Chuck Rolando is the Kevin Bacon of Italo Disco. Although his connections require much less than six degrees.
From 1979 through the mid '80s, he sang and toured with Passengers. And began co-writing much of their material. The group enjoyed success with hits such as He's Speedy Like Gonzales, Hot Leather, Midnight, and Casino. Throughout the early '80s, they helped influence the emerging Italo Disco sound. And created many overlooked gems with master producer Celso Valli.
Rolando also wrote hits for other Italo artists. Sometimes under his own name. Sometimes anonymously. He went on to record solo records. One under his own name. But others not.
In the late '80s, he began promoting records for other artists such as Billy Joel, Carlos Santana, Cyndi Lauper, George Michael, and Michael Jackson.
But in spite of his success, you don't see Rolando onstage at the retro Italo Disco festivals. Or hear Passengers discussed with the reverence of groups such as Tantra, Change, Revanche, or the Peter Jacques Band. A casual observer might even dismiss them as a novelty act.
But the deeper you look into their music, you discover intricate vocals. Sophisticated musical arrangements. Passengers still sound fresh. Still worth cranking up on your car stereo while driving down the coast of Capri.
So I talked with Chuck Rolando. To learn more about his journey before, during and after Passengers.
As well as special guest, Mary Shay, who was the youngest member of the group. She shared with me some special memories of the band's latter days. And helped evoke--with Chuck--the magic of being a pop star in Italy in the '80s.
Chuck, how did it all begin?
When Passengers started in '79, I was writing for some other artists. And trying to decide if I wanted to stay in Italy or not. I even had a DJ gig that summer in Sardegna.
Who actually put Passengers together as a group?
It was a studio project that Kim Arena started with Angelo and Felix Piccarreda and Celso Valli. I came in when the first four songs were finished. Then Kim and I began writing songs together.
Around that time, Angelo, Felix and Celso were involved with Nuggets and V.I.S.A. And just before that, Angelo and Felix worked with Shirley Bi Foy. Were you involved in any of these projects?
No. I wasn't involved in Nuggets or the other stuff. But Mary sang on the Nuggets albums.
Tell me about Angelo and Felix.
Angelo was the main manager and executive producer. I say executive because here they often call managers producers. He was enthusiastic. And a veteran of the business having been Marino Marini's drummer. He was not too familiar with our dance and pop music. Felix had a pretty good musical background. But he tended to stay out of the day to day.
You were born in the United States. But you have an Italian heritage.
I was born and raised in New York. But my grandparents on my mother's side were from the Monferrato area in the Piedmont region of Italy. My mother was born in NY. But during a prolonged visit to Italy, when her father became ill, my mother took a job at the US embassy in Milan. That's where she was when WWII broke out. She fled to her ancestral town of Fubine, in the hills of Monferrato. And there met my father who was originally from Genoa. My dad was a very good jazz drummer. Prior to moving to the US, he gigged in clubs like the historical Gatto Verde in Milan, and the Covo di Santa Margherita. In 1947 my parents married and moved back to NY.
I was born on Long Island, and grew up in a small beach town called Point Lookout on the south shore. As a teenager it was easy to just hop on a train with my friends and travel the half hour to NYC to go to concerts at the Fillmore East or Madison Square Garden. I was one of the lucky kids who got to see live performances by Jimi Hendrix , Janis Joplin, Cream, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, Jethro Tull, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and loads more. I was offered tickets to Woodstock, but turned them down. Oops!
I'm surprised you didn't become a rock star.
I didn't see myself as becoming a rock star. But I did begin to teach myself guitar. I started writing my own songs at around 18 years old. Bought my first Martin D28 in 1973 (I still play it now.)
I went to college in Switzerland. The same college that Sylvester Stallone went to (The American College of Switzerland.) I got a B.A. in languages believing it would help me become some kind of communicator or professor. But the pull to play music won out in the end.
My first gig in Italy was at a club in Arona on Lake Maggiore. I opened for a jazz trio I'd never heard of. Right in the middle of singing Love The One You're With these three musicians came up on stage and started playing along with me. It was an amazing feeling. It was like going from a Fiat 500 to a Ferrari.
The musicians were Santo Palumbo on piano, Tullio De Piscopo on drums, and Julius Farmer on bass. I didn't know at the time that they were three of the best players in Italy. Julius and I became good friends. Through him I placed my first original song with a recording artist named Roxy Robinson. It became the b-side of her new single and was produced by the wonderful and talented jazz pianist Enrico Intra.
The 1st Album - Girls Cost Money
How did you meet Angelo and Felix?
Through a local music publisher. They liked my songs and suggested that I stay in Italy and join a band that they were producing called Passengers. Kim Arena was the lead vocalist. And he had an amazingly powerful, bluesy and at the same time very warm voice.
Before Passengers, Kim had some success as a solo artist.
I knew that Kim had been singing professionally before Passengers. And had taken part in some important Italian song festivals. He was born Gesualdo Arena. But performed as Kim Arena. And also Kim Rider.
How did the others get involved?
Kim brought Elwanda Contreras into the band. And Kathleen Flynn was signed on as well. The songs were all written by Celso Valli, co-written with Alan Taylor and Mike Logan.
Celso was just starting to come into his own as a songwriter and music producer. He wrote great melodies arranged with a lot of new synth sounds (Oberheim, Roland DX7, etc.) Over a typical disco four-on-the-floor beat.
Vinyl was the medium. And our songs were often 7-10 minutes long. 12 inch 'maxi singles' were released, targeting the clubs. Long live the 4 minute intro!
Was Kathleen just on the first album?
Kathleen left Passengers very early on because she was just not very interested in the whole project. We lost touch with her shortly after.
Didn't she do a solo project after that?
Kathleen recorded a single called Don't Buy Me Love. And it was produced by Felix. I didn't work on it, though.
What was it like working together?
Working with Kim, Elwanda and Mary was loads of fun. We all became good friends. We spent a lot of time together on the road gigging all over Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and Germany. We were in each other's pockets 24/7 on stage and in studios. And we got along really well. Kim and I often wrote songs together, jamming on acoustic guitars late into the night.
Durium also distributed other US labels. Casablanca, in particular, who had released albums by Donna Summer, Kiss, Lipps Inc., etc. So we felt we were in good company with our posters on the wall next to theirs.
The 2nd Album - Passengers
The Lion Sleeps Tonight was the lead single on the 2nd album. How did that come about?
I remember strumming my guitar in Felix's office one day. Playing a bluesy version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. He really liked it. Both he and Angelo had a good ear for the business. So we decided to cover it and release it as a single.
Because of the 'lion' theme, a promoter at Durium had the brilliant idea to have us pose in a lion's cage for a photo shoot. The Moira Orfei Circus happened to be in town! Being in the cage with a lion--even with his trainer present with the whip and chair--is scary. You can see that our smiles were a bit strained. Like...Can we do this quickly, please?
You also performed Lion at a music festival.
I believe it was Festivalbar.
There's a great moment in Lion where you guys break out and get jazzier and more intense with your vocals. Did you arrange that?
Funny you should bring that up. Maurizio Bassi and I were working on the arrangement, and decided we needed to have some kind of a change-up or a middle 8. So he and I wrote this rock middle 8 melody. And I wrote the new words. Somewhere in the jungle there is music, etc…
The publishers of the copyright by the Tokens said we could leave it in. But they did not let us take any writer credit. Sometimes it goes like that. The rest of the album was recorded pretty much during the same sessions with Maurizio.
And when you released The Lion Sleeps Tonight as a single, how did it do?
The 45 vinyl single sold close to 100,000 copies.
Festivalbar 1980 seems to stand out as an especially impressive event.
The Arena di Verona is an amazing place to have played. I'm glad I did!
Some great dance acts performed there that year. Madleen Kane sang Cherchez Pas. Peter Jacques Band did Is It It? Gino Soccio did S-beat. Macho performed Mother's Love.
You also had Blondie performing Call Me. Pretenders doing Brass in Pocket. And the winner, Miguel Bosé, singing Olympic Games.
On the second album, you took a much different direction. More Pop. Less Dance. Whose decision was that?
I'm afraid it had a lot to do with me insisting on writing for the band, hoping to make some kind of hybrid pop dance songs.
You weren't writing with Celso on those songs. And you brought in Maurizio Bassi. How did that come about?
I believe Celso was busy with something else at the time and couldn't produce us. I think Angelo and Felix knew Maurizio and brought him in
Which of those songs that you wrote for that album are you most proud of?
I really enjoy singing and writing vocal harmonies ala Manhattan Transfer. Or earlier swing/jazz acts. So Honey Be My Honey Bee was a lot of fun for me. Shaking The Blues Away and Lord Let Us Play were cool. I was listening to stuff like Spyro Gyra and Steely Dan. And was probably channeling the grooves and cool chord changes that were typical of West Coast pop around that time.
I can hear those influences.
Songwriting has always been my main passion. For the second Passengers album I had written some pop/dance songs. And everyone thought they were pretty cool. But was it really Dance? Maurizio Bassi had the challenging task of arranging them so that they fit into the Passengers style. And this was not easy.
After the 2nd album was released in Italy, you guys recorded Midnight. And it was later added to that album for the Canadian release.
Different countries often chose to put albums together to their own market needs.
Is this where the confusion over the Midnight credits started? Some sources still list Angelo and Kim as the writers. And Maurizio as the arranger.
Midnight was a Celso Valli composition. Passengers were in Rome doing a TV show when Celso called me, very excited. He sang the Midnight melody to me on the phone. And asked me to write the lyrics on the spot.
His arrangement was cutting edge at the time. He was one of the first producers to use the 'walking octave bass' style that became typical of so many disco songs like Self Control. I believe that Celso Valli and Mauro Malavasi were in fact the two real pioneers of the Italian disco sound.
You performed Midnight at Festival di Sanremo.
Yes. And since we wanted to sing it at the Sanremo festival, I was not allowed to appear as a writer because the rules for the festival in those days were only Italian authors allowed. Plus I believe Celso had some problem with contracts and exclusives. So Angelo appeared as writer. Maurizio as arranger. And Kim was added as a favor to Kim. Instead of a publisher share. But Celso wrote the music and arrangements. And I wrote the lyrics.
Ironically, it seems like it influenced Bassi's later work. Especially Tarzan Boy.
I think Maurizio looked up to Celso, so that was surely an influence.
The Elizabeth Album
Around this time you did a side project with an artist named Elizabeth.
Yes. An album called It's My Life. She was a talented singer with a sexy vibe. And the songs were very melodic pop.
You wrote most of the songs on it. How did that come about?
I had been working with Maurizio on some songs. And he asked me to co-write. Mostly lyrics.
Were you hoping it would lead to more pop-oriented songwriting for you?
I have always considered myself Pop-ish. Depending on what decade we are in!
Were you starting to be approached by other artists and producers to write songs for them?
There is always a kind of closed camp attitude among artists and their teams. This is true today, too. An artist will easily prefer to record his or her own song. Even if a stronger one has come up from an outside source.
Were you hoping for a breakout success with Elizabeth?
It was always difficult for Italian artists and labels to release English language albums because the competition was fierce. And the major territories tended to prioritize their own rosters. Italo Dance changed all that. Maybe because the lyrics weren't as important?
What was your songwriting technique for this album?
Maurizio had an entire album of songs written musically. But with no lyrics. It's funny if you've ever had the chance to hear a guide vocal on a demo of a song that needs lyrics. He asked me to write all the lyrics. And the composers here sing what everyone calls macaroni English. Which is basically gibberish that sounds like words.
And they hired you to fill in the blanks because of your grasp of English? Were you considered their in-house link to international success?
It seems like the Italians, more than other European countries, recorded a lot of songs in English. (Maybe the Eurovision influence?) I consider myself a pretty good lyricist. Especially for other people's songs. But you can't deny that I was a mother tongue lyricist living in Italy. So I had a better chance at getting the work.
Especially back then, it was a big deal to crossover to American radio.
It's funny you say that because the Italians' grasp of English is not nearly as good as most of northern Europe. This has always penalized their export of product because of bad lyrics and pronunciation. It's a shame because musically they are very talented people.
Hot Leather - The Moby Mix
The original version of Hot Leather came out in 1979 on the 1st Passengers album. Then Moby Dick Records put out this remix with added production. In 1981. As you're about to release your 3rd album. And it becomes something of an underground dance hit in North America. Were you aware of what was going on with it?
I remember when we found out that Hot Leather was charting in Canada and parts of the US. We were all thrilled!
And it was one of the first remixes that added a lot of extra production and instrumentation. Similar to what Patrick Cowley did with his remix of Donna Summer's I Feel Love.
My involvement with Hot Leather was centered on our live gigs. When we were getting ready to tour each summer I used to do the live arrangements with our backing band. We tried to stick to the original arrangements. But you couldn't do everything live that you did in the studios in those days. So we had to re-think the song structure. It kind of rocked the way we did it live. As opposed to the Moby Mix.
For some Disco fans in the US, Hot Leather is the only Passengers song they're aware of.
We should have followed it up but never did. Billboard dance charts and elsewhere were tracking it.
When fans of this throbbing remix hear your more pop oriented songs, I think they're really surprised. Some people only see you as this intense EuroDance underground studio project.
Ha! I'm sure we let down a lot of purists! But it was all such a rush of things happening at once.
The 3rd Album - Casino
In 1981, you guys put out one of your best albums ever. Casino.
That was a fun return to working with Celso. And messing around with different grooves
You embraced some of the funkier sounds of Change. Who had embraced the sounds of Chic. Was A Lover's Holiday an influence? It seems like the Italian productions were very influenced by that at the time. The Jacques Fred Petrus produced albums.
Celso liked to experiment in different genres. Mumbo Jumbo for instance has this beachy Caribbean feeling. Yet the 80's synths are still ruling it.
Makin' The Rounds had a sophisticated R&B feel to it. And a great sax solo.
That's true. Very rhythmic vocal staccato phrases. And an R&B groove. That was Celso's work.
Touch And Go took that groove and upped the tempo. I think it's one of your tightest songs. With nice touches of strings. And that funky bass solo. But the vocals especially stand out.
I agree. It has a certain punch to it. Celso channeling Quincy Jones if you ask me.
Yes. It's all about the contrasts. Sophisticated and contained. Then the moments where you break out and get a bit rowdy.
Music can be so much fun because of all those different paths.
In Passengers, you used the exchange of male and female voices. Do you think that was part of your sound?
It was. I like to think of the Manhattan Transfer model as a source of inspiration
How much of the singing in the group used harmonies?
A fair amount . Trying to give everybody a role.
What's the story behind Mister Mouse?
Celso wanted to do a follow up to Speedy Like Gonzales. Remaining in the rat world! But I couldn't get away with calling it Mickey Mouse as he wanted to. So it became Mister Mouse.
I thought it was about someone running for office in Italy.
That's the beauty of interpretation. Go with your theory!
Mister Mouse, Speedy Like Gonzales, and even Girls Cost Money all seem like novelty songs on the surface. But those songs had solid arrangements and clever instrumentation. Do you think people appreciate all the musicality going on?
I guess there is the hope to reach people on different levels. Easy sing-along stuff. But with some layers of musicianship and so on. You have to be careful of the balance. Happy by Pharrel Williams is the ultimate example.
Una Di Troppo
After Casino, you recorded the theme to the movie Una Di Troppo. What was that experience like?
I co-wrote both the a-side One Too Many and the b-side Shadow Zone. It was a lot of fun hanging out with some of the actors from the movie at a sort of launch.
Shadow Zone was the perkier of the two. But One Too Many had more of an old-world sentimentality. Was the movie a hit in Italy?
It was more of a b-movie.
The 4th Album - Sound Adventure
You did a lot of writing on the Sound Adventure album.
Yes. That was more Kim, Celso and me.
Some of those songs had much more of what was becoming the Italo Disco sound. Especially the intros for Immediate Pleasure and Go Michelle. Would you agree?
Yes. It was that. And lots of other ideas flying around.
You even did a rap song.
That's true. Jumping on the bandwagon. I remember Celso had a little refrain/riff in his head. So I called it Rhapsody to make an obvious play on words.
Was it in part inspired by Blondie's Rapture?
Not as far as my input went. I don't know about Celso.
Go Michelle is my favorite cut on the album. It's almost a continuation of Midnight. Very progressive arrangement contrasted with your smooth vocals.
I know. Those synth riffs and chords were one of Celso's cool traits. I tend to work on vocal arrangements. Love to layer harmonies. It must come from my listening a lot to Beatles and Crosby Stills & Nash.
The year after Go Michelle, Celso arranged RAF's Self Control. There's a lot of similarity there too.
That's true. That was a big hit for him.
What are your memories of touring for and promoting the Sound Adventure album?
That album release coincided with a fun tour that we did that summer. Kind of a traveling festival. There were 5-6 acts. And we were sponsored by Rete 4 TV. We went up and down the Italian peninsula on a bus. Lots of laughs hanging with a quirky band called Kim and the Cadillacs. I first met and worked with the concert promoter and great guy Mimmo D'Alessandro on that tour.
When did you leave the group? And was it because you decided to go solo at that point?
In June of '84 my mom passed away. And that was when I decided I needed a change. I had been with the band for the first 4 albums. And that was my last summer in the band.
I always felt that my music was more acoustic pop /rock. And my songwriting on the 2nd and 3rd albums was a strange hybrid of disco music trying to blend with 80's pop. On one album you can even hear me doing my acoustic/ballad thing on Annalisa. Which didn't really fit in with the Passengers style. But I was stubborn and insisted we include it.
Kim, Mary and Elwanda carried on as a trio for a few more years. But I would venture to say we peaked around 1983. I'm not saying this because I left the band. It was just a question of coming up with fresh ideas.
By that point, you had already worked with some of Italy's best.
I can still remember working with many talented musicians in the studio and in our backing bands on the road. Some of the names that come to mind are Aldo Banfi on keys, Massimo Luca on guitar, Riccardo Fioravanti on bass, and Rosanna Casale on vocals. And I remember one gig on the island of Malta. We opened for Mungo Jerry (In The Summertime). And funny thing, many years later, I ended up representing the Mungo Jerry (Ray Dorset) song catalog. We used to hang out a lot at Sony dinner parties.
In 1983 you had a taste of (anonymous) solo stardom with the Den Harrow recordings A Taste of Love and To Meet Me. How did that happen?
My involvement with Den Harrow began at a session that a producer named Roberto Turatti organized. He had the song To Meet Me and asked me to sing the lead. And Den Harrow was born.
Did you do any writing on that?
No. I didn't co-write To Meet Me. I thought it was just an average dance song with silly lyrics. And considered it as session work. But those were the days of Milli Vanilli and all kinds of nameless studio projects. I didn't expect it to take off the way it did.
So then you sang another song as Den Harrow.
We followed it up immediately with another single that I did co-write. A Taste of Love. And I remember Roberto saying he wanted to include some rap and 'scratching'--two relatively new ideas in disco music at the time. I could have carried on with the project. But I didn't like the premise. And I felt that it was not right to fool the public. And I could never get used to hearing my voice coming out of someone else's mouth! Plus I was getting busier with Passengers, so I bailed. The producers and Den had no qualms about sticking a new voice on Den. Not once, but two times after I left the project.
Do you wish you had recorded those first two songs under your own name?
Probably would have been better if I had recorded them as me. But I was still in Passengers at the time. They were just vocal sessions to me.
One of the other singers who sang on some of those recordings doesn't like it when the guy lip syncs to his voice in concerts. Do you mind it?
I thought it was funny at the time to hear my voice like that. But I had agreed to the premise. I think it's hilarious that people get upset about this stuff.
Around that same time you co-wrote a hit for Peter Richard. Walking In The Neon.
Peter Richard was an artist who asked me to co-write his song because he liked my lyrics . I don't remember much else about it. I was writing for a lot of dance artists by this time. Like Albert One, etc...
Walking In The Neon has an underground following. Were you aware of that?
You co-wrote another song on that album called Marlene. And Aldo Banfi played keyboards on it. Didn't you work with him on the Elizabeth album?
Yes, worked with Aldo often in the studio. Great guy and nimble-fingered on the keys.
He played on some good dance records during that time. Do you remember any other projects you two worked on together? He played on Elite's Boys On Hollywood Blvd which Celso arranged. Were you involved with that?
No. There was a period we were actually hanging out as friends. He was friends with Elwanda and Mary too.
Celso also arranged Peter Richard's Strange Desire in 1981. Did you do anything on that record?
No, I'm afraid not.
Into The Darkness
When you finally put out a single under your own name, the record company changed your name. What happened?
This was my first attempt at a solo career. The head of CBS suggested dropping the "o" from Rolondo. They thought it would look more American. More international. I agreed at the time. Wouldn't dream of it now.
Who did you work with on Into The Darkness?
It was produced by Roberto Colombo. And got some decent airplay. And it was re-mixed by Claudio Cecchetto's team of dj's.
Before working with you, Colombo had success with Miguel Bosé.
I met Roberto at some awards event. But actually we had friends in common near Lake Maggiore where we both lived. We also became good friends. And I worked with him on other projects as well. I worked on some of the Bosé stuff with Roberto. Vocal harmonies and ideas.
I don't think many people in the US even know about Miguel Bosé. But he's had a pretty substantial career.
Yes. He came out with a song called Super Superman or something like that, and the girls went nuts all over Europe.
What was your strategy going into the studio for Into The Darkness? Did CBS want to turn you into another George Michael?
I was writing songs on a 4-track cassette player and took my stuff to Roberto's studio. My demos sounded like James Taylor meets Simple Minds.
Do you wish you would have exerted more influence? Do you wish you would have gone in a more Pop-Rock direction?
Generally, I wish I had been a better manager of my own career, but have always found it easier to help others more than myself.
Did you make a music video to Into The Darkness?
No. We didn't.
Was it released outside of Italy?
No. It fizzled into oblivion.
It must be a collector's item now.
It's very rare.
Was it just the 7" single? Or was there a 12" single? A remix?
There was a 12 inch re-mix by a team called Mama who were working for Claudio Cecchetto.
How was that released? DJ only?
Radios and DJ's I think.
Did they add new production to it?
A few fills and different edits and drum eq.
Didn't Cecchetto also produce Taffy's Midnight Radio which Celco arranged?
Yes. Cecchetto put out a lot of dance hits in the mid 80's.
After his remix, did you consider having him produce your next record?
I was already in A&R mode looking to work on developing talent at CBS.
And did you record a b-side to Into The Darkness? Are there any other Chuck Roland solo tracks from those sessions?
No. The single was two mixes of the same song. Colombo's and Cecchetto's.
So the Chuck Roland sessions ended there.
I let myself get sidetracked into a 20 year day job!
But it sounds like you had a pretty cool day job.
It was a great job working with all those artists. And I put my daughter through school!
Chuck's Grab Bag
You've done a lot of songwriting. What other artists have recorded your songs? Credited, uncredited, or under aliases.
Albert One's Turbo Diesel. I also had a huge Euro hit co-writing I'm A Lover for Andrea on Baby Records. And I wrote for other Italian singers. It's hard to remember them all.
Besides Passengers, what other projects did you work on with Celso Valli?
One was a single called Shades of Blue. He asked me to be a guest vocalist.
Into the '90s as Harlaxton
Did you write under the name Harlaxton to keep it separate from your A&R work?
Harlaxton Manor is an old English Manor near Nottingham, UK where I spent my junior year of college studying music and writing songs. So I used the name Harlaxton to distinguish between songs I wrote for Passengers and songs I wrote for other artists. Just a simple pseudonym.
You definitely adjusted to the sounds of the '90s. I especially like the song you co-wrote for Snap called Where Are The Boys, Where Are The Girls.
Niki Haris, who was mostly known as one of Madonna's back-up singers at the time, sang the lead vocal, and co-wrote the song. And Madonna's other back-up singer, Donna de Lory, also sang on the track.
You eventually became CEO of the SonyATV company. How did that come about?
I first became involved in music publishing and licensing when I wrote my first released songs and signed away the rights without realizing that they were negotiable. Just like the Beatles! Only on a slightly smaller scale.
My first job at Sony as Marketing Manager to major artists was a great gig . There is obvious pressure, as in any big company, to produce results and promote album sales. My duties would run from budgeting the whole campaign, making sure there was the right amount of stock in the warehouse, to setting up interviews with the press and radio, to organizing appearances on TV.
My years as the CEO at Sony/ATV helped me master the ins and outs of music publishing and author's rights, allowing me to consult and advise young artists on how to avoid the pitfalls I fell into. Like being too eager to sign on the dotted line.
And I always enjoyed the fact that my cool boss Richard Rowe managed to sign the Beatles to SonyATV. Kind of making up for the fact that his father Dick Rowe had famously turned them down at Decca many years before.
Who were some of the artists you worked with directly?
I spent some time with Leonard Cohen in his hotel. Not the Chelsea, though. Talking about his music and poetry. And I could feel that he was looking at me to try to get a better idea of the person he'd entrusted the catalog of his life's work with. Obviously there are contracts in place that clearly outline what a publisher should and should not do with his client's repertoire. But it is always a very sensitive area. And the artist needs to know that he can trust your judgement while you are in charge of his babies.
But there were so many memories...
Meeting Crosby and Nash. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Drinking grappa with Toto. Showing the Italian Trulli houses of Puglia to Cyndi Lauper. Taking Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles to a Mexican restaurant after their concert . Taking Mickey Rourke backstage to hang with Bruce Springsteen.
Nothing could have been as big as promoting Michael Jackson when he kicked off the European leg of his Bad tour in 1988.
When live concerts were a part of the mix, it got even crazier. And I had to set-up a press conference for 600 journalists. But one of the most amazing moments during that Rome concert was when we accredited 10 or 12 photographers to get down in the 'pit' during the first 3 minutes of the gig. I had to get down in that 10ft. no-man's land between the stage and the barriers that held back the crush of screaming and overheated fans. To make sure the photographers got their shots and then got out. It was like Dante's Inferno. Bouncers carrying out passed-out kids. Water bottles flying through the air. While Michael moon-walked just above our heads.
You even crossed paths with Liza Minnelli.
Working with Liza Minnelli was a wonderful experience. She was really sweet. Not a big-headed diva at all. The night after the Sanremo Festival, we rode together in the limo to the Genoa airport. And she actually sang Cole Porter songs to me along the way. Liza was in Europe promoting her Pet Shop Boys produced album. She gave a big press conference at the festival that I emceed and translated simultaneously.
Did you do a lot of interpreting for artists when they met the press?
Yes! James Taylor, Art Garfunkel, Alice Cooper. Billy Joel was one of the most enjoyable.
I was on stage with him interpreting musical questions and answers for an audience of university students in Milan. At one point, he was asked the difference between working with California musicians as opposed to New York musicians. Billy knew that I was from Long Island. Where he also lives. And so he said, "Well, in California, if I bump into Chuck, I would just wave and say 'hey, dude'. But in NY it's more like this..." And he walked over to me and said "How ya doin' Chuckie?" while grabbing my crotch. The audience went nuts. No pun intended. Then, of course, I had to translate the whole exchange.
And then you worked with Princess Stephanie.
Stephanie was promoting her album. I spent 4 or 5 days in her company. In Rome mostly. I got a taste of what her royal celebrity lifestyle costs her when she is out and about. We were always closely accompanied by a big watchful bodyguard. You are eating peacefully in the garden of a trattoria, and all of a sudden the bodyguard leaps up and runs through the bushes, chasing yet another paparazzo. Checking all the exits and entrances to TV studios and any buildings we entered. Or getting whisked through airport customs via back office corridors. As long as Stephanie is willing to sign a few autographs for the local Guardia di Finanza!
It was tough for her doing interviews. Questions inevitably centered around her lifestyle and her famous and much-loved mom, Grace Kelly, as opposed to her album.
After Chuck left, Passengers continued to record and perform for several more years. And I got to hear about some of those times from Mary Shay...
And as Celso and Angelo and Felix were discussing something in the recording studio, suddenly they asked me if I wanted to try to sing for them in the chorus. Having sung with my father since I was little, and studied for four years of voice lessons with an excellent tutor, I jumped at the idea. We recorded the song right then and there. The producers were pleased with my voice and asked me to meet with them the following week. At the meeting, I signed a contract to sing and tour with the Nuggets.
We also did a fun video with champagne, a Rolls Royce, and a pool full of freezing water! During the promotional tour of the remake Proud Mary, the lead singer decided to leave the group, and the group dissolved. So the experience was short lived.
Was it a challenge joining Passengers and replacing Kathleen Flynn? You seemed to fit right in.
That was the plan. To fit right in. The challenge was telling my boss, who had just hired me for a good position in Dunhill, that I was leaving to go sing in a band and follow my dream. Leaving my family and friends in Canada to go live in a faraway place. Replacing Kathleen was easy as we even looked quite similar, as far as the band’s image goes. But the newspapers kept writing her name long after I had joined, which was somewhat annoying at the time.
You worked with so many talented people. But working in the studio with Celso Valli must have been especially memorable.
As far as working with Celso was concerned, well, he was amazing. And patient, fun, serious...a very hard worker. And so talented. He was easy to work with and knew what he wanted. And he worked with us until everything was just right. Even into the wee hours of the morning.
Chuck was definitely a huge vertebra in the backbone of the group. Very talented and detetmined. I fought--and lost--a few battles to get my lyrics involved. Had I won, Casino instead might have been El Toro, a title that got laughed at and told that it was totally off target. My feelings were damaged for a few hours. But in the end I always accepted defeat gracefully. It's a man's world, but had I been more confident with my lyrics back then, I would have pushed for it. I just lacked the experience, and there wasn't a lot of space between the guys' writing talents.
What are some of your favorite live performances.
After hundreds of performances, my favorite will always be our participation at Festivalbar in the Arena Di Verona in front of over 20,000 people singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight. It was an amazing historic venue where I felt so tiny, yet at the same time so intimate with the audience. That was literally a dream come true. And we did countless radio and TV shows. And many shows on Berlusconi’s Canale 5.
You performed in several music festivals. Sanremo seemed especially memorable for you.
As I recall, Midnight was really targetted for Sanremo. And our hopes were high for its success. Angelo insisted on certain dance routines to call attention to image and viewers. We all went along with his idea at the time. And at one point we hired a choreographer to help us.
I remember how hilarious those sessions were for me. I loved to dance. And learning dance moves was fun for me. But my colleagues had a more difficult time with it. :)
What are your favorite Passengers songs?
Some of the lesser known songs like Annalisa. And one song that we did for the soundtrack for the film One Too Many (Una di Troppo) with Dalia DeLazaro. These were the more romantic side of Passengers. Plus the more famous disco songs like Hot Leather or Casino. They were always fun to perform.
What was touring like?
It was hard work, but it was great. The internet hadn't taken off yet. Mobile phones didn't exist. Photographs were still taken on reels of film. So communication wasn't as easy.
We spent most of our time getting from one gig to another, waiting in airports, traffic jams, hotels, or backstage. We played in elegant places. And places where we had to follow goats to get to them. But I loved every minute of it.
And especially loved driving our blue Mercedes 200 diesel, hours and hours to get to our next performance. Listening to tapes of Steely Dan and looking at the countryside along the way. We spent so much time in that car and in hotels. Saw so many of the tiny villages and met so many people. It made me realize how lucky we were to be in such a position.
Chuck was always fun to hang out with. And Elwanda always had some good advice to give to me, since I was the youngest in the group. And I loved listening to Kim sing on his guitar in French.
What happened in the group after Chuck left?
Things moved quickly after Chuck left Passengers. Our single Camping Paradise was a big hope. But failed to get its feet off the ground. We also left Angelo around this time as well.
We got the contract for Premiatissima '85. And that launched the group nicely as a trio rather than a quartet. And we changed our arranger to Maurizio Bassetti for awhile.
What was Premiatissima '85?
It was a TV competition show with Johnny Dorelli on Rai. During the 1985 season we performed music from soundtracks. Songs such as Aquarius, Over the Rainbow and Goldfinger.
It was fun being in the studio with all the other artists. And a sort of family feeling grew over the 10 week prime time slot on Rai, even though we all had busy schedules. Premiatissima '85 was watched by an average of 10 million viewers weekly for 15 weeks. So our tour schedule filled up again during the summers that followed.
And this TV appearance led to your final album?
Yes. This last album was called New Album. It was made up of songs we performed on Premiatissima. Que Sera Sera. As Time Goes By from Casablanca. Staying Alive even. And was produced by Mimmo D'Alessandro. We didn't release any singles from that, though.
Do you have any mementos from this time?
I still have many of the reel-to-reel tapes of the songs we'd carry around to do television shows, playbacks, or radio show. Still have memorabilia tucked away in storage.
Anymore releases after that?
We worked on a few more singles. Happy New Year in 1986, I think. When it came out we took it on tour. And first promoted it on Rai television with Pippo Baudo on New Years Eve. And then we did Knock Out in 1988 with Carlo Stretti and Ernesto Tabarelli.
After that you recorded an EP.
Yes. Modern Primitive in '89. I still have a copy of that. It contains the songs Modern Primitive, Fra Le Onde Del Mare, Darling, and Eight Years Groove.
Darling is a song Kim had written years before Passengers. And we decided to do a Passengers version of it for the EP. And Eight Years Groove is a mix of He's Speedy Like Gonzales, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Midnight and Casinó.
Who was involved in this production?
Modern Primitive was produced by Sanny. And arranged by Claudio Corradini, who'd also arranged and co-written a popular dance track at the time called Doremiviolencia for Aspro Murray.
During this time you were also an interpreter.
We continued touring with Mimmo D'Alessandro as our manager. Back then Mimmo was owner of On The Road (now D'Alessandro & Galli), successful concert organizers in Tuscany. And he worked with many artists as their concert organizer for Italy. I teamed up with him, and also worked as an interpreter in interviews. Working with artists such as Paul Young, Riccardo Cocciante, Tony Bennett, Dionne Warwick, Ray Charles and his chorus, Oscar Peterson, Don Cherry, and Tullio De Piscopo, just to name a few. Helping to make their stay in Italy seamless.
All concerts were organized at the famous Bussola Domani in Viareggio, where the Passengers also performed. Or if an artist drew bigger crowds we worked out of Firenze (Florence) or Pisa. That was loads of fun and very interesting to meet such world-renowned artists.
What happened after that?
In 1990, I was getting anxious to get back into the studio to take a year to come out with a new album. But the others wanted to continue touring. I had also recently been married and was organizing a new life. So that soon overpowered my 11 year career with the Passengers. And the group disbanded after I left in 1991. And Kim passed away in 2004. And Elwanda moved to Miami. And put out a single in 1994.
And wrapping it up with Chuck...
What is life like now for Chuck Rolando?
I have been vocal coaching for X Factor Italy for 4 years now. Due to my connection with the producer of the show's musical tracks, Lucio Fabbri (of PFM fame.) And Roberto Rossi, the head of A&R at Sony who has often hired me to coach his artists (such as Marco Mengoni).
Both Lucio and Roberto expect me to coach a great performance out of their artists and contestants, both their English pronunciation and their intonation and stylistic approach. I often do vocal arrangements for the X Factor compilations too.
Have you been doing any other singing?
Working as a vocalist, backing singer or guest performer is like my favorite sport. My lifeline. Be it for jingles, covers of cool songs. I've done this for loads of clients: Vodafone, Allianz (Here Comes The Sun), Peugeot, Piaggio, Lamborghini, Footlocker, etc. I will carry on singing for as long as I can hold a note. I love working with my voice. And for the past 10 years I have also been a voice actor, narrating documentaries, voicing advertisements, English language courses, and so on.
You also do a podcast.
On Bantamu.com. Which is a recent start up created by producer and sound engineer Giacomo Garufi. It's like a Linked In for producers, engineers and other music related professionals where they can connect, collaborate and exchange information. I do a series called "Meet The Pros" where I interview some of the best producers and engineers in the music business. People such as Jeff Bova, Steve Thompson, and Marc Urselli (click the names to listen.)
Do you plan on entering your new compositions in any of the Italian music festivals?
I don't think I will go back to perform at Sanremo again. But maybe one of my songs will. You never know. Of course, I would be happy to write for the Eurovision contest. It would be a challenge because it seems to have the stigma of being the corniest show out there!
As a songwriter I was thrilled when I won third place at the ISC (International Songwriting Competiton) with My Family in the Children's category. After all, there were over 15000 entries. And among the judges were Rihanna, Tom Waits and Jeff Beck.
You've also been working with Ray Heffernan.
Ray Heffernan is a very talented Irish singer songwriter. He co-wrote Angels with Robbie Williams when he still lived in Dublin. He and I have been writing songs together for a few years. He has that Irish bard/poet streak that really works in folk /pop music. He makes you think about what you want to say and sing. You can hear one of our songs, Amy's Answer, on his recent album New Dress Woven. We are currently working on new material to go out live together.
When you perform live in these smaller venues, will you perform acoustic versions of any Passengers songs?
Not likely. Although I often get requests for The Lion Sleeps Tonight. And I am happy to sing it.
Because you were so close to it, do you think you downplay the importance of Passengers? And the influence they had on Italo Disco?
Maybe I do. Being on the inside of a project is not only very subjective, but also less mysterious. I can see that the Passengers format was on track to being something fresh in dance music. But we weren't able to keep the focus for more than 4-5 years.
With all the current interest in Italo Disco groups from the 1980s, do you think Passengers get overlooked?
I would have to follow it more to be able to judge that. I tend to not go there (the 80's ) often. It might have to do with always wanting to write new songs.
Any chance of writing a new song with Celso for one of the singers he's currently producing?
That would be fun. I may have to give him a call to see what he's been doing lately. Celso was certainly a forerunner and innovator in the Italo Disco scene. He gave the music an extra level of class as well. Harmonically, his compositions were very sophisticated with clever chord changes and riffs. He is still one of the best producer-arrangers in Italy today. His work with top Italian artists is well known.
Don't you think he feels a little sentimental about the old days?
I bet he will always love his dance music. But he has done very well with his mainstream Italian artists, too.
Have you thought of performing or recording under the Passengers name again? Possibly with Mary or Elwanda?
If Kim were still alive it could have happened. We were very musical and creative together. But the girls went their separate ways. And I don't see it happening.
How do you think Kim would have described his experiences with Passengers?
He was very proud and pleased that we were having success. He had worked hard in a few previous artist projects as Kim Rider. And knew how difficult it was to break in.
What are your favorite memories of Kim?
Laughing on the road in his Mercedes station wagon with his German Shepherd in the trunk. And some of our wild adventures down in rough parts of Italy around Naples and in Sicily.
And what are you most proud of from that era?
I was proud of my songwriting. And very proud of my work as musical arranger of our live gigs. And our use of harmonies and classy keyboard work. I think Passengers left a lasting influence on the Italo Disco sound.
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