Live Blu-Ray DVD sparks Vannelli Rebirth
By Keith Sharp
Generally, it didn’t pay to mess with Clive Davis.
Following a successful six-album stint with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, Montreal’s Gino Vannelli appeared to be on the verge of super stardom when he signed for Davis’s fledgling Arista Records in 1980. During his tenure as head of Columbia Records, Davis was credited with signing the likes of Aerosmith, Earth Wind And Fire and Janis Joplin and operated a label which featured the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Chicago, Billy Joel and Pink Floyd.
So when Davis launched his Arista label in 1974 and started signing the likes of Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston, Vannelli appeared to have been offered a great opportunity. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out the way Vannelli had anticipated. Used to having his own creative control over his releases, Vannelli ran into opposition from Davis when he released his first Arista record in 1980 and although `Nightwalker’ featured one hit single; “Living Inside Myself”, Vannelli and Davis were at loggerheads and when, the pair disagreed over the direction of an intended second album, “Twisted Heart”. Law suits ensued, Vannelli found himself frozen out of the United States and instead retreated to Holland. A move that, in retrospect proved to be a defining moment in Vannelli’s career.
Now back in the spotlight with the Blu-Ray release of his Live In Los Angeles DVD/CD, recorded in May 2014 at the Saban Theatre and currently touring in Canada, having just appeared at the Brantford Blues Festival, Vannelli notes that his three-year exile from the North American music industry proved to be creatively inspirational.
“I lived in Europe, performed with big bands, with small bands, I wrote poetry and recorded “Black Cars” on a European label which didn’t care about Arista freezing me out in the States,” noted Vannelli from his Portland Oregon home base before performing in Brantford. “Suddenly it hit me, I wanted to go back and look at the things I had done since 1973. I just sat at the piano and started re-writing, re-arranging and re-thinking all the songs people knew me by. They became new songs because I had been away from them so long.”.
The idea for Vannelli’s Live In Los Angeles DVD came from brother Ross who not only served as Vannelli’s sound engineer but also serves as his manager. “Ross had a vision that the show I was performing was so good that we should capture it on a DVD,” reflected Vannelli. “It took Ross four years to find the right investors (Sono Recording Group) and then we wanted to find the right venue. Ross wanted to film the DVD in Los Angeles but I hadn’t played there in like 15 years, and initially no one wanted to back me. Ross eventually twisted a few arms and we sold out the venue. One year later, Ross calls me to say the Blu-Ray is the number one seller on Amazon!.
Looking back on his Arista conflict, Vannelli now admits he was naive in his dealings with Davis. “It was a difficult three-year period but I could have broached things differently. I am an artist and artists tend to think of themselves as being slightly wounded or sensitive and you have to get rid of that mindset,” he noted. “You are walking into a situation where people are not going to behave the way you want them to. I think I could have handled things a little differently in retrospect.”
Although Vannelli didn’t tour for some 12 years, his spell in Holland proved to be a great period in his life. “It forced me to get out of the record business for a while, I went back to college, and then I recorded “Black Cars” in Europe and that got me back on to the charts in Canada.”
Vannelli’s initial break came in a fortuitous fashion when he literally ambushed A&M Records’ head, Herb Alpert in the company’s L.A parking lot. Time was running out for Vannelli and brother Joe after an unproductive 1973 trip out to the West Coast and with one final, desperate gamble, the pair decided to camp out in the A&M Records parking lot.
“I waited for him to walk across the parking lot and I dropped my guitar and chased after him,” Vannelli reflected. “There was a security guard chasing after me, it was a real `Keystone Cops’ scenario but Herb must have admired my nerve because he invited me to audition for him.” The result of that audition proved to be a six-record deal with A&M, highlighted by his `Brother To Brother’ 1978 release which featured the top 4 Billboard hit; “I Just Wanna Stop”
“A&M was a very forward thinking label, they had a variety of acts like Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker and The Carpenters and later The Police and Joe Jackson but they had no idea what to do with this curly-haired cat from Montreal who sang jazz and pop,” allowed Vannelli. “But they gave me a chance to express myself, I toured consistently through 1974-75, we were drawing a lot of people and they allowed me to develop my craft.”
Vannelli’s hits are still standard fair on classic radio and recent live appearances confirm that he is still a vibrant performer although he is selective about when he does tour. “I would like to hold onto my voice as long as possible,” he allowed. “No matter what great technique you use, your voice will give out eventually so you`ve always got to look after yourself.”
As a songwriter, Vannelli notes he has always been a `song guy’, “My inspirations have always been likes of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers And Hammerstein, brilliant songwriters like Jimmy Webb and yes, Lennon and McCartney, they had special gifts. They really understood the curve of a song, the emotional shape of a song.”
Even thought the current trend in downloading and streaming severely limits the impact of a complete album, Vannelli believes the onus is on the artist to have a specific vision when they go through the recording process.
`Ìf people continue to have a sound-byte mentality, albums will probably denigrate into something worse,`warns Vannelli. “But I’m not concerned about the mainstream, I am concerned about reaching people who gravitate towards listening to what I have to say.