Frankie Moreno’s versatility comes to the forefront at various venues
Frankie Moreno seems destined to become the next big Strip headliner, representing the next generation in a lineage that includes Danny Gans, Elvis, Liberace and Sinatra. The piano-playing frontman, with bassist brother Tony in the band, just completed 12 sold-out Tuesday-night tributes to classic entertainers at the Smith Center, and has accepted an invitation for an extension. He’ll be focusing on his original material for an upcoming six-show engagement at the Golden Nugget, where he’ll be playing the showroom.
Are you getting a little rest after the energy-overdrive of Tuesday night?
Yeah, I actually have a string of a few days here that I can rest. I mean, I still have to work. I’m going into the studio to record some tracks for an EP, but as far as shows … yesterday morning I had to get up super early to go to the Smith Center and shoot a music video in the big room, Reynolds Hall. We’ve got this company doing music videos for me now. We’re releasing an EP this summer, and we’re going to have music videos for each song because our PBS special [Frankie Moreno in Concert] is now airing nationally.
Were you surprised that the Smith Center made an offer to extend your residency for 10 more shows?
I was initially surprised, but the whole thing went so well. I went in thinking this was a great opportunity to play the room, I know some people will show if we promote it right, and we crossed our fingers. When it started selling out it just took off like crazy. We started selling out every single show. I had no expectations for that. It wasn’t a surprise that they asked us to come back because it did so well, but it was a surprise that it initially did so well. I was hoping they were going to ask me back, and when they did it made sense.
I got the last of 244 seats for the last performance. What do you attribute the sell-outs to? I’ve never been to a sold-out show at Cabaret Jazz.
It doesn’t happen that often. I know Composer’s Showcase does well. Here’s the craziest thing about it all: We don’t do any comped tickets. We just comp in my mom and dad. That’s it. We don’t pay for any seats at all. I’ve done sold-out shows at the Stratosphere. When you go on TV and you do Dancing with the Stars you get a bunch of sold-out shows. But to have this strangeness in the middle of nowhere, I wish I had the recipe for that. I have no idea. … When we got hired to do these Smith Center things we were trying to figure out what was the best way to make each week special. I mean, it’s going to be a lot of the same people each week, I’m sure. We decided to do this series in which we played 300 songs that we never played, and not repeating a song in the entire run.
How much effort did it take to come up with a new set every week? That final night you performed highlights from all of your shows: Elvis, The Beatles, Ray Charles and Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mozart.
We did a country night. We did a crooner’s night with Sinatra, Bobby Darin. We did a Mozart night where I had a full orchestra. We played piano concertos. We did Stevie Wonder. Was it a challenge? It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my musical career. In between all that, I played Carnegie Hall last month, and Kennedy Center too. I had to learn those whole shows and go out and perform those. I knew I wanted to do this and I knew which artists, clearly, were my influences. It wasn’t just about which artists, it was about which artists inspired my songwriting.
Your Stratosphere show was very autobiographical. You told audiences about your musical influences. At the Smith Center you showed them.
Yeah, we talked about our influences and then played an original song showing how we got to that place. With this we didn’t play the originals. We played songs from the artists. We just did a celebration of the artist. Not an impersonation, not a tribute. We just picked the artists that influenced me and then performed my favorites of their songs. That’s tricky to fill and hour and a half every night. Elvis was an easy one, Jerry Lee Lewis. I know all their stuff. But to do an hour and a half of Stevie Wonder music … there was music that kicked my ass growing up and inspired me, and there was music I wasn’t that familiar with. Or I’ve heard it and I’d never performed it.
And here’s the kick: We didn’t use any charts our whole run. We could sit there and play 5,000 songs if we had 5,000 charts in front of us. It’s like reading poems. If we had the book with the poems in it we could stand onstage and read the poems, but to memorize all of the poems? Totally different game. So what we did is we’d play the show on Tuesday. The first one was Ray Charles. We get in deep to try to get into the sound a little bit, just to honor the way the song was written. And then the next night we’d go home, and go, “What would be a good one to do next week?” So Wednesday morning I’d get up and look at the list of all the ones we want to do— we picked out our 12—I’d go, “Next week we should do crooners,” or whatever it was. And then I would spend the next two days sifting through all the songs.
Now if you think of crooners there’s Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin—which ones hit me the most? Which ones do I grasp the most, that I remember listening to with my grandma? So I narrow it down to 20 or 30 songs, then I narrow that down to 15 or 20.
How many hours of rehearsal did you have for each show, or what was the range?
Three days. I would work Monday-Wednesday-Friday arranging stuff. I’d send it to them Friday afternoon, and they would all learn on their own, like memorize as much as they can. Then we’d get together Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We would rehearse some four or five hours. We’d hang out, order some pizzas and rehearse. Do it like old school, like we had just started a band. We never rehearsed, not once, for our Stratosphere show once the show was up and running. When we had new people in the band we’d send them a video of the show. This was like old school, like we were putting a garage band together. It was hard. It was really hard. It was fun, like we were in school. This wouldn’t have worked if the band wasn’t as equally committed as I was.
Is this the band you worked with at the Stratosphere?
No, at the end of the Stratosphere I tweaked the band out a little bit, and then over the last couple of months we added some new people as well. One of my background singers was down in Australia, so for the last couple of shows she missed those, so we covered without her. Saxophone player’s new. There’s a lot of new stuff.
Your guitarist Alec Zeilon is new, right?
He started with me the last year of the Strat. He joined me when he was 18 years old, then we stopped the Strat about six months ago, I guess? He’s 19 now, just a little virtuoso teenager we met. When he’s 25 he’s going to be dominating the guitar scene.
Are you going to choose a different artist each week for the upcoming shows or do you think some themes will be repeated, like will there be an Elvis show again?
Some of the artists are clear grand slams. You know Elvis is going to work because we’re in Las Vegas, and Elvis Presley’s fan base is intense. Elvis was a tricky one for me because Elvis, Mozart and Jerry Lee Lewis are my three biggest influences, the three things that I would say molded me as an entertainer. I wanted quality like Mozart. I grew up on Mozart. I saw the movie Amadeus and I said, “Well, I don’t care about fame or anything like that. I want to be the best piano player I can possibly be.” And then I saw Jerry Lee Lewis’ stuff and I thought, “Well that’s kind of fun. Maybe I can incorporate the craziness of that with the quality. And then when I saw Elvis, the movie Jailhouse Rock, when I was 7 years old I was like, “Well, that’s kind of what I want to do right there.” And so my whole life I’ve tried to fuse them. … Are we going to do play any of those again? How can we not do an Elvis night? So many people that missed the night. There’s only 250 seats. I think they even bring in 20 or 30 chairs in the back. We bring in, I don’t know, 280 people in the room.
It feels like you took it to the next level with the Smith Center shows after your three-year run at the Stratosphere. Do you see it that way?
What were you thinking about doing next when the Stratosphere shows ended? Did you have any idea things would go in this direction?
My whole career … people say, “What’s you goal?” I don’t have a point I’m trying to reach. I just want to constantly improve. I’ve never been one to do this for the celebrity factor. I do this for me. This is how I get rid of my daily stress. I found a way to harness that energy and make a career for myself. With a little bit of luck and a whole lot of drive, it kind of does it by itself. When we got the Stratosphere thing, I wasn’t sure if I wanted a residency in a casino. At that point in my life I was on tour with some huge acts, as their musical director. Touring the world.
The year before I went to the Stratosphere I’d been to almost 70 countries, touring with guys like Joshua Bell, the classical violinist. We recorded a No. 1 record together. This was all right before we went to the Strat. We had a No. 1 record on the Billboard charts, “Eleanor Rigby,” with Joshua Bell. Paul McCartney called us up and asked us to play a party he was having. So we performed with Paul McCartney himself, got to hang out with him. I did shows with Sting and the band Air Supply. I went on the road with Air Supply for a long time. I wrote half of their last album. They released one of the songs, hit No. 7 on the charts.
But you definitely think you took it to the next level when you …
Yes. All that being said, we were doing some amazing stuff. Then we went to the Stratosphere, which again, another amazing thing. Now I’m a headliner in Las Vegas. It was amazing. I try, every night, to outdo myself. I play every night—and I only find people who want to play music with me that feel the same—I try every night to perform as if as if it’s my last night alive. I’m almost superstitious about that stuff. I’m reading all these books on all these entertainers and how they all go so young, so I’ve always treated it like every night was the last night. That being said, before we go on stage every night we pretend that this is the last show at the Stratosphere, and we would go on and just kill it to the best we could kill it. Well, night after night after night for three years, that gets hard. You have to mentally, actually psych yourself into it instead of naturally being in it. Does that make sense?
I still was there. I’m still doing it. I’m still psyched, but I actually had to stand backstage almost in a way … like think of the future: “This is it! The is the last time people are ever going to see me play.” And psych myself on that, and walk onstage and absorb the moment just as much as I want them to absorb the moment. The guy in the back seat or the balcony, or whatever, I want him to feel the moment as much as I’m feeling the moment. Everyone in the room is part of the show. Not “Me, and you guys are the crowd.” Every person individually purchased a ticket; every person needs to walk away feeling that same exhilaration. So I had to contrive that after awhile, just from doing so many shows in the same room. And so, we had another year on our Stratosphere contract, and I was talking to my manager. I signed to this company called Roc Nation. That’s Jay-Z’s label. I signed with them and I was like, “I need to feel that buzz again.”
So you didn’t know what you were going to do when the Stratosphere shows ended?
We had two options on the table before we left with two major casinos that wanted to hire us. We knew we’d go to one of them. We just wanted to take a little bit of time to revamp the show, recalculate the whole thing, get some new players in. I don’t want to do the same thing ever, any night. If you came to my show five nights in a row you’d never see the same show, but that’s hard to do when you’re racking up 5,000 shows.
We just needed change, so we talked to the Stratosphere and it was all mutual, all good. They wanted to do some changing with their marketing, we wanted change, and we left with a year on our contract. It was scary. What if something falls through and we don’t have anything? I need to keep my band together. Unfortunately because of that, with six months off, we did wind up losing a couple of the band members who ended up getting other jobs. They need to make money, so they went off. The next goal was, “Ok, let’s focus on touring.” So we set up all these big tours, which are coming up this summer. In the meantime, all of these casinos started calling us wanting us to headline, like almost every one of them.
Now our options are crazy, so we had to sit down and go, “What’s our best move?” Financially, publicity-wise, and something that’s fun, that I’m going to walk onstage and be able to do what I’m good at, and that’s just feeling butterflies and trying to create a moment. And I need to have that fun, not just selling tickets. Selling tickets is great, but if we’re over it who cares, right? The tickets will stop selling. So Myron [Martin, Smith Center President and CEO] called me and said, “Why don’t you play out here for a little bit?” So I went down and met with Myron and took a look at the Smith Center Room, Cabaret Jazz, and I was like, “This is too small. We’ve been doing a 500-seater. This is half, and the stage is half the size.” And he goes, “Why don’t you do something different here. Just play the piano, do something different. Whatever you want to do. Basically, whatever you want to do.” That’s how I came up with the idea of the different shows, and this thing has catapulted so big. The timing—and everything is about timing, everything—the timing of this led to so many other massive things coming my way.
This year you also performed at both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center for Sinatra tribute Let’s Be Frank. Didn’t your association with violinist Joshua Bell lead to those opportunities?
He’s become one of my best friends in the world. I would attribute to him a large part of everything that’s come my way since then. He introduced me to a whole new crowd. That was my initial crowd growing up. Classical music … I’m a Mozart groupie. I’m a fan of music itself. It’s a drug to me. But Mozart, I’ve got his skeleton key from his apartment in Vienna. I wear it around my neck every single day. I’m crazy about it. I get up every morning and I listen to classical music. That’s all I listen to.
When I met Joshua Bell, I didn’t know who he was when I met him. I know Mozart, I know Beethoven, I know Schubert, Hayden. But I don’t know the modern-day guys who perform them. I just know the music. So he came to my show, watched several of my shows at the Golden Nugget over and over and over. Told me he was a violin player, told me his name is Joshua Bell. I was playing at the Golden Nugget at this little bar. He walks in and he’s hanging out, you know, just like anybody. I went up to the bar and if somebody’s standing next to me I always buy them a drink to thank them for … if you took the time to come watch me perform at least I could buy you a drink. It wasn’t until the last night he watched me, on the third night, he said, “Hey man, you should come play on my record.”
You’re set play six shows of original music at the Golden Nugget. Tell us a little about your history performing there.
We had a little thing at the Rush Lounge. It was different. It really wasn’t set up for a band. It was a cigar bar, and they wanted a band in there. In that room is where I met the guys from Air Supply, where I hooked up with the band Sugarland [Moreno toured as Sugarland’s opening act], where I met Joshua Bell. That room was, for me, like the Bluebird Café of Nashville. Or the, uh …
The Troubador, yeah. That room, we were getting … we were in a different time in our lives, and we were rebelling because we were only playing original music, and nobody wanted original music, any formula anywhere, at that time in Vegas. Nobody wanted original music. A band would be lucky to insert their originals into a set. We played 100 percent originals. No covers, zero. And we would write songs every day, so in a sense we’ve been doing this our whole career, where we learn a new show before we go onstage, because we were writing new music. Every time we wrote a new song we’d play it onstage. Now we’re going to play the showroom.
Golden Nugget, 7:30 p.m. July 4-5, 7, 9 & 11-12, starting at $20.90 plus tax and fee. 866.946.5336
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, 8 p.m. July 14 & 21, starting at $23-$35 plus tax and fee. 702.749.2000