Conducting Talent

Is it possible to build a Strip headliner from scratch? The Stratosphere is betting on it. We examine the odds.

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The song starts with a big piano buildup. In just a few bars, it produces that complex feel of anticipation you get when walking into a glamorous party—one that might be dangerous for your reputation. The rising tension releases into a silky, sultry voice that sings of one woman’s many allures: Mercury risin’ at the touch of her skin/The power of perfume keeps on pulling me in/It’s like tangerine honey/What could I do? Backed by a 10-piece band, it’s at once jazzy, swinging and a plaintive cry of a not-quite regret. The song is “Tangerine Honey,” and it seduces the ear. But unless you’ve seen Frankie Moreno perform live, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard it … or even heard of it.

That’s because Frankie is doing everything backward. Most Las Vegas headliners become famous first—through hit songs, televised talent competitions, the dating of Hugh Hefner—and then get their own show. Even stars who are largely homegrown, such as Clint Holmes and the late Danny Gans, have used the name recognition of classic standards and modern covers to help build their brands. But Frankie sings mostly originals (written with his brothers Ricky and Tony), and he secured a headlining gig at the Stratosphere without any of them becoming hits first.

So, here’s the question posed by Frankie’s unorthodox approach: In a skittish consumer culture that can’t trust a movie that’s not a sequel, will a bunch of tourists attend a show put on by an unknown quantity, one that—marketing horror-upon-horrors—transcends any one musical genre? In plainer terms, is it possible to build a Las Vegas headliner from scratch?

The answer, so far, seems to be yes. Last month, the 35-year-old celebrated his 100th show, and signed a contract extension through October 2015. So the Stratosphere’s initial gamble has already proven to be a wise one—or at least one they’re willing to let ride.

• • •

The first thing you should know is that even instant success is a longtime coming. Frankie’s musical history is so deep, it’s a surprise he’s not already famous. He started out as a child prodigy, able to play Mozart by ear at the age of 4. By age 7, he was performing at various fairs across Northern California (he’s from Santa Cruz), sitting on a box to reach the piano keys. By 10, Frankie had become the leader of his dad’s band, which he describes as “weird, because there were all 40- and 50-year-old guys behind me.” After a spin on Star Search, Frankie added singing to his repertoire because the “novelty of the 6- and 7-year-old freak kid was wearing off.” After high school, he sacrificed his dream of going to Juilliard in favor of Nashville. There, he got a $5 million, three-album deal with Giant Records (a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records), which he abandoned in search of more artistic freedom in Las Vegas. He didn’t like the idea of the label constraining him creatively or dictating his image.

“With record labels, it’s always like, ‘How do we market this?’ It was always a problem,” Frankie says. He’s written songs in the genres of rock, country, jazz, funk and classical. “That is one beauty of Las Vegas: In a showroom, you don’t have to market it as, ‘I am this kind of singer.’ It’s just entertainment. Throw a couple tigers onstage or whatever; in this town, it is entertainment.”

Frankie’s career got a boost when acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell saw him playing piano at the Golden Nugget. Bell was so impressed that he had Frankie perform a cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” on Bell’s 2009 At Home With Friends album. They’re still good friends, and Frankie performs a rousing version of the song in his stage show—sans Bell, of course.

So, a bunch of songs from different genres, backed by a big band and fronted by a charismatic singer/pianist/guitarist—seems intriguing … and like a recipe for confusion.

Here’s what unites Frankie’s Stratosphere show: the human connection. In an entertainment scene dominated by a corporate circus, where performers are mostly anonymous and interchangeable, Frankie is an entertainer in the Old Vegas sense of the word (even if he prefers Mozart to Sinatra). He puts himself out there in a real way. The jokes are not scripted, and that awkward sense of humor is his own.

The bass player is his younger brother/co-songwriter, Tony. And his brother Ricky, while not a performer, often finds his way to the spotlight as the butt of some good-natured jokes or by blasting the trumpet. Expect to see the proud Moreno parents in the audience, too. His dad, Frank, has a custom-made Frankie Moreno jacket. And his mom, Carole, makes scrapbooks of her children’s exploits.

By the time a cocktail waitress delivers shots of Crown Royal to the stage, and Frankie passes a bottle around the audience and the brass section walks around the showroom like it’s a New Orleans parade, it starts to feel like one big, musical family reunion. And you are part of that party.

Sometimes, however, the party isn’t as well attended as it could be. This is the type of show that needs a synergy with the audience, and a few empty seats detract from the vibe. To be fair, it’s hard to fill a 325-seat showroom for $40 a pop when all a tourist has to go on is a couple of billboards and, maybe, some advice from a cabbie. Frankie invites cab drivers to his show so they can always answer the crucial question: “Who is Frankie Moreno?”

To that end, Frankie is busy making sure everybody—not just cabbies, but also locals and his fellow Strip celebrities, who all seem to love him—can answer the question. The Stratosphere is backing him up with as many answers as they can provide. There’s a new billboard campaign: Flattering images of him singing and playing the piano replace a previous, confounding image of ladies pulling on his tie. Airline magazines pump up potential audiences before they arrive. Cocktail waitresses flit around the Stratosphere in T-shirts that say, “I [lipstick kiss] Frankie Moreno,” spreading intrigue with each drink delivered.

Frankie’s contract allows the show four months off a year, and he’s planning to use a portion of that time on a national tour in the fall. He’s bringing the Vegas band along for the ride so that people who become fans in other cities can count on having the same experience when they later visit him at the Stratosphere.

For the same reason, he’s finishing a self-titled new album. Due out in August, it may or may not be associated with Sony Masterworks—the label’s mired in a management change. Meanwhile, Frankie has been working with Pat Thrall at the Studio at the Palms to create 17 songs, which will be whittled down to 12. Six will be new and six will be existing songs, reworked to fit his band (one of them is “Tangerine Honey”). The three songs available for preview all share a similar, polished country-pop sound, albeit one with trombone fills.

This thematic consistency shows a new level of focus for Frankie. That doesn’t mean he’s lost his love of many genres (he’s working on symphonic music for a fall show by a prominent local performance group). It just means that he’s learning how to be a headliner that audiences can understand.

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Soon, seats may be overflowing in response to all this activity. Frankie views two recent awards—the Las Vegas Review-Journal named him “Best All-Around Performer” and Las Vegas Weekly voted him “Best Strip Headliner”—as harbingers of success. He’s now playing the fame game full time—from tapping the keg at Hofbräuhaus to eating with the reserved-for-celebrities diamond-encrusted steak knife at STK. He’s collaborating with Jelly Belly to create a “Tangerine Honey”-flavored jellybean. And he’s designing a suit line, called Virtuoso by Frankie Moreno, after his stage suits, which are swank on the outside and have whimsical fabrics hidden underneath. To top it all off, Frankie has sponsorships with Crown Royal, Gibson guitars and Yamaha pianos. Not bad for an “unknown.”

But fame and fortune are not his ultimate goal. Frankie dreams of one day inspiring musicians the same way Mozart inspired him, which means he wants to ignite lifelong affairs with “the perfect love that never breaks your heart.” It’s a little disquieting for Frankie—who styled his dressing room after a Viennese parlor and gave his two sons Mozart-related names—to think that he’s now the same age as Mozart was at his death. Nonetheless, here’s his plan: “I want to build this whole body of music—classical, rock, country—so people will go, ‘Shit, I want to do what that guy did.’ I want to struggle and have a whole lifetime to work on that.”

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