During the height of the British Invasion, the Rascals‘ high-energy brand of rock made them one of the most popular American groups.
Clad in schoolboy outfits, the band – singer and keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, vocalist Eddie Brigati, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli – formed in early 1965 as the Young Rascals and were discovered while playing at The Barge, a club in Long Island, N.Y.
Signed by Atlantic Records, the Rascals reached No. 1 in the spring of 1966 with their second single, Good Lovin’. A string of hits including Groovin’, How Can I Be Sure, A Girl Like You, A Beautiful Morning and People Got to Be Free followed.
Now living in Nashville, Cavaliere has collaborated with guitar great Steve Cropper on two albums and tours with Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals (click here to view tour dates).
Cavaliere tells Rock Cellar Magazine how the Rascals progressed from recording covers of obscure R&B songs to creating anthems of peace and harmony that still resonate today. Cavaliere also reveals how the host of a children’s TV show gave the band its name.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You started with one of the hottest bands in the early ’60s, Joey Dee and the Starliters. How did they influence your music?
Felix Cavaliere: I was a later member of Joey’s band. I joined them in Europe. They had already done their Peppermint Lounge stint. They had already done most of their recordings. And I was a college kid, I was a pre-med student up in Syracuse and I took the summer off and went to work in the Catskill Mountains where they saw me.
And within the next two months they were doing a tour of Europe and their organist left them. They remembered me and they called me. And that really was the beginning of my so-called professional music career.
It was fun because it introduced me to the adult world of music. It introduced me to the Brigati brothers, for example, who later one of them became my writing partner in the Rascals. So it was like a door opening. It was an awakening in many ways.
Who came up with the Rascals’ name and the costumes concept?
Felix Cavaliere: The costumes came before the name. We started a band, we didn’t really have a damn name. We couldn’t come up with a name.
In those days the drinking age was 21. So you had to wear a suit and tie to be on stage. And that was and is very awkward. So we tried to come up with something that would alleviate us having to do that. Dino said he didn’t do it but I think there was a fellow in New Jersey and they collaborated on coming up with these knickers. They came up with the knickers and they came up with a nice shirt but the club owners said, “No, man, you guys gotta wear a tie.”
And that kind of ruined it for me. Because it made it kind of funny, you know what I’m saying? So as soon as we could get rid of that, we got rid of it. And as far as the name, I attribute it to Soupy Sales.
We’re big fans of Soupy. Big fans. We were trying to get discovered. So we made an appointment at WNEW-TV. And we said, look, the guy’s got a hit record. He had that record, The Mouse, and Pachalafaka, and so we said, let’s go there, maybe he’ll let us be his backup band. ‘Cause he was touring.
So we went there and immediately there was this bond because everything he said, we cracked up. We laughed, because we loved this guy. He passed but what a wonderful human being this guy was. He said, “I didn’t realize I needed a band because all these years I’ve been without a band. Maybe this could work because sometimes when I go and play, you might be the only ones laughing.” So we hit it off right away.
He said, “What do you guys call yourself?” We said, “Well, we don’t really have a name.” He started telling jokes like, “Well, what I’d like to call you, they couldn’t print it.”
He said, “How ’bout the Rascals?” And it stuck.
The Rascals obviously loved R&B. How did you come to cover Good Lovin’ by the Olympics?
Felix Cavaliere: When we were at The Barge, the difference between then and now is that the clubs wanted you to do covers. Forget about doing stuff that you wrote. They were not in the least bit interested.
They wanted to bring the people in to drink and dance.
So I would go out of my way to find obscure songs, which is how I found Good Lovin’. I used to listen to the radio stations, especially the black radio stations. And I’d hear songs that kind of turned me on, got my attention. Then I would go to a record store, buy it. Then I’d bring it to the band and we’d learn it.
The interesting thing about Good Lovin’ is that from the first time we played it, the people responded. To this day, that brings the house down. And there’s no way you can really determine that unless you play it in front of people. So obviously we knew this is a special song. So did Atlantic. And that’s why that was our second release and it was an immediate hit.
We had a good band. I was very proud of that band. When I started the Rascals I tried to find the best singers I could find. I tried to find the best players that I could find.
I was able to find this phenomenal drummer through my first wife. This guy over at the Metropole. It was a jazz-rock club. She says this guy is ten times better than the guy you have. She was a bank teller. So I said to her, “What the hell do you know about freakin’ musicians?” She said, “Come on, go see him.”
You looked through the window and there was Dino Danelli. She brought me to see him. Just through the window, I didn’t have to go in. I saw this guy playing, I said, “What are you, kidding me? This guy’s phenomenal.” And I hooked up with him and he later of course became a Rascal.
So I really was on this quest to find guys. Cornish came to New York to work and ran into the Joey Dee organization so I got to see him. Eddie, I met him through his brother David, who was also a fine singer. So I had my group. I had my guys. All I needed was them to say, let’s give it a try. And we did.
The Groovin’ album, with How Can I Be Sure and A Girl Like You, was a major shift in the Rascals’ sound. Why did that change happen?
Felix Cavaliere: We had this big hit, Good Lovin’, so it gave us a tremendous amount of power at the record label that normally sophomores in the record industry don’t have. The deal that we cut with Atlantic Records was unique in that we were the producers. This is something I insisted on. I wanted to be in charge of our records. And I insisted on that and they were the only label that allowed that.
But where the really good fortune came in is when they put these two geniuses in the studio with us: [Engineer] Tom Dowd and [arranger] Arif Mardin. Now that was a stroke of luck because when I wrote a song, I brought it to Arif. We would go to his home, we would orchestrate it and it would come out like magic. So I really must say that the introduction of Arif Mardin to our lives is sort of like what George Martin did for the Beatles.
Did anyone say at the time, “You’ve had a number one hit with Good Lovin’, stay with that style”?
Felix Cavaliere: Sure. But there’s nothing like success to keep people quiet. As long as we were making hits, everybody was cool. I used to get into some real wars over there at Atlantic with [executive] Jerry Wexler. For example, Groovin’. When Groovin’ came out, we had no drums on it, we had conga. And he went crazy. He said, “What the hell are you guys, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll band, why are you puttin’ the conga in?” He says, “What are you, Latin?” And I said, “Yes!” Because the Latin community in New York City embraced us for life.
New York DJ Murray the K had a hand in the success of Groovin’.
Felix Cavaliere: Yes, he did. Murray was a really good guy. He happened to be in the studio when we were cutting Groovin’. Being a disk jockey, he had that ear, that flair. He said, “Man, this is a smash!” So when he heard that Wexler was a little bit hesitant about putting it out, he actually went up there and said, “Look, I’ll tell you what, I’ll play this tomorrow morning. You send this over to my station. It’s on my station.”
Of course, that carried a big weight because he was a big DJ. That was the thing that I miss about those days is the kind of camaraderie that the business had where people really tried to support one another rather than beat somebody down so you can take their slot on the charts. It was a lot different then than it is now.
The New York DJs seemed to have a camaraderie with the bands as far as breaking the records.
Felix Cavaliere: Absolutely.
Cousin Bruce Morrow …
Felix Cavaliere: I’m still in touch with Brucie over there at Sirius. Brucie’s a good friend. You can’t say enough about the man. Anybody that helps you throughout your career, through thick and thin. Guys like Scott Muni, these cats, he’s passed of course but Pete Fornatale, the guys over at WMCA…
“The Good Guys”
Felix Cavaliere: Yeah, The Good Guys, they really were good guys, you know.
Jimi Hendrix opened for the Rascals in Central Park. What was he like?
Felix Cavaliere: I had met him years before that. He used to be part of the scene in New York City. He used to work with the Isley Brothers. He also worked with Joey Dee for a brief time.
This was of course a phenomenon. The story that everybody knows is that he went to England and whatever happened in England transformed him from a very, very, very good, shy guitar player to a very, very, very monstrous guitar player with confidence. He was a tall cat and before he came back from England, I don’t think I ever remember him standing up straight.
When he came back from there he saw us in the dressing room going to work. I said, “Jimi, what the hell’s going on, man?” He said, “Man, I got it together now.” And I said, “I guess you do, man, you look like a million bucks. You look great, man.”
He said, “Well, wait ’till you hear it.” He went out there, man, he tore that place apart. Because obviously he was a phenomenon. But what people don’t realize, he was really a nice man. He was really a nice dude. He was not in any way like he looks on stage, he was a very sweet man. And I think that was his downfall because he was too sweet. He said yes to everybody. Good guy.
It’s just a shame but he got involved with people … I used to have a teacher, a guru, and he used to tell me, “If you want to smell like a rose, hang around with roses. If you want to smell like a skunk, hang around with skunks.”
He hung around with the wrong people, man, and they all influenced him into that world that killed him. It’s a shame.
You and Eddie wrote so many hits together. How did you work together?
Felix Cavaliere: I liked his lyrics so basically I started with the music, I started with the title, I started with the theme and then I would either record it or I would play it for him and he would come back with verses.
I went to him with a blueprint because I really felt that his words were – they were just more sweet. He took forever to write them.
And then that changed over the years because the big brother-little brother relationship didn’t suit him. And it was a shame because that worked. And when we got to where the egos started to say, “I’m gonna take the driver’s seat,” that’s when it didn’t work.
We had a winning combination and we should have kept it the way it was but that’s the way life is.
Each of your singles had its own sound as opposed to many bands that replicate the one before it. Each one had its own identity, almost like a new group did it.
Felix Cavaliere: That’s the beauty of working with guys like Arif. He had the capability. We could create anything we wanted in the studio. We didn’t have to be limited to a band sound. And again, as long as they were selling, nobody bothered us.
And don’t forget the other people that were out there selling records at that time. The Beatles, they were doing the same thing. So the contribution that they made we cannot ever repay because when the Beatles did a song, the radio had to play it. It wasn’t a question of they want to. They had to. So now that whole style of music was in vogue, became accepted and opened the door for us to do it. Without that, we’d still be playing I Want to Hold Your Hand-type of songs with four guys playing and singing.
They stretched it out, man, and so we owe them a big debt.
Now in 1968 comes People Got to Be Free, which takes a stand on social issues. How did that shift come about?
Felix Cavaliere: I was working for Bobby Kennedy’s campaign when he was assassinated. And it just hit me. Our world just changed. We just lost somebody who could have turned us in a whole different direction and maybe that’s why he was killed.
It changed my outlook on life. Rather than saying, “Let’s come out with these love songs,” let’s say something. Let’s do something. Let’s be part of something. And it caused a lot of internal strife because some of the other guys did not agree that this was the way to go. The record company certainly didn’t agree. But that’s what I was feeling, man. So I just continued it until it did its thing.
I said sometimes you’ve just gotta put down in writing on a piece of paper or on a record what you think. You can’t just be a friggin’ money-making machine all your life. Sometimes you gotta do something.
I even spoke to Bruce Springsteen about it one time. He told me, “Man, that’s a song that’ll never be surpassed in terms of what you were trying to say.” And I said it was so honest that I don’t know what else to say. That’s really, really how we felt. That’s just a statement that even today holds up and it’s pretty simple. People just want to be free.
Were you pleased with Broadway’s Once Upon a Dream and would you ever relaunch it?
Felix Cavaliere: Yes and no. I was pleased with the reaction that we got from the Broadway scene. I thought it was very well done but it was difficult for me because I’m not used to that much structure. Everything was extremely tight in that there were cues for video and the music. Everything had to be played in an order that was set. We were not allowed to change anything. So I felt like I was back in my classical days where my teacher would scream at me if I played anything different from the written page.
What I did like is the way it was presented. I would not have done it the same way. I think that the group should have been bigger than the screen and it was the opposite. But for the most part it was good. I enjoyed it. Happy that we did it.
How did your collaboration with Steve Cropper come about?
Felix Cavaliere: Living in Nashville, that’s what happens all the time around here. People get together and write. This place is amazing when it comes to the type of studios that we all have. We all have a little studio in our house. Whether it be $100,000 or $10,000, we all have some place to record.
This friend of mine moved here from New York and got Cropper and me together. We started writing and he said, “You know what, man, this stuff’s pretty good. Why don’t I go out and try and get a record deal?”
No one had the slightest idea that that was gonna be feasible. And he did it. And we had a good time doing it. That was fun.
Any current projects you have going on?
Felix Cavaliere: I saw Frankie Valli the other day doing his music in front of the symphony here. I want to do some of that.
So I’ve been embarking on getting all my charts together to have symphonic musicians play behind my songs. I really want to try that. I really want to give that a shot.
And I’m always talking about doing another album. The problem is, what do you do with the songs on the album? Do I dare do new songs? Because I don’t know how many people want to hear new songs. They want to hear old songs redone.
But I’d really like to do a new album. I spoke to Billy Joel and he said he would sing on it. So that’s a really major thing. But what are we gonna sing? I’d like to write some new songs.
It sounds like you still have that New York-New Jersey circle going on, with Springsteen and Frankie Valli and Billy Joel.
Felix Cavaliere: It really is true. There’s this mutual admiration society. Dion’s another one, man. I certainly respect them and I always enjoy being around these guys. Because they’re good guys. Don’t get a chance to see them that much.
For example, when I go to the Songwriters Hall of Fame I see a lot of folks that I know, like Jon Bon Jovi, who I would never run into anywhere else, I see him there all the time. Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, the Philly guys. There’s a cadre of us, there’s a group of us who’ve been around so long, man, we feel like we’re related.
I’ve been a lifelong friend of Frankie Valli, I’ve been a lifelong friend of Dion. What can I say? I’m so lucky just to know these guys because they’re great guys. They’re good friends and there’s new people, like Eddie Money. He stays in touch with me all the time.
He tells me, “Felix, you gotta get me into the Hall of Fame. My kids think I’m a bum.” I said, “Eddie, what do you want me to do?” He said, “I’m the Pete Rose of rock ‘n’ roll.”
He ‘s a good cat. Totally nuts. He calls me up all the time. He says, “You know, you’re my favorite freakin’ singer.” And hangs up the phone.