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Multifaceted musician, hitmaker Gino Vannelli draws creative stimulation from life in Corbett

PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Vannelli, 67, has played the pop-star game, but prefers to balance recording and touring in a way that suits his calm personality and feeds his artistic muse.  One afternoon last September, two grim-faced, sunglasses-wearing deputies dragged a stylishly dark-coiffed man — who was singing and dancing his heart out — from the stage at Skyland Pub in Troutdale.

Smiling all the while, the man broke from the lawmen's grasp and — with the deputies and others joining in — continued belting out a rollicking, jump-blues-styled song about 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 crooned. "Whoa, you won't catch me in no cathouse dancing in the buff with a bottle of moonshine / Least way's, that's the plan."

That irrepressible singer? None other than Gino Vannelli, the rich-voiced songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who scored big on the late 1970s/early '80s pop charts with tunes like "I Just Wanna Stop" and "Living Inside Myself."

And those bumbling "deputies" were actually East Multnomah County residents Terry Smoke and Ken Cahill. Vannelli recruited them among other locals to shoot a 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 while residing in the decidedly non-showbiz-y environs of Corbett.PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Gino Vannelli, right, demonstrates a piano part for David Goldblatt and Julie LaMeng, while recording a Christmas-oriented album last month in Vannellis Gresham-area studio.

"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 (Wash.) area, so we said 'Let's try (Oregon) and stay here.'"

Keeping busy as ever with production work in his Gresham-area studio — and basking in the satisfaction of musically wide-ranging "Wilderness Road"— Vannelli took a break to talk with The Outlook 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."PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - At the height of his popularity, Vannelli, center, collaborated with his brothers, Ross, left, and Joe on songwriting and producing and performing.

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 admitted. "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, adding, "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 Ross Vannelli, one of Gino's two songwriting brothers, on the other side.

"By the time that came out, we were selling every concert hall out every night, in '75, '76, '78," Gino recalled. "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."PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - At the height of his popularity, Vannelli, center, collaborated with his brothers, Ross, left, and Joe on songwriting and producing and performing.

Four years earlier, Vannelli had reached the top 25 with the funky, uptempo "People Gotta Move." He even performed it live with his band on "Soul Train," a rare occurrence on the Don Cornelius-hosted TV showcase.

The lush, sultry, R&B-based balladry of "I Just Wanna Stop" ("and tell you how I feel about you, babe"), 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." 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 observed. "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 ... What seems like gold dust can get (tarnished) very quickly."

Something beautiful

Troutdale General Store owner Terry Smoke, who Vannelli got to know in his regular visits to Troutdale, said he admires Vannelli's community spirit and well-rounded, down-to-earth nature.

"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."PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Gino Vannelli published his first book, 'Stardust in the Sand' (left), about his life and career, in 2010, and released his most recent CD, 'Wilderness Road' in spring 2019.

As he did for the "Older 'N Wizer" shoot, Smoke 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." 

(Sample lyric: "His eyes roamed skyward, as she wheeled him in his chair / He twitched and he trembled, while his fingers caught a hand / He spoke in bits and pieces, his words in disarray / Yet she listened carefully, to all that he had to say")

Clearly pleased with the vitality and variety of his recent projects, Vannelli basks in the quiet country life he shares with his wife, Trish, and their dogs, Bodhi and Link. A musician since childhood, he doesn't foresee retirement in any traditional sense.

"(Walt) Whitman and (Robert) Frost wrote great stuff until they died," Vannelli 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."

COURTESY PHOTO: GINO VANNELLI  - Gino Vannelli, center, invited Troutdale Realtor Ken Cahill, left, and Troutdale General Store owner Terry Smoke to play sheriffs deputies in the video for Older N Wizer, shot at Troutdales Skyland Pub in 2019.


When Troutdale property owners Sheryl and Max Maydew walked into the Troutdale General Store with a distinctive-looking, curly-haired man from out of town, store owner Terry Smoke immediately knew the striking man's identity.

"They didn't know who he was," Smoke recalled. "They said, 'Terry, this is ...' and I stopped 'em: 'He's Gino Vannelli.' "

A longtime pop/rock music fan, Smoke recognized the guy whose lush, resonant baritone voice enlivened such 1970s and '80s radio nuggets as "Living Inside Myself," "I Just Wanna Stop" and "People Gotta Move."

The singer and Smoke hit it off.

Last summer and fall Vannelli invited Smoke to take part in recording promotional music videos for the poignant "Yet Something Beautiful" and the rollicking, humorous "Older 'N Wizer."

The latter was staged and recorded with a cast of locals last September at Skyland Pub on South Troutdale Road. Smoke and his friend Ken Cahill portrayed grumpy-looking sheriff's deputies. The pair apprehend Vannelli while he's singing about — kinda, sorta — giving up the wilder ways of his youth.

In the end, the deputies switch from arrest to dancing mode, joining Vannelli and the other musicians, all of whom appear to be having a great time.

"It was easier than I thought," Smoke said of the experience. "Once I got started it was so much fun. Gino was so much into, 'Let's relax and have a good time with this.' We were there most of the day. Everything clicked and we had a blast."

Smoke had little idea what he was in for when he showed up at Skyland.

"I had no idea when I came down there that I'd be doing any singing and dancing along with him," Smoke said. "I knew there'd be a little bit of acting, and dragging (Vannelli) off the stage, but it was way more than I expected."

He credits Vannelli with bringing his vision to the production.

"He had it all laid out in his head," Smoke said. "I thought it was awesome — just a great, great video."

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