Cars, performing with his brother Joe, who played synthesizer, as well as his brother Ross, who sang backing vocals. Jimmy Haslip of the Yellowjackets played bass, and Mike Miller rounded out the group on guitar. Although David Hiltbrand commented in People that the band provided "taut musical support," he also noted that Vannelli's talent as a crooner was underused on this album. Nevertheless, one track, "Black Cars," went platinum. By that time, however, musical tastes had begun to change and Vannelli's career was on the wane. He was also beginning to tire of his sexy image, which conflicted with his Catholic upbringing. He told Jennings, "The image that I portrayed and my feelings towards women were constantly on trial, and I wound up unhappy and confused." In addition to these conflicts, Vannelli was exhausted from a grueling schedule of touring more than 200 nights a year.
In the late 1980s Vannelli's unhappiness and confusion drove him to embark on a spiritual journey, traveling the world and looking for answers to his questions about the meaning and purpose of his life. He read hundreds of books on spiritual matters and traveled to various spiritual teachers, including Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California, Inca priests in the Peruvian Andes, and Zen monks in Japan. One advisor, a Hindu monk near Malibu, California, advised Vannelli, "What you really need is a good accountant," according to Lee Berton in a Wall Street Journal article posted on Vannelli's website. The advice was timely: Although Vannelli had made millions early in his career, he had managed his money unwisely and was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
In 1991, partly in response to this advice and partly out of a desire to live more simply, Vannelli left Los Angeles, where he had lived for years, and moved with his wife Patricia and their son Anton to a modest home in Portland, Oregon. He paid off his debts and saved enough money to produce a new album.
In 1995 he released Yonder Tree, the jazz-inspired story of his spiritual quest. Vannelli sang with the backing of pianist Randy Porter, bassist Phil Baker, and drummer Graham Lear, as well as several guests, including saxophonist Tom Scott. The album's style is reminiscent of Frank Sinatra in the 1950s, but Vannelli's lyrics take a more personal turn, exploring themes of temptation and desire, and describing his travels in search of spiritual truth. Vannelli told Jennings that with the release of Yonder Tree, he wondered, "Will the public accept me, or can I grow old with them thinking that I'm not good anymore? That's the trap of having been some sort of sex god. And it's very hard to get past that." He also commented, "The album represents the journey I've been on, and this wanting to break through and do something I've always wanted, without being afraid of whether or not I'm going to sell a lot of records."
Vannelli's father, who had once aspired to a musical career but quit because he feared failure, died a few months before the album was released, and Vannelli dedicated the album to him. Indirectly, Vannelli's father had inspired the album, as he was a Sinatra fan and Vannelli had grown up listening to his father's Sinatra classics.
Vannelli followed Yonder Tree with Slow Love, an album of love songs that emphasized melodic ballads as well as Vannelli's personally revealing style of lyric writing. On his website Vannelli wrote that the album "was inspired by the woman I married. I wanted to broach the subject of feeling worthy or unworthy of someone's love. The songs bare my convictions."
For the Record . . .
Born on June 16, 1952, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; son of Joseph and Delia Vannelli; married to Patricia; children: Anton. Education: Studied music theory at McGill University.
Began singing professionally at age 12 in band the Cobras; at 16, signed briefly with RCA; signed with A&M in 1973, released seven albums that included hit singles "People Gotta Move" and "I Just Wanna Stop"; released Nightwalker on Arista, 1981; signed with Mercury and released Black Cars (1985), Big Dreamers Never Sleep (1987), Inconsolable Man (1990), and Live in Montreal 1992; moved to Verve Records and released Yonder Tree (1995) and Slow Love (1998); signed with BMG and released Canto, 2003.
Awards: Juno Award, Canada's Most Promising Male Vocalist, 1975; Juno Award, Male Vocalist of the Year, 1976, Juno Award, Producer of the Year (with brothers Joe and Ross), and Male Vocalist of the Year, 1979; Juno Awards, Recording Engineer of the Year (with brother Joe), 1986, 1987, 1991.
Addresses: Record company—Verve Records, 825 8th Ave., New York, NY 10019. Website—Gino Vannelli Official Website: http://www.ginov.com.
The singer continued to reinvent himself and his career, and as he approached the age of 50 he began working with a vocal coach in Portland. The coach stripped down Vannelli's style, ridding him of old bad habits and expanding his vocal range. Vannelli also began singing in other languages, expanding his repertoire. He wrote a song in Italian, "Parole Per Mio Padre," dedicated to his father. When executives from BMG Canada heard the song, they offered him a contract, and Vannelli asked his brothers to collaborate with him on the resulting album, Canto (2003), an orchestral pop album that includes songs in French, Italian, Spanish, and English. "It's a coming of age and acceptance for myself," he told Derek Chezzi in Maclean's.
Crazy Life, A&M, 1973.
Powerful People (retitled People Gotta Move), A&M, 1974.
Storm at Sunup, A&M, 1975.
The Gist of the Gemini, A&M, 1976.
A Pauper in Paradise, A&M, 1977.
Brother to Brother, A&M, 1978.
The Best of Gino Vannelli, A&M, 1978.
Nightwalker, Arista, 1981.
Black Cars, Mercury, 1985.
Big Dreamers Never Sleep, Mercury, 1987.
Inconsolable Man, Mercury, 1990.
Live in Montreal, Mercury, 1992.
Yonder Tree, Verve/Mercury, 1995.
Slow Love, Mercury, 1998.
Canto, BMG, 2003.
Detroit Journal, October 6, 1995.
Maclean's, May 12, 2003, p. 57; June 5, 1995, p. 70.
People, September 10, 1985, p. 22.
Gino Vannelli Official Website, http://www.ginov.com/ (October 19, 2004).
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