Gene Cornish Talks ‘My Life as a Rascal,’ Reuniting with Felix Cavaliere & More


Frank MastropoloCategories:I'm Still Standing

Rock Cellar Magazine

Gene Cornish was at a crossroads in 1964. Born in Ontario, Cornish moved to Rochester, NY, early in life and formed a band called the Unbeatables. The group made an early splash in New York City but soon found themselves out of work and dispirited. All members except Cornish returned to Rochester. 

Determined to succeed in the Big Apple, the guitarist landed a gig with Joey Dee & the Starliters, the “Peppermint Twist” pop group that included keyboardist Felix Cavaliere and singer Eddie Brigati. By 1965, the three musicians quit and, with drummer Dino Danelli, formed the Young Rascals.

The Young Rascals aka The Rascals at a Long Island high school in 1967. Photo via Gene Cornish.

The Young Rascals were wildly successful in the 1960s with hits like “Good Lovin,’” “Groovin,’” “A Girl Like You,” “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” and “How Can I Be Sure.” The group’s original look was knickers, ruffled shirts and caps, but as Cornish tells Rock Cellar, they abandoned it when the costumes received a cool reaction from African American audiences. Their name was soon shortened to “The Rascals.”

Cornish published his memoir, Good Lovin’: My Life as a Rascal in 2020. It’s an unflinching account of the guitarist’s life in and out of music, including his 2018 collapse on stage in Billings, MT, when he went into cardiac arrest.  

Although the Rascals are one of the earliest bands in which all the original members survive, relations have been strained over the years. Its members have performed in various combinations and with their own Rascals groups. The Rascals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

The band was brought together by Steven Van Zandt in 2012 for The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, a concert and theatrical extravaganza that had a Broadway run in 2013 and subsequent tour. The show’s tightly scripted setlist, synched to the audiovisual elements behind them, did not allow for improvisation by the musicians.

Cornish talked with Rock Cellar from his home in New Jersey as details for upcoming tour dates with Cavaliere were being worked out.  (Tour Dates details below)

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about the upcoming tour. Unlike Once Upon a Dream, will you do extended solos?

Gene Cornish: We’re gonna keep it real. No self-indulgence. People want to hear the hits. And that’s what we had in Once Upon a Dream. They want to hear the hits, and we’re gonna dig deep into our repertoire again. 

Rock Cellar: As I read your book, I thought, “There’s no way he’ll perform with Felix again.” 

Gene Cornish: There’s no such thing as never. We were never gonna tour together, and then along came Once Upon a Dream.

Gene Cornish & Felix Cavalieri of The Rascals. Photo via Gene Cornish

Rock Cellar: Did you think at that time that the band would stay together?

Gene Cornish: Felix and I had hoped that. After the end of the tour, we reached out to Dino and we reached out to Eddie. Eddie didn’t want to do it any more. And Dino had a lot of demands which we couldn’t meet. We had a feeling he didn’t want to really do it. He was coming up with excuses.

Now Dino is incapable of playing drums anymore. He’s in a long-term facility. And Eddie turned us down again. 

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Rock Cellar: Who were your influences as you began to learn to play guitar?

Gene Cornish: James Burton, who played guitar with Ricky Nelson, Scotty Moore, who played with Elvis, Duane Eddy, Cliff Gallup and the Ventures.

Rock Cellar: So it was a rockabilly influence.

Gene Cornish: That’s what I kind of did when I joined the Rascals, rockabilly and English rock and roll. I had a group called the Unbeatables. We broke up and I joined Joey Dee & the Starliters and that’s when I met Eddie and Felix. And when we didn’t get along financially with Joey — I’ll be kind by saying it that way — well, he’s a friend. Joey gave me my first break. He was the only boss I ever had. 

Rock Cellar: How did the band come up with its original look?

Gene Cornish: We had rehearsals up in Felix’s father’s house in Pelham, NY. We arranged during-the-week rehearsals for two weeks because Dino had a gig in Newburgh, NY on weekends still. 

Eddie showed up at the first rehearsal wearing knickers as a joke. He’s kind of like a Harpo Marx-kind of character. And we had been discussing how we didn’t want to wear suits like the Beatles. We didn’t want to wear jeans like the Stones, what should we wear?

Eddie comes in and says that he and his friends went to Orchard Street down on the Lower East Side and went into a clothing store and found 50 pair of knickers that were from the ’40s. And they were 50 cents a pair, so they bought everything. They spent $25 on knickers and took them home to see what fit. And we said “that’s a great idea.”

Eddie had a school friend who had a shirt manufacturing company and he made the shirts with the collars for us. We had knee socks and that’s how we got it.

Rock Cellar: When did you decide the knickers had to go?

Gene Cornish: “Good Lovin'” was No. 1 and we were playing at the Fox Theater for Murray the K and we were on the bill with the Shangri-Las and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and Joe Tex and Patti LaBelle. We would do five shows a day. 

The first three shows were filled with young kids, white kids. At night it was a black audience to see Joe Tex. We would go out and we would just do two songs and the audience wasn’t paying any attention to us. We noticed that they were giving respectful applause, but there was no enthusiasm. 

I said “I think the knickers are killing us with this audience.” We had a fight about it, a long discussion about it. Finally, we gave up the knickers for the evening shows. And we got standing ovations from then on, so the knickers were gone.

Rock Cellar: What’s the back story of “The Rascals Are Coming” appearing on the Jumbotron screen during the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium?

Gene Cornish: In the summer of ’65 we got this job for the whole summer at a place called The Barge in the Hamptons. Quogue, NY. Right on the beach. That summer we were getting a lot of attention from record companies. 

We needed a manager. A lawyer and a Broadway producer came on the weekend to see the Rascals. They said, “Do you have off this Monday?” We said, “Yeah, that’s our day off. “

“Well, if we bring this man down to see you, his name’s Sid Bernstein. Maybe we’d like him to be your manager. We’d like you to audition for him.”

We said, “sure.” So they brought Sid Bernstein down. They kidnapped him from the city because he was talent coordinator for the Hullabaloo television show at the time. And he was producing the Beatles, and the Beatles’ show was coming up.

He came out anyway against his will and he loved the Rascals. We signed with him and on our day off, August 15, 1965, we attended the Beatles show at Shea Stadium. We were sitting in the dugout, the third-base dugout where the Beatles were supposed to come through and go to the stage. Sid Bernstein, being the promoter, had the people at Shea Stadium put on the Jumbotron “The Rascals Are Coming.” 

Now, Brian Epstein didn’t like that. He didn’t know what that was about but he said, “You’d better take that off or I’m gonna stop the Beatles from playing on the show.” So, Sid took it off. 

It was about the Rascals coming, but no one in the audience knew who we were. It was just a whim on Sid’s part. Epstein became a fan of the Rascals after that. He was good friends with Sid and came to see us at the studio when we were recording and became a fan.

As a matter of fact, Epstein wanted to buy the contract from Sid when the first record came out. Nat Weiss, who managed James Taylor and a bunch of other acts, was Epstein’s business partner in New York. And they’re having a meeting and Epstein told Sid, “I think the Rascals are going to become big, I’d like to buy their contracts.”

Sid was considering it and then Epstein excused himself and went to the bathroom. Nat Weiss, who was Epstein’s best friend, said to Sid, “Don’t sell this to Epstein. They’re gonna be big, you should keep it.”

And he did.

Rock Cellar: You called the appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show “the favorite performance of your career.” Tell me about that show. 

Gene Cornish: One of our favorites, yeah. Back in the late ‘50s, early ’60s when I lived in Rochester, Mom and I and Dad religiously watched the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday to see what rock and roll bands were on. They had Buddy Holly, all of the acts. I wanted to be on that show some day. 

Back in 1959 my Mom and Dad took me and my band to New York City for an audition. Now my Dad knew nothing was going to come of it but he wanted to give me the experience. 

So we went to the audition, then we were walking on Broadway in the afternoon and out of Jack Dempsey’s restaurant comes Ed Sullivan. My mother just walks up to him ’cause mothers have no filter. She goes up to him, she goes, “Mr. Sullivan, you know who I am? You don’t know but my son is gonna be on your show someday.”

One of the times we were on, the show fell three minutes short and we’d already played at the end of the show. So, Ed Sullivan brought us back and we had nothing rehearsed with the cameras so we decided to do “Mickey’s Monkey” and “Love Lights.” And that was the best performance we ever had on that show.

Rock Cellar: One of your earliest important shows was at The Scotch of St. James, a London nightclub. 

Gene Cornish: We were at Scotch of St. James and we were doing a small tour of England. We had to play these little clubs. Even though we were big, big in America we were promoting ourselves as a new band, an underground band. We’re on the stage and in the audience, Roger Daltrey, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Graham Nash and Keith Moon. 

Dino’s bass drum had not been nailed down to the stage. The roadies forgot to nail it down and it was sliding. Sliding forward, sliding forward. All of a sudden there’s a blur of a body that jumps on the stage and puts his back on the bass drum. It was Keith Moon.

So, Dino said, “You really saved me. I owe you a favor.” Keith Moon said, “Teach me how to twirl the sticks.” So, Dino created a monster.

Gene Cornish of the Rascals backstage Music Casters in Riviera Beach Florida

Rock Cellar: You write about the fight to make your song “I’m So Happy Now” the B-side of “How Can I Be Sure.” What happened? 

Gene Cornish: The A-sides and the B-sides were being written by Eddie and Felix. We co-published all the songs, but the big money was in the writing. At one point I asked if I can I possibly have a B-side and Felix rejected the idea. He said, “We’re writing the hits, we deserve the B-sides.”

Eventually, when “How Can I Be Sure” came out, “I’m So Happy Now” became the B-side. It started to be played more than “How Can I Be Sure,” and Felix protested with the record company. Eventually “How Can I Be Sure” became No. 2.

Rock Cellar: You write about influential New York DJs like Murray the K and Cousin Brucie. Tell me about New York radio in the ‘60s and the role DJs played in breaking a record.

Gene Cornish: Radio stations were not segregated like they are now. They used to play everything: Top 40, new hits, there was WMCA and there was WABC in New York, WLS in Chicago, KRLA in LA. You would hear new songs on the radio as well as the hits. Totally different than now. Now it’s rap music, country music, jazz, R&B, oldies, all different worlds.

Cousin Brucie was the very first DJ in the world to play “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore.” On WABC. And we were so thrilled because we were told the day before when they were gonna play it. And we were all living together at the Hotel 14 upstairs from the Copacabana on East 60th Street. And we put on our little transistor radio on the shelf and for the first time ever, for two minutes and twenty seconds, the Rascals shut up and listened to him play it.

And about two weeks later we kidnapped Cousin Brucie after his show. It was wintertime and we had a fur coat we gave him and threw him in a limo and dragged him over to the Phone Booth where we were playing. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Bill Medley and Tom Jones were coming to see us play.

Rock Cellar: Let’s do a Lightning Round. Favorite guitarist.

Gene Cornish: James Burton.

Rock Cellar: Who is not in the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame who should be?

Gene Cornish: Tommy James & the Shondells.

~*~*~

UPDATED INFORMATION ON THE RASCALS “TIME PEACE TOUR” – With Felix Cavaliere and Gene Cornish

SAT, OCT 22 @ 8:00PM Silver Legacy Casino , Reno, NV (With Micky Dolenz)
Gene Cornish joins Felix Cavaliere in the “Time Peace Tour” for the following dates:
SUN, OCT 23 @ 7:00PM Celebrity Theatre , Phoenix, AZ
FRI, NOV 11 @ 8:00PM St. George Theatre , Staten Island, NY
SAT, NOV 12 @ 8:00PM College Street Music Hall , New Haven, CT
SUN, NOV 13 @ 7:30PM NYCB Theatre at Westbury , Westbury, NY
WED, NOV 16 @ 7:30PM Mayo Performing Arts Center , Morristown, NJ
FRI, NOV 18 @ 9:00PM Ovation Hall at Ocean Casino , Atlantic City, NJ
SAT, NOV 19 @ 8:00PM Kodak Center Theater , Rochester, NY
SUN, NOV 20 @ 7:30PM F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts , Wilkes-Barre, PA

Two legendary founders of The Rascals are together again. Felix Cavaliere and Gene Cornish cite the fans and love of their timeless songs as reasons for collaboration. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees, Grammy Hall of Fame, Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Songwriter Hall of Fame members, The Rascals are widely considered the best ‘blue-eyed soul’ group to come out of the 1960s and their music is the soundtrack of a generation. The Rascals have 17 Top 20 hits, seven Top 10 hits, and three No.1 hits that include “Groovin’, “People Got To Be Free” and “Good Lovin’.”

Ticket information can be found at: therascalstour.com
More at: https://www.genecornish.com
And  https://www.felixcavalieremusic.com/shows

Be sure to check back next month for our interview with the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere.

Frank 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.

Comments

  • Gailann Bordenet says:

    Love the Rascals. Anything coming to the Rockford, IL area.



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