By DAVID PEPIN
The featured performer for this year’s Summer’s End concert can boast of having spent the past 15 years working with a music legend…and having received his big break in show business from a boxing legend.
John Pagano, a Providence native whose repertoire ranges from pop chestnuts to rhythm and blues, will be performing with the R.I. Philharmonic at the town’s annual concert, to be held Friday, Sept. 2, at Eldredge Field. Rain date for the show is Saturday, Sept. 3.
Pagano, who began his career in the ’80s as an R&B singer, has been a featured vocalist since 1997 with Burt Bacharach, the pianist and songwriter responsible for many entries in the canon of pop music standards over the past 50 years. Along with two female singers and an 11-piece orchestra (including his brother Vinny, its drummer), they have toured throughout much of the world, most recently a six-date swing through Italy.
“The girls cover many of his hits, and I do all the male songs,” says Pagano, who usually performs “This Guy’s In Love with You,” “What the World Needs Now (Is Love Sweet Love),” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Any Day Now” and “God Give Me Strength.”
Now living in southern California, Pagano returns roughly every three months to visit his family, and tries to work in a shown or two while he’s in the area.
Before meeting Bacharach, and before recording a CD on MCA, however, came his “discovery” by that noted musical talent scout…Mike Tyson (yes, the former world heavyweight champion).
“I played in a band called Xpo around Albany with my brother. Mike trained about a half-hour away, and he came and saw us and took a liking to my band and my voice. He said I ought to sing the national anthem at one of his fights,” Pagano remembers.
In 1989, Pagano stood in the center of the ring as the Las Vegas Hilton and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to Tyson’s successful title defense against Frank Bruno.
In the audience that night was an assistant to Irving Azoff, one of the recording industry’s giants, then chairman of MCA records.
“She saw me in the elevator on my way to the afterparty, and I met Azoff two days later,” Pagano says. While he had been discussing a record deal with Warner Brothers at the time, he ended up signing with MCA, which led to his first encounter with Bacharach and his then-wife, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager.
“Azoff took me over to see him because he was looking for material for my album, but Burt didn’t have anything that fit,” says Pagano.
The MCA CD, he recalls, was “very of the times, uptempo,” on which Bacharach’s more ballad-oriented tunes would’ve been out of place. “I was the only white guy in MCA’s R&B division.”
Plans for a second CD never materialized, but in 1997, “I received a call from Burt out of the blue. He was getting ready to tour, but had never toured with a male vocalist before. I told him I was surprised he remembered me, and he said he had never forgotten my voice.”
Working with Bacharach, Pagano says, “is like a 15-year college experience. He’s a stickler for melody, making sure it’s sung the way it’s supposed to be. He’s not a tyrant, but a perfectionist.”
While Bacharach still maintains an active touring schedule at age 83, Pagano is gradually expanding his solo horizons, including a November show in Palm Beach and a February performance with the Edmonton Symphony.
His Summer’s End show will feature some songs from “Pure Imagination,” his recent solo CD, along with “a lot of Sinatra, classic American songbook, and a lot of R&B. I may throw in a Donny Hathaway song, too. It’s definitely more of a pops-type show.”
Summer’s End spokeswoman Lisa Sussman said some details of the concert have yet to be finalized, but it will begin at 5:30 p.m. with the East Greenwich High School Jazz Ensemble, with the R.I. Philharmonic staging a rehearsal for the audience at 6:30. Students of voice coach Phoebe Madden and high school vocalists will also perform, followed by children’s and veterans’ parades, before Pagano and the Philharmonic take the stage from 8 to 10. A 50-50 raffle drawing will be held at intermission, with Boston Red Sox tickets to also be given away.