Vincent John Cusano was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on August 6, 1952, the son of Alphonso and Theresa. Vinnie grew up "In a poor family that listened to a lot of Country & Western. His father played guitar and his mother was a singer, and the two had made records back in the 40s" (KISSin' Time Radio). Vinnie recalled his family in an interview with John Stix in 1987: "I grew up in a musical family. My father played pedal steel and my mother was a country singer. When I was a kid I would fall asleep listening to their band. I loved the guitar more than anything and it's all I ever wanted to play. I slept with my guitar as a kid and I didn't even know how to play it. Now I fall asleep at night playing the guitar. But I'm the kind of guy who will do whatever it takes to get a break. I slept in the gutter to do it" (Guitar Player interview w. John Stix, 5/1987). His father's pedal steel sound fascinated Vinnie and led to his love of the instrument, though that style wasn't the only music in Vinnie's life. His grandfather (mother's side), Vicenzo Farraro, who had emigrated from Marcianise, Italy, played Italian records and love songs. One of his cousins was well versed in classical music which further broadened Vinnie's exposure to other music.
Apparently, Vinnie's parents had recorded material in the 1940s or 1950s. In a 1982 interview with Dante Bonutto Vinnie detailed his early musical life, "I started banging away on the guitar when I was three or four years old, but it wasn't until '62/63 that I got seriously involved. I took lessons and developed an interest in the classical side of playing which I really love. I just wish I could devote more time to it" (Kerrang #41). By the time he was 17 Vinnie would "spend a few weeks burning boxes in the incinerator room of a department store, but this temporary concession to nine-to-five-ism excepted, he chose to pass his time teaching guitar" (Kerrang #41) and selling them. Vinnie's dedication to the guitar was clear though he knew he would have to work hard, and have a bit of luck to make it in the industry. Some of that "luck" came early on...
Musically, the aforementioned band, The Younger Generation, were active during Vinnie's high-school years playing local Bridgeport and surrounding cities high-school events. It was with this band that Vinnie made his first demo recording, reportedly paid for by his father, in 1965/6 (KISSin' Time Radio). Three songs were recorded; "More," "Don't Bring Me Happy Together," and "Summer In The City" with the first song being noted for being performed by the band at events such as the Central High "Hootenanny" on February 11, 1967 (along with another song, "I Believe"). The band included Bob Forte, Skip Smith, and Ralph "Jerry" Braca (drums/vocals) and band managed to get several opening-slots for the Young Rascals, including a show at the Barnum Festival Theatre in Seaside Park, CT on August 29, 1967. This show, with some 3,000 attending, generated some positive press of the band, particularly Vinnie: "The group has appeared on programs with the Young Rascals before last night and have also played at the Westport Discotheque. The Younger Generation, though they still have a long way to go before reaching the top of the rock 'n' roll world, are a real 'personality plus' group with lots of enthusiasm. Vinny Cusano, lead guitarist, appeared on stage wearing a green beret over his long brown locks and old-fashioned knickers. He was definitely the 'personality kid' of the Younger Generation" (Bridgeport Post).
Vinnie also wasn't limited to performing with just one band. During school Vinnie was a member of the jazz band with bassist Rich Creadore, with whom Vinnie played in assorted bands; some of which got off the ground and gigged and others that didnít. The two would later both do work at a local recording studio, Connecticut Recording Studios. He was noted in local press as performing "Every Day With You Girl" solo at his school's Red & Black Revue in May 1969 and as a member of the CHS robed choir that performed at Bridgeport's Lafayette Shopping Plaza later that year. With Vinnie graduating from high school in 1970 another Bridgeport Post story noted that one "Vincent Cusano" had been voted CHS ' graduating class of 1970 class clown. Following high-school Vinnie played in a group named Hunter. Hunter included song-writer Roger Olander on vocals, bassist Glenn Liebensohnm, and drummer Bob Kalakay. They recorded a demo featuring "Push It Through," "Where Have All The Schoolgirls Gone," "I Don't Need No Lover," and "Jam," which was produced by Dale Frashuer. Dale and Paul had co-written (with Gary DeCarlo) the 1969 #1 hit "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," which has become a popular crowd chant at sporting events. Hunter even recorded a version of "Push It Through" for a Dick Robinson show. This demo was recorded at Paul Leka's Bridgeport studio, which provides a link to other session work that Vinnie later performed. Hunter's members were also sourced from CHS and were part of the circle that included Vinnie and Neil Stubenhaus. Both Bob and Roger had appeared with in the student-written school play "Raw War" in 1970. Roger served as best man at Glen's wedding in October 1973, but it's unknown what the status of the band may have been by this time.
Another person Vinnie was in a band with during his youth was one Neil Stubenhaus. Neil, like Vinnie was also from Bridgeport, though he went on to attend the famed Berklee College of Music. Originally he had started off as a drummer before switching to guitar and teaching himself. Within a year Neil was taking guitar lessons from Vinnie who wanted to put a band together with Neil if he would switch to bass. Neil became one of the most sought after session bassists and later played on a number of KISS related projects including albums from Alessi (their final release rather than the one Paul played on) and Heat (which Vinnie also played on). Considering some of Vinnie's early session work it should be noted that Neil was recruited to do some session work on Blood Sweet and Tears vocalist David Clayton-Thomas' first solo album, "Clayton," in 1977. Laura Nyro, who Vinnie would later record with, was a vocalist sought by BS&T prior to Thomas being recruited!
Vinnie's first professional recording break came in 1975. According to Vinnie, "In 1975 I had a record deal. One shot single on Windfall Records. One shot. It was called 'Happy Birthday USA.' It was a rock 'n roll Bicentennial song" (REH ProTalk w/ Steve Rosen, 1988). The single was actually released on Phantom Records (HB-10579) in February 1976. Vinnie co-wrote the song with David Wolff, who became a solo artist and then managed his girlfriend, Cyndi Lauper, during the early part of her career. David and Vinnie would not appear under their real names with the song-writing and performance being credited to Kid Cashmir and Winnie LeCoux. Produced by Ed Sprigg, the single included a B-side also credited to the pair, "The Exorcism of Kazcnyz" (written by Wolff and Sprigg). That B-side is so experimental and strange it's very hard to spot any Vinnie contribution from a guitar stand-point. Having his Les Paul stolen at an airport and playing with Little Anthony & The Imperials were other early experiences in Vinnie's musical life.
During the year he also contributed some guitar work, and a song, to the band Hitchhiker's album. Vinnie was credited as playing electric guitar on the album as one of the "additional musicians." This contribution is probably only on the song itself, but not necessarily limited to just one track since the specific recording contributions are not specified on the credits. This album was recorded at Connecticut Recording Studios in Bridgeport, making it a local studio for Vinnie, with owner Paul Leka and engineer Billy Rose providing services (see Hunter demo!). Fronted by lead vocalist Kenny Hamber, this album was mostly Soul/R&B material. However, one track at the end of the album, "This Song's For You Mama," would be one of Vinnie's most incredible songs. It has a flavor that has ties closer to Louis Armstrong than what would be expected of him later, in comparison with material such as "Full Shredd." It is not clear how Vinnie got this song included on the band's album, but the piece would be incredibly mature for a 24 year-old. Paul Leka and CRS also provides a link to another Vinnie session, as off-the-wall (in comparrison with his later style) as the Hitchhikers had been. This session was for the R&B band Five Satins, who had renamed themselves Black Satin. Fronted by vocalist Fredericke Lee Parris the album included a re-recorded version of Fred's Five Satins 1956 hit, "In The Still Of The Night." While Vinnie's specific recording contributions are not specified on the credits he is mis-creditted as "Vinnie Casano," though the Leka/CRS link was enough to dig this one out of the haze of history! It's seems likely that any session work with Black Satin was restricted to the songs recorded at CRS since the others seem to date from early 1975 while the rest seem to date from the end of that year and the following. Black Satin had signed with Buddah in May/June 1975 and were quickly at work recording their album. "Everybody Stand And Clap Your Hands (For The Entertainer)" b/w "Hey There Pretty Lady" (Buddah BDA-477) was released in October 1975 and reached #49 on the charts before an album was even available.
In late 1976 Vinnie was recruited by Felix Cavaliere, who was living in Danbury at the time and recording solo albums following the demise of the Young Rascals. Another of Felix's musical companions was The Fabulous Rhinestones drummer Jack Scarangella who worked with him on his second solo album, "Destiny," in 1975; and had also appeared on the final Rascals album in 1972. By the end of the year the three were jamming at Felix's home in Danbury and the trio quickly built up a rapport that made it clear that a project was worth attempting. In the spring of 1977 the group hit a New York City studio to record a demo. The resulting five-song demo included two Vinnie written and sung songs, "Innocent Eyes" and "Turn Yourself Around," which would later be included on the album.
Following Felix taking the tape to Epic the band signed with the label in May 1977 and started work recording an album. Rick Laird, a journeyman who's most notable earlier credit was with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, played bass, though he wasn't featured in the band picture on the album's rear cover. Recorded at Sound Ideas studio in New York City, the album was produced by Felix. Both of Vinnie's songs showed a strong Beatles influenced pop vibe indicative of his early writing style. Released in October 1977, the album received some positive reviews. Billboard (11/12/77) noted: "This debut album is superlative AOR rock. Small wonder, since the hand of ex-Rascal Cavaliere is ever present... But this is hardly a one-man show. It's a group effort all the way and Treasure may well emerge as one of the late '70s premier rock bands." The review also noted "Innocent Eyes" as one of the album's best cuts. Other reviews were not so sure about the album: "Treasure should fare better, but there are still a lot of rough edges. Cavaliere and guitarist Vinnie Cusano seem to be getting a feel for each other through most of the LP... Cusano's two compositions... are good, slick pop songs but just don't mesh with the rest of the album" (Rolling Stone, 1/26/78). One single was issued from the album in the US, an edit of "I Wanna Love You" (Epic 8-50519), but it didn't chart. One of Vinnie's songs, "Innocent Eyes" was released in South Africa as a single (Epic/CBS EN-1678), backed with "When the Sun Shines." The band recorded some demos for a second album, but Felix ended the band after playing a handful of gigs (including at least one with Meat Loaf) due to the album's flop and hassle the project had become. Marty David played bass with the band live, with Rascal's songs such as "Good Lovin'" and "In The Midnight Hour" being included in the set.
In July 1978 Vinnie turned up on Laura Nyro's "Nested" album, sharing guitar duties with John Tropea. Felix Cavaliere had been brought in to the sessions by producer Roscoe Harring, though Laura and Felix were friends and they Jack and Vinnie had regularly jammed at Laura's home in the winter of 1977. "Nested" was an arduous project with Laura somewhat distracted by her pregnancy. Felix contributed to two songs, "The Sweet Sky" and "The Nest," which may indicate the songs that Vinnie played on. "Nested" would be Laura's last album for some six years. Of major interest to KISS fans is the fact that Lyn Christopher had originally been a backing-vocalist for Laura in the late-1960s/early-1970s, before embarking on her own short lived solo career in 1972. The Billboard review of 7/1/78 was slightly kinder than some fan circles have been about the album which does not quite live up to her earlier work: "Nyro's first studio album in quite some time is a joyous, spirited outing. The lyrics conjure up beautiful and tender imagery and are sung with all of this gifted singer's boisterous exuberance. With Nyro, herself, on keyboards, Will Lee on bass, Andy Newmark on drums, Vinnie Cusano and John Tropea on guitars, Nydia Mata on percussion and John Sebastian on harmonica, the music flows with bright and lively pop melodies. An occasional ballad also helps to highlight one of pop's best and most distinctive female vocalists" (Billboard).
VVinnie was laying the groundwork for a broad spectrum of session work that would pay the bills while building a name within the industry and relationships that would prove beneficial. While the soft-AOR style of Treasure may seem strange considering his later style, Vinnie also did session work with Dan Hartman for his disco hit "Instant Replay" in 1978. Recording took place at Dan's home in Westport, Connecticut. Known as "The Schoolhouse" it featured a full-blown 24-track studio. While it was a quality recording venue, welcoming artists such as 38 Special, Neil Sedaka, Johnny and Edgar Winter, and others, it wasn't a going commercial concern. Vinnie's credit included 12-string rhythm and second guitar solo on "Double-O-Love," and the guitar solo and background vocals on "Time and Space." More importantly, Vinnie's grinning face was included on the "band" picture that comprised the album's inner dust sleeve. He also appeared on various singles picture sleeves, even though he was usually not featured musically on the songs. "Time and Space" was released as a single in the UK in 1979, but it failed to make any impression on the charts and got poor reviews. Released in November 1978 on Blue Sky records (distributed on CBS), "Instant Replay" was certified by the RIAA for sales of 500,000 on January 23, 1979.
The album entered the charts in mid-December and while it climbed no higher than #80, the album would stay in the top-200 for over four and half months (Jowers, Bart R., Blue Skies). The album did well with a positive Billboard reporting, "This one-time member of Edgar Winter's band is shrewdly mining disco's increasing acceptance on pop radio with his 'Instant Replay' hit, which cleverly combines elements from both music forms. This album - which includes sax contributions from Winter himself - contains more in that mold, notably 'Countdown/This Is It,' a surefire follow-up to Replay. Sound is percussive-tinged, with tight and economic rhythm workouts. Funk is the flavor and 'Chocolate Box,' and mellow is the mood on 'Time And Space' and 'Love Is A Natural'" (Billboard, 12/2/78).
As a member of Dan's touring band, Dan Hartman provided Vinnie with his first major international exposure. The tour travelled across the USA and Europe and resulted in appearances on many TV shows such as American Bandstand, The Midnight Special, Rock Concert, before concluding in Los Angeles in March 1979 with an appearance on the Dinah (Shore) and Friends show. A final point of note from this early period in Vinnie's career was that G.E. Smith, the primary guitarist on the Dan Hartman album, later became the band-leader for David Letterman's late night band for several years (1985-1995, in a band including KISS-alumni Anton Fig and Will Lee).
A Los Angeles ad provided session work with Tommy Rock recording demos of songs produced (and some co-written) by Kim Fowley. Kim eventually released "Dancing The Night Away" backed with "Modern Girls" and "Felicio" (Line Records/Bomp LMS-3003) in Germany during 1979. Additional work with Felix Cavaliere was also released in November 1979. With Felix returning to solo work for his "Castles In The Air" album; Vinnie played lead guitar on "All Or Nothing" and "Love Is The First Day Of Spring," and the guitar solo on "Don't Hold Back Your Love." While he wasn't involved in any of the writing for the album it may well be a case that these tracks were some of the demos recorded for a second Treasure album. None of the songs featured on the three singles Felix released in support of the album.
Vinnie next went out on tour with Edgar Winter, who was supporting his "Edgar Winter" album. Edgar had musical connections with both Laura Nyro and Dan, and it had been Dan who recommended Vinnie to Edgar. Of course, Dan had been a member of Edgar's band in the early 1970s, and Edgar had performed on "Instant Replay" (on the two single tracks). Following the end of the tour in 1980 Vinnie opted to stay in Los Angeles and sleep on any available couch in hopes of getting another break. Vinnie met Carmine Appice through the Los Angeles club scene, and became a member of Carmine's band Rockers playing the usual Hollywood venues such as the Starwood. He and Carmine co-wrote the instrumental "Drum City Rocker" which Carmine included on his 1981 self-titled solo album. This was not the only material which Carmine and Vinnie wrote together; they copyrighted four pages of lyrics and one sound recording, probably including rough demos of the material detailed on the lyric sheets, on June 24, 1980, as "Vincent John Cusano Songbook II." At the same time Vinnie copyrighted a single song of his own, under "Vincent John Cusano Songbook I." It is possible that this recording included some of the musical ideas that became important in the years to come. "Drum City Rocker" was played live by Carmine and his "Friends" band of Tom Petersson, Rick Derringer and Duane Hitchings during their early 1982 support shows for that album.
Interestingly, the "Rockers" album also include a song co-written by Ron Leejack of Wicked Lester fame ("Am I Losing You") who had been a session player on the 1971 Cactus "No Restrictions" album, a band that had then included Carmine. Additionally, earlier that year Vinnie performed some session work on the Heat album "Still Waiting" (MCA-5182) which was a project of the critically acclaimed Tom Saviano who had himself once been described as being one of "Los Angeles' most talented session players" (Saviano). Vinnie took any opportunity to work and put whatever money he could make into his music. Billboard magazine reviewed the Heat album in June 1981 with the following positive response: "This title is extremely apt as this trio is still waiting for the recognition that it's due. The eight cuts here are satin soul polished to a high gloss while rhythm section keeps things down to earth. Those who appreciate Earth, Wind & Fire or AWB should delight in listening to Heat" (Billboard, 6/20/81). Vinnie's contributions are not specified individually. Included on the album was someone from Vinnie's past: bassist Neil Stubenhaus.
In addition to session work, Vinnie also worked as a staff songwriter on Happy Days and the short-lived Joanie Loves Chachi spin-off series. He wrote "Meant To Be" with the show's musical editor Bennett Salvay, and the song was performed during the Joanie Loves Chachi "One-on-One" episode broadcast on October 21, 1982. Amusingly that date was very close to the release date of a certain KISS album. There is also some indication that two other Vinnie compositions, "Rock City" and "Rock Island Line," may have been used on the television series "Falcon Crest." He also continued to work on his own music and cut a demo called "Back On The Streets," which ultimately became a calling card that helped get him the gig with KISS. This song was originally written with Richie Friedman and was later be demoed by an early version of Frehley's Comet (Ace shared the same manager with Vinnie at the time). Richard was the son of the owners of We Buy Guitars, a regular haunt of Ace's, so it is possible that this was where Vinnie had worked. As a guitarist, he was probably familiar with the store anyway.
"Back On The Streets" was eventually recorded by the band 3 Speed for the "Voyage Of The Rock Aliens" movie soundtrack in 1984 and was released as single on MCA Records (MCA-52429). That the song would be recorded and released so early is interesting, though the movie is more notable for being a Pia Zadora vehicle, as was the soundtrack. During these "wilderness" years Vinnie also demoed songs such including "Tears," "Never Too Hot To Rock," and the beautiful "Maybe It's The Rain." "Tears" had been co-written with Adam Mitchell in 1981 with "My Love Goes With You" soon following. It was a result of this collaboration that would result in fortune for Vinnie. Soon afterwards Adam was brought into KISS' "Killers/Creatures of The Night" session by producer Michael James Jackson to freshen their song-writing as they sought to rebuild their credibility. It would be he who suggested that Vinnie get in touch with Gene considering the situation the band were in regarding their guitar and musical issues.
Vinnie recalled the life changing event: "I met them through a common friend, Adam Mitchell. He was writing with Gene Simmons and told him he had to hear me play. I met Gene and we hit it off. At the time I was broke and was sleeping on sofa to sofa at friend's houses. Any money I made I spent it on demos to use as a calling card. I did a demo for Gene who played it for Paul" (Guitar Player Interview - John Stix, 5/1987). At the time little did he know how much his life would change. He was a song-writer and guitarist in the right place at the right time. When Vinnie and Gene finally did start working together some of the earliest material they worked out was "Killer" and "I Love It Loud" which was at that point still known by its' original title of "Loud & Proud," a Vinnie idea. From there the tone of the material was clear. Vinnie's association with the KISS camp also helped with the placement of one of his songs.
Around this time one of Vinnie and Adam's compositions, "Tears" was offered to Peter Criss who was actively recording an album at Conway Studios in Los Angeles with producer Vini Poncia. It would also be a moderate success when covered by John Waite several years later and appeared in the John Cusak movie, "The Sure Thing." Gene Simmons had already given Peter a separate track, though Vinnie's contribution was issued as the single from the album in some markets. Initially Vinnie wasn't considered for the vacant guitarist position. Gene suggested that while he'd performed ghost sessions with KISS in the studio that he was too short to be in KISS (Hard Rock Nights). Certainly not short of talent... However, another band was also having guitarist issues, and Vinnie's new connections provided him with additional options.
New England had had a moderate hit in 1979 with "Don't Ever Want To Lose You" from their album produced by KISS vocalist Paul Stanley. By 1982 their fortunes had declined and the band were looking replace their departed guitarist John Fannon. As a result Gene told the members of New England about Vinnie who was also recommended by Lenny Petze. The band were quickly persuaded to bring Vinnie to Boston once they heard the songs that Vinnie had recorded as a demo in Los Angeles rather than pursue their own material. Quickly rechristened Warrior, following initial sessions in Boston the band relocated to Los Angeles and, "put together 8-9 tunes, did a demo for CBS" (Dirtywater). The band was about to get signed when KISS changed their minds in regards to their guitarist situation: They wanted Vinnie.
While Vinnie handled most of the Warrior vocals himself, he was on the lookout for a dedicated singer. Vocalist Robert Fleischman was suggested by a mutual friend and Vinnie got in touch with him. According to Robert, "He just came over to my house and we started writing songs on this four track recorder at my house. Vinnie ends up putting a band together with me called Warrior and we cut some demos, some of which later went on the Invasion album. Anyway, Vinnie tells me that he going to pitch the demos to some record companies and that he'd get back to me if anything became of them" (Jake & R.L: www.getserver.com/theinvasion/). Things did indeed come from the demo, though not for Robert. Warrior drummer Hirsh Gardner recalled that KISS were rehearsing next door at SIR Studios and would come round on occasion. They must have liked what they heard developing from their acquaintance. The issues that they had with Vinnie were put to the side.
By November 1982 Vinnie was working on his last project before becoming a member of KISS, albeit a salaried non-voting member in the same position as Eric Carr. In the time between when KISS did their European promotional visit with Ace and departed on their North American tour Vinnie did some session work with Was (Not Was). He played second lead guitar on "Smile," a track with guest vocalist Doug Fieger of The Knack. It was released on the "Born To Laugh At Tornados" album in 1983. Of interest to diehard fans are the other two guitarists on the track, Marshall Crenshaw and Bob Kulick. Discarded Warrior members Gary Shea and Jimmy Waldo lost little sleep over the non-birth of the band; they teamed up with Yngwie J. Malmsteen, formerly of Steeler, and Graham Bonnet (ex-Rainbow), and formed Alcatrazz. The band developed their own cult following and later included another guitar guru, Steve Vai. Hirsch went on to play with the Wild Bunch, a band featuring former Joe Perry Project vocalist Mach Bell and bassist Danny Hargrove. During the summer of 1983 Vinnie would copyright 4 volumes of cassettes worth of material, one of which would include collaborations with Gene Simmons...