By Marla Santos
THE MAN BEHIND THE MUSICAL VIRTUOSO AND LIVE PERFORMANCE POWERHOUSE
The terms “prodigy” and “freak” have both been used in describing the incredibly unique talent of singer/songwriter Frankie Moreno. Each term is very similar to the other, both meaning “an exceptional person.” This fits Frankie perfectly!
As Frankie tells it: “I was sort of this weird novelty. People would say, ‘Come and look at that little freak kid playing piano!’” That’s really what a child prodigy is – something so unusual, that no one can explain it, but it’s certainly realized as a gift from God.
If you know anything about Frankie, then you know that he was already an incredible piano player by the age of three. And, you may know, that he was on the popular television talent show, Star Search, when he was ten. After that, most critics fast-forward, skipping right on to his live show at the Stratosphere here in Vegas, giving rave reviews like everyone else. But what about the man behind this spectacular ability?
Frankie has been gifted with this exceptional talent that allows him to enter the worlds of not only pop, jazz and blues, but into the most complex creations of classical music – a true musical virtuoso. Nothing seems beyond his reach, if he decides he wants it. Strangely enough, he isn’t very eccentric or quirky, as one might expect a musical genius to be. He seems actually humble, family-oriented and well-grounded – maybe because of his strong Italian heritage. He seems to fight against getting in the fray of too much publicity, and sometimes turns down opportunities that would skyrocket his career. He still seems to be figuring out whether he really wants to be a huge star, at the cost of possibly losing the very essence of who he is. Fans should seize the moment right now, while we can, to thoroughly enjoy the powerhouse performer of Frankie Moreno
and his ever-changing energetic show of which is contracted at the Stratosphere until 2015.
Frankie put together a 10-piece super band that, led by his piano playing, will knock your socks off. With his charisma (yes, he has that, too) and musical endowment, it’s no wonder that he’s gathering fans by the thousands. Celebrities and musicians from every music genre, from rock to country to classical, all come to see his show while they’re in town. Unlike any other performer I have seen, Frankie sets his ego aside, and showcases every musician in his group, each an individual star in their own right. During the show, I experienced an incredible array of emotions – swelling up from the arrangements of the classical strings, to the hard, pounding rock drums, to the sometimes sensitive, sometimes loud and ballsy piano that Frankie plays center stage. He told me that he changes up his show every couple of weeks or so to encourage people to return. He says he’s trying to keep it like the old Sinatra or Elvis shows, where you could watch it 50 times and it’s never the same. Talk about courting your local fans! It was a terrific show and one that I’ll repeatedly visit. If you haven’t seen him perform yet, you need to put it at the top of your priority list. Much has been written about Frankie Moreno, but in this interview he really opens up and shares more about his life and exposes his true personality.
STRIPLV: When you were 10 and performed on Star Search, did you realize this was the beginning of your career?
MORENO: That was actually a long way into my career. My first vivid memory, and according to my parents, I was 3 when I could actually play the piano really well. I was one of those little prodigy kids playing Mozart on the piano.
STRIPLV: Do you have any idea why you could do this?
MORENO: No idea why. No one in my family played the piano at all. My dad played guitar and my uncle played the saxophone. My grandmother had a piano that she wanted to get rid of, so we took it and put it in our garage and I would sit out there and play it. My dad would have band practices at the house. He used to play weekends at little nightclubs in Santa Cruz, California, where I’m from. It was a 50’s/60’s rock band. I’d hear these guys play and I’d think: ‘I can play everything they’re playing.’ I played everything that their piano player was playing, but it bored me, because it was so easy. When they played a Jerry Lee Lewis song, I learned everything like the record so quickly and easily, it was boring. I had no idea why I could play it, but I could. I got introduced to Mozart’s piano concertos and I remember thinking: ‘Oh, now that’s something difficult.’
STRIPLV: Did your piano teacher introduce you to Mozart?
MORENO: No, no, I didn’t have a piano teacher then. My mom would buy me records, and my dad hooked me up with a stereo system and a big PA system from his band in my bedroom.
STRIPLV: So you would play this all simply by ear?
MORENO: All purely from ear. I was then able to listen to a full 20-minute Mozart piano concerto and copy it almost flawlessly at 5 years old.
STRIPLV: What an incredible gift!
MORENO: I have 2 boys myself and they’re musically gifted, but not to that freakish kind of point. I don’t know what I’d do if they were. I think of how weird it must have been for my parents. I had to take lessons to learn how to read music, learn theory and why those notes all sounded so good together. I knew how to do it, but I didn’t know why. When I was seven, they’d put me up on a box to play the piano at fairs. I would play Mozart really, really fast, then go into some boogie-woogie Jerry Lee Lewis thing. It was a novelty, fun, silly, and ‘look at the freak’ kind of thing. I was into Elvis because of my dad, so all my outfits were like Elvis jumpsuits. So picture me with an Elvis jumpsuit playing Mozart on the piano. (laughter)
STRIPLV: Were your parents stage parents, or did you like performing?
MORENO: My parents were not stage parents at all. They paid for my lessons that grew quickly to 3 lessons a week from different teachers. I outgrew every teacher I had, and we had to start going to San Francisco and L.A., and it was really a problem. One teacher was for theory, one was for jazz and one was for sight-reading. I did this every week and they’d say: ‘If you don’t want to do this, just let us know.’ I actually started teaching piano lessons when I was 10 years old.
STRIPLV: Did you learn how to do arrangements?
MORENO: When I was young and hearing my dad play the 50’s and 60’s stuff, it just naturally got into my blood.
STRIPLV: How involved are you with the arrangements and the production of the show?
MORENO: One-hundred percent! I sit with the lighting guy, tell him exactly what I want. I sit there and work out each song, tell him where to put the lights and what lights to use. I do all the arranging for the band. My trumpet player does a little bit of horn arranging here and there, but as far as the whole song arrangement, I do all that. I wanted it to be that when I stand up there on the stage, I’m presenting everything I am. Every idea is mine, and if people like it, then I really feel good about it, because it’s mine. If they don’t like it, I did everything I could and there’s no one to blame. It’s all my idea, so I bring a lot more to the show in trying harder because I have a lot more to prove.
STRIPLV: Was it difficult to find and put all your musicians together?
MORENO: It was crazy difficult. My bass player is my brother, Tony. The guitarist who looks like Bruce Willis has been with me for about seven years. The drummer is the newest guy in the band and I saw him playing with a band named Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns. I went through all kinds of horn players until I found guys that not only played well, but I liked their vibe. I definitely wanted the strings, because I’m a huge Mozart fan. I wanted to write so the horns sounded like jazz and funk, the band sounded rock, but the strings sounded classical.
STRIPLV: I think how you showcased each musician was a brilliant idea.
MORENO: I liked so many different kinds of music – so I would do a country song, then do a rock song, then a jazz song and then something classical. It was always cool, but it really never defined me. I tried to find a way to combine all that within the sound, so it’s like a retro 50’s rock-n-roll kind of vibe, but there’s definitely classical music playing within it. I try to write the string parts as if Mozart was writing them for my band.
STRIPLV: You play it all, but if someone isn’t a classical music fan, you don’t play it long enough for them to get bored.
MORENO: I think everyone can appreciate classical music, but not everyone wants to listen to classical music. Liberace made a great living by bringing it to a pop crowd, but it’s not for everybody.
STRIPLV: You change up the show every couple of weeks, isn’t that difficult?
MORENO: We have our set songs that we do and our image we want to portray, but as far as all the impromptu stuff, that’s just winging it. It keeps everybody on their toes. As far as the lighting guy, the sound guy, if no one knows what’s happening, everyone is paying attention, otherwise you kind of get lost in autopilot. When you come in and watch the show for the first time, even though we’ve done it 300 times, you’ll like it and you’ll like what we’re doing, but there’d be a stale element to it. We have to have it where even the band is a little stressed out and that’s the nervous energy that people feed off of, which is great.
STRIPLV: The strings are playing classical pieces that are familiar, right?
MORENO: When the girl string players start, I’ll have them play a little bit of Beethoven or Bach, and then I go into an original piece. I’ll do that with my piano playing, too. I’ll play classical stuff I wrote and then I’ll throw in Gershwin or Mozart, to make you think you know everything I’m playing, even though you don’t.
STRIPLV: You don’t sing other artist’s songs.
MORENO: For some reason and I’m thankful for it, I never wanted to sing someone else’s music. Elvis was singing Elvis songs, Jerry Lee Lewis was singing Jerry Lee Lewis songs, Frank Sinatra was singing Frank Sinatra songs, and Mozart was playing Mozart songs – not Beethoven. By the time I was 18 I had already been on Star Search, built up a huge fan base, won a lot of awards with jazz competitions all over the country. I had been making tapes of my original music that I would sell at my shows. Then I got offered a record deal in Nashville. So at 18, my choices were either go to Julliard and teach classical or go to Nashville and try that. So I went to Nashville and the players in Nashville were just phenomenal! Nothing like I’ve seen anywhere else in the country. They’re monsters! So that was like college for me. I started working with a record label named Giant Records, and then I got a publishing deal. I became a staff songwriter and the youngest of 12 writers on that label, which meant that when Alan Jackson wanted a song or they needed a song for Ally McBeal, the TV show, I would write music for that. The problem was (and this spun my whole way of thinking), that the record company wouldn’t let me record any of my own music. I had been doing that since I was 10 and making a great living at it while writing
"I wear Mozart’s skeleton key
from his apartment in Vienna."
for other artists as well. But with my own record label, I can’t sing my own song. It was mind-boggling to me. So I left the record label. It was like a million dollar deal and I turned it down. I’d never been in it for the money. I made my own record, got lucky, and it charted #6 on Billboard in Europe when I was 22. It was called “Blue Paper, Blue Ink” on a record called 29 Royal Street. All of a sudden, I’m getting tens of thousands of orders for the record. I now have a bunch of money coming in and a bunch of fans on a website that I’d built. Everything was cool, so I just rolled with that. The Venetian Hotel here in Las Vegas opened in May of 1999, and I was the first band to play there. We just killed it and loaded the room full of people, and decided I liked Vegas and thought I could make some money here. I moved here and played bars, because no one here wanted to hear original music. Vegas isn’t like Nashville, L.A., or Austin, or basically anywhere else in the world, where people want to go and hear the artist sing the artist’s music. I didn’t understand how that was entertaining. Even if they’re amazing, they’re not going to beat the guy’s version you like, and if they sound just like the original, then they’re impersonators. I don’t get the concept. Why isn’t everyone making up their own music, and then that’s how you decipher if you like that person or not? That was just my way of thinking. So, I just kept doing originals and changing up styles and seeing what kind of crowd I could draw. It always worked; we’ve filled the room and done well. From that, many great opportunities came my way, because I’m in Vegas and everyone comes to Vegas. The guys from Air Supply were here doing a show and came into the club one night and heard me singing, and next thing you know I’m on tour with Air Supply as a musical director. I wrote a song for them that hit #7 on the Billboard charts in the U.S., called “Dance With Me.” It was their first Top 40 single in 20 years. Then I started working with classical violinist Joshua Bell, and then did a TV special with Sting. All kinds of crazy-big, giant things! Meanwhile, I’m playing at the Golden Nugget when I’m in town. I’d play here for 100 people and then go on the road with Air Supply to Hong Kong and play for 50,000. At Hong Kong in the airport I get a text message from Sony Records, saying “Congratulations!!!!” I texted back: ‘For what?’ They asked me to get on line and pull up Billboard Magazine, and there we were: #1 spot on the Billboard charts with the record I made with Joshua Bell of “Eleanor Rigby”, by the Beatles. All I could say was ‘Holy Shit!’ At first I thought they’d hacked my computer, so I asked others to pull it up, and sure enough, it was true. All the movies I’d watched with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis looking at the Billboard charts, I knew this was a big pinnacle. We had it in 2 categories: in classical and classical crossover. Sting had just released a Christmas record and we pushed him to #2. Next thing you know, I’ve got 12 million viewers on my website and everything totally changed. The bars I was playing in treated me differently, and other gigs started happening. I was doing the same thing, but now I was legit in people’s eyes.
STRIPLV: It’s really strange, because so many people know you, but yet you’re not known as the star you really deserve to be, because you haven’t had your own big hit here in the U.S.
MORENO: That’s exactly true. I’ve had opportunities, but every time they want me to do something, I just don’t want to do it. It’s not that I’m hardheaded; I’m a music lover and a music fan. People go around using the word “amazing” all the time. “Have you heard that guy’s song? It’s amazing.” I get so angry, because you should use the word “amazing” when it’s actually amazing. We give credit so easily. If you listen to stuff on the radio, what you’re hearing is not really that artist. Someone gave them a song to sing, they produced it, and it’s really a big, packaged presentation you’re listening to that you like, because you’re forced to like it, because it’s out there on the radio. It’s the equivalency of a Big Mac. We’ve all had a Big Mac and we know that they suck, but they sell more than anything else in the world. It’s always there, it’s so convenient, it’s packaged well, and there’s a clown handing it to you.
STRIPLV: Do you have a manager?
MORENO: I just got a manager. It’s my first one.
STRIPLV: It’s going to be very interesting how you’ll work with a manager, because you’ve run your own career so far.
MORENO: I was very clear, saying basically: ‘Present me with more opportunities, and I’ll say yes or no.’ I don’t want someone telling me to do this or that, wear this or that. Recently a girl named Lacey Schwimmer from Dancing With The Stars came to my show and videotaped me doing a song called “Tangerine Honey” that I wrote. She sent it to ABC and they said to put me on. She choreographed a number to it and we just killed it. The number was amazing, and there were 20 million viewers watching. The next thing you know, “Tangerine Honey” just started selling through the roof. It was my first single of myself, done by myself, not on a label, success with a song. The thing is, because I chose not to be part of a label, I can’t get on the radio. It’s weird, and I guess I just chose a different path. I just finished recording a new record on Sony, a Christmas record with Joshua Bell, Alison Krauss, Chick Corea, and Placido Domingo. We just did this collection of Christmas songs. I have nothing bad to say about labels, it’s just when I personally work with labels, I don’t like sitting there and having someone tell me what to sing. I’ve never looked at singing a song to please somebody. I sing what I like to hear, and if it sounds cool to me: good! I’m all about the live show, because I’ve never been able to rely on radio. I’ve always relied on a live performance. Every performance I do is like: that’s my song on the radio. That’s why we appreciate our fans so much. Every performance I do is energy and truth, because I’m really into it. What makes an audience member clap? Not a song, not an artist, it’s just an energy in the room. It’s always fun to watch someone do what they love to do! I’m in a career that allows that freedom, but I’ve kind of handcuffed myself I guess, by not wanting to join the whole publicity circus. I’m not just out to mingle, which I guess I should do, or do the red carpets. If it’s for something I really enjoy or believe in, I’m down. The problem now is that I’ll do something because I love to do it and it becomes a press circus, and it kind of takes the initial spark out of what it was supposed to be. This was supposed to be a guilty pleasure thing for me. Now it’s like: “Frankie Moreno is going here to do this,” or if I go to a show in town, like Jersey Boys, my PR goes: “Make sure you tweet that you were at the show.” I mean, who cares?! I just went to see a show. I don’t understand it, but whatever. There’s two different roads you can take, and I guess I just chose the road that’s the other one.
STRIPLV: Why are you a Mozart fan?
MORENO: I am such a Mozart fan! I literally wear the skeleton key from his apartment in Vienna. I’ve read everything published on Mozart, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. I know any fact about them that there is. I’ve worked with Jerry Lee Lewis about 3 times now. I read about them and wondered what they had done to ruin their careers, because I don’t want to do that. With most people, drugs and stuff get in the way. I’ve been lucky enough not to get involved with that. What ultimately ruins not their careers but their happiness, is being a celebrity. That’s what probably turned me off to the whole thing. Elvis couldn’t leave Graceland. So, what’s the point of being successful, if you can’t go and enjoy your success? You have to rent a movie theater, just to watch the movie yourself. That’s cool to us as a fan, but that sucks for him. I love it when people recognize me, and it’s cool to a point, but if you can’t get something done because it’s in the way, then it’s no fun.
STRIPLV: What is the connection you feel with Mozart?
MORENO: In no way am I comparing myself to Mozart, because that would be an asshole thing to do, but he was one of those 3 year-old piano prodigies. I just think there were a lot of similarities in the way we were brought up, playing music and being young, and then having to switch, because the childhood novelty wears off. Then you have to prove yourself as an actual artisan. He wasn’t necessarily a big celebrity of his day. He’s popular now, but at the time, people respected his music and everyone knew who he was, and attended his concerts, but he wasn’t regarded as one of the… I guess that’s how I see myself. I’m not on TV everyday. I mean I’ve had opportunities. The Dancing With The Stars was one of the first ones I took. It wasn’t me doing a contest; it was just me singing a song I wrote. All kinds of offers have come my way. I got offered a part in Breaking Bad when it first came out, but I just wasn’t interested. I’ve been offered sitcoms and reality shows, but I have no interest in any of that. I choose to make music. And if you want to hear a Frankie Moreno song, you’ve got to come see Frankie Moreno.
STRIPLV: You went to Mozart’s house to be inspired to write music.
MORENO: I’ve gone to his house. My license plate says Vienna, that’s where he lived. I love what he represented and what he did. He made positive sounding music – and music inspires everything. The song of the day inspires the clothing people wear, the type of food you eat, the dances
that we do and the nightlife. Music influences everything! A movie without music is crap. An elevator to the top of the Stratosphere without music is crap. A restaurant without music playing in the background is crap. Like Mozart, I try to write positive melodies that stick in your head and put you in a good mood, instead of the dark stuff. I like listening to that stuff, but it’s not something I want to share. I want to share positive stuff, because it’s called entertainment, and I want to be entertained, not depressed.
STRIPLV: When you go on your travels, what things inspire you?
MORENO: The trips started because I find it difficult to write music in Vegas. It’s hard, because there’s no culture here. I don’t mean that in a bad way, because Vegas is my home now. I mean that there’s nothing to sit in front of, and not to sound like a hippy, but the idea is that, if a positive thing happens in a place, you can feel that energy. If a negative thing happens, you can feel that energy. If you walk into a place where someone was murdered, you can feel a weird energy. It’s a weird topic, but I can feel that stuff! In Vegas, I never really feel that stuff. I try to go to places where musical things happen. I’ve been in 60-70 countries where things happen in the arts. This spot, this bench, under this tree is where Michelangelo used to paint, or this park, right here by this tree is where Mozart used to write symphonies, or this is where Elvis used to go get his hair cut. You go to these places, and maybe I’m just wanting to pick up on the energy, so I do, but it’s there. All of a sudden you get ideas in your head. There’s no cell phone in my pocket, people are talking a different language, and you’re in your own personal space. If you’re going to be creative, you can’t be creative in a rut. It’s easy to be creative with ideas: “Let’s do this, let’s do that.” I can do that at Denny’s. Coming up with the heart of the song, you have to seclude yourself and really reach in and find it. Going to places like Beethoven’s house and sitting on his front porch, or sitting in his bedroom… We’ve been very lucky. We’d bring in guitars and sit in Mozart’s house and play. I’ve even been able to play his piano a couple of times. I’ve been able to sit at Beethoven’s piano where he wrote “Für Elise”. That’s just crazy shit! It’s really cool! When I sing the song that I wrote there, all I’m thinking about is that, and it puts me in a cool headspace.
STRIPLV: Do you think you have a little bit of psychic ability in you?
MORENO: I think I’m just nostalgic, not psychic. I’m emotional and sappy. I like all that kind of stuff. I cry at cartoons if they’re sad. I just like the idea of the history of stuff. When I was young I used to play Ray Charles. Well, Ray used to steal from Count Basie, who took stuff from Scott Joplin, who stole from guys like Gershwin. Gershwin stole from guys like Chopin, Chopin stole from Mozart, Mozart stole from Bach, and it goes back and back. When you start really digging into it, it’s such a different art form. If you just want to paint, (which most musicians do, they want to paint a song), they’d go and buy the pack of 10 watercolors. But if you actually find out how to make your own blue, then you have 6 more colors that came just to get the blue. Then you’ve got different colors of blue and when you learn how to make the colors, what a different painter you become. It’s the same thing with music. Once we started recording music and selling music, that’s when it became the music business. It was never the music business before. Music was written for God, or even before that, the Gods. Music was for religious purposes. Then in Mozart’s time, it was for the Kings and Royalty, and only Royalty would commission music. Then the people, if they were lucky, would get to hear what the King commissioned. During Beethoven’s time, he started playing music for the people. It wasn’t until Thomas Edison was able to record music that we started selling music, and then business people came and got involved with music. They decided to take the last 300 years of history of music and we’ll call that “classical”. Waltzes, sonatas, serenades, operas, we’ll call it all classical, even though it’s completely different kinds of music. We’ll call this “pop”, because it’s popular. This will be “country”, this will be “rap”, and now we have 50 different things. Now you can write and record on your computer. Before that happened, you had to go find someone with talent. Now you can record it and make their voice sound on pitch and make them sound like this person and you don’t need to bring in people to play. There’s nothing – it’s all computer. That’s cool stuff, but… I fear that we’re going to lose the oil paintings for the computer graphic designs, if we don’t keep doing oil paintings. Music is the oil painting of art, and we’ll lose it if we just keep doing digital. Sorry. That was an extra long story.
STRIPLV: That’s alright, it’s very interesting. You have two children?
MORENO: Yes, two boys: Giovanni, who’s 10, and Luciano, who’s eight. Giovanni was named for the last opera that Mozart wrote and Luciano’s middle name is Amadeo for Amadeus, which is Mozart’s middle name. Giovanni is heavily into drums. Luciano likes piano and singing, but he’s also into the video games. I have four brothers. Tony plays music and writes with me; Ricky writes with us; and my two other brothers have nothing to do with music, no concept, (and they can’t even clap their hands in time).
STRIPLV: You were just the freaky little kid that got it all. (laughter)
MORENO: (humbly) Yeah, don’t know whether that’s good or bad?
STRIPLV: Absolutely, it’s good! Being the sexy Italian that you are on stage, how do you fight off all the girls and the guys?
MORENO: I don’t go out and hang out with other musicians. I used to do that a lot, but I’m older now, and I keep to myself. I don’t go out and party or go to clubs. I do my show and then work on music. I’m in my own little weird bubble.
STRIPLV: Is there a funny story you want to share about your girl fans?
MORENO: They’re all crazy! The gifts I get are very strange. They’re always awesome and people send me things constantly – gifts from everything like quilts with song lyrics woven into it, to a box of avocados. For some reason everyone thinks I’m into sock-monkeys. My mom bought me this really giant sock-monkey and said: “This is for your dressing room, because I know you’re into sock-monkeys.” I thanked her and explained, ‘No, I’m not into them.’ Then when people come to my dressing room they bring me sock-monkey stuff like sock-monkey key chains and things. It’s out of control and very strange. If anyone wants to buy me anything, I’d love a gift card to Starbucks. I’ve been trying to cut down on my drinking, but I’m sponsored by Crown Royal. I’ve got my own champagne that’s available in all of the Lee’s Liquor stores. It’s called Frankie Moreno Champagne.
STRIPLV: What’s your favorite way to spend a Sunday?
MORENO: Cooking homemade pasta for my kids. Rigatoni with marinara is their favorite, with homemade meatballs. My grandparents were half from Napoli and half from Sicily. I make my sauce with a little bit of onions, garlic, and even a little bit of shredded up carrots to sweeten it. I could eat pasta everyday. I’m into the whole cooking thing. In fact, I’ve done more cooking shows on TV than anything else I’ve done on TV. People always recognize me from the cooking shows.
STRIPLV: What’s your favorite curse word?
MORENO: The “F” word, that I’ve been trying not to say. I’ve used that word way too much. My mom used to cuss like a sailor when I was a kid, so I picked that up. We just made our show an all-ages show, so I’m trying not to say cuss.
STRIPLV: What turns you on?
MORENO: Confidence, and when someone has a passion for something.
STRIPLV: What turns you off?
MORENO: Smoking, too much makeup, and people who are late.
STRIPLV: To quote James Lipton of Bravo TV’s Inside The Actors Studio: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
MORENO: Come on in! I was raised Catholic, so I believe in all that. I’ve done my share of stuff for the other guy, too, but hopefully more on the good end.
Frankie Moreno • Stratosphere Hotel and Casino • Wed – Sat at 8pm