You don’t see much of an overlap between the nightclub crooners and New Age gurus, but Gino Federici is a rare find. One minute he’s telling you how he strong-armed his way into a speaking role in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 classic “Casino,” the next he’s describing the process through which one achieves awareness by letting go of the ego.
“I had spent the last 23 years of my life working the strip in Vegas, devoting my life to performing,” says Federici, 72. “But I needed to take a break. So I disappeared for four years, and I spent that time seriously examining the divinity of my life. The Beatles took their spiritual journey to India; I took mine to Grand Ledge.”
This Friday, Federici will re-unveil his velvet voice to patrons of Michigan Art Share, a fundraiser in REO Town promoting art throughout the state. The evening is touted as “From Italy With Love … Rat Pack Style,” and marks Federici’s grand return to his international repertoire, featuring a full set of songs he has personally arranged. And it’s all in preparation for the grand project he says he’s been building toward his entire life. Ah, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Born in 1940 in Genoa, Italy, Federici’s gift for singing first caught the attention of the nuns at his school, but it wasn’t until he was a teenager that things really started to take off.
“My dad took me to a talent contest when I was 15, and when the emcee asked if anyone wanted to perform, I jumped right up,” he says. “They gave me a guitar — I had just learned how to play — and I started playing ‘Granada.’ The other musicians picked up on the key and in about 10 seconds I was leading a 14-piece orchestra in the first performance of my life. At the end, the audience erupted.”
He pauses, eyes far away. His fingers plucking the air, tender once again from the memory of the flamenco strings.
“I can still hear that applause. And that was the bullet.”
From there he moved to London for two years where he learned English and perfected his Elvis shtick —when having an Elvis shtick could get you laid and not laughed out of karaoke night.
“Girls would come up and flutter their eyes and say, ‘Oh Gino, sing “Love Me Tender” to me,’ and I would — but I didn’t get the power of what I was doing,” he says. “I didn’t get it for two more years, until I moved to Paris.”
He laughs wryly. “I am not the poster child of Latin lovers.”
Federici spent four years in Paris honing both his stage presence and his French before moving back to Italy with an international repertoire under his belt. By now, the Federici entertainment machine was firing on all cylinders. He got a gig performing his routine in “a high-end nightclub,” and finally getting rewarded in (arguably) the best way possible.
“At this point I was 24 years old and, for the first time, I was being paid to sing,” Federici says. “So what do I do? I move to Canada to fulfill my dream of being a pilot. When you’re young, you don’t think of life in terms of obstacles.”
He says he spent three years and thousands of dollars to get his pilot’s license, but threw it all away to go back to performing, where he got a job in the least likely place possible.
“I became a spaghetti cowboy singing country songs in a nightclub in Anchorage, Alaska,” Federici says. “I honestly never would have imagined that one.”
He worked his way down the western edge of North America before winding up in that lounge act mecca, Las Vegas. He says if he’d stayed, there’s “no doubt” he would have become an actor, but something bigger was eating at him.
“I had a calling from the soul to jump off the cliff,” he says. “I didn’t ask — I just did it.”
This was in the summer of 2007, and he had just met his third wife Bonnie, who is from Grand Ledge, Michigan. Federici says he resigned from Harrah’s in Vegas, bought "a house in the woods" in Grand Ledge and started working on his autobiography. He also dived into reading, devouring the spirituality genre.
“Just look at the literature,” Federici says. “They used to call the section ‘New Age’ and ‘Occult,’ and now they call it spirituality. It used to be half of one aisle at the bookstore — now it’s two full aisles.”
He also started work on his lifelong dream project: translating the work of Fred Buscaglione, an Italian singer and actor from the 1950s who had a playful persona of being a soft-hearted mobster who could never get the girl. Federici is planning a concept CD called “Criminally Gino,” which he is convinced will introduce the music of Buscaglione to a new generation — and launch his career in a new direction as that of a professional arranger.
“This is the beginning,” he says with a smile. “This is the rebirth of Gino Federici.”
“From Italy With Love ... Rat Pack Style”
Michigan Art Share fundraiser
7 p.m., Friday
1133 S. Washington Ave., Lansing
$30 VIP/$20 general admission/$10 students