Piano man (and then some)

He plays ’em, he makes ’em, he books shows, creates shows and puts on a show. Meet Gary Raffanelli, entertainment multitasker extraordinaire.

Gary Raffanelli plays one of his Slam Grand keyboards, which is engineerd to sound just like a grand piano.

Gary Raffanelli plays one of his Slam Grand keyboards, which is engineerd to sound just like a grand piano.

Photo By David Robert

Walking briskly into the Catch a Rising Star Comedy Club, Gary Raffanelli never stops smiling. No matter how busy he gets, Raffanelli—a 32-year veteran of the Reno music scene who books entertainers, creates new casino shows and performs on electronic keyboards made by the company he owns—always stays upbeat.

As he walks through the empty club in the Silver Legacy Resort Casino, the soundman and cocktail waitresses greet him. He walks straight to the white grand piano on the stage, says hello to the opening comic, does a sound check and heads back to the green room, the backstage area where performers congregate. Raffanelli, a man who juggles many business ventures, does all this in what seems like one fluid motion.

“Some days, I wish there were three of me,” he says.

Raffanelli is 52, not short or tall, skinny or fat. He is not imposing, and the only feature that makes him stick out from any other person is a hairdo reminiscent of Kenny Rogers circa 1979. He owns and operates Slam Grand, a company that builds electronic keyboards that sound like acoustic grand pianos. He started the business 12 years ago, and it has been especially successful lately. Grand Slam makes pianos for MTV’s Punk’d and such stars as Alicia Keyes and Stevie Wonder. For Super Bowl XXXVIII, Slam Grand provided keyboards that, unlike Janet Jackson’s wardrobe, didn’t malfunction.

But the electric-piano gig is only one of many for this performer and entrepreneur. He also books entertainers for dueling piano bars (two pianos, two performers) across the nation with his business, Counterpoint Consultants, Inc.

Raffanelli is also president of Serendipity Entertainment, Inc., which has produced a show called adbacadabra: The Ultimate Abba Tribute. It’ll premier at the Eldorado Hotel Casino on Jan. 1.

He performs on Royal Caribbean cruise ships, in the cabaret, entertaining audiences with his adept musicianship.

He’s also the national music director for Catch a Rising Star Comedy clubs. There are three clubs besides Reno’s, in Laughlin, Albuquerque and Princeton, N.J. He hires entertainers to do the same thing he does most nights at the Catch a Rising Star Comedy Club in the Silver Legacy Resort Casino.

In fact, some patrons come to see Raffanelli—who plays a selection of about seven songs for 45 minutes prior to show time—rather than the comedians, in a club that’s had such big-name performers as Richard Lewis and Larry the Cable Guy.

He is in constant contact with the audience throughout his show. It’s a sort of one-way, witty banter that he keeps up with or without them. He is jocular with complete strangers, and his assumption of friendship in these exchanges immediately endears people to him.

He’ll ask where people are from. Somebody is usually from the Bay Area, which is where he is from, thus allowing him to give a history of his life as a performer. This speech usually ends with him remarking about what he does for a living not being work. However, the audience has no clue about the other four things he has going on.

He asks for requests, and someone who’s trying to be funny will ask for Lynyrd Skynyrd or AC/DC. Raffanelli’s retort is always, “Oh Yeah, AC/DC is my favorite piano band.” Someone usually asks for some jazz. Raffanelli will start to play the opening of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” and then abruptly stop and quickly say just loud enough for the audience to hear, “I hate that shit.” The antidote in these situations is always, “How ’bout some Billy Joel?”

The green room of Catch a Rising Star provides a pre-show respite on a Friday night, a busy night for both the club and Raffanelli. He’s spent the day in the studio putting together music for adbacadabra, for which he has been rehearsing every other day for the last two and a half years. The show, a tribute to 1970s pop juggernaut ABBA, includes singers and a live band that will recreate 20 ABBA hits.

Gary Raffanelli practices what he preaches: “You can make work your passion.”

Photo By David Robert

Where does Raffanelli get his drive? Things can’t always be going as well as they appear to be going right now.

“There were seven weeks when I felt like someone was trying to knock me down,” Raffanelli says.

It wasn’t that horrible. Things were happening during that seven-week span, it’s just that everything was happening at once. He says he never really got any time to catch his breath.

At such times, Raffanelli acknowledges that he is passionate about everything he does, which makes it seem as though he isn’t working at all. When Slam Grand was starting, he did other things to keep busy, even working for his wife, Jeanene, who is a real estate agent.

Then, when Catch a Rising Star came to Reno, Raffanelli called up Lynn Garlock-Wright, the comedy club’s president. He’d worked with Garlock-Wright when she ran the cabaret in Harrah’s Reno.

“There was no hesitation on my behalf in hiring him,” Garlock-Wright says. “His performance skills are the model when we hire other emcees.”

Jim Lordon, director of entertainment at the Silver Legacy, has known Raffanelli since 1985, when Lordon used to do sound in that same cabaret. Lordon now hires Raffanelli to book the lounges and bars in the Silver Legacy and to perform at VIP parties.

He speaks highly of Raffanelli’s effectiveness as an entertainer.

“Gary is an entertainer who is as virtual as they get,” Lordon says. “It’s almost corny to say, but he will do anything it takes to get the task done, and he’s always encouraging.”

It’s time for Raffanelli to take the stage. He exhorts the crowd of early-comers to clap along. He plays “Piano Man” and “Walking in Memphis,” among others. Within minutes, the crowd grows from eight to 80, and the fans are loving every minute.

Raffanelli’s first paid gig was at age 9, when he was hired to play the accordion at a PTA meeting. Of all of the things Raffanelli does, he says his favorite thing is performing. This is obvious to Catch a Rising Star General Manager Jerry McLaughlin.

“He is truly an entertainer at heart,” McLaughlin says. “His passion is evident in both his interactions with the audience and his performance.”

Performance skills notwithstanding, Raffanelli takes pride in the way he runs his businesses. He doesn’t see the phrase “business ethics” as an oxymoron.

“I know that if you’re not making money, then you’re spending it,” Raffanelli says. “But I would rather lose money on a deal and see people happy with the product.”

Raffanelli works hard. However, unlike many people who have too much to do and too little time, Raffanelli loves what he does, and he knows how lucky he is.

“There are only 24 hours in a day," he says. "You should spend eight hours sleeping, eight hours working, and eight hours on whatever your passion is. When your passion starts to make as much money as your work, you can make work your passion."