Born Rossignuoli Rossi in Naples, Italy in 1948, Walter Rossi and his family moved to Montreal when he was a child, and grew up listening to his mother sing and admired his carpenter father’s guitar playing in his spare time. Walter didn’t pick up the guitar until after finishing grade school, but soon began spending endless hours on it, taking his first and only guitar lesson at the age of 15.
Barely a year later he began playing at two of the city’s biggest R&B clubs with The Soul Mates – at The Grand National and the Esquire Show Bar, where he also saw some of his mentors playing, including King Curtis and TV Mama. The drummer of that band was Buddy Myles, taking a break from Wilson Pickett’s touring schedule.
From the ensuing meeting, a week before his 19th birthday, he was auditioning for Pickett during a live show at Toronto’s Massey Hall. He was hired as his new guitar player (making him the only white member of the band) after one song. At first he found it difficult to move to New York. His father didn’t approve of it and he didn’t have a green card, so he simply shipped his guitar to New York ahead of himself, and followed on a bus full of weekend tourists.
He spent nearly two years with Pickett’s band before tiring of the road rigors. That, plus his father’s failing health prompted Rossi to move back to Montreal, turning down offers to play with Little Richard and Janis Joplin in the process. He joined The Influence, moved to Toronto, and before long were opening for Steppenwolf and The Doors. They cut one self-titled album at Bell Studios in New York.
But when that band ran its course after a little more than a year, he moved back to New York and got reacquainted with Buddy Myles, joining The Buddy Myles Express. They recorded toured the college circuit and recorded one album, producing the hit “Them Changes” (later covered by Jimi Hendrix). But by 1971 he decided to strike it out on his own, moved back to Canada, settling in Toronto. Putting together the power trio Charlee, they were signed to RCA and they recorded an eponymous debut album, launched on CHOM FM. They sold 6,000 copies of the record from only one local record store in one week. “Lord Knows I’ve Won” was released as a single and got decent airplay at home and in pockets in the US (most notably Dayton, Ohio), but spent three weeks in the #1 spot in Australia.
Still, things weren’t working out and although he was offered a job in David Bowie’s band, he again looked for something different, hooking up with Luke Gibson in Luke & The Apostles. They took Toronto by storm and played the Strawberry Fields Pop Festival in front of 275,000 people. But just as a major deal with CBS Records looked imminent, Gibson decided he wanted to go back to life on a farm, and Rossi again found himself looking for something to do.
He moved back to Montreal and dove head-first into studio work, despite never learning how to read music. In between working with the majority of the French acts at the time through Tony Roman of CANUSA Records and Yves Lapierre of Studio Tempo, he travelled back and forth to New York and moonlighted on Buddy Myles’ various projects.
He eventually hooked up with Michel Pagliaro, Marty Simon, Dwayne Ford (later of Bearfoot), and Buster Jones to form The Rockers. After making several TV appearances and doing dozens of sold-out shows around central Canada, they signed a three-album deal with CBS and recorded the raw tracks for the first one at Le Chateau Studio in France, but it was never released.
He instead embarked on a solo career beginning in 1976, signing with Aquarius Records. With Pagliaro and George Lagios producing, he released his self-titled debut album later that year, earning him a Juno nomination for Best New Male Artist. Along with the singles “Chasing Rainbows” and “Woman Sweet Woman,” the record was heralded for Rossi’s guitar techniques, being the first rock album to feature the talk box. for sound effects.
Following nearly a year on the road, including opening for The Stampeders, he returned to the studios to work on his follow-up album. SIX STRINGS NINE LIVES was on the store shelves in the spring of ’78, and produced four well-received singles – “Mediterranean Romance,” “Ride The Wind,” “Slowdown Slowdown,” and “Soldiers In The Night.” After another year-long tour across North America, he found himself on the short list again for a Juno the following year, this time taking home the award for Most Promising Vocalist. The album also earned him crossover recognition in Quebec at the first ever Felix Awards, where he was nominated for Best Album of the Year, and winning in the Album Art category.
In between his own projects, he took time to help out old friend Wilson Pickett at Le Studio at Morin Heights, Quebec in ’79, appearing on his I WANT YOU album. From 1978 and 1979 he also appeared on George Lagios’ studio disco project called Bombers, playing guitar, writing, and handling arrangements on two records. His own next album came a year later in the form of DIAMONDS FOR THE KID. With the singles “Down By The Waterfront,” “High Stakes,” and “Sniffin’ The Breeze, Feelin’ The Freeze,” and other tracks like “Dear Mom” – the ode to his mother who’d passed away when he was a teen, and the haunting “Silent I Wait,” the album was his third straight effort to go gold.
The greatest hits compilation TRACKS was released in 1980, which culminated his three studio albums. After moving over to Image Records, his next release wasn’t until 1984’s ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN, ONE FOOT IN HELL. Unlike his previous efforts, the album seemed geared more for a pre-determined commercial acceptance, but tracks like the lead-off “Liar,” “One Foot In Hell,” and “Summer Breeze” still relied on intricate fretwork, with dashes of keyboards and jazz and Latin-inspired licks thrown in.
Following the subsequent tour, Rossi retreated from a solo career, only re-emerging on occasion, and instead concentrated on studio work for other artists, including continuing production and arrangement with the likes of Louise Portal (one of Quebec’s most promising talents), Bob-A-Rela, and Double Unison, among others. Capitol released a compilation in their OVER SIXTY MINUTES series in ’98, which only wrapped up the first three Aquarius albums, while for the most part he again stayed out of the limelight. All of his albums, along with those with Charlee and Bombers, were re-released over the next few years, often with different jackets, but none with any bonus material.
He released his first album of new material in 20 years in the fall of 2004, with SECRET SINS. Along with tracks like “Looking For Trouble,” “Big City Blues,” the sombre ode to his departed father simply entitled “Father,” and two versions of “Midnight Sun,” the album was heralded by the critics for the studio craftsmanship Rossi had become known and revered for. Following some select dates over the next couple of months, he again retreated out of the limelight, preferring instead to help other artists on their own studio projects. He then moved back to Italy before the end of the decade.