GETTING INTO THE GROOVIN’ AGAIN: The Rascals

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The legendary ‘60s hitmakers reform and take their multi-media production on the road. Below, following an interview with guitarist Gene Cornish, read our review of the May 24 Miami concert.


BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Throughout the mid ‘60s it took an intrepid band of Americans to fend off the overwhelming hordes that launched the so-called British Invasion. Facing off against the firepower welded by the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Herman’s Hermits and the Dave Clark Five, intrepid Yanks like the Beach Boys, the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Rascals held their own in the battle for the charts. The latter, an offshoot of New York’s Joey Dee and the Starliters (an ensemble that at various times included such future luminaries as Jimi Hendrix, Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers and future actor Joe Pesci), began life as the Young Rascals and included singer/keyboard player Felix Cavaliere, singer Eddie Brigati, drummer Dino Danelli and guitarist Gene Cornish. Throughout the ‘60s, they recorded a string of top ten hits that made them a steady fixture on the U.S. and Canadian pop charts, all the while helping to define the mix of Rock and R&B labeled “Blue-Eyed Soul.” Those songs — “Good Lovin’,” “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Our My Heart Anymore,” “Groovin’,” “People Got To be Free,” “You Better Run,” “How Can I Be Sure,” “A Beautiful Morning,” “A Girl Like You” – continue to resonate even today.

The onslaught of the ‘70s found various members opting out, although there was some attempt to keep the brand – if not the band – going. Cavaliere dubbed his group Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals while Cornish and Danelli chose to band together as the New Rascals. Both factions reunited briefly – in the late ‘80s — sans Brigatti – following a performance at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary celebration, later, at a one-off appearance during their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and then in 2010, when they played a benefit for Kristen Ann Carr, a young cancer victim. That led to last year’s first formal reunion of the original foursome via a multi-media hybrid of concert performance and theatrical spectacle dubbed Once Upon a Dream. Produced by devoted fan Steven Van Zandt, the show’s Broadway debut garnered critical raves and sold-out crowds. The show is currently travelling around the country and winning unanimously positive reviews in the process.

Blurt recently spoke to Cornish who was all too pleased to share his thoughts about the Rascals’ return.

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 BLURT: How are you enjoying this revival so far?
CORNISH: Oh my God. We’re on cloud nine, Steven Van Zandt has really put the thing together correctly. He created what he calls a bio-concert. It’s kind of puzzling to the people on Broadway because it’s not a play, but it’s not a concert. We have a 50 foot screen behind us with pre-filmed segments of all four of us talking to the audience between songs. We never leave the stage for two hours and ten minutes. We play 30 songs. This isn’t The Jersey Boys. This is the real Rascals. We do have young fellows depicting us when we were young and a couple of segments where we talk about our legacy and how we fought, how we grew, our successes, our family ties, our reverence and respect for R&B music and civil rights. The songs coincide with the topics and in-between the songs there are little vignettes on the screen. People finally get to know where the Rascals came from and where they disappeared all of a sudden.

Why did you disappear all of a sudden?
We did projects, Felix did his. But none of us have any recollection of what finally tore us apart. It wasn’t one thing. We had a lot of pressure back then. A lot of pressure back then. A hit single every eight to ten weeks and luckily we came up with 17 in a row.

Impressive.
Yeah, I’d say so (laughs). And the music has held up. Steve Van Zandt became enamored with us back when he was 16 years old. He saw us at the Keystone Roller Rink in Jersey. As a matter of fact, Bruce Springsteen was there too, but they didn’t know each other, and Steven says still to this day, it was one of the best concerts he has ever seen in his life. He was always a fan and a supporter – he tried to get us together back in the ‘80s, but it wasn’t time yet. Then we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and then back in 2009, Steven and Maureen Van Zandt were being honored at the Kristen Carr Cancer Foundation, and they wanted to do something special. So Maureen said, “Why don’t you try the impossible one more time?” So he called us up, and me being a cancer survivor, and some members of our extended family have been afflicted, we all did it for no money. So we did this thing at the Tribeca Grill for Dave Marsh and Barbara Carr, whose daughter passed away at a young age, and we had such a great time, we told Stevie, if you ever come up with something special, we would be interested in doing it… but only with Steve Van Zandt. And he put together something that’s just amazing.

So what’s the reaction been like?
None of us really had an idea of the amount of love and passion and acceptance that we’ve had. People have waited 42 years for this, you know? The people are so excited. We’ve had all rave reviews about the show. And it’s such a great thing because we get to play our own songs. We do some songs we never got to play live back in the ‘60s.

Before you all convened on this project, were you nervous or apprehensive?
We gave it a run at the Capitol Theater during Christmas time. We did six shows and it was overwhelming. All six shows were sold out. [Go here to read the BLURT review of the December 13 concert.) So Steven decided that instead of going on tour or going around the country first and then going to Broadway – which was his dream – he said, “Forget about the playoff games, let’s go to the World Series.” We would get more attention and make a bigger splash if we could say to everyone in Florida, and Los Angeles, and Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland, that this show was coming to them direct from Broadway. That’s something you can never take away. We can always say, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, direct from Broadway… and it’s a hit.

It must be wonderful to come back to this kind of acceptance after 40 plus years.
It’s been a long time coming, because we haven’t been around for awhile. It’s not like we kept popping up every ten years and jumped up and down. We have been away for a long time, and here we are, stronger than ever, and every one of the reviews have been great, and every one of the fans – we call them friends really – show up in droves, and they’re just overwhelmed and we get to meet and greet them. It’s just a blessing. And thank God for Steve Van Zandt and Maureen Van Zandt – because they just showcased us correctly. You get the real story. You hear the songs you know. Or maybe some you don’t know.

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So what was it like in rehearsal?
When you’re relearning your songs it can be a challenge. You can become lazy after so many years. But we really made sure that we play the songs the way the people heard them on the records. There’s nothing worse than hearing a sloppy version of a hit you’re heard so many times. You want to hear the guitar solo the way you heard it originally. You accept it but say, I wish I would have heard it this way. We try to nail every single nuance. It’s not karaoke. It’s the real deal. We’re proud of what we’re doing.  It belongs to us. We’re not a cover band. It’s the Rascals covering the Rascals.

Back in the day, did you have a bass player performing with you? In the old videos, it looks like it’s just the four of you.
No, we didn’t. Felix played the played the bass pedals on the Hammond organ. It was just the four of us. It was a credibility thing in those days. The Beatles went onstage, just the four of them, but it got to the point where they couldn’t do their songs anymore, so they just quit. This time around, we have a bass player, Mark Prentice, and we have a keyboard player who simulates the horns and the strings named Marco Alexander. And we have three wonderful background singers who are just amazing, and that’s it. It’s not a big orchestra and there are no dancers onstage. It’s just a wonderful presentation and it’s about the Rascals. It’s not about actors playing the Rascals. What you get is what you really got back then.

What are some of your favorite memories from the band’s heyday? Didn’t you open for the Beatles at Shea Stadium?
No, we did not. We were at the concert though. The day we signed with Sid Bernstein, who was promoting the show at Shea Stadium, he brought us to the show. We had a day off from playing at Madison Square Garden and we sat in the dugout. Before the Beatles came out, Sid put on the scoreboard, “The Rascals are coming,” and nobody knew who the Rascals were. When it said the Rascals, the crowd thought it meant the Beatles, and Brian Epstein had a hissy fit. “What are you doing? Bop bop bop…” But later on, Brian Epstein became a Rascals fan.

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What else stands out for you?
One of my greatest memories was when we released “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” and Cousin Brucie played it on WABC radio. We had a little portable radio and we were living at the Hotel 14 upstairs in the Copacabana with two bedrooms. So we got together and heard our first record, “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” on WABC, and it was the first time the Rascals shut up and listened. Nobody made a sound. (laughs) That was one of the greatest things. Also, there was the first time we were on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” I used to watch the Ed Sullivan Show with Elvis and the Everly Brothers and the Beatles. And all of a sudden we were on it. It was a golden time of the ‘60s. And I must tell you, we bring the fans back to the ‘60s.

If we didn’t know any better, we’d say you’re pretty pleased with the results.
I’ll tell you what… the heart and the spirit of the band and the fans are one. The Broadway show was in a 1,400 seat auditorium, but it felt like a 1,400 seat living room because we’re communicating totally with the people. You feel it. On Broadway, no one gets seven or eight ovations. Even the hard core Broadway crowd go, “What the hell is this?” They have to reckon with us. This show is groundbreaking. Steven Van Zandt has created something that no one has done quite this way. And we’re so honored to have our music be part of this. It’s overwhelmingly thrilling.

The title Once Upon a Dream was the title of a Rascals album.

It certainly was. It’s based up what it was… a dream. Four young guys, a couple of guys from Jersey, me from upstate. Felix would say to us, “The Beatles are the greatest thing, but the next big band will come from New York, and we’ll be that band.”

After you left the band, you formed a group called Bulldog, and then you and Dino stayed reconnected and formed Fotomaker. What happened after that?
Well, basically, you’ll always be a Rascal. Following that we did a short tour in ’88 after the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert. Eddie didn’t join us on that one unfortunately, and then we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in ’97 by Steve Van Zandt, so everything was working its way calmly and quietly to this point. We were all playing, we were all active, and I always thought that maybe someday this would happen. And here it is. We get to play to people all over the country. We have something like 85 shows between now and Christmas.

So what’s the plan after that? Are you going to keep the Rascals going? Any plans to record an album?
You know what, we haven’t even discussed that at this point. At this point, it’s about the now. It’s about really going out there and playing, and really bringing satisfaction and gratification to the people that supported us all these years. The songs… the great songwriting of Eddie Brigatti and Felix Cavaliere, and the production of the Rascals, somehow it’s managed not to become dated. What we’re playing is the soundtrack to people’s youth. That’s really what it is. It’s the soundtrack to our youth, and we’re blessed enough to do it again.

It seems likely there will be a recording from the show, no?
We plan on doing that. We may be doing some recording in Florida, but I’m not sure of that at this point. If I knew something and I told you, I’d have to kill you.

Well, let’s not let that happen.
I really don’t know myself at this point. I just get myself ready every night, and every night is a special night. When that curtain hits, I say, “Dear Lord, let me give another good one.”

How is the relationship between the various band members these days? Is everyone getting along well?
You know what, I think it’s more than that. We were always family. Our records were our children. So now we celebrate that family and we celebrate those songs, and we get to share it with the people that kept them alive in their hearts and in their minds. The music of the sixties is really the deal.

Howard Kaylan of the Turtles recently wrote a book about his experiences called Shell Shocked. Would you ever consider doing something like that?
You know, I heard about that. I was in Sardis yesterday. I must have walked past that place 40,000 times and now I’m welcomed in there, and the hatcheck girl mentioned the book. I hear he mentions us a couple of times in there.

So isn’t it time the Rascals wrote their own book?
I started to write a book with a writer from The Daily News about 15 years ago. We had about six or seven chapters. It was about love, it was about family, it was about civil rights, it was about R&B music. So the literary agent said, “What about the sex and the drugs and the scandals?” So I stopped. Plus, I can’t write a book unless I got the last chapter, and right now we’re not writing the last chapter. We’re writing the next chapter. I have a lot of very close friends who tell me, “You got to get your book together.” Well, not yet. Let it play out a little more. Let it flesh out. The Rascals story is certainly not about bad times. It’s about great times. The music was powerful. In the days when “Eve Of Destruction” was a hit, we were singing “It’s Beautiful Morning.” We were singing “People Got To Be Free.”

And “Groovin’”…
Right. And “Groovin’.” There was that other view of what some people saw. It’s funny, the young people think they invented protest (laughs), but 40 years later, not a fucking thing has changed.

“People Got To be Free” was really your first social statement on what was going on at the time.
Listen, all the songs were a comment on what was going on at the time. The Summer of Love had “Groovin’,” “A Beautiful Morning.” I think “People Got To be Free” and “Good Lovin’” were the spectrum, from the beginning of the Rascals to the end of that first period. They both hold up, musically and every way else. Listen, you got to admit, in 2013, people still deserve to be free.

 

Details of the Rascals “Once Upon A Dream” tour can be found at their official website. It commenced last week in Florida and resumes this week, June 5-8, when the band performs at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. Selected dates in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia follow after that.


The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream 5-24-13, Miami

Hard Rock Live at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino

The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream is a fusion of different forms — part concert, part musical stage, part documentary, part history lesson and mostly, a whole lotta fun. The emphasis is as much on the visual elements — the amazing light shows, backgrounds, informative talking heads and, yes, the prerequisite vintage video clips with specially staged dramatic sequences played by younger actors — as it is on the music, which is why the show qualified for Broadway selling out night after night. 

Of course, the music is essential, and with no less than 30 tracks represented by the original quartet itself, the songs inevitably come front and center. This is a Hard Rock production after all. And what amazing music it is — songs like “Groovin’,” “Good Lovin’,” “”People Got To Be Free,” “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” — music that helped form the soundtrack of the ‘60s and remain. even today, permanently embedded in the memory of those for whom the ‘60s aren’t simply an era, but a actual age as well. And I’m most happy to report that the band — the original foursome, Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Dino Danelli and Gene Cornish, along with a trio of back-up singers, a second keyboardist and a bass player — perform those tunes with the same power and passion as they were originally presented. Indeed, the delivery is wholly centered on them. Unlike the Beach Boys reunion shows, there’s no cast of thousands for augmentation, no audio enhancement, no nothing… except each member performing at the height of their prowess, as if… as if… they were 45 years in the past.

Of course, it’s not 1965. It’s 2013, and who would have thought that after four decades the band would reconvene and still sound so strong. Cavaliere and Brigati still rank as two of the greatest white soul singers of all time and their vocal skills haven’t let them down. Danelli is undeniably one of the best rock drummers of all time — we’re including Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell for comparison — and his twirling drumsticks and remarkably solid grooves are still a joy to behold. And Cornish, who sometimes seemed overshadowed by the prominence of Cavaliere’s Hammond organ, ups his evaluation considerably, cutting swaths of melody on his ax, wailing away with relentless riffs and supple leads that prove, even at age 69, he’s as agile as most players half his age.

Indeed, the same thing could be said about each of them. The Rascals are one hot band. and damn if Eddie doesn’t still have the energy and stage moves as he prances around shaking his shakers and ever-present tambourine. 

The backstory finally gives them the credit due. Prerecorded interviews with each of the musicians find them talking directly to the camera, sometimes relating back and forth, occasionally segueing seamlessly into the musical numbers. The audience learns of their origins, gets their reflections of their glory days at the height of fame and success (including comments about an apparent undiminished amount of groupies and their absolute allegiance to civil rights), and ultimately the mess caused by mismanagement which eventually led to their break-up at the dawn of the ‘70s. Along the way, several heretofore obscure facts come to light. We learn that the Beatles actually opened for the Rascals in Sweden in October, 1963. And that an auto accident nearly cost Eddie his life—and that he went into a coma that nearly cost him his career. 

Of course, the songs still stand out, as glorious and exhilarating, as soulful and rocking as ever. The infectious grooves of “Good Lovin’, “It’s Wonderful” and “People Got To Be Free,” the easy sway of “Groovin’ and “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” the rocking rhythms of “Come On Up” and “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” all sound as immediate now as they did then. Add in a number of lesser known songs, with no less than 30 tunes and over two hours of stage time, and it becomes sumptuous sampling of the Rascals’ remarkable catalog. 

Kudos also have to go to producer, director, stage designer, video director and lighting designer Marc Brickman, whose incredible visual effects make this the spectacular presentation it is. The dazzling colors and wide array of backdrops helped capture the band during each transition, literally converting the Hard Rock stage into a vintage psychedelic light show, a converted train depot or an ongoing series of backdrops that illuminate each song. Likewise, the special effect are sensational, from the realistic seagulls that glide through the background during “What Is the Reason” or the school of fish that float behind the band as they playing, appropriately, “Too Many Fish in the Sea.” And when that screen falls away at the beginning, following the filmed introduction by Ed Sullivan and we get the first glimpse of the band lit in black and white, it’s more than memorable. It’s simply riveting, it’s dazzling, it’s everything a Broadway spectacle should be. 

Which is why I’m tempted to depart from the usual concert review and put myself in the guise of that famous critic Clive Barnes. I’d sum up this review by saying something like, “Incredibly impressive… A must see!” But since I’m not Clive Barnes, and merely a lowly music critic, I’ll simply say this” “It was awesome, It was ultra fab. And shame on you if you allow yourself to miss it.

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