Patti with the late Louis Jannetta
Patti with the late Louis Jannetta

A Conversation With... Patti Jannetta

Patti Jannetta will tell you with a laugh that she ought to write a book. And maybe she should.

Having the acclaimed singer/songwriter, event manager, philanthropist and all-round bon vivant unpack a tale from her long and varied career – or her star-studded childhood –is an experience to behold.

It’ll soon be an experience open to many via Jannetta’s forthcoming variety show, The Stars! The Stories! The Glory!

Based on her dad Louis Jannetta’s 2007 memoir King of the Maître’d's: My Life Among the Stars and his daughter’s own hobnobbing with celebs at Toronto’s Imperial Room, where Louis worked for decades as de facto wrangler to performers and patrons (infamously Bob Dylan who Louis demanded don a jacket and tie before watching Tammy Wynette), The Stars! The Stories! The Glory! allows Jannetta and fellow performers Jackie Richardson and Adrian Luces to revisit celebrated concerts at the famed hotel venue.

Anecdotes and behind-the-scenes recollections also pepper the show, which is expected to open in autumn 2017. “We all sat down with my dad’s book and chose [to cover] the artists we most connected with,” Jannetta says (they picked Tina Turner, Lena Horne, and Anne Murray). Another male singer will likely be added to the touring line-up.

The Stars! The Stories! The Glory! is just one of several projects destined to put Jannetta – known for a trio of dance-pop albums issued between 1981 and 91 plus a starring role in the Canadian production of the Las Vegas and Los Angeles theatre versions of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971 at age 17 – back in the proverbial spotlight.

That’s where she spent much of her working life before easing into softer-wattage but no less impactful roles as founding director and artistic director of the Mississauga Waterfront Festival (for 15 years), a founding director and the development director of SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival, executive director of Mark Higgins’ Big Music Fest in 2015/16, and a founding director and co-chair and entertainment director of Mississauga ITALFEST.

As well, Jannetta is set to serve alongside Higgins as exec director for the inaugural Youth and Stars Success Walk, slated for September 30th in Kitchener (tagline: “Walk with mentors. Talk with leaders. Connect with employers. Interact with peers. Engage with the community.") The full line-up will be announced soon.

A new recording is also in the wings. “I’d like to redo some of the songs from my previous three albums that were forced into the prevailing dance-pop mould of the time that favoured crinoline and leather bras,” Jannetta howls.

“Plus, I have some new originals, co-writes and I might include some songs from the Imperial Room era as well,” she says.

FYI talked with Jannetta about the past and future, and why co-writing and touring with legendary R&B star Bo Diddley is almost as exciting as singing in Poland… and why her late dad Louis (who died in 2013 age 85) remains an inspiration.

 

You were knee-high to many big stars thanks to your dad’s marquee gig as maître d’ at the legendary Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel.  Let’s start with a memorable story...

There are so many. We never knew who would be coming home for Sunday dinner on his one day off… it could be Tony Bennett or Al Martino. I’m not name-dropping, but that’s how it was. Dad would say, ‘Patti, come to the hotel for lunch’ and I’d be having lunch with Cher. One time, when I was about seven or eight years old, my father brought myself and my brother down. My brother went into the huge kitchen at the Royal York, and I went into the Imperial Room to watch a rehearsal. The hostess was watching over me, and my dad brought me a Shirley Temple to drink which was amazing, and then he told me to sit quietly. The curtain opened, the band started playing, and this woman came out. She was dressed in this gorgeous outfit and went through this entire show. After it was over my dad came and asked me how I liked it. I said, ‘It was just amazing! But can’t we buy that lady some new stockings – hers have big rips in them!’ It turns out they were fishnet stockings, the lady’s favourite, good luck rehearsal stockings. It was Josephine Baker.

You haven’t recorded in a while. Have you done session work?

Yes, and some voiceovers and songs for movies [notably, ‘Make Up Your Mind Tonight’ with Bo Diddley for 1986’s Meatballs III: Summer Job]. And then I got busy in the festival business which necessitated grant writing. Ugh! I wrote a lot of grants but if you found a festival you are passionate about, it comes through in the grant writing. I was pretty good at it… I wrote a good grant!

Bo Diddley… not an obvious co-conspirator.

Long story. I had just recorded my first album (Patti Jannetta, in 1981). And my dad passed a copy to Steve Thomson who was Ronnie Hawkins’ manager and who liked what he heard. Unbeknownst to my father, Steve went to MIDEM shopping Ronnie’s album and handed copies of my album out as well. I am at the cottage one day... this is 1984. The phone rings, and it’s Steve Thomson who I don’t know at all. And he asks me to go to Poland the next day. This was because of my album being heard at MIDEM; I was asked to represent Canada at the International Sopot Music Festival. Since Steve didn’t think this would happen, he didn’t tell us about it. I ended up driving into Toronto where they opened the passport office for me – I was to be a guest of the Polish government, and it was important – and off I went to sing in front of 50,000 with a 60-piece orchestra. So that’s how I met Steve Thomson who also became my manager.

While on tour with Ronnie Hawkins, I met Bo Diddley. He was playing the Carlsberg Pavilion at the CNE around 1985. I opened for Ronnie, and Bo Diddley did his show, and I opened for him.

Later in the show, Bo Diddley called out, ‘Where’s that Patti Jannetta?’ I was invited to the stage to sing. And we ended up singing together every night after that and we toured a bit and wrote some songs. And of course, he ended up playing the Imperial Room, and I played with him there; one of the few times I played that room.

Name some favourite singers.

Annie Lennox, Jann Arden, Pat Benatar, Lucinda Williams, Ella Fitzgerald who I listened to, and learned from, and Nina Simone, who I sing to this day.

The advent of social media has changed everything for performers. Have you considered how it might have impacted your career?

Yes. In some ways, I think it was easier in the 80s. It wasn’t as saturated although there are far more opportunities now to get your music out there. At the same time, there is this expectation that you can just become the next YouTube star and that you don’t have to do the work or know much about the music business. But you must hone your skills. The business aspect is essential.

Anything else people should know?

In 2013, Adrian Luces and I formed Music Makes Miracles Inc., using the universal language of music to help non-profit organizations raise their profile and fundraising abilities by creating opportunities to share the gift of music. The first thing we did was write a song called ‘Healing Hands, Changing Lives’ because we were both on the board of the Herbie Fund at Sick Kids Hospital. They help kids from all around the world. Anyway, ‘Healing Hands, Changing Lives’ featured 15 artists – the late Michael Burgess, Ashley MacIsaac, Jackie Richardson, Justin Hines, John McDermott, Rik Emmett and they used that to raise money.

That was our first endeavour. Then in 2016, we produced a concert at Roy Thomson Hall called BackFortMac for help with the devastating fires in Fort McMurray. Johnny Reid, Jim Cuddy, Alan Frew and Measha Brueggergosman played, Arlene Dickinson was the emcee, and we raised almost $200,000. And we continue doing events. It’s a neat thing.

Lady, you are on fire.

Well, you know, The Stars! The Stories! The Glory!... I just had to do it (Jannetta, Richardson, and Luces filed a test-run performance last October at King City’s Kingbridge Centre which sold out). I wanted to talk about my dad’s life. Everyone was always telling me I had to write a book. I don’t have time to write a book, but I knew I could write a show. And it was very cathartic.

I miss my father and my mother – they passed away within 12 months of each other –and writing this show allowed me to show just how grateful I am for the life he gave his family and me. He was a kind soul, and we all miss him so much. He also loved the [showbiz] industry. I got hooked because of my dad. The second half of the show begins with a scratchy answering machine message to my dad from Tony Bennett– they were such good friends. It’s the perfect way of showing it all.

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