Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals: On New Book, Tour with Gene Cornish, Memories of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles

Rock Cellar Magazine

Many American bands were casualties of the British Invasion led by the Beatles in the mid-1960s. This wasn’t the case for the Young Rascals, who formed in Garfield, NJ, in 1965 and filled the AM airwaves with hit after hit. The blue-eyed soul group — keyboardist and singer Felix Cavaliere, singer Eddie Brigati, guitarist Gene Cornish  and drummer Dino Danelli — soon dropped “Young” from their name and launched a string of hits that include “Groovin’,” “People Got to Be Free,” “A Beautiful Morning” and “How Can I Be Sure,” a crowd favorite that featured Brigati’s lead vocals. 

Cavaliere, born in Pelham, NY, recounts the band’s meteoric rise in his new book, Felix Cavaliere: Memoir of a Rascal.

Cavaliere, Brigati and Cornish met as backing members of Joey Dee & the Starliters, the “Peppermint Twist” group that included Jimi Hendrix early in his career. Danelli joined soon after and the band came to the attention of music moguls that included Phil Spector during a summer 1965 residency at The Barge on Long Island.

Alongside Brigati, Cavaliere co-wrote many of the Rascals’ best-loved songs, but by 1970 the hits dried up and the band fractured. Cavaliere performed with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in 1995. The Rascals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 but rarely performed together again. Steven Van Zandt reunited the group in 2012 for The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, a concert and multimedia event that appeared on Broadway in 2013, followed by a short tour.

Cavaliere has released several solo albums and toured with his group, Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals. Cavaliere is reunited with Cornish in The Rascals Featuring Felix Cavaliere & Gene Cornish Time Peace Tour that begins in November.

We spoke with Cavaliere from his home in Nashville as the new tour was taking shape.

Rock Cellar: What’s an Italian from New York doing in Nashville?

Felix Cavaliere: It’s a different world down here. However, man, this place is booming. It’s amazing what’s going on down here. Nashville is the songwriter capital of the world right now, I think. But we still don’t have an Italian deli. We got a little one, a friend of mine moved from Albany, but that’s about it. We’re gettin’ there. There’s no place like home.

Rock Cellar: How big of a band will you have to support you and Gene on the upcoming tour?

Felix Cavaliere: We’re working on that as we speak. We’re trying to keep the original vibe where we were self-contained. We also have added a bass player. I’ve done that for many years because I don’t kick the pedals anymore on the organ.

But I’m not sure if we’re going to enhance it too much. I’ve got an excellent band that I’ve been using all these years and now we’re gonna include Gene. It’s kind of experimental because of his health. With all due respect, he’s had a tough time. We’re trying to see what he can and can’t do and just take it from there.

We have three horns that we add. I’m not sure if we’re going to use any background singers. We’ve also got an extra keyboard player. So, we’re about six or seven now as it is. With horns it’s ten.

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Rock Cellar: You were critical in the book about the extravagant production of Once Upon a Dream. Will you scale things down on the tour?

Felix Cavaliere: Absolutely. For Broadway, I thought it was perfect in terms of the accoutrements, the additions. However, when you try to take something like that on the road, you’d better be Bruce Springsteen. Because it’s a very expensive endeavor.

Rock Cellar: And it seems the more complicated it is, the more technical screwups. 

Felix Cavaliere: My guru used to tell us that the more gadgets you have, the more gadgets you have to fix. I ran into a real problem with that. I just did not agree with the size. That was my complaint. You want to have success. 

Rock Cellar: Will you perform the songs that Eddie sang lead on?

Felix Cavaliere: There weren’t that many that he sang lead on. I know “How Can I Be Sure” is the one that everybody knows. I’ve got an excellent singer that does that. I used to do it but I like to have somebody else do it. I’ve got a bass player, a New York, Brooklyn guy, he does a good job on that. 

And as far as any of the other ones, I usually do them myself. My drummer does “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore.” We do it, but Eddie hasn’t sung for quite a while. He’s been on the shelf for a while. So, people are used to other people doing it.

Rock Cellar: The Rascals were one of the rare groups of the era that had hit after hit with different styles of music. Was that something you and Eddie set out to do?

Felix Cavaliere: No. You have to look at what the competition was in those days, coming over from overseas. Those Beatles, man, they opened door after door musically. Their contribution was … you can’t even describe it. 

For example, when a Beatles song came out, the radio stations had to play it. They definitely had to play it. When “Yesterday” and “Michelle” came out, that opened the door for us to do “How Can I Be Sure.”

I don’t know if radio would have accepted a ballad in 6/8 time with a French kind of connotation if it hadn’t been for the Beatles opening up that door. Dylan was another one that crashed down doors when he did “Like a Rolling Stone” and it was six minutes. It freaked out the radio stations. 

The competition, and I use that word with all due respect, really raised the bar to such a level and also allowed me to write and create songs that were in different genres. 

Rock Cellar: You have a section in the book where you describe some Spinal Tap moments. 

Felix Cavaliere: What people don’t realize is that when we started, when people who were in self-contained bands started going on the road and the audience expanded and the venues became larger and larger, a lot of these things that are now taken for granted had to be learned.

I remember working at the Fillmore West. Bill Graham, he was so far ahead of his time. People didn’t know about lights, they didn’t know about sound, but he did. He really put on a concert. We worked there with the Doors, oh God, we had so much fun out there. 

We used to use risers in the back. We had Dino, who was on the drums, on a riser and I was on the organ on a riser. To get to the stage, before the lights go on, was a treacherous situation. 

One time I missed and just heard “Ka-pow! Bang!” So, the next thing that was invented was the road manager, with a flashlight, so you could get to the stage. That’s standard procedure nowadays. However, in our day, you had to fall down, break your neck.

So, these things evolved as time went on. There’s just so many things that were not there that are now there. Thank God we were young, because now at our age we might not be able to get back up. We had so much fun.

Rock Cellar: You knew Jimi Hendrix during his early days with Joey Dee. Most people only know his later flamboyant style. What was he like during those days? 

Felix Cavaliere: Jimi’s work was predicated by his personality. If you read his story, it’s not the most pleasant story in the world. He had a tough time, and as a result he was not really the outgoing Jimi Hendrix of the Experience. He was kind of shy. 

And being shy, and being a guitar player, they don’t really go together. For example, when he used to work with the Isleys, he would be in the back. When it was time to do his solo, he would come up like the old days when the saxophone player or the trumpet player would go up to the microphone.

He was kind of laid-back. His playing was not, but he was a little less “I’m gonna show you something awesome,” as “I’m gonna do my thing.” Do your thing and do it wonderfully, but you’re not the star of the show. A lot of times when you work as a sideman, the guy who’s the so-called head honcho doesn’t really want you to shine too much. Don’t make me look bad, dude, because you’re phenomenal and I’m not. 

Rock Cellar: And then he opens for you in Central Park. 

Felix Cavaliere: All of a sudden, I’m in the dressing room and this guy comes in with a hat and a feather. He’s standing there looking me right in the friggin’ eye. I said, “Man, que pasa? What’s goin’ on?”

He says, “Man, I’m gonna show you what’s goin’ on.” And he showed us what was goin’ on. That was not the guy that I knew that was shy and unassuming. This was a guy who said, “Look out, man, here I come.”

And man, he just kicked ass. I’ll never forget that, because you can imagine a guy who’s been suppressed. And definitely he was suppressed. Now I’m on stage, Central Park, New York City. Let me show you something. Man, he did. 

Rock Cellar: And you had to follow him.

Felix Cavaliere: Well, it was our crowd there. Nobody knew who he was so that wasn’t a problem, but you couldn’t follow Jimi Hendrix. That was a whole different, as he said, experience. But hey, God bless him, he was a great guy. He was a wonderful dude, and what a shame we lost a guy like that.

Rock Cellar: Tell me about your philosophy of choosing B-sides. Couldn’t songs like “Love Is a Beautiful Thing” and “What Is the Reason” have been A-sides?

Felix Cavaliere: I keep talking about the Beatles, because they had two-sided hits all the time. All the time. So, you try to put your best foot forward on the second side. Sometimes that was a mistake. 

Rock Cellar: “Mustang Sally,” written by Sir Mack Rice, was the B-side of “Good Lovin’.”

Felix Cavaliere: We didn’t realize that the other side of the 45 sells the same amount of records as the flip side. We didn’t get that. You’re supposed to put your song on the other side, not somebody else’s. Hello!

Rock Cellar: And then you met Mack Rice later.

Felix Cavaliere: Yes. And he thanked me for that profusely. He said, “Man, thank you bro, I made so much money with you doin’ that!” Yeah, you did. 

We really weren’t tuned into the money part of the business. We just wanted to make hit records, really get over to the public and let them love us. Have a career. That’s really what it was about. Oh, you get to make money too? Oh, OK, got it. That comes later. You leave that up to the managers to think about.

The B-sides, it was kind of a pride thing. We’re gonna put a good song on the other side. You were hoping for the disc jockeys to turn it over. That’s how those two-sided hits used to happen. 

Rock Cellar: It reminds me of Phil Spector, who used to put the worst songs possible on the B-side to ensure that the DJs didn’t flip it.

Felix Cavaliere: Phil was a business man, always. He was a magnificent talent, don’t get me wrong, but a friend of mine wrote a song that says it all: “It’s not the money, it’s the money.”

Rock Cellar: Before you signed a record deal, Phil Spector offered to produce you and you turned him down. Why did you do it?

Felix Cavaliere: I wanted to do our songs. I felt, look, I had this idea, it worked so far as to get us offers. Why don’t you let me try it? 

I really wanted to produce the band. I knew what we had, I had some great singers, I had some great players. We could do it, man. Look at the audience. I didn’t want to go and have somebody take it over, which is what the A&R people used to do, especially Phil. We would have been the Phil Spector Band. 

He did a good job with the Beatles, no question about it, but I’m sure he was curtailed.

Rock Cellar: How did the Beatles influence your music? What did you take from their albums?

Felix Cavaliere: The tremendous creative content. That band had three songwriters. Three prolific songwriters. You jump through “Help!” to “Norwegian Wood.” It’s unbelievable. 

So what did we take? What I took was man, this is a high bar to reach. Let me do my best because it’s really nothing but respect. 

Rock Cellar: You seemed to really enjoy your time with the All-Starr Band. What were the off-hours like? Did Ringo tell any Beatles stories?

Felix Cavaliere: No, not really about the Beatles. I remember one time someone asked Ringo, “Hey Ringo, how come you’re sitting up so high?” And just like kids, everybody got quiet all of a sudden so we could hear his answer. And he said, “Well, I gotta be seen, don’t I?” Great guy.

He’s very, I wouldn’t say closed, but to get to know a Beatle, and I’ve known a few of them, it’s almost impossible. I said once to George Harrison, “You guys have any idea of the impact you make when you move your right arm three inches?” 

And he very quietly said, “Yes.” They had to carry that wherever they went. For example, when we were on tour, we wanted to go to a movie theater. Ringo had to rent the whole place. There was no audience but us. Especially after those horrible assassination attempts.

It’s a whole different planet that this guy was on. Just like Elvis. They were on the same level. That doesn’t happen too often. We were stars, we were rock and roll, but we weren’t Beatles or Elvis. So we had it a little easier. A lot easier. There’s a respect. And I hope people still have that respect. They deserve it.

Rock Cellar: Let’s do a Lightning Round: Favorite early R&B group.

Felix Cavaliere: The Isleys. They knocked me out. 

Rock Cellar: An underappreciated Rascals song more people should have listened to.

Felix Cavaliere: “Real Thing.” That’s the one.

Rock Cellar: What’s the best cover of a Rascals song that you’ve heard?

Felix Cavaliere: I like Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run.” That was good. 

Rock Cellar: Advice you’d give four kids starting a band today.

Felix Cavaliere: Get a job! It’s tough, man. I used to speak at the music schools. I try to tell people, look, if you want to be in the music business, be cognizant that there’s only so many seats in the church. 

But you can make a ton of money. For example, advertising. People who make video game music. They’re loaded. You don’t know their name. 

Don’t always try to get the spotlight. Use your creativity because there’s so many bands out there, it’s so hard. Have a good time but find yourself a way to make music for a living besides being a star or on stage or recording. Because it’s just hard. 

Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

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