In an era of auto-tuned vocals and endless overdubbing in the backing tracks of pop music, Gino Vannelli is a true throwback to the days of dramatic singers who put their vocals and passion front and center in their songs. That approach took him to worldwide success with the hit singles “I Just Wanna Stop” and “Living Inside Myself” as well as in concert tours, millions of album sales, Grammy nominations and Juno Awards in his native Canada.
It has also kept him in worldwide demand on the concert tour circuit for over 40 years, including a stop at The Rose nightclub in Pasadena Friday, Aug. 3. Speaking from his current home base in Portland, Vannelli takes great pride in keeping performances fresh, both for his fans and for himself as an artist.
“The key to it all is having great musicians, because with them I can take some of the more challenging songs from over the years and try to imagine them in 2018, with little changes that I would have originally written if I was writing them today,” says Vannelli. “Sometimes it’s a lyric change, where you say things at 22 or 23 that you wouldn’t necessarily say at 60. Unless I live in perpetual adolescence, I make the changes I need to make. I’ve recorded at least 200 original songs, so there are at least 40 to 60 that really mean something to me.”
A native of Montreal, Vannelli grew up in a family headed by his cabaret-singing father and a “keen-eared” mother. Instinctively drawn to jazz, drummers in particular, he studied drums and music theory for five years as a child. Gino’s first foray into pop music came one afternoon as a group of young drummers stood in line, waiting to take turns to audition for a Montreal East group called the Cobras.
The rite of passage involved playing “Wipeout” by the Ventures, and Vannelli learned how to master it that very day by making sure he auditioned last and learned from how the other hopefuls performed it. He came home with the gig as the Cobras’ drummer before he was even in high school. By the time he was 14, Vannelli stumbled into the lead singing role in a Motown-style band called the Jacksonville 5. Also around that time, he started studying classical music and opera.
Vannelli said he broke through to success as “one of the first white guys on ‘Soul Train,’” and as the opening act for Stevie Wonder on his 1974 world tour. Soon, he was selling out 3,000- to 5,000-seat concert halls himself, and when his career-long manager and brother Ross convinced him to record “I Just Wanna Stop,” it made its album “Brother to Brother” achieve double platinum status by selling over two million copies.
Along the way, he’s had some memorable gigs, including performing a song called “To My Father” for an audience of 5,000 and Pope John Paul II at the former pontiff’s request in a Catholic Church-sponsored festival. He prefers playing “intimate places” including the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, a sister venue in the chain that includes The Rose.
“I’ve been based in Portland for the last 30 years, built my recording studio here and teach master classes in singing and songwriting from my home here in the wild and woolly Columbia Gorge,” says Vannelli. “I was born and raised in Montreal, moved to New York in my late teens and to LA at 21, but I moved to Portland because my wife is from the area.”
Vannelli’s eclectic musical interests and unstoppable audacity paid off when he was 21 and living in Los Angeles. He waited outside the gates of then-major label A&M Records for a glimpse of label co-founder Herb Alpert. Racing past a security guard, he begged Alpert for an audition and was signed by the end of that day. He has never fallen out of love with his career.
“The travel gets a little hard. We just played Mexico City two weeks ago,” says Vannelli. “It’s kind of worldwide, because next year we go to Moscow, and we just did Israel and Poland, South Africa, Jakarta, Japan. It’s kind of a big world, you can’t do it all, but I love what I’m doing and I want to get better at what I’m doing. I want to continue to evolve. Technology brings new possibilities, new ways of recording. The fire hasn’t gone out.”
Gino Vannelli performs at 9 p.m. Friday at The Rose, 645 E. Green St., Pasadena. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $38 to $68. Call (888) 645-5006 or visit wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com.