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September 1, 2014

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In search of song: Headliner Frankie Moreno treks to Europe to find inspiration

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Denise Truscello

Strip headliner Frankie Moreno gets his kicks on a pedestrian bridge over one of the canals in Venice.

VIENNA — The objective is two-pronged, like a tuning fork. The three brothers will write songs. The accompanying journalist will write about them writing songs. But how does this process begin, exactly?

It’s unclear how the Moreno brothers will embark on this 10-day creative adventure, this lengthy overseas road trip. The sites are laid open, three of the most picturesque and artistically enriching cities in the world to serve as songwriting inspiration: Vienna, Florence and Venice.

The expectation is that Stratosphere headliner Frankie Moreno, who is working vigorously on a self-titled album, will gather his brothers Tony (who plays bass) and Ricky (who plays no instrument but is inherently playful) and get to work. But it doesn’t work that way. Not quite. We have been in Vienna for a little more than a day, and the creative process is, to be blunt, flatlining. Ricky, at the moment the most energetic of the group, suggests doing some late-night sightseeing. So, we venture out from the Grand Hotel Wien to the intertwining streets of Stephenplatz, the cultural hub of Vienna.

Vienna is an ominous city, imposing in every way. Even sunny afternoons are not so bright, the light blocked by towering, ornately designed structures, and tonight is particularly dreary. A bracing breeze cuts through the heart of the city, and a drizzle stops and starts.

As if shaken back to consciousness, the brothers begin ping-ponging an idea for a song that has been in their stack of concepts. The title is “Angel Town,” the theme revolving loosely around the concept of geographical relocation. In this case, the destination is LA, City of Angels.

“It’s the lure of a new place, a new city, how seductive that can be,” Frankie says, then starts calling out, “Hey kid, I can make you a star, I see you can play the guitar.”

“Let’s talk about this,” Tony says. “Bang-boom-boom. ‘Sign on the dotted line.’ We’ll do the chord pattern later. Let’s get the rhyme scheme down.”

The pace quickens, and the temperature—at least creatively—rises. We cut back to Grand Hotel Wien, to a lounge overlooking the street. The windows are wet with rain, and candles are set on small, round tables to give the room a needed sense of warmth. The half-dozen patrons, all speaking German, turn their gazes toward the trio of excited visiting songwriters.

“It’s an attack song, like Michael Buble doing a Temptations song,” Ricky says, then sings, “Everybody wants to be a star, you can kill the air in this funky bar.”

“Actors, agents, sell their soul to pay the debt,” Frankie sings, then asks. “Should it be the debt? Or your debt?” This leads to a protracted conversation about the difference between “the” and “your.” “The” wins out, because it’s slightly easier to sing.

The bar is about to close, and an implied deadline emerges: Finish “Angel Town” before the stroke of midnight.

“Everybody wants to be a star, while the devil makes his way though Angel Town,” Frankie sings. Ricky punches lyrics into his omnipresent iPhone, and at 11:46, a version of the song is finished—40 minutes after the conversation began in Stephenplatz. “One down,” Frankie says, chuckling.

“Angel Town” will appear on Frankie’s new CD, set for release by the end of the month. The Morenos have uncorked the first song of this trek. They made it look easy.

The Moreno brothers have been making overseas trips to write songs for the past six years—a highlight reel of these sojourns, produced by Ricky, plays at the midpoint of Frankie’s show at the Stratosphere. But this trip, planned by Ricky and funded by Moreno family friend and investor in Frankie’s career Peggy Ann Armstrong (who co-owns a nightclub near Houston) is different. People are paying attention. Frankie and his burning 10-piece band are finishing work on Frankie Moreno, an album being co-produced and mixed by guitar great Pat Thrall at the Studio at the Palms. The disc will be out by the end of August, and at least four of the songs planned for the upcoming independent release were written on this trip, which took place in late April.

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Stratosphere headliner Frankie Moreno and his brothers Ricky and Tony take a gondola ride through Venice while singing "Missin' You."

Frankie is the frontman of what might be the hottest show in town at the moment. After spending a decade playing various lounges all over Vegas, he signed a two-year contract with the Stratosphere in November. In June, that contract was extended another two years. Thus, the hotel and performer are contractually bound until 2015. The Stratosphere is investing totally (and lavishly) in Frankie, an investment in entertainment increasingly rare in today’s Las Vegas. Headliners around town are paying attention, watching eagerly to see if the Moreno model can be duplicated elsewhere on the Strip.

Though he seems to have arrived suddenly, Frankie has enjoyed a long and prosperous career as a singer, songwriter and musician since he appeared on Star Search at age 10. Singing and playing the Jerry Lee Lewis classic “Great Balls of Fire,” Frankie lost in his appearance on the TV show, in its Junior Division competition, to the still-active performer Lance Callahan. Despite the loss, Frankie’s appearance on the nationally syndicated series led to regular gigs at county fairs and on cruise ships, and Frankie, now 35, has worked solely in the entertainment industry ever since.

"Just a Memory"

For Frankie Moreno, the career path always leads to Vienna. It’s his favorite city (the vanity plates on his black BMW read “VIENNA”), and it’s easy to understand why. Some of history’s most prominent and influential composers made Vienna their home. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss and Haydn all lived in the city, and Beethoven moved 67 times during his 35-year Vienna residence (leading to our comic and futile search for any of his authentic homes).

One day during the early Vienna segment of the trip, we visit the home of Mozart, known as Mozarthaus, where he lived from 1784-1787. It is the great composer’s only surviving residence in the city, the place where he wrote his most famous operas and his Requiem. On the second floor, Frankie pushes his face close to a window facing the narrow row of dwellings that lead to the house and says, “This is what Mozart looked at when he was composing. I can’t believe we are here.”

We visit three homes professing to have been occupied by Beethoven, but at some point during each tour, a plaque or proprietor informs us, “This might not have actually been Beethoven’s home, but he lived in one similar to it near here.” Later, we find a genuine Beethoven artifact at the museum Haus der Musik, a piano displayed behind velvet ropes with keys protected by a long slab of Plexiglas. As a legion of school kids make its way past us, Ricky lifts the lid on the instrument, and Frankie plays a swift melody across the aged keys.

Frankie Moreno's European Songwriting Trip

Strip headliner Frankie Moreno and his brothers travel to Europe in search of songwriting inspiration. Launch slideshow »

Ricky records the two-second tune on his iPhone’s Voice Memo app, and the urgency to write has suddenly returned. We trudge several blocks to a second-story café looking out toward St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Ricky plays back the tune, and in its embryonic form, it reminds of the first two notes in the theme for Jeopardy—a thought that dissipates as the brothers begin nurturing the song.

The brothers hum the melody, adding notes and creating lyrics as they glance across the table at one another. “A gentle touch little smile, once made everything okay,” Frankie sings. “Now not so, much it’s been a while, since we’ve been on the same page,” Ricky sings back.

It’s becoming clear that Ricky, whose contribution to his brothers’ show is to be tossed offstage while claiming he writes all the songs, is invaluable to the creative process. He has a very good singing voice, and Frankie has tried unsuccessfully to persuade his 23-year-old sibling to learn an instrument and join the band for real. But as the songs blossom, Ricky is as immersed in their development as either brother, in this case asking, “Should this be a song about loss? About a broken heart? It sounds like that to me.”

The group decides to move. We pick up bags of plums and nuts at a market near the hotel, then cab it over to Stadtpark, Vienna’s city park, where Mozart was known to have composed when he sought inspiration from the region’s rich botanical trappings. Tony produces the guitar he lugs everywhere during these songwriting junkets, a Little Martin that’s three-fourths the size of a full acoustic.

“A goodnight kiss, before we’d dream, seems so ordinary now,” Frankie starts, following Tony’s guitar lead. The instrument’s neck is slightly warped and requires continual tuning, but it’s carrying this song to fruition. “Remember when, it used to be something we couldn’t live without.”

“It’s a broken heart song,” Frankie says. “Everyone has had their heart broken.” The song is, “Just a Memory,” featuring the melancholy line, “If I could hold you one more time, I’d never let you go.”

Moreno has been a familiar presence in Las Vegas since the Venetian opened in 1999, where he was the first artist to play La Scena Lounge. He was living in Nashville at the time, having worked as a staff songwriter for a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records (Ty Herndon, Alan Jackson and Alabama are among those who have recorded Frankie-authored songs). He’d also performed with country artist Deborah Allen, worked as a session musician, started his own small recording label (Primo Records), and toured with country artist Billy Currington.

In the late ’90s, playing a lounge at the Venetian was a lucrative lifestyle. Frankie and his band were paid $10,000 a week—a fairy-tale sum that even those who play showrooms today don’t command. And so, eyes dancing with dollar signs, Frankie moved his family to Vegas in 2001. Tony joined the band (looking a lot more mature than 14 years), and the Morenos’ father, Frank, played guitar while Uncle Joe played sax. Frankie became so busy that, at one point, he was playing 11 four-hour sets each week around town, working himself into a form of artistic insanity.

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Stratosphere headliner Frankie Moreno, center, and his brothers Tony, right and Ricky work out the song I Think About You" near the Duomo in Florence.

At various times, he could be found at the Hilton’s Shimmer Cabaret, Sinbad’s Lounge at the Aladdin, Brendan’s Irish Pub at the Orleans, the Courtyard at House of Blues and Crazy Armadillo bar at Stratosphere. He became acutely self-destructive, playing the crudest songs in his repertoire and insulting fellow headliners and resort officials—anything to get fired and lessen the burden on his schedule.

In one infamous episode several years ago, execs at Green Valley Ranch warned Moreno not to play a notoriously profane song about cyber-sex at an outdoor gig. The band started the song anyway, and a security officer yanked the power cord from the electrical generator—literally pulling the plug on the band.

“I was just overworked, totally overworked,” recalls Frankie, who remarkably survived that period of his career. “It was crazy. I just didn’t care.”

"I Think About You"

After three days in Vienna, it’s time for a change in scenery—and cuisine. There’s a theory that the residents of Vienna seem downtrodden because they were raised on schnitzel. (That might just be my own theory, but it’s a theory nonetheless.)

We fly to Florence, where the group’s caloric intake reaches farcical proportions. We start to employ unhealthy reasoning: “We have not eaten since that double-scoop of pistachio gelato an hour ago.” Or, “We’d better get to some pasta, fast, to get that tiramisu taste out of our mouths.”

In Florence we also meet Las Vegas-based photographer Denise Truscello, traveling separately. Truscello found the idea of shooting this leg of the trip more appealing than photographing red-carpet nightclub arrivals in Vegas. We spot her in the Duomo, the Florence Cathedral, and it is again drizzling. So we sword fight with umbrellas as Truscello happily snaps away.

The brothers take up their suite in a boutique hotel just off the square, and the guitar comes out. The improvised melody feels slightly twangy. A little hillbilly. “Is it too country?” Frankie asks. “How’s it sound? We want it to be conversational.”

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Frankie Moreno and Ed McMahon shown during Moreno's 1986 appearance on Star Search, when Moreno was just 10 years old.

The brothers all sit up and start poking again at their iPhones. Lyrics materialize, “Every night before I shut my eyes to fall asleep, I think about you.” A line that sounds far better than it reads is added: “Every morning when I make myself something to eat, I think about you.”

The song is revisited later, during one of our frequent pasta dinners, and finished off as the three Morenos sit on a concrete bench near Palazzo Veccio. Ricky finds a quick rhyme: “I hear your name and get excited. Sometime it’s too hard to fight it.”

It’s a funny place to knock out a song that’s a little bit country, but “I Think About You” is soon complete, another entry in the Frankie Moreno collection.

In 2006, a gig opened for Moreno at the Golden Nugget’s Rush Lounge. For those who saw Moreno and his then-four-piece play that lounge, the booking on its surface made little sense. Moreno was an established singer-songwriter performing his own original material almost exclusively. But hotel owner Tillman Fertitta was a fan and came up with an offer too enticing to refuse.

Moreno played Rush Lounge for five years, during which time he and his band worked as the studio and touring band for Air Supply. He wrote five songs on the band’s most recent album, Mumbo Jumbo, including the song, “Dance With Me,” which reached No. 7 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts, one of the many songs for which he is still receiving songwriting royalties.

Between tours, Moreno and his band still played the Golden Nugget lounge, up to four nights a week. And one night more than three years ago, members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic told renowned violinist Joshua Bell about a great piano player and singer/songwriter playing the Downtown casino. Bell came, and he and Moreno talked during a break in one of Moreno’s runaway, four-hour sets. Bell invited Moreno to perform on his upcoming At Home With Friends disc, the two teaming up on “Eleanor Rigby,” which reached No. 1 on both Billboard’s Classical and Classical Crossover music charts.

From there, more opportunities opened up. Moreno moved to the Lounge at the Palms for two months (he also played occasionally at Ravello Lounge at M Resort, Mizuya Lounge at Mandalay Bay, Mandarin Oriental’s Mandarin Bar and Garfield’s in Summerlin) before Stratosphere officials, eager to remake the hotel’s image into a hipper, more contemporary resort destination, started showing up at the Palms.

Moreno remembers the days when he masked the fact that he was playing originals, saying, “This song is by Matchbox Twenty,” before playing one of his own tracks. But that’s no longer the case. The Stratosphere show is heavy with original songs, and rare is the audience member who leaves saying, “I wish he’d played ‘Superstition.’”

"Missin' You"

A train ride to Venice is in the offing, a morning trip that seems only to be that—and a chance to catch up on sleep. The brothers fall in line, occupying aisle seats. During the ride, Frankie returns to a line he’s used earlier in the trip—“I’m missing Mozart.” Maybe it’s a song title, maybe just a joke, but it’s suggested that “Mozart” could be changed to “baby,” as in, “I’m missing you, baby.”

Missin' You

Or, “darling.”

“It’s a great word,” Tony argues.

“It’s too Beatles,” Frankie answers. “We can’t be The Beatles.”

Frankie wards against being too commercial. “It sounds familiar, like you’ve heard it before, but it is original,” Frankie explains. It’s an innate gift, to write a song that feels as if you’ve heard it before, but is entirely original. Moreno has written dozens of such songs. His show at the Stratosphere is filled with them.

For this song, the “missing” theme survives, with Tony suggesting a thumping bass line that brings to mind Motown classics. “Da, da-da-da, da-da,” he sings. “Now you’re gone, gone baby gone,” Frankie adds, “baby” in, Mozart out.

“Memories keep hanging on,” Ricky says. “I hear your name … in every song,” Tony answers. With the three speak-singing lyrics to each other, passengers nearby crane their necks to hear what is being created in this suddenly enlivened train car. Frankie snaps his fingers, then plays an air trumpet, “ba-ba-da-da-da-da-da. That’s it!” Later he says, “You have to imagine the horns in this song. Big horns. I really like it.”

He likes it so much that for much of the afternoon and deep into the night, he and his brothers play the song repeatedly as Truscello records video and takes photos of their mini-performances. Soon, we’ve booked an unexpected overnight stay in Venice, with Truscello recording multiple renditions of the song.

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Statosphere headliner Frankie Moreno and his brothers Ricky and Tony develop lyrics for the song "Mine" from their hotel room in Florence.

“And now you’re gone, gone baby gone!” Moreno sings, repeatedly, working out the song as Tony plays the Little Martin. The sun sets, most of the tourists scurry away and the tide washes into the city. Many of the walkways are now immersed in several inches of water. So is our hotel lobby. You can hear the “squish-squish” of galoshes worn by hotel execs as they splash along the cramped sidewalks and hallways.

The city of Venice is far less celebratory at night than during the day. You sense, during the day, a far healthier appetite for an American singer to test an under-development song than there is after sunset. At night, the audience largely comprises residents of Venice, and most of them are trying to get to sleep. But Moreno sings, anyway, “Now you’re gone, gone baby gone!” in alleys and on the bridges built across the city’s innumerable interlocking canals.

We walk to one of these bridges, and at its apex the brothers stop once more. Ricky opens the song with the unintentionally ironic lyrics, “Late at night, when the world’s at peace, I lie awake and think about you! I hear your voice, talkin’ in my sleep. Don’t wanna wake up, here without you!”

Then Frankie, blasting, “And now you’re gone, gone baby gone! The memories keep hangin’ on! I hear your name in every song! I’m still missin’ you!”

A woman several stories up leans from her open window, peering down like a hawk at the source of disruption. She’s either peeved or pleased, and just when it seems she’s about to toss a bucket of water or a rolling pin on the performance, the song ends. The woman claps, then waves—an appreciative reception for “Missin’ You.”

"Mine"

Waiting to enter Accademia in Florence, where we are minutes from viewing Michelangelo’s “David,” Tony produces the Little Martin again and plays a tune the brothers have tabled for a few months.

“Clouds are spelling out your name … the wind is like your perfume.” Frankie sings, thinking aloud. “The wind carries your name, and it lingers …

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Strip headliner Frankie Moreno, right, with his brothers Tony, left and Ricky take a water cab through Grand Canal in Venice.

“Not ‘lingers,’” Tony snaps. “That’s so 10 years ago. That’s so Cranberries.”

The exchange is suspended for the walk through the cathedral, and if you have not seen “David”—the genuine Michelangelo masterpiece, not the statue at Caesars Palace—you must. To see this work for the first time is to understand whence the term “breathtaking” originated. You are swept up in that feeling the first time you walk into the Duomo, or approach Venice’s Grand Canal.

We are the last group of the day to leave the Duomo, and as we walk back to the square and take a table at an outdoor café, the lyrical debate resumes.

“It’s an invisible love,” Ricky says as cannolis and espresso are delivered. “Across the cold and lonely sky. You’re not able to let go.”

Both brothers are reading lyrics and singing into their phones as if they are microphones.

“Drifting, further, hiding all my empty love,” Frankie sings. “Waiting, wishing, for a sign from up above.” The brothers discuss how to insert words that evoke power and pace and debate the value of “take” or “get.”

Frankie sings the line, “There’s nothing left to say,” twice, which ends the song. “I hear a piano, cello and violin,” Tony says, removing his own instrument from the arrangement.

“Mine” is the song, featuring the lyric favored by Ricky, “Chasing sunlight ’cross a cold and lonely sky. Searching, hoping, but I can’t find that goodbye.”

Artlang Trio in Vienna

The street performers in each city are legendarily skillful. We happened upon amazing opera singers and classical musicians in Florence, peerless performance artists in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square and even an interpretative dancer dressed as a king, moving to music from a portable CD player. In Vienna, at an intersection near Grand Hotel Wien, we’re drawn to a large group of pedestrians watching a distinctive Russian folk act called Artlang Trio. The instrumentation consists of an accordion and two antiquated stringed devices, including an oversize, triangle-shaped three-string guitar called a balalaika.

We gaze at the group, transfixed by this authentic Russian folk music. Passers-by dump Euros into a little wicker basket set in front of a case of CDs for sale at 10 Euros apiece.

The group is small, hardly a Strip headlining act, and the instruments aren’t amplified in any way.

But there is power in the music.

Frankie Moreno, who traveled halfway across the globe to be right here, right now, stares at the performance and says only, “This is great.”

There is a light in his face. He’s thinking of something, clearly. Probably a song.

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