“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.
Listening 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 fa