BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
Ex-Rascals leader Felix Cavaliere knows how much joy his music has brought to millions of people for nearly 50 years. However, one recent incident with an uber fan was especially gratifying.
“It happened a little while back in Yonkers,” recalls the 71-year-old composer of such classic hits as “It’s A Beautiful Morning,” “Groovin,” and “People Got To Be Free.” “This homeless girl came up to me. At first I thought she wanted money, but she goes, ‘No, no, no. I just want to let you know how much your music has meant to me through all the despair I’ve been through.’ That’s the kind of acknowledgement you can’t buy. She gave me this little book calendar, and I asked her for her address so I could send her something, but of course she didn’t have one.”
Two years ago musician-actor Steve Van Zandt arranged for the original Rascals, including singer-percussionist Eddie Brigati, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli, to reunite for the first time in over 40 years. The show called “Once Up A Dream,” which included actors reenacting The Rascals’ story (a la The Four Season’s “Jersey Boys”) drew big crowds for nearly a year and a half, till late last year.
Now Cavaliere is reunited with his own band ,and will be performing on October 12 at New Brunswick’s State Theater, along with B.J. Thomas, Dennis Tufano (of The Buckinghams), The Vogues and the 1910 Fruitgum Company. He is also working on a new Christmas album, and is planning on debuting some songs on December 14 at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre, on a Christmas show with singer Darlene Love.
Examiner: At what age did you realize you had the innate ability to write songs?
Cavaliere: It was when I was very young, because I started piano lessons at age 5. I never really learned from anyone how to write songs. I was writing down my own ideas from about the age of seven.
Examiner: How influential were some of rock’s early successful songwriters, like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman?
Cavaliere: Well, Leiber and Stoller (the composers of many hits for Elvis Presley, The Coasters and The Drifters – Ed.) would be at the very top of my personal list, but you know, anybody who wrote hit songs influenced me. When I started performing while I was in high school, I was doing songs from people like Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn, that were standards. So, when I started playing Bar Mitzvahs, this is what people wanted to hear, and then later on it became more rock and roll.
Examiner: In the 60s, there was a division between a very talented pool of songwriters like King and Goffin, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, and Neil Diamond who specifically just wrote songs at the famous Brill Building, and singers who couldn’t write who needed material from there and other sources. Did you believe that you could do both, or did you have aspirations to just write for other people?
Cavaliere: Well, when Dylan came along, he was kind-of the precursor of someone who could write his own hit songs.
Examiner: Now, when The Rascals signed with Atlantic Records in 1965, the label wanted the group to record songs from outside writers. I believe the group’s first album contained only one original song,. So, Atlantic obviously lacked confidence in the group’s songwriting ability.
Cavaliere: Basically, when we started there, they told us what to do. Even though we had production power, we were just kids with no real clout. They said, “We’re gonna get you a song.” So, our first single was a cover, “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (which only made it to number 48 on the national charts – Ed.). Then we brought in “Good Lovin’” (a cover song – Ed.), which we had in our live repertoire. After that became a number one record, all of a sudden, the attitude changed, and Atlantic was no longer telling us what to do. We were telling them what to do.
Examiner: From my point of view though, your having a number one hit with outside material seemed to reinforce what they originally thought about the group’s need to do covers.
Cavaliere: But, the clock had changed from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock. We were now in charge. We said, “We’re now gonna write our own songs.” It was a very risky move to do at the time, but they couldn’t do anything to stop us. The artist became much more in control than the way things were done in the old days. After we became successful, there was even more pressure on us (to come up with original material) because we were doing two albums a year, whereas guys like Billy Joel who came along later, would do like one album every three years.
Examiner: Also, The Beatles, who came a little before The Rascals, really created a demand for self-contained groups that could not only sing and play their own instruments, but could also write their own material.
Cavaliere: Yes, and the ’60s was an extremely creative time for music, a real renaissance. You know, music crosses all lines of consciousness. It enters your body and your mind and soul without language barriers. It’s all about communication and, to me, music is one of the highest forms of communication. I’m very proud to be part of that.
Examiner: How does it feel being back on the road with your own band, even though so many people were happy to see the reunited Rascals the previous two years?
Cavaliere: My premise is this: These guys that I’m with right now I’ve been with for 16 years. We’ve never had a disagreement, an argument, any bad feelings. We’ve had nothing but musical bliss. You’ve gotta be happy. I have a personal philosophy that everything has a beginning and an end. God intended for us to have a birth and a death, and that even applies to rock groups. So, I don’t even look at it as a negative when a group splits up these days. We did what we were supposed to do.
Examiner: One final comment: It was great seeing you and John Sebastian recently at a songwriters’ symposium at New York University. It would be really special for all of your fans to see you and John collaborate on an album and a tour.
Cavaliere: That’s a great idea. I’ve tried for years, man. The story of my life! (Laughs.) John is a very special cat. I love him. He’s the real deal. I would love to write some music with him. I’ve tried in the past, when I was living on the East Coast, but nowadays, with the Internet, you can collaborate anywhere. You know, I’m gonna bring it up again, the next time I talk with John. It’s a real mutual admiration society, and it would be a great selling point: two guys from the ’60s working together.