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Photo: Dennis Manuel
“Some people may not realize it but the Rascals were the first rock band in the world … in the center of the universe, New Jersey, the Rascals were the first band.”
– Steven Van Zandt, 1997 Induction of the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
New Jersey has always been an essential part of the blue-eyed soul of the Rascals. In the 1960s, the Rascals produced a string of hits notable for the diversity of their sound. “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’,” “How Can I Be Sure,” “A Beautiful Morning” and “People Got to Be Free” were all Top 10 hits. Founding members Eddie Brigati (vocals), Felix Cavaliere (keyboards and vocals), Gene Cornish (guitar) and Dino Danelli (drums) had an acrimonious breakup in the ’70s that seemed permanent.
Despite the odds, actor and musician Steven Van Zandt, guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, brought the group to Broadway in 2013 in The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream. Produced by Van Zandt and his wife Maureen, the multimedia production featured the Rascals’ electrifying live performance and wowed audiences.
Today, the chances that the Rascals will perform together again are remote. But in March 2018, Brigati, still a Jersey Boy, began a monthly residency at New York’s Cutting Room. The voice of “How Can I Be Sure” has a new cabaret-style show, Eddie Brigati: After the Rascals, also produced by the Van Zandts.
Brigati’s career began as a 15-year-old when he joined his brother David in Joey Dee and the Starliters, headliners at New York’s Peppermint Lounge. Brigati weaves stories with songs from that era as well as the Great American Songbook, Broadway and of course, the many Rascals hits he co-wrote. Brigati’s next appearance at the Cutting Room is April 5.
Rock Cellar: Bands like the Rascals, Vanilla Fudge, the Vagrants, the Hassles with Billy Joel – these New York-New Jersey bands of the ’60s had a certain sound. What set these bands apart from the rest of the country?
Eddie Brigati: The melting pot of the Tri-State Area. Heavy, heavy black influence. And don’t disregard intelligence, information. Everything is here. We have the best here. We have the worst here, too, but we have the best here. I grew up 11 miles from Manhattan. We were so close to the hub; New York is another ‘nother. Long Island, Billy Joel, these are all under the influence of New York, that information, that data. Name something that you can’t get in New York. Diseases, everything [laughs].
Rock Cellar: Tell me about performing with your brother David and Joey Dee at the Peppermint Lounge.
Eddie Brigati: My brother David was my influence. He is a wonderful, beautiful singer. He sang all those backgrounds. Joey Dee and the Starliters, they were a dance band. We called them combos back in the day, a combination of singers and a dance band and we were the singers. We were the background singers. We were the featured singers, the ballad singers. I was 15 years old. I recorded the last album that Joey Dee did, What Kind of Love Is This. I was the first tenor on that recording.
It was 45th St. You know what that was, all these little bust-out joints, all these little B-joints. All the sailors came off the ships, Midtown, and went into Manhattan, Hell’s Kitchen. What do you want? What do you need, what do you like, what do you want? How much? And that’s people.
Whenever there’s people, man, there could be one guy in the room, there’s corruption. The Peppermint Lounge, my brother worked there 13 months. He only got paid after the eighth month, I swear to God. He said, “Joey had kids and [singer] Roger Freeman had kids.” He let them have the money. In 13 months, we got to know everybody. They were celebrities, second to none. They were a dance band, they sang ballads, they were jumpin’, untrained, all raw, organic material.
Everybody went there. The Kennedys, everybody that was anybody went there. When bad things happened they let me run out the back door. If there was ever a fight, all the waitresses that my brother knew, all the girls that worked there, hugged me and let me wait up in their room. “Eddie could stay here.” I was a little fly on a big wall.
Rock Cellar: “Good Lovin'” was your first No. 1. How did that come about?
Eddie Brigati: Dino and Felix were probably the most studious. They’d go uptown, they’d look at the black charts and find out what was up and coming because black charts, even back then, were in no-man’s land, they weren’t really featured. We had a rhythm and blues propensity, the singing and the rhythm and blues structure of a song.
So they’d look and “Good Lovin'” was by the Olympics. That was more of a Latin song. And when we got a hold of it, those guys just stuck the rock stick into it and that was the audacity, the young, “C’mon, let’s get outta here, let’s go!”
Rock Cellar: “You Better Run” was the first single written by you and Felix. Describe how you wrote together.
Eddie Brigati: We were brothers, we lived together. We breathed together. Felix always said, “I’m not a lyricist,” so he inspired me to write. Our method was, if you lived together, one song is done in ten minutes, one song is done in ten years. Ten years worth of information goes into that song. Sometimes a lifetime.
As a poet, I’m not at a loss for words [laughs] but I would say to him, “Give me an idea, what do you want this to be?” And he would say, “Groovin’. It’s a groove, it’s a groovin’.” And we’d sing this backstage, we’re at a gig, and sitting in a locker room, we’d just strum it. I think I wrote something like 23 verses to it and he liked two of them and then we’d collaborate on writing the third verse. You craft something, you work on it 40 or 50 times, the second, third time you play it in a room, people get bored, they walk out. And then you go back in there and you shine it and there’s a bump here and you sand it. The parts that aren’t really ready yet, sometimes they become the highlights.
And because we were self-conscious about our image, we didn’t write about the heavy drugs and screwin’ and stuff like that. We might have dabbled but we didn’t want to project that image so as Steven said, “Your work never went dark. You guys might have [laughs] but your work never went dark.”
Rock Cellar: With “Groovin'” and “How Can I Be Sure,” you seemed to be moving away from hard rock. Did you get any resistance from Atlantic Records?
Eddie Brigati: Yes. But in the world that’s constantly changing? Remember, Atlantic was a black label. The first releases we had, they didn’t even want to show our picture. After we did “Groovin'” came [Atlantic head] Jerry Wexler: “That’s not the Rascals.” They were trying to put you in that pocket.
Rock Cellar: Wexler was telling you what’s not the Rascals?
Eddie Brigati: Yeah, well, we didn’t even know. You don’t know you’re gonna be famous when you’re 20 years old, 19 years old. We didn’t know we were gonna last this long. It’s half a century later! We weren’t household words, nobody ever knew our names until later. But we’re up there with the Beatles and the Stones, the top level, in the ethers of rock and roll and history.
Rock Cellar: “How Can I Be Sure.” Not a traditional rock record with instruments like a concertina. Is that an example of the kind of music you liked even back when you were a hard rock outfit?
Eddie Brigati: There were elements of the Rascals, that flavor, that was a European flavor. That was a classical approach, it was a jazz waltz and the sincerity of it, this 19-, 20-year-old guy is going, “What’s going on here? In the world that’s constantly changing.” I ask myself this every day but I’m a little older now and I know it’s constantly changing, and that’s where music comes in.
Our particular music is rhythm and blues. That was the strong influence. And Felix had that covered as well. Dino, he’s second to none. He was the painter, he was like the hummingbird, anvil, power. There are no two Rascals songs the same. And each one is a different scenario.
Rock Cellar: Was that something you did intentionally? Did you go into the studio and say “OK, we’ve got to change things up?”
Eddie Brigati: We came from four diverse places. Felix was probably the most musical of us in terms of being educated musically. We were organic. My brother and I were not trained musicians. I often joke that we learned by fear. Instead of by ear, it’s fear. We come from singing. Johnny Mathis is one of my most favorite singers. And the Flamingos, the Harptones, all those big, beautiful, background-singing groups. They come from the church.
The diversity was about cooperation. The whole idea of music is cooperation. Not under fire. People willing to cooperate.
Rock Cellar: The Rascals would not perform to segregated audiences. Tell me about how that developed.
Eddie Brigati: The recognition of talent and brotherhood and art mixed with a little bit of mother, grandmother, moral scruples. I tell people, we have the best people and the worst people in New Jersey. And sometimes it’s the same guy! It depends what time you catch him doing what – with who.
They were sacred, the black singers. We come from rhythm and blues. Rhythm and blues is so important. Those songs are prayers. Those harmonies are blessings, prayers. These people are praying, they’re singing to God, whether it’s about their girlfriend or they’re singing about getting drunk on Saturday, they meant it, they were for real, that was their whole attachment to being. That was their whole acceptance.
When you stay there long enough you do get the church. Because they’re people, they’re the most wonderful, beautiful people. So that was my influence.
Rock Cellar: Along with touring and recording, you and Felix must have been writing continuously. Did you ever take a break?
Eddie Brigati: No! No, there was no management, poor management and bad management all at the same time. When I left the Rascals I was broke and broken. We did almost a million miles, a thousand performances. We did it all. We did seven albums, we wrote five of them. We did seven albums in five years and somebody mentioned we might have been lazy. This is just mishandling. Mismanagement.
Rock Cellar: It must have been like the Wild West.
Eddie Brigati: What do you mean, “was”? It’s worse now, but now they have fuckin’ machine guns! [laughs] It’s so upside down and backwards, the world now. “In a world that’s constantly changing” is not a joke.
Rock Cellar: Steven and Maureen Van Zandt brought the Rascals together again in 2013 with Once Upon a Dream. Has Steven ever talked to you about the influence the Rascals had on his and the E Street Band’s music?
Eddie Brigati: Absolutely. That was the whole point. Steven is a 10-star human being. Between him and Maureen, they gave me an opportunity to do the Rascals reunion, which was a wonderful production of Rascals material, the largest treatment of Rascals material in history. So that starts the whole thing.
He introduced us at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. That’s when I first had real contact with him. He said once he heard “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” he was hooked. The rawness of it and the power of it. The whole attitude about the performance of it. Him and Bruce were at the first concert together. They didn’t know each other at the time. From that point on, he was a dedicated Rascals fan.
He proved it in so many ways. In his art, in his heart, and he backed the whole production of it and spared no expense. It was an incredible amount of money but it was the least of his interest in it. He wanted the world to know, he told me, the world should know, the generations should know that body of music.
In 2013 we had that incredible run, we did 71 shows, two weeks on Broadway, we went to Canada. He’s an honest guy, he’s a generous person and he’s a renegade. So what more could you ask?
Rock Cellar: How was your new show at the Cutting Room developed?
Eddie Brigati: It was me trying to be an adult. Steven said, “What influenced you as a kid? What was your musical influence?” He gave me an opportunity. He said, “You have to develop yourself.” Because he saw something in me that was the potential of me going on to continue my career as a singer. They put together some ideas, we rehearsed for a long time and went through songs and then Maureen developed Broadway songs.
I didn’t even know at the time that she put eight or nine songs together from Broadway and I liked the Sinatra touch of it. So there’s Broadway songs, there’s rhythm and blues, naturally the Rascals songs, our heritage.
I do a thing by Ben E. King, “I (Who Have Nothing).” So the variety of it, switching up, changing it. OK, you do a fast one, then we’ll do a Latin one.
So it’s the story of telling 18 stories. And each character is different. He’s wearing a different costume. He’s taking on a different persona. And that’s basically what we are. We’re storytellers and we’re trying to communicate.
And that’s my whole philosophy. The music philosophy is people sitting down and trading information and inspiring each other.
Rock Cellar: Was the band happy enough with Once Upon a Dream to consider coming back together for more shows?
Eddie Brigati: The only person that made that possible was Steven Van Zandt. If it wasn’t for his management, his grace, his generosity, his perseverance … we kidded him that he wrestles alligators as a hobby. I wish that we could. I wish that there was a place to come together and have that same equity, that innocence, that chance at peace to cooperate.
And we did it unknowingly. We did it by pure intention as children. And as it developed on, it was eaten by corruption from outside in. And people tend to separate, divide and conquer. Those aren’t just clichés, they’re actual things.
But having said that, you can’t take away the original initial worth of who the Rascals were. Would it happen again? Maybe Jesus, if he gets some time off [laughs] wants to suit up, armor up … I wish I had the power. It’s probably gonna haunt me every day of my life, to get into a position but the closest thing was Once Upon a Dream.
Jesus, that’s our only hope.