Joe has been playing since he was eight years old

Joe Vitagliano of Ahwatukee earlier this month almost won rock legend Alice Cooper’s Proof is in the Pudding talent search for a soloist under age 25 to perform in his annual Christmas season concert.

But the 17-year-old Horizon Honors High School senior is pretty content with his second-place prize because it helps him continue developing his ambition to become a professional songwriter/performer.

Joe, who has adopted a stage name of Joe Vito “because it’s easier to pronounce and remember” than his family name, won a spot on Cooper’s Christmas CD, a photo session and two hours of professional studio time.

He competed with scores of musicians over a period of several months and had to perform his own songs, cover tunes and even some holiday music.

Placing second was a great accomplishment, he said.

“I’ve been lucky to have a lot of opportunities given to me by my family and family,” said Joe, the son of David and Jennifer Vitagliano. “I have a home studio but it’s going to be very nice to go into a professional studio and not to do the post-production work.”

To some extent, he’s following in the footsteps of his father, a Horizon Honors High history teacher who is a vocalist and guitarist for a longtime Valley band called Squiddog.

Joe started playing about eight years ago, first studying saxophone and bassoon but quickly gravitating to electric and acoustic guitar and mandolin.

“Music has always been a pretty big part of my life,” he said. “I grew up in a coffee shop and outside bars listening to my dad play.”

Unlike his dad, who tends toward “Americana” rock of the 70s 80s, Joe prefers music similar to that of the late Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, songwriter, musician, poet, novelist and painter who explored a wide range of subjects ranging from religion and politics to isolation and personal relationships.

“I like to tap into the emotional side, kind of a darker side—things that go wrong,” he said. “Sometimes I write about politics, but mostly I write about myself and the world I live in and how it’s hard to be a musician, hard to be yourself.”

He works hard at both making music and writing it. And this year he released his first album, available through

Still, he admits he has chosen a career made difficult by the internet’s fragmentation of the music scene.

“Just getting a name for yourself is so incredibly difficult now,” he said. “So much is happening now in music and it’s incredibly diverse. You have to find your niche, but there’s no rule book any more. You have really forge your own path.”

His age offers another challenge, since bars are hesitant to allow musicians under 21 to perform on the premises.

“It’s hard to get gigs in the current climate, hard to find venues open to new artists,” he said. “There’s kind of a weird culture with some of the venues in town—a big increase in pay-to-play venues where a performer has to sell a certain number of tickets or is responsible for making up the difference. You have to be really persistent to get your foot in the door.”

But Joe’s persistent, and is considering his choices for post-secondary education with a firm eye on his goal: becoming “a great songwriter.”

He’s studied the last three summers at the Berkley School of Music in Boston, which is “definitely a contender” after high school. He also is eyeing Belmont University School of Music, because it has “a really great songwriter program.”

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