Gino Vannelli, A student of life
By Cece M. Scott cecescott.com
Musical powerhouse, and life-long student (as he claims), Gino Vannelli has embraced a career that has taken him through many transitions – from sexy, to spiritual, to settled within. A Montreal native, who now lives in Oregon, Vannelli says that his childhood was entangled in confusion around culture and origins. “There was no confusion about one thing, however, and that was music,” says Vannelli. “It was either great or not. You were either doing Beethoven or Mozart, Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, or you were not in. My family had extremely high-brow taste as far as music was concerned.”
Jumping-bean restless in his youth, Vannelli, spent hours every day on the drums, the guitar and the piano, and eventually became the drummer for the rock band, the Cobras. Fast forward to the mid-1970s, when a dash-through-the-gates manoeuvre, past security guards, allowed Vannelli to audition his newly written songs, People Gotta Move and Powerful People. Herb Alpert, who was co-owner of A & M Records, landed the young singer a contract with the label.
Female fans, of a certain age, will remember Vannelli’s dark curls, and his open-neck shirts, as he commandeered the stage. “I really didn’t take that whole sex symbol thing seriously,” says Vannelli. “In those early days, I just figured, if Elton John can wear a duck costume on stage, I can open my shirt.”
Vannelli was never comfortable with the screaming fans, and says that he was a little too sentimental to be that guy. And, in fact, he was not ‘all that.’ “I had my moments of lapse of sanity (laughs). But when I met my wife, Trisha, I really started pointing my way.”
A multi-Juno award winner, and nominated for four Grammys, Vannelli’s musical trajectory was set When People Gotta Move became a hit in Canada and the United States. The 1978 hit, I Just Wanna Stop, written by Vannelli’s brother Ross, who is also his manager, was then followed by a series of hits, including Living Inside Myself (1981), Black Cars (1985) and Wild Horses (1987).
Deeply philosophical, Vannelli has studied Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Kabbalah. However, there was a time in his earlier years, when he faced what he calls the ‘deadfalls-never-mind-the-pitfalls’ associated with drug and alcohol abuse. “I started doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that in high school,” says Vannelli. “By the time I was touring Quebec with my quartet – the drugs, the late nights – something clicked in my head. And by 1971, 1972, I’d decided to abstain from everything – to be like a monk. An inner voice was telling me that I wanted to be around when I was 70.”
Another seismic, life-altering event that impacted Vannelli, both personally and professionally, was that he was blacklisted in 1981 at the age of 29. Arista Records neither wanted to record, or release, Vannelli’s music. In music world purgatory for three years, Vannelli decided to go back to college. While in California, he studied Humanities as well as South American literary geniuses. “I loved it,” says Vannelli. “When you choose something for yourself, you don’t rebel against it.”
In 2007, at the age of 55, Vannelli felt restless and depressed. He told Trisha that he needed a break, and to be alone, and that he was going to Europe to live for a few years. It was a journey that he hoped would deepen his spirituality. It was a two-and-a-half-year, multi-European cities’ journey of exploration.
Vannelli, who studied with an eclectic array of musicians, played with symphony orchestras, and did offbeat concerts in clubs for a couple of hundred people – something that would have been bad for his image in the states. “I was not only liberating my mind; I was liberating my soul and my body,” says Vannelli. “The biggest thing I got out of that trip was a sense of fearlessness, that I could sing a song without a big band behind me. I learned how to be a better singer, to use my instrument better. It was like being reborn – appreciating what I’d accomplished. I was able to look at my career from a whole different angle. Instead of being hung up on not doing old songs, I was elevated and free. I realized that if I looked at things right, it could be a blast, and that is what I did.”
Vannelli considers himself to be quite liberal, but was well aware of the pitfalls that life and music presented. So, when his son, Anton, became interested in hard rap, he decided to practice some musicology on him, by helping him to understand the culture surrounding the music. And, by encouraging him to become more critical about what he was creating. “I have a great relationship with Anton,” says Vannelli. “I used some old-school philosophy on him, in a new school kind of way, by getting him to write a poem about the injustices of this and that. I was trying to show Anton the practical applications of what he was learning. When he was finished, I praised him for his efforts and encouraged him to give himself some deeper credentials around what he was listening to.”
Following his spiritual and soulful evolution, Vannelli’s thoughtful perspectives can be heard in the lyrics on his 20th album – the 2019 CD, Wilderness Road. In the song, Yet Something Beautiful, taps into his spiritual appreciation and admiration as it relates to life’s challenges, as well as life’s goodness. In the song, a woman is pushing a man in a wheelchair into a cafe. “The man looked like he might have Parkinson’s,” says Vannelli. “But the woman, straight-back and persevering, is speaking to him as if he is the man she always knew.”
After 46 years, 20 albums and 20 million records sold worldwide, Vannelli is still exploring his purpose, which is, intrinsically, music. “I have 50 songs waiting to come out, including an opera libretto,” says Vannelli. “The garden in each of us is finite in terms of bodily health. But our garden of thought, as long as you are healthy and keep planting seeds, is ongoing – never ending.”