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Yanni's Back--and Ready for a Group Hug With the World

Pop Music * The recording phenomenon ends his two-year exile of despair to launch 'If I Could Tell You.'

October 24, 2000|DAVID SEGAL | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Let's make peace with Yanni.

Seriously. Let's hug this adorable little man and give him Euro-style kisses on both cheeks, then head to Starbucks and just hash things over. Let's reminisce and have a few laughs and buy him a latte. And at some point, let's offer him an apology.

We've had fun at Yanni's expense--the "Yawn-ee" jokes, the dentist in that New Yorker cartoon, asking his patient, "Novocain or Yanni?" We snickered at his white suit and the melodrama of his synthesized, swirling, New Agey music.

Yanni didn't mind. Well, he minded a little, but he sold more than 14 million albums, and that helped. Then, in 1998, he all but vanished, quitting music and plunging into a deep depression brought on by the end of an extensive worldwide tour and his relationship with former "Dynasty" star and shoulder-padded Linda Evans. He returned to his native Greece.

Now, he's back. "If I Could Tell You," his first studio album in three years, arrived in stores this month, and Yanni arrived with it, to see if anyone remembered him.

So here he is, 45, sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, in a pectoral-hugging aqua-blue sweater, with a day's worth of stubble and that halogen smile and cascade of black hair, radiating inner peace and Mediterranean suavity. He's smaller and more weathered than you expect, as cute and compact as carry-on luggage. Thankfully, he doesn't hold grudges and is willing to share the tale of his recent travails.

"I didn't do an interview for over two years. I stayed away. I just dropped off the face of the Earth. I just left the career," Yanni says, his voice deep and lightly accented. "I traveled. I wanted to see other people's ideas of life, get out of the American dream."

Yanni, it turns out, could use a hug, and apparently many of us are eager to give him one. His new album sold 55,000 copies in its first week, according to Soundscan, enough to land it at No. 20 on the Billboard charts, his highest debut ever. Virgin Records--which knows better than to underestimate Yanni's appeal, in part because he draws more Internet traffic than any other Virgin artist including the Rolling Stones and Smashing Pumpkins--is plotting an 18-month sales campaign. The guy is here to stay.

Connecting to Audience Without Radio, MTV

But that's not the only reason to make peace with him. No, we should do it because only now can we fully glimpse the staggering improbability of his singular career. Even if you find Yanni's music ridiculous--and you know who you are--his achievements are unprecedented. We didn't realize this before because we were too busy smirking, or too dumbfounded by his popularity, but there has never been a pop phenomenon like him in history.

Yanni's career is basically a miracle, a lesson in pluck that could be taught in business school, preached from pulpits and woven into bedtime stories.

Seriously.

To appreciate why, imagine you're a record impresario and you hear this: "He plays this swoony, highly fraught instrumental music. Radio won't touch him, nor will MTV. When he tours he takes a spectacularly expensive orchestra. Kids hate him. Critics despise him. Oh, and he doesn't sing."

Trying to sell records without airplay, or MTV, or critical support, or a voice, is like trying to drive a car without a car. So Yanni bypassed the music industry, connecting to his audience through a one-man guerrilla war that he personally financed.

"I realized that my problem back then, my biggest problem, was that I could not present my music to the public because the two avenues that expose music to the general public--namely, music television and radio--were closed," says Yanni. "That was just the way it was. Instead of spending time being upset about it, I said, 'Let's try to get my music heard.' "

First, he wangled a 1990 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, winning over an audience of millions, much of which snatched up 300,000 copies of his albums the following week, then another 300,000 right after that. In 1993 he sank the proceeds and his every last dollar--about $2 million--into a video of his concert at the Acropolis. It was a gamble, since at the time, no network had committed to air the footage.

"Live at the Acropolis" became a heavy-rotation fund-raising fixture on PBS stations, now seen by more than 1.5 billion people. He proved what he'd long argued: that if he could play for people, they would love him. Yanni turned that love into cash through more albums, such as 1997's "Tribute," and then he used the money to underwrite more touring, which sold more albums.

Just as remarkable, Yanni's albums are a one-man show. He writes all the songs, plays all the instruments and handles all production duties. He goes into his home-built studio alone, emerging several months later with finished songs in hand.

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