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Desert Companion

Normal in his own way

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Mark Giovi
Photography by Bill Hughes

Singer Mark Giovi isn’t letting his medical condition keep him from hitting the high notes 

Singer Mark Giovi pulls his equipment cart onto the patio of the Italian restaurant in Summerlin. On this evening, the outdoor setting will serve as more than a stage. For Giovi, it’s a proving ground, where he will once again show a roomful of strangers that an artist should be judged by his spirit, character and talent, not his looks.

At 47, Giovi seems ready for a hipster casino-floor cruise: His facial hair is a fashionable stubble, the tail of his red dress shirt is worn out, sleeves rolled up above his elbows. Yet there’s an awkwardness to his movements, a bit of a stagger. His left leg is stiff, his arm and hand cocked at a crooked angle.

Giovi has cerebral palsy. But that’s not what he wants people to notice. Here at Trattoria Ruggiano, Giovi wants his audience to hear him sing. He wants them to savor that smooth tenor voice that recalls a Rat Pack studio session, with a kaleidoscopic range featuring blues, jazz, rock, Broadway standards, even opera.

Giovi unloads an amp and microphone from his cart as patrons begin filling nearby tables. When his wristwatch comes loose, the one he wears on his good hand, he quickly uses his teeth to refasten the strap. “See that?” he says, smiling. “Huh?”

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The scene is vintage Giovi. Since he began playing baseball, basketball and tennis as a never-say-never kid, he’s proven that he’s not limited by his condition. These days, his challenge is to convince people to look beyond the obvious and see the family man and singer who has gained a local reputation for the sheer command of his voice. Giovi isn’t someone with cerebral palsy who can sing. He’s a singer, period.

He calls it a different kind of normal. In fact, he recently wrote a new song by that title. Giovi and his wife, Illiana, were drinking wine one night after the two kids had gone to bed. He talked about his next career move, how he wanted to stretch beyond the restaurant circuit and onto a concert stage, offering inspirational performances for people overcoming their own physical hurdles.

“You could talk about how we’re different, but that it’s our normal,” Illiana said. “What’s different to other people is normal to us.”

It’s the kind of normal where Giovi learned to change diapers with one hand, where a harried Illiana urges, “Here, grab this,” and her husband says, “Really?” It’s the kind of normal where friends of the couple’s 12-year-old daughter ask, “So, what’s wrong with your Dad?” and she’ll blithely respond, without a shred of preteen angst, “Oh, he’s been like that his whole life.”

A day later, Giovi sat on his backyard patio dictating lyrics into his smartphone.

If you look past the obvious/I’m sure that you will find Reflections of yourself/a heart, a soul, a mind

“I was blown away,” Illiana says of his aspirations. “I never dreamed he would take it to that level.”

It’s the latest step for a singer used to pressing his performance limits. Giovi began singing at age 8 with his father’s band in New Jersey and later fronted both jazz and heavy metal groups in Los Angeles. He’s toured with pop singer Aaron Carter and still performs at numerous fundraisers. At 19, he was the first person with cerebral palsy to perform on a CP telethon.

Now Giovi has joined a group of physically disadvantaged musicians for a series of concerts for the disabled. The tour is sponsored by the Little Green Apples Project, founded by Robert Smith, the blind son of the singer O.C. Smith, who turned the song “Little Green Apples” into a hit single in 1968. The group plans an upcoming event near Portland to benefit a boy with autism and diabetes, hoping to help raise the $15,000 needed to buy him a service dog.

“Just imagine, two blind guys and one with cerebral palsy reaching out to this kid,” Smith says. “Mark is all in. I just love his gentle heart and his gentle spirit.”

Giovi, who years ago wore a black glove to distract audiences from his CP, with their scoffs and crude imitations, says his faith helped him finally accept himself. But it wasn’t easy. “I’ve always tried to fit in instead of stick out,” he says. “That might have been the wrong thing to do.”

It’s time for the Summerlin show to begin. Standing beside keyboardist Ned Mills, Giovi faces an audience of two dozen. His movements might be awkward, but the style is self-assured.

He eases into “The Way You Look Tonight,” made famous by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Some diners watch Giovi as if seeing something for the first time. One leans at the bar. “His voice is unbelievable,” the guy says. “God taketh and God giveth. But boy, did God give him something.”

 

*****

When Giovi was a toddler, he cried a lot and couldn’t push himself up with his left hand. The pediatrician told his parents he’d grow out of it. Then an orthopedic doctor broke the news: The boy had CP.

His mother cried. His father, a singer around Trenton, New Jersey, didn’t work for a month. “Even to talk about it now takes my heart right out,” Lou Giovi says.

The boy wore a brace. There were operations, but there wasn’t much the family could do. One thing they didn’t do was even suggest their son was disabled. But growing up with CP meant facing down bullies. Once, the sixth-grader came home from Catholic school. “I said ‘Mark, why are your pants ripped?’” his mother, Isabel McCawley, recalls. “He said ‘Mom, the kids are throwing me around at school.’”

Then Giovi found two remarkable mentors: His sister Cynthia once chased a kid three blocks after she caught him taunting her little brother. His older brother Louis was a standout athlete who encouraged Mark to take up baseball, tennis and basketball. 

On the diamond, coaches stuck him at first base, where he only needed one good arm to catch the ball. But he wanted to play shortstop. So Louis taught him to catch the ball, throw up the glove, snag the ball in midair and toss it to first. He got good enough at it to play in Little League, his high school team and the Babe Ruth youth league, the only disabled player to do so.

Giovi also started singing in the school choir. He won the lead in the musical Oklahoma!, using his good hand to brandish a shotgun onstage. Making his debut with his dad’s band, which often played at his grandparents’ Italian restaurant, he sang “You Light Up My Life,” by Debby Boone. Giovi was nervous. The crowd loved him. The kid dove into music, his revenge against the bullies. I’ll show those jerks, he thought. They’re going to come to my concerts and buy my records.

In junior high, he sang in a heavy metal band that did Iron Maiden and Metallica covers. He dressed in the requisite animal-print Spandex, but added another affectation: Worried his condition would upstage his voice, he wore a black glove as a sort of shield.

His trepidation was understandable. In the 1980s, not everyone was willing to accept a performer with CP — not even fundraisers for the disease. In 1987, organizers were reluctant to allow the 19-year-old to perform at a CP telethon at Radio City Music Hall, but relented when they finally heard him sing — “My Way,” of course. Then they invited him back for a second night after he was mobbed by other CP sufferers who had finally found a role model.

Years later, Giovi moved to Los Angeles to perform in a heavy metal band while moonlighting as a jazz singer. To help pay the bills, he worked as a restaurant maître d’ because no one would hire a waiter with one good arm.

One day, as Giovi dressed for a rock gig, a musician friend asked, “Why do you wear that glove? Are you trying to hide who you are?” The words stung. “I didn’t realize I was doing that — I really didn’t,” Giovi says. He ditched the glove.

People soon took notice of Giovi’s voice. One night, during an open-mic session at a place called Frankie’s on Melrose, Giovi asked co-owner Terry Competelli if he could sing a song. She hesitated to throw a newcomer into a lineup that on some nights included recording artists such as Frankie Valli. But she did. Later, when he was done singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” he recalls, he received a standing ovation.

Giovi got his biggest break in 1998, touring with Aaron Carter. The idea of wearing a black glove was by then a memory, replaced by a wry self-deprecating humor. When the two first met, Carter was in the middle of moving. Giovi walked up and said, “Can I lend a hand? Because it’s all I got.” Carter laughed. Giovi got the job.

A few years later, he was back in a New Jersey karaoke bar singing Bon Jovi’s “Bed of Roses.” Illiana was in the crowd. She didn’t even notice the CP: “I saw a good-looking guy.”

The couple soon moved to Las Vegas to escape the New Jersey winters. Giovi got a job laying concrete while he looked for music gigs. The going was tough, but he slowly won a following. Eventually, he sang with a local group called the Three Tenors. For six years, he performed in the musical Bite at the Stratosphere. He now performs regularly at the Bootlegger, the Italian-American Club and sometimes at The Smith Center. Audience smirks and stares no longer bother him.

“The first time I’d play a new venue, I’d sense people were looking at me, thinking ‘Like, really? This guy’s gonna do a song?’ When I start singing, I can see the faces change.”

One Giovi fan is comedian Rich Little. “He too good for Vegas,” Little says. “All he needs is a break.”

Little often briefly performs at Giovi’s gigs as a gesture of solidarity. And he pulls no punches. “Let’s hear it for Mark Giovi — what a voice,” he’ll say. “Of course, the guy’s not much good rowing a boat. It just goes around in circles.”

 

*****

Vito DePalo recalls the time he considered hiring a singer with CP at his restaurant. The general manager at Trattoria Ruggiano looked the guy up on YouTube. “When you hear him sing,” he says, “you look past all that.”

DePalo has seen passersby at the Summerlin shopping mall reach in to put money in Giovi’s tip jar. Fellow musician Ned Mills no longer even notices Giovi’s CP. “I can’t grow wings. I can’t fly. But I accept it,” he says. “Mark’s like that: He accepts who he is.”

On this night, Giovi moves seamlessly through three sets that demonstrate his range. He performs Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance,” Tony’s Bennett’s anthem, “San Francisco,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” by the Drifters.

Then he shifts into a different gear. He begins “Nessun Dorma,” an aria from the Puccini opera Turandot. The crowd hushes. Dinner conversation comes to a halt. People even stop looking at the NFL game playing on the big screen TVs. The song is a favorite of one regular, a man who speaks through a voice box. He sits beaming at the bar, holding his wife’s hand.

Giovi then introduces “A Different Kind of Normal,” his words capturing a long road to success.

“I’m going to do a song I wrote about my life — about being looked at as being a little different,” he says. “But let me tell you, I’m normal — normal in my own way.”

Then he starts to sing. And they really pay attention.