By Wallace Baine
This is not how it is supposed to be done.
You’re supposed to get rich and famous before coming to Las Vegas. That’s what Elvis did – and Frank Sinatra, and Elton John, and Celine Dion, and a 1,001 other superstars who reached the career pinnacle where they could stop the relentless touring and settle in that one place where audiences would come to them.
Vegas is where stars finish, not where they start.
But Frankie Moreno didn’t follow that script. The talented singer/songwriter, who was born and raised on the West Side of Santa Cruz, decided a while ago that he was going to reach the ranks of stardom from Las Vegas. And he was going to do it not by becoming some novelty or tribute act, but by the strength of his own songs and his own performances.
That sound you hear is the music industry scoffing.
It was an audacious decision, no doubt. But here’s the crazy thing: It’s working.
Drive up and down the Las Vegas Strip today, and you’ll see Frankie Moreno everywhere – on billboards, on the tops of cabs, even on signs at the airport baggage claim. A year after signing a contract to be the headliner at the Stratosphere – that’s the one with the giant Space Needle-style tower – Moreno is, as the kids say, “blowing up.”
This year, the 35-year-old Moreno was named Best All-Around Performer by the Las Vegas Review Journal and Best Strip Headliner by the Las Vegas Weekly. The Strat quickly gave him a big raise and extended his contract to 2015. In September, he broke out of the Vegas bubble and gave the country a taste of his showmanship with an appearance on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” A new self-titled recording has just been released, and he’s preparing for another media blitz in advance of a national and European tour in the spring. He’s also producing a 1940s-style stage show called “Pin-Up.” All the while, he’s selling out four shows at a week at the Strat, the highest point in Las Vegas. How’s that for a fitting analogy?
Anyone who knew Moreno from his Santa Cruz days can’t be shocked at his success. Playing piano at 3, performing live before crowds and studying music theory at 7 and singing on the national TV talent show “Star Search” at 11, little Frankie was a local sensation. He was followed in the pages of the Sentinel so often, he virtually became his own beat.
A student at Holy Cross School, Mission Hill Middle School and Santa Cruz High School, Moreno tried to maintain a normal school life while performing with his dad Frank and uncle Joe – who with his wife Charlotte now runs Lillian’s Italian Kitchen on Soquel Avenue. At the same time Frankie was playing every festival in the region from the Miss Santa Cruz pageant to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, as well as the occasional cruise ship when he wasn’t in school.
“I never performed in school,” said Moreno by phone from his home in Las Vegas. “I was very shy about doing it in front of my friends. Looking back, if I could do over high school, I would have played at all my proms.”
Moreno left Santa Cruz at the age of 19 for Nashville, where he had some moderate success as a songwriter and a session piano player. Still, he had a hard time fitting in with the conservative Nashville music establishment. Eager to perform his own music, he turned to Las Vegas, playing the casinos.
Two years ago, Moreno’s life changed dramatically when star classical violinst Joshua Bell enlisted him to play on Bell’s new recording. A Bell/Moreno duet of the old Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” became a huge hit, and suddenly doors were opening for Moreno.
Still, Moreno was doggedly pursuing his dream – to showcase his own music in his act, which only sounds quixotic when you’re in Vegas.
“In Santa Cruz or L.A., that’s what you want to hear,” he said. “You want to hear a band play its own music. But in Las Vegas, they don’t want to hear that. They want to hear familiar songs.”
So, he practiced a little deception. “I would make up stories about how this next song was the latest from Matchbox 20 or Dave Matthews, then I’d just play my own songs.”
The gambit worked. Audiences loved his material. The casinos were happy as long as the crowds came. He landed a regular Tuesday night gig at the Palms, breaking records for crowds and bar sales in the process. “You know one of those things when you swing as hard as you can and you actually make contact and hit it over the fence? That’s what it felt like.”
It was about that time that Moreno took on another risk. The Bell duet gave him an opportunity to meet with starmaker Simon Cowell. Moreno wasn’t interested in Cowell’s plans, but Cowell did give him a good idea.
He said, ‘There’s not a market for an old-fashioned entertainer.’ And I was like, ‘OK, so I shouldn’t do that then?’”
In fact, Cowell was suggesting the opposite. “In the old days,” said Moreno, “entertainers were everywhere. Elvis was an entertainer. Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra, they were entertainers. But now we have artists. And the only entertainer out there, really, is Michael Buble.”
So Cowell said to him, “Why don’t you use your songwriting and your artistry and your musicianship and package it as an entertainer? Because Michael Buble has no competition.”
It was, Moreno figured, a throwback to the Vegas of yesteryear, when “entertainers” were everywhere. Now, the entertainment dollar goes to Cirque du Soleil-style productions.
“I never thought of it in those terms. But that gave me a whole new perspective. So I put together a horn section, a string section, a big band basically. And I was going to do all original pop music, driving it with a piano, so there’s a very Harry Connick Jr. vibe to it.”
Buble, the Canadian singing star who has sold 30 million records worldwide, does not write his own music. So, Moreno is looking to bring together the credibility of a singer/songwriter with the on-stage panache of a Vegas entertainer – including fine suits and performance pyrotechnics.
“It’s the combination of the two that makes it work,” he said. “If we were like some band like Train or Goo Goo Dolls and just stood there and played our music it wouldn’t work in this city. I mean, c’mon. Next door, they have tigers, and next to that they have naked girls and next to that, they’re giving away alcohol.”
Moreno now has kids of his own – two boys, Giovanni, 9, and Luciano, 7 – each of whom is showing some musical prowess of his own. His band and songwriting team includes his two younger brothers, Tony and Ricky, and his parents now live in Vegas as well, so he’s still surrounded by reminders of his Santa Cruz roots. He also wants to play a gig in Santa Cruz again, and re-connect with the community that nursed his talents.
Moreno is confident that his career is just getting started, and he’ll soon reach even higher levels of visibility. But, in a way, he said, nothing much has changed.
“I’m not doing anything different from when I was 12 years old and playing the fairs in Santa Cruz County. The style I’m doing is exactly the same. I’m literally just a taller version of that.”