Gary James' Interview With
Gino Vannelli

When you hear the name Gino Vannelli, no doubt you'll remember the song "I Just Want To Stop", which went all the way to number one on the Canadian charts and number four in the States. Gino Vannelli was only the second White performer to appear on Soul Train. He's a recipient of Canada's Juno Award for best male artist. Gino Vannelli's story is unlike most recording artists. He is his own man. That's about the highest compliment you can give anyone.

Q - Gino, where is the outlet for your music today? Where are you performing and in what type of venues?

A - (Laughs). You're asking an artist or a marketing man?

Q - I'm asking an artist who in today's world almost has to be a marketing man.

A - Well, that might be so, but we don't look at it that way. We look at it with a much softer... You can look at the universe as a mathematician or you can look at it as dancing poetry. Either way, it's a perception. For me, I look at the market as sort of dancing poetry. It's just a plate of words that have to match and rhyme, and have a rhyme and have sense to them, and have meaning and have entertainment quality to them. For me, a career is the same way. It's sort of a dance with what's coming your way. So, I think this works better. I feel better doing this. Or, you look at a few pictures of yourself or you hear your voice or you perform and people come to you and tell you what they think. So, it becomes more of a bio-feedback exercise. For me, it's more of looking at it that way. Well, it's not like walking into a corporate office and saying "This is what we need to do to keep this man alive." (Laughs)

Q - I know you don't say it, but people probably say to you, or your brother Ross (Gino's manager).

A - Yeah, but I don't think that way because if I think that way then it becomes all very corporate and mathematical and way too logical. If it becomes that way, then the music suffers, therefore you will self implode. It's a self fulfilled prophecy, that it won't be what it's supposed to be. For me, being on stage or playing to people, there's many descriptions to the emotions to what takes place. One of the things is maybe a little nostalgia, maybe social nostalgia, seeing old friends. But in the end, it's really much more than that. These people that come and see me after all these years, they would be long gone in a twinkle of an eye if my music and my spirit wouldn't be into it. It would be just another crowd that says "We tried that. It doesn't really work." I'm really conscious of the fact that it's a very discriminating and discerning public that comes to see me and I offer them the best music and the best performance I possibly can and that's where my heart is.

Q - I remember hearing your song "I Just Wanna Stop" on AM radio. But these days when you record a CD, how do you get airplay?

A - Well, you don't expect all those things anymore that you expected in the past. First of all, you do it for yourself. If you do it for anything other than yourself then you are apt to be disappointed. So, I'm working on a new CD right now that's sort of a jazzy / blues CD and a little bit of bluegrass to it. It's really interesting and fun for me to be in the prepping and recording and also continual writing stage. Not that I don't care, I want to reach as many people that it can reach, but if that's my goal these days, then I'm really on the wrong track. My goal is to create a really great CD, a great album to listen to, primarily for myself and people around me who care. Then we see what we are going to do with it. For instance, we recorded "Best And Beyond" two or three years ago. "Best And Beyond" was a remake of some of the hits and favorite songs of the fans. Thirteen songs I believe it was. It was done through an Italian record company that just had a request and saw the show and said "You oughta record some of those songs the way you are doing them now." Lo and behold their marketing strategy just developed because of the material and how I was presenting the show. When it first came out in Italy, I think it had more downloads then even "Brother To Brother". So it keeps selling really well all over the world in various ways, either as a download or a bootleg copy. (Laughs). Various record companies picked it up.

Q - Hopefully not many bootlegs, because you don't see any royalties from that.

A - I know. To expect large royalties from where they were 30 or 40 years ago, to me is really unreasonable. The marketplace is so scattered.

Q - And the expense for you to go on the road must be enormous.

A - It is, flying and all that. Yes, of course. All I can say is, because I put the music first and the marketing strategy just follows along, a lot of it is done through my brother Ross and some of the agents he works with and it's not as clever and devious as one would think it. It's just, I like the way Gino looks in this picture. I like the way this sounds. This I think is a better poster. It's very soft. It's not a bunch of guys sitting in a room trying to upturn the world. As for me, writing is the way for me right now. It's no longer I gotta get this number one hit or I gotta find something that radio is gonna like. If it sells well, I'm really very happy. If it doesn't, well that's the way it goes. It won't stop me from recording another one when I'm ready.

Q - These days you spend your time between the US and the Netherlands.

A - Yes.

Q - Why the Netherlands?

A - Well, for a while, I lived two years in the Netherlands. I had a house there and developed a band and worked with various musicians, did a lot of Conservatory master classes, traveled Europe a lot, playing in various modes and that was fun for a while. Then I decided I was going to record and so I gave up the house and I spend more time in the States right now. I'm glad I did it because I got to understand it with my boots on the ground. And I just came back now, two weeks ago, from a tour in Scandinavia with a jazz trio. All that is just a result of my living in Europe for a while, a couple of years. I really got to have friends and people I know very deeply and intimately and know me the same way and I can do various kinds of things musically. For me, again, that's part of the research and development, the new songs, the new sounds. I do up a few new songs that I want to try out with the trio. I spring two or three new songs on the audience and for an audience that is primarily not English-speaking, a lot of people think it's the kiss of death. But no, they were open. I explained to them, "I want you to hear something." They don't think the same way. They're a very tolerant audience I played to. They love good musicianship.

Q - When you were just out of high school, you got your first record deal with RCA records. How did that happen? Did you submit a demo tape to RCA records?

A - It was actually more innocent than that. I went to see a talent scout agent when I was in high school, and he said "One of these days I'll get you an audition." And just as June rolled in and graduation was coming that summer, she got me an audition. I remember going after class and got there to RCA and just went to the piano and said "Roll the tape." I played the piano and drums and a little bit of bass and did a song and they called the house three days later and said "You got a contract."

Q - Was it a single deal?

A - Yeah, it was a singles deal. I had some success in the beginning. Then I realized I didn't want to stay in Canada to record because at that time the record business was too much in the infancy stages in Canada, in the early '70s. Not really until the '80s rolled around with the likes of Bryan Adams, that Canadian producers and engineers and studios really got to be world-class.

Q - You are not the first guy to say how difficult it was for a Canadian artist to break through to the States.

A - Very difficult. For some reason there was a bias against Canadian artists.

Q - Are you happy with the job RCA did in promoting you?

A - Well, you have to understand I was a little over 17. It was a single that went Top 20 in Canada and they said "Okay, let's do another single. We're going to build this career." But I had a lot of frustrations working with their engineers, their producers. I just wasn't into the local scene. I wanted to have world-class records. And so the people thought more locally at that time. I didn't. It was very painful for me and so I asked for my release and they gave me a release and then I made my way trying to get an American record contract, and finally I did, three or four years later.

Q - You didn't go the traditional road of getting your record deal with A&M Records. You just didn't hand a demo tape to the guard at the guardhouse. You waited until you saw Herb Alpert and then you went past the guardhouse to personally put a tape in Herb Alpert's hand. If you hadn't been that aggressive or different in your approach, you probably wouldn't have gotten a record deal, would you?

A - Well, I was offered some record deals in New York in I think a year or two prior, but you are probably right. A&M was the record company for me. Although it wasn't all a bed of roses, they were one of the most musical companies and Herb had a soft spot for people who saw themselves as true artists. I got the opportunity to make music that maybe I wouldn't have gotten at another record company. During the '70s I had reasonable success with my records. Whether I had a hit single or not, I sold a lot of records. And then it built up to where I did have a giant hit single and then on Arista (Records) also. The struggle was to gain a spot on radio, and I know the importance of that, but for me the real strength was always to perfect my craft. To really be the singer and writer I wanted to be and I knew I could be. I always thought of it as a road to self discovery, a road to self mastery. To think of it in such a way would help me get through the hurdles and over the potholes and bumps. You always have your eye on the end of the road. You're always looking to where the sky meets the road and if you're constantly troubled by the potholes and whatnot, you just can't go on.

Q - Where did you get the idea to wait for Herb Alpert to come out of his company? Maybe you would've been waiting for ever and never seen him.

A - Frankly speaking, I had been living in a small hotel with my brother Joe on Sunset Boulevard. Our money had run out and we were supposed to leave the next day and I couldn't accept that. I couldn't find any peace and quiet. I couldn't sleep because there's such traffic on Sunset Boulevard. So, at 6 o'clock in the morning I went into a very old Episcopalian church on Sunset Boulevard. I guess to my surprise, the doors were open and I just sat in there, four or five hours it must've been, until I was sort of in a twilight state. When I emerged from the twilight state, I can't explain it to you, I just knew I had to do that. I was going to wait in front of the gates and wait for Herb. He will come out and I will meet him. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Maybe it was part premonition. I don't know. All I know is that I did wait for two hours in front of the gates and Herb did walk across the lot and I ran through the gates and I was chased down. Luckily Herb and I struck a conversation and Herb asked me to come back before I could be booted out. (Laughs)

Q - Gino, you got lucky!

A - Perhaps I did. I can't say that I'm not (lucky). But there is that thing that comes into play and that is luck does favor the prepared. I knew this. In the '80s, my brother and I, Joe and I, when technology started happening, we said "You know what? 10 or 20 years from now we are going to be recording just computers. It's gonna really change the way the business works." When I moved to Portland in 1992, by that time, right before I left, I told my wife, "The music is not dead. It's changing. It's not at all what it was. If we stay here, we are going to sink the old way and we're not going to be light on our feet." You have to be kind of light infantry in this day and age. You can't be stuck. It comes from all over the place. Opportunities are found all over the world. Ever notice that as much as we improve with technology, if you go buy a car, you say "Look what the car does now!" People still love retro cars. We have friends that live down the street and this fellow has a Porsche shop and one of his customers was done with a 1971, best model of the day. And the thing only had 72,000 miles original. They had to drive over and show it to us. You look at the car and you say it was really well-built. Of course it's old-fashioned and it doesn't do certain things as well, but there's something really great about it. I think a lot of people feel that way. They like the fact that they can download. They like the fact that they can just text. It's nice to be able to do e-mail blasts, but in the end there's something, even in young people, that's old school. They respond to human touch. They respond to real emotion. In any case, that's the way I approach it. If I approach it any other way, it would be so not self satisfying that I couldn't possibly go on doing it.

Q - Do you release your new product on vinyl? That's making a comeback.

A - Maybe, but I was never a fan of vinyl. That kind of old school is not appealing to me, because I knew the limitations of vinyl. I hate what it does to the third, fourth, and fifth cut. It was just terrible. You could never get the right frequencies on those last few cuts. There was just not enough plastic making the turn. The first two or three cuts always sounded better and then after ten plays it would really start to tick and pop a lot. Your mastering was so dependent upon the stylus or the cartridge people had. I did hear the records sometimes very well on a vinyl player. I think digital technology will continue to improve as you can see in the last ten years. It's sounding more and more real. Our ears and bodies like the sound of analog a lot better, and so digital technology is closer and closer to the sound of analog. I tend to think right now if you really have your head screwed on straight, with all the big digital technology that's out there, you can make a great sounding record.

Q - You went out on the road with Stevie wonder in '74. He was really "hot" then.

A - That was the scary thing. Chaka Khan had canceled a few dates and I was recording the "Powerful People" album. I was a little dismayed with the way the recording was going. I was going by poolside and I heard my song "Crazy Life" being sung. Low and behold I kind of traced it and it was Stevie and his brother laying down on a chaise lounge chair. His brother recognized me, so we gave each other a fat hug. Stevie just said, "You want to come on tour with me?" Just like that. I just said, "Well of course I would. What do you have in mind?" It ended up being six or seven concerts in the Midwest and the South. It really got my career going because "People Gotta Move" just came out during that time. It started doing something on the Black charts or R&B charts and so I did the tour. Right after the tour, Don Cornelius gave me a call and asked me to do Soul Train. I remember telling Don, God rest his soul, "Don, you realize I'm not Black." And he said, "Yeah, but I kind of consider you kind of off-White." So I did Soul Train. That was a very good experience. It was very good for my career. I found myself in '75, '76, '77, selling out every concert hall in the country, Canada and the United States, without really that much AM radio success. We had a terrific following. We were selling out two shows in 3,000 to 5,000 seat halls. Although it was really great for me, I had my eye on a bigger prize. I still wasn't singing the way I wanted to sing. So I was always concentrating on those things, which was good and bad at the same time.

Q - If you didn't get the airplay for your records, what do you attribute the sell-out concerts to?

A - I think I was a bit of a phenomenon to some of those people, this weird guy with the long hair and making this kind of jazzy / rock music. I can't really say. I look back at some of the pictures and videos and go, "Yeah, I can see why a lot of people would be at least curious about who this guy was." But there was more to it than that. There was good musicianship. My brother Ross would tour with us at the time and we always had good production, good sound. There was always a lot of care in our touring.

Q - Do you ever watch American Idol or The X Factor?

A - Once in a while.

Q - How do you think you would fare on one of those shows if you are starting off today?

A - Hmmmm.

Q - Is that really the proper forum for judging what constitutes a good singer?

A - Well, it has some good to it. There's a lot of technique involved in it. Obviously if you are trying to promote a new song, then you could be a great singer singing a song no one knows how to sing. But if you're singing a song that nobody knows, you won't have the ratings, so it's really all about the ratings too. There's a reason to why a lot of these guys become Idol winners and X Factor winners, they are popular for a month and they go play someplace and nobody goes to see them. There's no career being developed. They are kind of like a burst of light that shines or twinkles in the night and then kind of fades out. A singer is really someone who becomes part of people's lives, whether it's Dylan or Sinatra or The Eagles or hearing Don Henley's voice, it becomes integrated in our lives. We start to understand the person and his approach and how he sings and how he phrases. You put Don Henley on Idol or something like that, he might respond like this is shallow and cheesy and part of him made just check out. He may not fare that well. He might not have that "Gee, I gotta do really well" kind of feeling. On the other hand, there may be a quality to his voice that only those who really know him or really know his abilities can really empathize with. I'm trying to say on these shows, show boats tend to fare better. It's almost those who can jump the highest for the most gymnastics, wows the audience for a second. That's what I'm saying, whereas some of the great singers that sing simple and sing beautiful and sing with meaning, maybe that time on an Idol audition or X Factor audition won't do them justice.

Q - Right. If you took a Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger and had them audition for the Idol judges, they'd be laughed out of the room.

A - It's a different time. It's anachronistic. You can't squeeze 1965 into 2003. We thought differently. A lot of the things you wore, a lot of the things you read, a lot of the things you said, a lot of the people you hung with, things you did, are not the things that are pertinent today in your life. If you would have thought of what you'd be doing in 2013, it maybe would've kind of blown your mind, to know you are texting your friend. We went past the answering machines where it's instant communication and that you make music in a box and that you can sample orchestras. Maybe it would've been all too much for us in those days. You can't really put one era into another. That's what I'm saying. Putting me or anybody like me into that kind of position. I know I'm a good singer, so I would fare the way I'm going to fare, but a lot of the time people you are talking about, it's not their thing. They are interpreters.

Q - And of course there's no tour support. You can't build a career.

A - Well, the artist has to have that in mind. They have to build themselves. Record companies knew that was a factor in those days, so there was more of a budget to help build an artist, but let me tell you, if the artist wasn't building themselves, you were out on your ass quickly in the '70s. The system was in place if you wanted it. Those that really took advantage of it and did the club route and built their touring mechanism, really started better and I think became good stage artists.

Q - When you're not touring, you teach master classes. What's that?

A - Well, I have something called the art of song and the art of voice. Last summer (2012) I did a full month of students from all over the world. They came from Russia, France, Italy, the Netherlands, United States, Canada, South America, Mexico. I taught them my perspective of writing and how I approach it. You can't teach someone to write, but you can lead someone to a better direction. You can help correct people in the art of voice, my interpretation of what good singing is.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.