Gino Vannelli: Older, wiser and inspired
One afternoon last September, two grim-faced, sunglasses-wearing sheriff's deputies attempted to drag a stylishly dark-coiffed man — who was singing and dancing his heart out — from Skyland Pub in Troutdale.
While still smiling, the man eluded the lawmen's grasp and — with them and others joining in — continued belting out a rollicking, bluesy tale of an aging rounder who's repentant about his past ... or maybe not.
"And the world is a whole lot safer since I walked the line / In me you see penitent man," he sang. "Whoa, you won't catch me in no cathouse dancing in the buff with a bottle of moonshine / Least ways, that's the plan."
That irrepressible singer? None other than Gino Vannelli, the rich-voiced songwriter and musician who scored big on the late 1970s-early '80s pop charts with "I Just Wanna Stop" and "Living Inside Myself."
And those bumbling "deputies" were actually Troutdale resident Terry Smoke and Ken Cahill. Vannelli recruited them along with several other locals for the video of "Older 'N Wizer," a song from his 2019 album, "Wilderness Road."
For decades, Vannelli, a Montreal, Quebec, native who released his first major-label album, "Crazy Life," in 1973, has quietly and consistently perpetuated his music career from the decidedly non-showbiz-y environs of Corbett.
"I'd had enough of L.A.," Vannelli said of his fast-lane home from 1972 until about 1990. "My wife was from the Tri-Cities (Washington) area, so we said, 'Let's try (Oregon) and stay here.'"
Keeping busy as ever with production work in his East Multnomah County studio — and basking in the artistic satisfaction of "Wilderness Road"— Vannelli recently took a break to talk about his career, complex relationship with the limelight and his zen-like approach to life.
"New York and L.A. were good for finding musicians you want to rehearse with," the 67-year-old said of his big-city years, "(But) why put up with LAX, O'Hare and Kennedy (airports)? It's still relatively sane here. It's big enough, but small enough. ... The perks are a lot better than the drawbacks. I'm not one to rub elbows on a weekly basis."
Knocking on the door
With the relative anonymity that accompanies small-town living, Vannelli can toil in his well-appointed studio, working on or recording new tunes, producing other musicians' projects.
When he feels like showing off, he's welcomed with open arms to venues in Europe, Canada or Australia, where Vannelli built large and loyal fan bases through the years, as well as the U.S.
"All those years of not having hit singles and still selling records helped me in the long run," he said. "These (fans) know deep (album cuts) and the 'Wilderness Road' songs. They're really with me. At this point in my life I don't need to tour. But I love to tour, and the audiences are right with me."
Back home in Oregon, he also helms Gino Vannelli's Masterclasses, whose individual courses focus on singing, songwriting and music production.
"People come from all over the world. They're always sold out. I'll have five students in the morning and five in the afternoon," he said.
Although Vannelli's soothing, warm demeanor doesn't suggest a hidden taskmaster, he aims to show students how the recording process actually works "in life."
"It's really hands-on, trench warfare," he said. "You're at the mic as if you're doing a track on Monday to deliver a (completed) song by Friday. ... These are not theoretical classes, but hands-on, experiential classes. You're in the thick of it."
Vannelli asks his songwriting students to write a stanza about loving someone "without telling them you love them."
"It's the hardest exercise. Most people want to melt all over," he said. "The best songs are the hardest to write. They have a life of their own. You don't go get it. It comes and knocks on your door."
Reluctant pop star
"I Just Wanna Stop," which rose to No. 4 on the Billboard singles charts in fall 1978, was a song that knocked on Vannelli's door — this time with his songwriting brother, Ross, on the other side.
"By the time that came out, we were selling out every concert hall every night, in '75, '76, '78," Vannelli said. "My brother came to me and said, 'You're doing really well, my brother, but you should have a hit' ... He and my other brother Joe worked on it awhile, and it got really big."
Four years earlier, Vannelli had reached the top 25 with the funky, uptempo "People Gotta Move," which he performed live with his band on "Soul Train," the Don Cornelius-hosted TV showcase. The lush, sultry balladry of "I Just Wanna Stop" ("and tell you how I feel about you, babe"), however, was something else entirely. The song, and its accompanying A&M Records album "Brother to Brother," rocketed the photogenic, curly-maned Canadian into the pop cosmos.
Vannelli, with his long-view approach to artistry, paid his disco-era stardom little mind.
"I didn't enjoy that part, to tell you the truth," he said. "It was about simplifying to please a very narrow audience — narrow, but mainstream."
In 1981, Vannelli struck gold again with the self-composed No. 6 ballad "Living Inside Myself." Several minor U.S. hits — and major ones in his native Canada — followed, but Vannelli was more interested in pursuing the muse on his own terms.
"In the end you have your own life's journey to follow," he said. "You have to love what you do and the people around you, and love your life. If you don't, you're in trouble.
"I've met practically every artist out there, and very few are happy people," he added. "Happiness is a difficult garden you've got to cultivate. You're never rich enough or pop enough. ... What seems like gold dust can get (tarnished) very quickly."
Troutdale General Store owner Terry Smoke, who Vannelli got to know in his visits to Troutdale, said he admires Vannelli's community sprit and well-rounded earthiness.
"He can come here and have lunch and talk politics, philosophy, history — he's just a whiz," Smoke said. "Then, to see the talent. I'm surprised there are not more people here in America that follow him."
As he did for the "Older 'N Wizer" shoot, Smoke also acted in a video for "Yet Something Beautiful," a considerably more plaintive song from "Wilderness Road." The clip was shot at Celebrate Me Home in downtown Troutdale.
"The inspiration for the song first came from closely watching a couple sitting to lunch at Celebrate Me Home," Vannelli said. "The plight of the man in the wheelchair and the strength, poise and kindness of the woman attending to him had me composing instantly."
Pleased with the vitality of "Wilderness Road" and the quiet country life he shares with his wife, Trish, and their dogs, Bodhi and Link, Vannelli doesn't foresee retirement in any traditional sense.
"(Walt) Whitman and (Robert) Frost wrote great stuff until they died," he said. "If you model yourself off great people who created until they died, you never stop taking stuff in and never get to that cynical point where you feel you've lived it all."
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