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Raspberries perfect ‘Pop Art’ live

Revisit the reunion of the Raspberries in 2004 with the release of the 2-CD set, “Pop Art Live.” Goldmine interviews all the members of the band.
 Going all the Way Live (L-R): Dave Smalley (bass), Jim Bonfanti (drums), Eric Carmen (lead vocals/guitar) and Wally Bryson (lead guitar). Photo by Gene Taylor.

Going all the Way Live (L-R): Dave Smalley (bass), Jim Bonfanti (drums), Eric Carmen (lead vocals/guitar) and Wally Bryson (lead guitar). Photo by Gene Taylor.

By Ken Sharp and Bernie Hogya

A monster hit in 1972, “Go All The Way” put Raspberries on the musical map. Through the years, the band has boasted some serious heavyweight fans numbering the likes of John Lennon, Tom Petty, Paul Stanley, Rick Springfield, Axl Rose and Jon Bon Jovi. Bruce Springsteen, in particular, has been a fervent champion of the iconic power pop group, dedicating a song to the band at a few concerts in the summer of 2005: “I had this white Ford pickup. It had a cassette player in it — there weren’t any CDs at that time. Around the late ‘70s, I kept this small cassette of the Raspberries Greatest Hits. They still haven’t gotten the respect they deserved — the Raspberries. Why, I don’t know? They wrote a bunch of great songs. They had an especially great record called ‘Overnight Sensation,’ which was a classic and beautiful pop record. It’s one of the best little pop symphonies you’ll ever hear. If you haven’t heard it, go get ‘Overnight Sensation.’ It’s a great record.”

Years after their dissolution in April of ‘75, the Raspberries are hailed as the quintessential power pop group, inspiring a string of power pop groups, from Cheap Trick to the Gin Blossoms. With classic hits like “Go All The Way,” “I Wanna Be With You,” “Let’s Pretend,” “Tonight”, “Ecstasy” and “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” the band fused elements of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Who, The Small Faces, The Left Banke, Phil Spector and the girl group sound into a thrilling tsunami of slashing power chords, melody, hooks and harmonies. For years, the group’s loyal fan base held out hopes for a reunion of Cleveland’s Fab Four. And finally, 31 years after the original band splintered, Raspberries answered the call and reunited to perform a sold out show at Cleveland’s House of Blues on November 26, 2004. That historic show, now preserved on the new 2-CD set, “Pop Art Live,” captures that unforgettable night. Here, in the band’s own words, is the backstory behind their unlikely reformation and reunion show.

Eric Carmen: It was a daunting task to bring this band together that hadn’t played for 31 years, learn 27 or 28 songs in a short period of time and make it great. Being in a band for me has always been more fun than being a solo artist. I like the band dynamic. I like being part of an ensemble rather than it being all about me. There’s a difference when you’re part of a four-piece band. It is your collective asses that are on the line and on that page. It’s different standing on the stage with those guys than if you’re a solo artist with hired guns around you. You don’t have the same vested interest in any given night’s performance. They may all want to play good, and they all may play well, but it’s just different when it’s a group with a musical history. We share even more things together. Wally, Dave and I were born within a period of one month and Jim was born six months before that. We all got into music at the exact same moment. We worshiped the same bands, bought the same records — Beatles, Stones, Byrds — we shared a musicality that someone who’s 20 years old probably doesn’t have.

We rehearsed at a club called Utopia in Willoughby, Ohio, where we used to play many years ago. When we were looking for a place to rehearse it happened to be available and we thought, “Perfect.” It seemed like the stars and planets were lining up for us.

Wally Bryson: Some of the old songs came right back, while others were trickier — like the fills in “If You Change Your Mind” or the places where I play harmony with myself like on “Nobody Knows.” I had to basically go back, listen to the records and figure out how I fingered some of those parts. I could remember doing them but it has been so long since I played them that I had to go back and brush up on them. I also had to figure out those intricate chord changes on “I Can Remember.” Some of those chords just go all over the place.

Early on in the rehearsals I needed to encourage Eric that his voice would come back the more we practiced. And he’s proven me right. I particularly remember one rehearsal when we were doing “If You Change Your Mind.” Eric really brought it home vocally, and I was pretty moved by it. I told him if he never recorded anything else in his career except for “If You Change Your Mind” — the way he sings it at the end — he’d have impressed me forever with that. I knew that the more he sang, the better he would get.

Eric Carmen: When this group of Raspberries broke up in 1973, we had probably played four months or so of dates without a good sound system. What we sounded like to us on stage was a lot more disjointed than what we hear now. When I hear Jim playing, or Wally playing or Dave playing right now... they all sound great! Those are things that I realized that I had really taken for granted in the early ‘70s. You know, I had grown up watching Wally play and Jim play and I had never really thought about how difficult it is to do Raspberries songs. I didn’t really realize that until I toured with Ringo Starr. That’s when I saw all of these superstar musicians including Jack Bruce, Simon Kirke and Dave Edmunds, having a hard time of it. That gave me a greater respect for my old band. Getting together with these guys and relearning these great songs made me realize that this was a great band!

Dave Smalley: There was a lot of emotion in the rehearsal studio the day we all got together for the first time. We had talked about it. We had some time to prepare for it. But until you actually do it you can only imagine what it’s like.

Wally Bryson: Before our first show, I was nervous, but I was excited at the same time. It felt like Carnegie Hall to me. Once we started playing it was obvious that the crowd was totally ours. It was a great night! We just nailed it. I always go for a personal goal of 100% perfection, which is hard.

Eric Carmen: It was pretty amazing. I remember having my back to the audience on that stage before the curtain opened and I felt like we were four guys in a trench in a war about to get shelled. It wasn’t really stage fright. I don’t get stage fright. In fact, I’m more comfortable up on a stage than just about anywhere else. It’s just that there’s a certain adrenaline rush right before you hit that first chord and that was really there for everybody. We all did a little handshake as we walked on stage behind the curtain. Someone might have said, “Go get ‘em, boys.” From the reaction of the audience, I guess we did. To put this band back together and have Wally standing there on my left doing those guitar parts that I haven’t listened to or played since 1973 was great!

Dave Smalley: I knew that we had a full house but aside from our family and about 20 old friends, I didn’t know what kind of crowd it would be. Before every gig, even now, there’s a period of time where we’re all a little nervous. I even have those moments where I excuse myself to go throw up. As a musician and as a performer, there’s always that time when you’re ready to go out but are unsure about what’s going to happen. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by the crowd’s reaction to that first show.

Eric Carmen: Coming up with a set list was a really, really difficult thing to do. There are so many considerations for where each song is placed in the set list that it’s like calculus. The difficulty with the Raspberries set list is that in a perfect world, the band would have had 10 or 12 hits. Then it would be an easy job. The reality is that the Raspberries had two big hit songs, “Go All The Way” and “I Wanna Be With You.” They had two slightly lesser hit songs, “Let’s Pretend” and “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record).” Now, Top 20 hit songs are considerably less well known than Top 10 or Top Five hit songs. Then we had a Top 40 hit song with “Tonight,” but that’s as far as it went.

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The most important thing when you start a set is that you have to start strong. And you have to close strong. So, if you’re saving “Go All The Way” for an encore, and you want to start with something strong like “I Wanna Be With You,” there’s an awful long space between those two songs that need to be filled. And the considerations of ‘what follows what’ becomes very important.

One of the things that I’ve become painfully aware of trying to make these set lists is Raspberries had a lot of mid-tempo acoustic material on their albums and not a ton of rockers. So, it boils down to needing to win the audience immediately and closing strong. Keeping those things in mind, I need to also think about instrumentation. Guitar changes slow the set down. You can’t afford a guitar change for Wally after each song. If I didn’t have to think about that it would be easier. Then I could arrange songs in a set list the same way I would sequence a set of songs for an album. I’d put them in the order that works best.

Dave Smalley: One of the things we talked about at the very beginning is which songs would we play? What were the parameters of the music we would choose? There’s a lot of material there outside of the Raspberries, including all of Eric’s solo material, which is much more well-known than my solo material. I also have some pretty decent songs on my CD “Internal Monologue” and songs of mine and Wally’s from “Refreshed,” but we decided that we were going to play primarily Raspberries songs along with some classics thrown in. We haven’t gone outside of those parameters yet.

Jim Bonfanti: Sitting at my drum set behind the curtain as the pre-concert video played got me real excited. I remember thinking, “Wow! This is gonna happen here in just a moment!” Watching the curtain rise as I played the opening drum roll of “I Wanna Be With You” was an emotional moment. I get a little choked up thinking about who was there — especially my daughters — for them to see the band together was just huge for me. It meant everything to me. The good news is that I couldn’t see them, because if I could I would have had to struggle to hold the tears back.

Eric Carmen: After the show, I was completely exhausted. In fact, I don’t know when I’ve ever been so exhausted — just emotionally drained. It was just about as much fun as I have ever had up on a stage. Here’s the thing: Raspberries songs were written for the Raspberries. Some songwriters just write songs. A lot of guys that I know, will just sit down and write a song, or write a song with the band in mind. I always wrote very specifically to play to the strengths of the guys I was playing with. In the case of the Raspberries, it was Wally, Dave and Jim. I was really writing and conceiving songs thinking about Wally’s guitar playing, thinking about Dave’s bass playing, thinking about Jim’s style of drumming, and trying to write things that were right down their alley, so that they could really nail ‘em.

The “iffiest” part of the set for me is right at the beginning. It has always taken my throat a little while to warm up... to get to where I should be. It’s why I have always been a little hesitant to do “I Wanna Be With You” at the beginning of the show. The high notes in that are really high. I honestly wasn’t sure I could pull it off. But this whole thing has been such great fun — to be able to get up there and blow it out and still have it sound good. I’m happy that I can do it and even happier that it’s coming off.

Wally Bryson: The magic of “Don’t Want To Say Goodbye” is the interplay between my voice and Eric. His voice and my voice are Raspberries harmony. I’ve always been able to sing harmony. It started when I was just a kid. I used to sing Christmas carols in the car with my Mom. My mom was a singer, so she was the one who noticed it first. Eric and I know how to sing together. Our voices mesh. We have a natural blend. We’re not blood related, but it’s like John and Paul sounding like the Everly Brothers. The Everlys were related, but John and Paul sang like they were, too. Their voices blend. Eric and I can sing exactly like each other and blend like a double-track.

Eric Carmen: For our first show we wanted to do both “Don’t Want To Say Goodbye” and “I Can Remember.” Just those two songs added up to about 12 minutes. I thought we might have been pushing it with the ballads. I’ve always been a little squeamish doing “I Can Remember” live. I’ve always thought that it was just on the hairy edge of being over the top. Jim loves it and the audience seems to love it — so that’s good. And the band plays it really well.

Dave Smalley: “I Can Remember” is definitely not a three-chord song. It’s not a Chuck Berry song. Raspberries songs aren’t the type of songs that you’d just put together a few guys and play at a weekend gig. The music is very complicated and sophisticated. “I Can Remember” is one of Eric’s more complicated songs.

Jim Bonfanti: Whenever I listen to any recordings made in the ‘70s of the band playing live I notice that we played everything so darned fast! I’m not sure how the guys were able to sing ‘em that fast, but for the current tour we managed to get the tempos under control so the songs are at the right speed on stage. That gives each song the proper groove or “pocket” that’s necessary for the songs to sound more like the records.

Eric Carmen: Jim and I were doing an interview and it just popped into my head that back in the early ‘70s, when FM radio was taking over and the airwaves were flooded with Jethro Tull, Yes... someone along the line decided that a flute solo by Ian Anderson was a heavier, more progressive thing than Pete Townshend slashing out “I Can’t Explain.” I totally didn’t get it. To me, the song was always the star. When prog rock happened, the song was no longer the star; it was the virtuosity of any musician or group of musicians. And that, quite frankly, bored me to tears.

Cleveland radio saw us as nostalgia. We saw ourselves as marauding revolutionaries banging at the gates of the bloated progressive rock movement. And then it popped into my head one day that we were the first alternative band. We were the alternative to progressive rock.

I was talking to Dale Peters, the bass player for the James Gang, when I was at the recording studio working on my “Winter Dreams” album (1998). He told me, “Boy, if the Raspberries came along today, you guys would have ruled the world!” He may have been right. Maybe the time that we were making records just wasn’t the right time for us. Things are different now. The kind of music we were making then is more mainstream now.

“I’m A Rocker” is another Raspberries song that comes off great live. On the record it’s one thing. Live with this band, and the ability to do more things with it, make it better than the record.

Wally Bryson: Eric told me after the first gig that he believed that there were 10 people walking around without personalities because I got ‘em all. I took that as a compliment. To pay him back, let me say that Eric is really overlooked as a rhythm guitar player. There are some things that he did on record that I insisted he bring to the live show because he’s got that niche covered.

Jim Bonfanti: The number one question on everyone’s minds was could Eric still sing these songs — would he still be able to sing like he did in the Raspberries? Well, guess what? He answered the question! Sometimes I’ll close my eyes when we’re playing and when I do I can easily imagine us back in the ‘70s — the big difference is that we actually sound better!

Dave Smalley: Backstage after the show it was like the Cleveland Browns kicking the Steeler’s ass in the Super Bowl. Don’t print that because Jim will freak out! (laughs) It was a real accomplishment! Everybody was just thrilled that the band had done well and that it was such a successful event. It was emotional, it was crazy, it was insane, but it was fun. When I was up on stage and looked into the crowd there were people just jumping up and down. They didn’t care what they looked like — they could have been 53 years old but were acting like they were 19 — and I say right on! The other thing that I’ll never forget is the look in people’s eyes during the Meet And Greet as they stepped up to thank us for the music we made — music that they told us had deeply affected their lives. I mean, what do you say to someone who says he loved one of your songs so much that he and his wife used that song for their wedding?

After the standing ovation and encore, our tour manager, Rusty Pitrone, witnessed an emotional exchange between Eric and Wally in the dressing room. “The band came out for their bows and then returned backstage soaking wet. They had towels around their necks and were still flying high as a kite. I got everybody back into their dressing rooms — the four guys into one and the overdubs into another. I walked into the band’s dressing room to find Eric and Wally hugging. Then Eric said to Wally, ‘Man, you are just the best guitar player I ever played with!’ It was a ‘bring tears to your eyes’ moment. 

Ken and Bernie's book Raspberries: TONIGHT! is available from