Feature Story: Felix Cavaliere traces the tumultuous history of The Rascals

By  Elliot Stephen Cohen

“One time when we were recording, Otis Redding stuck his head in the studio and said, ‘My God, you guys really are white!’ recalls ex-Rascals leader Felix Cavaliere, with a huge self-satisfied laugh.

FELIX CAVALIERE PHOTO ONE.jpgListening to some of their more soulful ’60s recordings — “People Got To Be Free,” “Mustang Sally,” “In The Midnight Hour,” “See,” “Carry Me Back,” “Heaven,” and “Good Lovin’” — it’s easy to fathom why one of the all-time greats of the genre made that proclamation of the band’s authenticity in capturing the spirit of black music.

Starting out with a funky, stripped-down urban sound, the Rascals’ string of hits also included such great ballads as “Lonely Too Long,” “Groovin,’” and “How Can I Be Sure,” as well as perfectly constructed pop singles like “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” and “A Girl Like You,” before flowering into the psychedelia of “It’s Wonderful” in their later stages.

There were also some terrific B-sides, such as “Love Is A Beautiful Thing” and “What Is The Reason,” which could have been hits as well, but were largely ignored.

Cavaliere, now 64, looks fondly on the recent reissues of all seven Rascals’ Atlantic albums (Collector’s Choice), with the initial four (The Young Rascals, Collections, Groovin’, and Once Upon A Dream) also including the first-ever CD release of the original monaural mixes. Unfortunately, he doesn’t harbor the same affection for his three ex-bandmates, two of whom defected while the Rascals were still a viable commodity.

Growing up in the suburban town of Pelham, N.Y., Cavaliere, who now resides in Nashville, was exposed to music at a very young age. His mother, who wanted him to become a professional classical pianist, had Felix taking lessons three times a week from the age of 6 until she died when he was just 14. However, the young musician became frustrated with classical music’s rigidity.

“I did like classical music, except for the fact that it didn’t let me create, he recalls. “Whenever I would vary from what was on the written page, the teacher would get angry (and say) ‘How dare you change Schubert’s ideas!’ So, that’s where I ran into difficulty, because if you have creative ability, that’s not the place to be, unless you’re going to compose in that format.”

The teen musician’s ears were more in tune to the exciting sounds of Ray Charles, Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Harptones and Moonglows, as well as the jazz organist Jimmy Smith.

“Fortunately,’ he remembers,” I was able to get my music from (nearby) New Rochelle, which had a large black community. Without access to those record stores, I would have never learned about those things.”

It was there that Cavaliere also witnessed his first organ-based jazz trio. Blown away by the sheer power of the massive Hammond, he now considers that event the most defining moment in his musical development.

He was also studying medicine at the Syracuse University (Lou Reed was a fellow student!), but his heart lay more with rock ’n’ roll.

After forming a band that played fraternity dances and even recording an original, local-themed song called “The Syracuse,” (which was later bootlegged under the Rascals’ name) he dropped out of school in his sophomore year, much to the chagrin of his more conservative father, a successful dentist.

Intrigued by the burgeoning New York music scene of 1963, he hooked up with Joey Dee and the Starlighters — joining after their popular recording of “The Peppermint Twist.” It was with them that he met two future Rascals, Canadian-born guitarist Gene Cornish, and singer-percussionist Eddie Brigati, as well as getting a first-hand look at rock’s future.

“We actually worked with the Beatles over in Europe, just before they came to the States,” he proudly offers. “I had no idea of what was going on. All I knew was that there were these four long-haired guys with big audiences going absolutely berserk over them. I vividly remember trying to hear their music over all the noise. When they did our music, you know, American music, I did not feel they were that great. But, when they did their music, it just had an obviously supernatural quality that I had never heard before.”

When the Starlighters returned to New York, Cavaliere, seeing how the Beatles were garnering all the glory for themselves, said to his fellow band members, “‘You guys want to start a band together? Let’s stop being sidemen. Let’s go out and be frontmen.’ My plan worked, because six months later we were very fortunate to have an Atlantic Records contract, which was unheard of at the time.”

This was due in large part to the band, which now included stick-twirling ace drummer Dino Danelli, being “discovered” by famed music impresario Sid Bernstein, who had booked the Beatles into Carnegie Hall and would soon do the same at the massive Shea Stadium. Bernstein saw the excitement the Rascals were causing at a Manhattan discotheque called The Phone Booth, and brought them to Atlantic’s attention. 

Cavaliere still enthuses that it was a “dream come true” being the first white group signed to the same legendary label that fostered so many of his musical heroes, such as the Drifters, Coasters and Clyde McFatter.

“Three-quarters of my record collection were Atlantic products, and of course they also had the jazz guys, like John Coltrane. It was a pretty incredible place.” (This was still prior to the arrival of soul music giants like Aretha Franklin and Sam and Dave. Ed.)

Their debut single, “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (written by Pam Sawyer and Lori Burton and perfectly interpreted by Brigati, who unknowingly anticipated Johnny Rotten’s misogynistic snarl by more than a decade), only reached #52 on the national record charts. While it deserved a far better commercial fate, the Rascals’ follow-up single is probably their most beloved hit.

“I had heard (“Good Lovin’”) on the radio done by a group called the Olympics, that I loved,” recalls Cavaliere. ”Their record was done as a Latin Cha Cha. I thought it could be a lot cooler if it was done in a rock beat, so I did it that way in our sets, and the people just went nuts. Everyone would just get off of their chairs and jump on the floor to dance. It was amazing.”

Albums were another story. The band’s first, The Young Rascals (“Young” had been added by management, much to the displeasure of Cavaliere, and would remain that way until 1968, when they reverted back to their pre-fame name of “Rascals”). It featured a cover photo of the quartet looking uncomfortable in Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits, a further play on their juvenile-sounding moniker. (Coming many years before AC/DC adopted a similar schoolboy look).

The music inside sounded like a rushed job by Atlantic, designed to capitalize on what the label may have perceived as the band’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

Cavaliere and Brigati hadn’t yet developed as the excellent songwriters they would soon become, and the only original composition, “Do You Feel It,” credited to Cavaliere and Cornish, was rather pedestrian. The other 11 tracks, which were all covers, ran the gamut from their terrific interpretation of Mack Rice’s “Mustang Sally,” to the Beau Brummels’ “Just A Little” and Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” which both sounded as embarrassingly out of place and unconvincing as if someone had called out those requests to a third-rate wedding band.

The album, like the successive three, was released in both monaural and stereo, with mono still being the more popular format. While the stereo version of “Good Lovin’” — where the famous “One, Two, Three” opening and successive verses bounce back and forth between channels — sounds gimmicky, even distractive, Cavaliere explains,

“I mean, today you could say that, but you have to realize that was the beginning of stereo. We didn’t have a clue what to do with it. The reason everything was mixed in mono and stereo was because radio stations at that time couldn’t play stereo until FM came in existence.”

The band was, indeed, fortunate to have the access to not only the most sophisticated recording equipment available, but also the services of renowned engineers Tom Dowd and Adrian Barber, and legendary producer/arranger Arif Mardin.

“I just have to toot the horn of Atlantic Records man,” acknowledges Cavaliere,” because they were so far ahead of the curve. The people in their engineering, mastering and A&R departments were some of the best in the business. Everything was really state of the art. They had the only eight-track tape recorders in existence, except for Les Paul’s.” (To put that in perspective, the Beatles were still working with a four-track when they recorded Sgt. Pepper).

After the #1 success of “Good Lovin,’” the Rascals decided to pen their own material, which was the only way nearly every contemporary band could sustain any type of commercial chart success, not to mention artistic credibility in the wake of the Beatles. Even the Rolling Stones learned that lesson.

However, The Rascals’ maiden efforts as songwriters, “You Better Run,” and “Come On Up,” were relative failures, and it looked like the band might be yet another rock ’n’ roll one-hit wonder.
However, the Motown-like “Lonely Too Long,” arguably their very best ballad, reversed their commercial fortunes.

The self-composed “Groovin’” was an even bigger seller, but, if not for the intervention of possibly America’s most revered and influential disc jockey, Murray the ‘K,’ it might not have been released as a single A-side.

“To tell you the truth, they didn’t originally like the record because it had no drum on it,” admits Cavaliere. “We had just cut it, and he came in the studio to say hello. After he heard the song, he said, ‘Man, this is a smash.’ So, when he (later) heard that Atlantic didn’t want to put it out, he went to see (Atlantic executive) Jerry Wexler and said, ‘Are you crazy? This is a friggin’ #1 record.’ He was right, because it eventually became #1 for five straight weeks.”

Cavaliere and Atlantic again butted heads on their most controversial, but also best-selling single, “People Got To Be Free.”

“There’s always a kind of tug-of-war between a record company and the artist,” he observes. “They’ve got their opinions, and you’ve got yours, but you know what? When you’re right, and when you’re wrong, you’re [always] wrong.”

However, he believed passionately in the song’s message for racial unity, which he and Brigati had composed a week after the June 5, 1968, assassination of liberal presidential hopeful Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, which came only two months after Martin Luther King’s.
Cavaliere, who had been involved with Kennedy’s campaign, was also dating a woman who also worked on it and had actually been in the room where the assassination took place. According to Cavaliere, he was never the same after that.

“Something in me just snapped,” he says, somewhat angrily. “I thought, besides just selling records, the Rascals have a kind of a bully pulpit, and we’ve got to make a statement. We’ve got to take a stand and draw a line in the sand. ‘Hey, this is where we’re coming from. Take it or leave it. This is where we’re at, and this is where the band is coming from.’”

Not everybody was on board with Cavaliere’s plan.

“Atlantic Records did not like the idea at all,” says Cavaliere. “Jerry Wexler was very opposed to the record. He said, ‘You’ve got a great situation going with a great audience. Why are you getting involved?’ I said, ‘Look, sometimes you’ve got to stand for something,’ and it worked out better than I ever dreamt. The song became #1 in all of those oppressed places like South America, Berlin, and Hong Kong. I’m very proud of that.”

However, the record also became the last Rascals single to enter the Top 20. Successive follow-up singles like the similarly themed “A Ray of Hope,” “Heaven,” “See,” “Carry Me Back,” “Hold On,” and “Glory, Glory” each sold less and less than its predecessors. Cavaliere and Brigati seemed to be running out of fresh ideas.
The band was also unable to make the transition from Top 40 hitmakers to being accepted by the newer, more important, hipper album-buying market, a fate similar to other veteran American groups like the Beach Boys and Four Seasons in the post Sgt. Pepper-Woodstock era.

The group’s overly ambitious double album Freedom Suite was weighed down with too many pretentious jazz-based instrumentals, even though that was also commonplace in the era of too many tedious Cream-styled jams. The Rascals had proved themselves to be masters of the three-minute pop single, but as a band, they could hardly compete with the best new ones of the day.

Atlantic’s newest sensations, such as Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills and Nash, signaled the future direction rock would be taking, and the Rascals seemed like a lost anachronism from another era.
As the group’s commercial and critical stock was slipping, Brigati was the first to lose interest. On the group’s final Atlantic album, Search and Nearness, the once-prolific lyricist contributed nothing new, actually leaving the band prior to its completion. Cornish left soon afterwards. As the group had already signed with Columbia Records, Atlantic did little to promote the album, which only reached #198 on the Billboard charts.

The Rascals’ debut Columbia effort, Peaceful Mind, recorded by Cavaliere, Danelli and supporting musicians, did little to reverse their downward spiral of popularity. The group’s final jazzy longplayer, Island of Real, only made it to #180. Their final three singles — “Lucky Day,” “Brother Tree,” and “Hummin’ Song” — failed to even tip into the Top 100. The time seemed right for Cavaliere and Danelli to retire the Rascals.

The group temporarily reformed in 1988, without Brigati, to perform at Madison Square Garden for the nationally televised tribute commemorating Atlantic Records 40th anniversary. The trio also did a brief tour playing their old hits.

However, instead of returning as another past-its prime oldies act, the publicity could have provided the perfect opportunity to return with an album of all-new material. Brigati’s involvement would have made it even better.

The estranged singer did perform with the band for its 1997 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony, which was the last time to date. 

In assessing the group’s tenure with Atlantic Records, Cavaliere now blames the company’s relentless demand for new product for the Rascals’ premature demise.

“The main criticism I can make about them is that we were always forced to work under a severe time constraint. Unlike a lot of today’s artists who make like one album every two or three years, we just pumped them out like most of the other people in the business back then,” he said. “I think we literally recorded everything we wrote, and I don’t think that was the best idea.

“Eventually, it wore my partner and associate in songwriting, Eddie, out. He couldn’t do it anymore. He just burned the fuse, and that was that, whereas the people who came after us dictated policy a little differently. They nurtured their careers, and a lot of theirs lasted a lot longer than ours. Atlantic needed a constant supply of hits in those days. When the hits came through the room, they wanted more, and more.”

He wearily acknowledges, “We were pushed pretty hard in those days.”

It was that constant pressure, along with petty jealousies, that signaled the group’s imminent doom.

“The band was going through hell,” he admits. “We could see that Eddie was floating away from us. He just wasn’t there anymore in spirit. He wasn’t creating. He wasn’t doing anything. You know, if you have four wheels on a car and one of them stops going, man, you’re gonna spin out of control pretty soon.”

After the group’s dissolution, the band members jointly sold off their very lucrative song publishing rights for “a pittance.” Cavaliere blames it on the same type of indifference and short-sightedness that caused their breakup.

“We got a raw deal,” he bitterly admits. “If you don’t have that unification of a band, you become prey to people like lawyers, who gave us bad advice. We used to know how to keep our family together, and we should have kept our publishing. But, when you’re split and fighting amongst yourselves, you can’t successfully hold up against outside forces.”

Of his three former band members, he seems to reserve the most veiled animosity towards Brigati, who was the first one to jump ship.
“Eddie was about 28 or 29 when he left the group, and from then until now, he has really done nothing in the music business. At all. Not even live. His only involvement with it is to complain about people who took advantage of him, which is a sad thing. Just join the club. People take advantage of everyone.”

Cavaliere has just completed work on a new R&B-based album of all original compositions, co-produced with fellow Hall of Famer Steve Cropper. Equally important, he is still out performing his classic repertoire. As a judge ruled that all former band members should share the group’s name, he tours as “Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals,” while Cornish and Danelli work under “The New Rascals” banner.

Cavaliere relates that both his active former bandmates have experienced health issues. Cornish has survived a quintuple heart bypass while Danelli also has a heart problem.

Health problems, plus Brigati’s indifference and the strained relationships between original band members suggest that a reunion is not in the offing.

”We are in a business,” says Cavaliere. ”The Rolling Stones and Eagles do not get along (with each other), but they take their private feelings home with them. My guys, for whatever reason, have never been able to rise above their emotions.

“Anyway,” he ruefully, concludes, “it’s probably too late now for all of us.”

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