WARWICK — When West Warwick native Johnny Gates auditioned for NBC’s The Voice in the fall, he knew exactly how to hold a crowd. The singer, who’d spent a previous summer opening for Rod Stewart, pulled out an old favorite, impressing celebrity judges and the audience alike with his rendition of “Maggie May.”
“You have such presence up there. Your voice is incredible,” celebrity judge Gwen Stefani told the 32-year-old lead singer of Johnny Gates and the Runaway Saints.
His performance earned him a spot on Stefani’s coaching team and a flurry of attention back home, where friends and family gathered to watch the episode air last Tuesday night. Despite the sudden fame, however, Gates is anything but an overnight success story. His long journey in the music industry began nearly 14 years ago with an invitation from a classmate during his senior year at Bishop Hendricken High School.
“This random sophomore asked me if I wanted to try out for his band,” he explained during an interview at his alma mater last week.
Gates took sophomore Jamie Jarbeau up on the offer, and soon, along with sophomore Matt Scanlon, the trio were playing shows around the Providence music scene. In 2008, a sudden turn of events led them to try their luck in Nashville. As Gates tells the story, he was sitting in the parking lot of his family’s home parish of St. Joseph, West Warwick, one day, waiting to go into Mass, when he heard Taylor Swift’s debut single, “Tim McGraw,” on the radio. Thinking the track’s producer might be interested in the band’s music, Gates reached out by email and was invited to audition.
“He wrote us back and we looked at each other, like, we need to go to Nashville. We showed up at his house and played for him and his wife. We basically played a concert in his living room.”
The band moved to Nashville and had some early successes, but, after several years, decided the music scene in Los Angeles might be a better fit. After touring with Rod Stewart in 2015 and releasing an album the following year, they took a break, allowing Gates a chance to pursue his solo career. His appearance on The Voice, his largest audience yet, is the latest achievement in a long effort to make it in the music industry.
“I will say everybody on the show, especially the cast, everybody’s super cool,” he said. “Working with Gwen has been incredible just because we have similar backgrounds.”
Though Gates had no formal music training or participation prior to joining the band, his mother, Maryanne Giorgio-Gates, thinks her son was always bound for a career on stage. As a child he performed in plays at St. Joseph School and would try to join the bands onstage playing weddings at Nino’s restaurant in Coventry, which her parents owned.
“To tell you the truth, he’s been singing his whole life,” she said during a phone interview. “He just loved music right from the very start.”
The whole family, including Gates’s parents, grandmother, and brother and sister-in-law, flew out to support him at his audition and can be seen watching nervously from offstage with Carson Daly during the episode.
“It was very exciting. Of course I was very nervous. My mom was holding onto her rosary beads the whole time he was singing,” said Maryanne.
According to Gates, his family and his Catholic faith have always served as sources of support as he travels the country pursuing a music career. Living in California, he calls home every day to his family and maintains a close friendship with Father Marcel Taillon, who served as chaplain during his time at Bishop Hendricken.
“Father Taillon is one of my closest friends,” he said. “It’s tough sometimes when you’re trying to pursue arts. Being Catholic is such an important thing.”
According to Father Taillon, Johnny and his brother, Tony, have both remained active in their faith and offered witness talks to the confirmation classes at St. Thomas More Parish, Narragansett, where he serves as pastor. When Johnny moved to Nashville in 2008, his first time leaving home, Father Taillon sent him off with some advice.
“I told him the Catholic faith is exactly the same in Nashville as it is here. There’s no difference and he should really find a church there,” he said. “He did take that advice. He got involved in the parish and did some ministry while he was there. The Church has helped keep him grounded, I think, it’s been a source of strength.”
Gates paid tribute to his Bishop Hendricken roots last week when he stopped by to pose for photos with students and visit old teachers before returning to Los Angeles. During an assembly, he told the students about his close connection with the high school, a connection that is never far away, even on stage. The band’s name, he explained during the interview, is a reference to their Catholic-school days.
“We’re all Catholic and we’ve been running around the country,” he said.
As he returns to Los Angeles to continue with his music, his support network back home remains strong. Over the next few weeks, the community will watch closely as his story unfolds on The Voice, including his family, who have been rooting for him from the very start. Maryanne thinks his prospects look good.
“We’re all excited for him. He’s up there on stage doing his thing. I feel as if he has the whole picture,” she said, before adding reluctantly, “I know I’m his mom, but still.”