In Arpino, Robert's adolescence was spent in and around his grandfather's restaurant, Il Cavelier, where the family lived during their stay in Italy. His father was an accordionist and he was exposed to Italian music from an early age. His time in Arpino brought further exposure to music and childhood memories to last a lifetime. "I remember the restaurant and the beautiful courtyard with its abundance of flowers and fruit trees," he reminisces. "It was a fairly large property and a lot of weddings and parties were celebrated in the restaurant. There was a constant flow of liveentertainment performing in the restaurant I would often find a chair and sit in front of the musicians watching and listening to them for hours. Next to the jukebox, the restaurant had an old piano that was once my mother's when she was young. My dad was an accordionist and performed at many family gatherings. My grandfather sold the restaurant some years back but it's still there and the grounds are as beautiful as ever."
The family moved back to Toronto in the late '60s, an exciting time for a young teenager who had an ear for the wide variety of music that was filling the radio airwaves in those days. It was during this period that Robert experienced one of those flashpoint moments that happen so randomly and so rarely in life as he dropped by a friend's house one afternoon and saw a guitar propped up against the wall in a corner of the room.
"I asked him to play something and he strummed a few bars of a Beatles' song," he recalls. "I heard that and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, 'Okay! Now I know what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life!' All it took was those six strings and the clanging of a couple of chords and I was done for." Robert's life was transformed that day, and though his parents – especially his father who was once a musician himself – were initially reticent, fearing that his schoolwork would suffer in the face of his musical ambitions, his dogged determination saw him through. Initially, he borrowed his friend's guitar to practice on but when that had to be returned, necessity became the mother of a very unorthodox six-string invention. B.B. King tells the story of fabricating his first "guitar" by taking bailing wire from a broom and nailing lengths of it up on the wall with a small brick underneath them to act as a bridge. For Robert, his makeshift guitar was simply a piece of wood with strings nailed to it and some drawn-on frets. "It was just something that I could at least work with. I was going to find a way and I did."
In the end, his mother gave in and bought him a guitar. "I remember that day well. It was a generic classical guitar. It was gorgeous. It was an imitation and very difficult to play but I didn't care because I made it work by filing down the frets and lowering the strings."
Robert's high school years represented an evolutionary period in his life in more ways than one. He had begun to perform two to three times a week in different Italian ethnic bands which kept im close to the music he grew up listening to but, predictably, as his passion for the guitar manifest itself in eight-hour a day practice sessions as well, his school grades took a nosedive realizing he may fail some courses Robert applied the same intense practice schedule to his school work and pulled his grades up to pass and get all his credits.
"I first picked up the guitar in 1973 and I was so intrigued by jazz and classical music. Yes, I loved pop and rock music. I was a big Kiss fan and I listened to Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and many artist like that. A lot of those artists were my heroes. I played a bit of that music but, at the time, the guitar instructor with whom I was studying was heavily into jazz and classical and that really intrigued me. I saw the complexity in the music. Rock was great; pop was great but I knew I really needed to master the jazz and classical styles before I could say I really knew how to play this instrument."
In his last year of high school, the deal was well and truly sealed when Robert moved to another school to take advantage of their exemplary music program. There, he became part of a quartet that was soon being booked by their teacher to travel around the province of Ontario playing lunch hour jazz concerts at colleges and universities. "That experience really focused the aspirations I had for my future. I wanted it to be all about the live performance experience and I knew the happening place for that was Humber College in Toronto. I did the audition, gotaccepted and went there for three years where actually I spent quite a lot of the time honing my skills as a writer and arranger."
After graduating from Humber College, Robert initially took a job playing bass in a trio that performed Latin American music at a local club. The engagement was short-lived but Robert ended up taking some of that repertoire with him as he began performing at clubs and restaurants as a solo artist under the name “Roberto,” performing traditional Italian and Latin American pieces.
The name change to Robert Michaels came with the demand for a CD of some of the music from my show. I began the recording and decided that I didn't want to use the name Roberto Michele Buttarazzi because it’s too long and hard to pronounce. I decided to use my middle name, Michele, and that evolved to Robert Michaels."
Robert's debut CD, Paradiso, which was released independently in 1994, was destined to launch his career in a way that most new artists can only dream about. Initially selling the records from the stage as well as through a select number of record stores and coffee shops, Paradiso would ultimately sell over 100,000 copies in Canada, an extraordinary achievement for an instrumental artist. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that the bulk of those sales came from one area of the country.
His impressive sales figures and a Juno Award nomination for Instrumental Artist of the Year following the release of his sophomore album, Arizona, caught the attention of Warner Music in Canada, who would ultimately sign him for the release of his third album, Utopia, in 1998. His fourth CD, Allegro, released in 2003, won Robert the Juno Award for Best Instrumental Album.
Robert received nominations as a best vocalist , instrumentalist and album for his self-titled fifth album, a 2-CD set. Besides his own vocal performances, the album also featured contributions from acclaimed vocalist Jennifer Warnes (Famous Blue Raincoat); three-time Juno Award winner as Female Vocalist of the Year, Luba; Tony Award-nominated Broadway star, Louis Pitre (Mamma Mia!); and multi-talented jazz singer/songwriter, Coral Egan.
That was followed by The Spanish Guitar Collection, a compilation of instrumental compositions from his previous six CDs, all of which have exceeded gold and platinum sales status.
“Over the years, I’ve had experience playing so many other styles that I merely incorporated all of the influences,” notes Robert. “My style was never planned. I arrived at it spontaneously while playing in front of audiences."
Those live performances have taken Robert further afield than perhaps he had ever imagined at the outset of his career. Besides the many dates he has played in Canada and the U.S. over the years, in the early '90s, he spent time in Cuba soaking up the music and culture and playing with local musicians, he released the album Cubamenco, a fusion of Flamenco and Cuban music.
“In my travels, I have had the pleasure of performing with some of the best Cuban musicians in the world, one being the legendary Compay Segundo from the Buena Vista Social Club band,” says Robert. “I dedicated the song ‘Compay’ to his memory.