THE RASCALS

During his teenage years, drummer Dino Danelli had a strong interest in jazz and wouldn't have expected to find himself in a rock and roll group, much less one of the most popular 1960s bands. He was so adept on the skins that he played briefly with Lionel Hampton's band, backed up Little Willie John and sat in with some R&B acts during a visit to New Orleans in 1961, when he was just 17. Meanwhile, Joseph DiNicola had been making records since 1958 as Joey Dee, with a backing group at first called the Starlights, then the Starlighters and finally The Starliters. A chance booking at the Peppermint Lounge nightclub in New York City worked into an extended stay, resulting in a number one hit in early 1962, "The Peppermint Twist," ranking Dee second only to Chubby Checker as the main progenitor of the hot twist dance craze. Other than their both being from New Jersey, Danelli and Dee had absolutely nothing to do with each other...not yet, anyway.

New Yorker Felix Cavaliere, like Dino, initially had musical interests outside rock, having studied classical piano at an early age. By 1961 he was attending Syracuse University (in upstate N.Y.) and had formed a doo wop group called The Escorts. In 1963, Danelli and Cavaliere met in New York and became fast friends, traveling that year to Las Vegas for a gig with a casino house band. By that time, Joey Dee was riding high and the Peppermint Lounge was one of the City's celebrity hot spots. Eddie Brigati's desire was to sing rhythm and blues, and when he started hanging with Felix around 1964, they suddenly found themselves working in Dee's band at the Lounge, along with Eddie's brother David and Ottawa-born guitarist Gene Cornish.

It was Cornish whose interest in forming a band would bring the other two Starliters and, later, drummer Dino together. In fact, Gene was moonlighting in a band called The Unbeatables (also billed as Gene Cornish and the Unbeetables), inspired by the sound of the British Invasion. The group did a passable Fab Four imitation on "I Wanna Be a Beetle," a 45 released on the Dawn label. Okay, we all know the likelihood of success is limited with a release of this kind. Gene wanted more. Once the Peppermint Lounge gig fell into routine, he suggested to Felix and Eddie that they could break away and start a band to compete with the Brits who had recently taken control of the charts. They would build the sound around Felix 's Hammond organ, a unique idea at the time. Eddie would sing...in fact, a rock group with a soulful lead singer just might be a fresh approach. Was it a good idea? Definitely. Were the odds stacked against them? Yeah, that too.

At the end of 1964 the three staked their claim as The Rascals. They recruited Danelli as drummer and what had been a period of "musical chairs" was no more. The four would work together as a complete unit for the next six years with only one variation: Starliter David Brigati would occasionally sing background with the group. By early '65 they were playing nightclub dates in New Jersey and before long settled into a Long Island club, the Barge, where promotion whiz Sid Bernstein, having most recently been involved in the migration of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits and other U.K. acts to the States, caught the act, signing on that summer as the Rascals' manager. Joining with Ed Sullivan to present the Beatles in concert August 15 at Shea Stadium (built little more than a year earlier as a permanent home for baseball's New York Mets), Bernstein pulled a sneaky trick: he had the phrase "The Rascals Are Coming!" posted on the stadium scoreboard during the group's performance. Soon after, the group had a contract with Atlantic Records.

Prior to the first single's release, there was a minor inconvenience about the band's name. Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals had an objection, and who would dare to tangle with Borrah? Against the band's wishes, Bernstein changed their name to The Young Rascals. For a time the guys appeared to embrace the Our Gang/Little Rascals connection, wearing schoolboy outfits with knickers onstage. But as Bernstein had sneaked one past the Beatles at Shea, so they did with him: throughout the "Young" years of the group, the logo on the bass drum said, simply, Rascals.

In December 1965 the band got off to a good start, with the Pam Sawyer-Lori Burton song "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore" featuring Eddie's anguished vocal performance, a mid-chart performer. The rhythmic style of the foursome was in clear contrast to the British groups and American folk rockers that were hitting at the time; these knicker-clad, overgrown school boys were setting themselves up to either advance to the head of the class or be banished to the detention hall. The next single marked the first "A" on their report cards. "Good Lovin'," written by Rudy Clark and Arthur Resnick, had been a mild hit for The Olympics (the group's first in almost two years) in May '65. Olympics fans themselves, the group began performing the song live, adding a '1-2-3' intro and a highly effective false start at the two-minute mark. They knew the song had hit potential; the Olympics' energetically soulful version, for whatever reason, had missed. The Young Rascals' equally uptempo remake caught on, going to the top of the charts a year after the original had sputtered.

A number one hit in just a few months' time! So far, so good. But remaking established hits, even minor ones, can be a slippery slope; in Los Angeles, for example, the Young Rascals' "Good Lovin'" struggled for airplay, becoming no more than a medium-sized hit in the wake of the Olympics' recording, which had gone top ten in the market. From the third single onward, Felix and Eddie took over the writing of every single, and the tactic paid off big. With Atlantic's Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin overseeing these early, or "Young," efforts, the group walked the rock/soul tightrope to great effect, setting themselves apart from the competetition and achieving some solid chart action with "You Better Run," "Come On Up" and "I've Been Lonely Too Long," all with lead vocals by Felix. But it was the sixth single that put them in the major leagues: "Groovin'" had an easy, 'on a Sunday afternoon' feel, complete with bird chirping sounds helping to create a sunny-day-walk-in-the-park atmosphere. A number one hit in May and June of 1967, it was one of the year's biggest hits and rates as one of the great '60s standards. The Cavaliere-Brigati songwriting team had taken a sensitive turn and scored top ten hits with the next two singles, "A Girl Like You" and "How Can I Be Sure," featuring Eddie's lead vocals.

With the "summer of love" came a gradual transition into psychedelic music. The Young Rascals entered the fray at the end of the year with "It's Wonderful," an experiment perhaps a little too trippy for what their fans had come to expect. With layered sound effects, a somewhat confusing message of enlightenment and unity and a 50 second whistling, crashing mess of effects at the end, it was nevertheless a top 20 hit and has held up well over the years, but was something akin to a splash of cold water in the face of anyone anticipating something more in line with the rest of their '67 output. As 1968 dawned, so did "A Beautiful Morning" (vocal by Felix), another smash and the first as The Rascals, as the guys reclaimed the original name that had flashed so gloriously on the big board in Shea Stadium two-and-a-half years earlier when they were largely unknown. The group as a whole also took more control in the studio, producing and arranging most of their own sessions, a shift that took them to new heights...in the short term, that is.

"People Got to Be Free," with a message exactly as the title implies, arrived in the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy post-assassination summer of 1968 ('You should see what a lovely, lovely world this would be, everyone learn to live together...I can't understand, it's so simple to me, people everywhere just got to be free'). The simple message connected; it became the group's biggest hit under either name, the song of the summer, spending most of August and September on the top of the charts. Felix and Eddie continued writing in message-song-mode: "A Ray of Hope" (with its ending horn riff borrowed from Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture") went top 30, but "Heaven" (the first of what would be solo Cavaliere compositions from this point on) barely slipped into the top 40 in early 1969.

With goals of taking the band further into a more relevant, album-oriented direction, Felix came up with the hardest-rocking track yet, "See," and Eddie sang lead (his first 45 A-side since "How Can I Be Sure") on "Carry Me Back," a nostalgic piece that suggested they were open to experimentation both progressive and retro. The two singles, though, were the Rascals' last top 40 hits. The group had a hard time transitioning into the impending new decade (they weren't the only ones) and after a few more singles, including the inspirational "Glory Glory" in 1970, with gospelesque backup by The Sweet Inspirations, it became clear the band's heyday was behind them. Eddie Brigati made his exit, and Cornish left the following year, just as the Atlantic contract expired and The Rascals signed with Columbia, with only Cavaliere and Danelli left (adding and dismissing new group members as needed). Managing only one low-charting single on the new label, "Love Me" (a decidedly funkier track featuring Annie Sutton duetting with Felix), the duo called it quits in 1972.

Gene Cornish and Dino Danelli didn't stay idle for long, forming Bulldog in 1972 (hitting the charts with "No" that year) and the two also worked together in the late '70s with Fotomaker, best known for "Miles Away" in 1978. Felix Cavaliere produced a number of artists while The Rascals were still together (among them Laura Nyro, who remade Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Up On the Roof") and continued his songwriting, recording and live performing, preferring the solo route. "Only a Lonely Heart Sees" returned him to the top 40 one final time in April 1980.

- Michael Jack Kirby

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