By Gary Theroux
Felix Cavaliere spent two years as a pre-med student before deciding that “my heart was in a different place.” A longtime Ray Charles fan, he realized that music was the most important thing in his life.
Felix played with The Escorts, a band which included Mike Esposito (later of The Blues Magoos) and Neil Diamond. Finally, he wound up as one of Joey Dee’s Starliters, performing at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City.
Also in the Starliters were Eddie Brigati and Gene Cornish, who by then had become fed up with playing twist music. In 1964, the trio split from Dee and added drummer Dino Danelli, whom Felix had met in Las Vegas. They holed up in Felix’s house over the winter, working up a repertoire of 25 songs. It was there that Felix locked in the sound of his new group. Drums and guitar would provide rhythm while his organ blanketed the background. “I had to rethink my whole style of playing,” recalled Gene.
As a visual gimmick, the boys decided to dress in Edwardian costumes — which were at least, well, different. They also agreed to adapt as their group name a variation on the title given to TV reruns of Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” comedies of the ’20s and ’30s: “The Little Rascals.” (Roach’s films had to be retitled because in 1938, he had sold all rights to the name “Our Gang” to MGM Studios, which then produced and released additional — and highly inferior — “Our Gang” movie shorts.)
After one final marathon rehearsal — which ran for 25 hours — The Young Rascals opened at the Choo-Choo Club in Eddie’s hometown of Garfield, N.J. It was February 1965, and marked the first time the then-15-year-old Felix had ever touched a big, professional Hammond B-3 organ. Their second booking was even more prestigious: at the famed Hamptons on Long Island Sound. A real barge — cleverly called “The Barge” — had been refurbished into a chic, floating discotheque for socialites. The Young Rascals thrilled the crowd with their raunchy renditions of R&B classics little known to the jet set. That engagement was extended to two-and-a-half months. By the end of summer, The Young Rascals were the hottest new band in the New York market.
Concert promoter Sid Bernstein came to see the band and amid many bids from a flurry of labels, got them signed to the home of East Coast rhythm and blues, Atlantic Records. The first Young Rascals single, “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” became a regional hit in January 1966. (It peaked nationally at No. 52.)
And then came “Good Lovin’.”
The boys had a habit of visiting Harlem, browsing through record shops, looking for tunes not found in the pop Top 10. They were after basic rhythm ‘n’ blues — the kind of songs they could rework in their own style and knock people out with onstage. Felix discovered “Good Lovin’” — not in a record store but on the air when The Olympics’ version was briefly played on a black New York radio station in May 1965. Despite that exposure, The Olympics’ crudely-made single failed to become an R&B hit and only reached No. 81 on the pop charts. The Young Rascals decided to speed up the song and tried out the result, with great success, on live dates. Their producer, Tom Dowd, loved the rawness of the version The Young Rascals cut for Atlantic, even though the group itself was less than impressed. Overruling the band, Dowd had the single released in March 1966 and in less than a month it had soared to No. 1. “We weren’t too pleased with our performance,” Felix told Rolling Stone. “It was a shock to us when it went to the top of the charts.”
The Young Rascals’ party-starting version of “Good Lovin’” — which begins with Felix’s half-sung, half-spoken count-off of “one, two, three” — got heavy play in dance clubs, remained a bestseller for 14 weeks and was eventually selected for inclusion in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It became the featured track on The Young Rascals’ self-titled first album, which reached the national LP Top 15.
Later in 1966, the group went to England and impressed R&B loving bands like The Animals, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Back home again, they played Madison Square Garden with James Brown — and reportedly performed a very soulful version of “Good Lovin’” in their Little Lord Fauntleroy suits.
Sixteen more hits followed — everything from “You Better Run” and “A Girl Like You” to “How Can I Be Sure,” “Groovin’” and “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long.” In 1968, the group dropped “Young” from their name and went on simply as The Rascals to record (among other things) “Carry Me Back,” “A Beautiful Morning” and their final No. 1 hit, “People Got To Be Free.” After a brief and unsuccessful move to Columbia Records, The Rascals disbanded in 1972, with Cornish and Danelli going on to form Bulldog (“No”) and later Fotomaker (“Miles Away”). Since then there have been several Rascals reunions.