Gino Vannelli

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While it’s indisputable that Gino Vannelli was truly prominent within a specific 12-year period, there is also no doubt that he has been one of the most dynamic and enduring artists since his 1970 debut. The singer, songwriter, arranger, and producer is in what must be a small class of musicians who have scaled the upper reaches of Billboard’s pop, rock, adult contemporary, R&B, club, jazz, and classical charts. He hit his stride in the mid ’70s with a succession of bold albums appealing to all of those audiences and more, as they integrated a multitude of styles in a way that exemplified fusion in the truest sense, and centered his lithe, soaring, and virtuosic vocals with total conviction. A hot streak of gold records in Vannelli’s native Canada culminated in Brother to Brother (1978), a platinum album featuring the Canadian number one hit “I Just Wanna Stop,” also a Grammy-nominated Top Ten U.S. hit. Since the ’80s, during which he scored a second Canadian platinum album with Black Cars (1984), Vannelli has moved steadily from one unpredictable project the next. Among these are Yonder Tree (1995), a primarily acoustic jazz date; Canto (2002), a classical pop recording with lyrics in four languages; and Wilderness Road (2019), his third album to land on the jazz chart.
Gino Vannelli started on drums as a young jazz enthusiast in his hometown of Montreal. Well before his teens, he successfully auditioned for a local band called the Cobras, having learned the Ventures’ “Wipeout” on the spot by listening to the hopefuls before him. Shortly thereafter, he formed the Motown-inspired Jacksonville Five — years before the emergence of the Jackson 5 — starting on drums and moving to lead vocals when Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” proved too much a challenge for the band’s singer. In 1970, still a teenager, Vannelli debuted under the name Vann-Elli with a one-off RCA Victor single consisting of “Gina Bold” and “Never Cry Again,” songs he wrote and co-arranged that flitted between bubblegum pop and blue-eyed soul. The A-side registered on the Canadian pop chart at number 92.
Further pursuance of a music career in New York was unfruitful. However, during a West Coast trip with his brother Joe — who had played keyboards in the Jacksonville Five — Vannelli approached trumpeter and A&M co-founder Herb Alpert in the A&M Records parking lot, performed a few songs for the label boss later that day, and secured a contract. Enriched by his musical theory studies at McGill University and possessing a cache of original material, Vannelli was primed for artistic and commercial breakthroughs but didn’t achieve them until the follow-up to his Alpert-produced 1973 LP debut Crazy Life. Driven by the lead single “People Gotta Move” (number 21 pop in Canada, number 22 U.S.), 1974′s Powerful People was Vannelli’s first gold seller in his native country. That year, Vannelli toured with Stevie Wonder and became one of the first white acts on Soul Train, two years behind Dennis Coffey and months ahead of Elton John and David Bowie.
Through 1978, Vannelli continued to release ambitious and eclectic studio albums for A&M, all with extensive help from Joe Vannelli, and most with younger brother Ross, on an annual basis. With one exception, Storm at Sunup, The Gist of the Gemini, A Pauper in Paradise, and Brother to Brother each earned gold or platinum certifications in Canada. The last of those went platinum in Canada and the U.S. Altogether, these LPs spawned six charting singles highlighted by the Brother to Brother ballad “I Just Wanna Stop,” which sent Vannelli to the top of the Canadian pop chart (number four in the U.S.) and prompted another Soul Train visit. Moreover, “I Just Wanna Stop” was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Pop Vocal Performance. Vannelli twice won the Juno Award for Best Male Artist during this run.
Vannelli moved to the Arista label and collected another gold disc with Nightwalker, a 1981 arrival featuring another big ballad, the number 13 hit (number six U.S.) “Living Inside Myself.” Vannelli and siblings Joe and Ross were Grammy-nominated together for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals. Arista refused to release Vannelli’s divergent follow-up, Twisted Heart, resulting in a protracted battle between the artist and label. After he was released from his contract, Vannelli returned in 1984 with Black Cars, issued on Polydor in Canada and CBS Associated in the States. Vannelli’s eighth album, it produced the rocking number four Canadian hit title song, the number 14 ballad “Hurts to Be in Love,” and went platinum. Vannelli kept to a triennial release schedule with Big Dreamers Never Sleep in 1987 and Inconsolable Man in 1990. A hometown concert in 1990 was documented the next year with Live in Montreal.
Opting to no longer concern himself with commercial demands, Vannelli retreated from the music industry for a few years before resurfacing during the latter half of the ’90s. Yonder Tree and Slow Love, released on Verve Forecast respectively in 1995 and 1998, shifted Vannelli’s focus to understated ballads with primarily acoustic backing. They were his first two albums to enter Billboard’s jazz chart. He then dove headlong into another early and longstanding love, classical music. Among his contributions to pianist Niels Lan Doky’s 2001 album was the Schubert-inspired piece “Parole Per Mio Padre,” which he subsequently performed for Pope John Paul. This led to a deal with BMG that resulted in Canto, a 2002 recording that reached Billboard’s classical and classical crossover charts. Throughout the remainder of the decade, Vannelli revisited his back catalog and simultaneously looked forward. These Are the Days was split between new songs and a selection of hits dating back to the mid ’70s. That 2005 release was followed four years later by A Good Thing, an album and poetry book facilitated by time spent in the Netherlands. Also in 2009, Vannelli revisited his back catalog with The Best and Beyond, which covered hits and deeper cuts alike, from “I Just Wanna Stop” to “Wheels of Life,” with support from musicians based in Vannelli’s adoptive Oregon. The album was also bundled with Vannelli’s 2010 memoir Stardust in the Sand.
During the 2010s and into the next decade, Vannelli performed in a wide variety of settings that enabled him to continue showcasing his versatility and eagerness to keep moving forward. He also worked as a music educator. He released Live in LA in 2015, and followed it four years later by Wilderness Road, his first album of original material in over ten years. An expanded edition of A Good Thing, titled (More Of) A Good Thing, landed two years later. These three later works, all co-produced by Gino and Ross Vannelli, were issued by SoNo Recording Group. ~ Andy Kellman