Felix the Cat
The Rascals’ beloved singer, keyboardist Felix Cavaliere ‘64 reflects on a ‘groovin’’ career
That was 1988.
Some 25 years later, Cavaliere finds himself going over the same old lines. Only this time, there’s a tone of urgency in his voice, a renewed sense of optimism. Talk about recapturing lightning in a bottle. What gives?
Could it be that, on their current reunion tour, the Rascals are finally starting to mine some of their rich back-catalog, in addition to performing their customary string of hits (e.g., “Good Lovin,’” “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” “Groovin,’” “How Can I Be Sure?” and “A Beautiful Morning”)?
Might there be a new album in the works?
Is it about money?
“People look at us like we’re zillionaires, living in the lap of luxury,” says Cavaliere, 71, speaking by phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn. “It’s really about making music—not having fame and money, which are fleeting. I mean, how many people get to be like Bruce Springsteen?”
Maybe the real question is, “How many people get to be like Cavaliere and earn a second chance?” The latter is what excites the old soul hound, who was a pre-med major in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Since taking Broadway by storm, the Rascals’ much-ballyhooed reunion show, Once Upon a Dream, has been crisscrossing the country, giving aging Boomers another hit of Sixties’ nostalgia, while exposing younger generations—many, for the first time—to the cream of “white soul” music.
As Cavaliere and other rockers are wont to say, there are three constants in life: death, taxes, and reunion tours. The first two usually have nothing on the third. For Cavaliere, the chance to work with his original bandmates—who’ve been broken up since 1970—has been gratifying on multiple fronts.
“Not to get all New Age-y about it, but it’s been a healing opportunity for the band,” says Cavaliere, who, in January, was named an inaugural inductee of the Hammond Hall of Fame for his pioneering B-3 organ playing. “The Rascals haven’t been together for a while, so to get up there and make music that brings joy to a lot of people and to see their reactions … well, it’s big, big stuff.”
To be clear, this reunion is different from the last. Billed as a “BioConcert,” the production is part rock ‘n’ roll, part Broadway. No more cramped, dimly lit stages, with pint-sized dressing rooms. Once Upon a Dream is full-on theater. Written and co-produced by Steven Van Zandt (Springsteen’s E Street Band, The Sopranos), the show features more than 30 songs, interspersed with archival footage; narration by fellow Soprano Vincent Pastore; and dramatic film segments, utilizing the latest in LED screen technology.
Van Zandt (third from left), who helped engineer the comeback, calls Once Upon a Dream—borrowed from the title of the Rascals’ fourth studio album—one of the band’s most ambitious undertakings. “More than just a comeback or reunion, [it reminds] audiences of how uniquely inspirational, entertaining, and historically important the Rascals’ music is,” he writes. “Their music is unique not only in its greatness, but also, through their hit singles, it tells the entire story of the Sixties.”
What really makes this tour stand out is the unmistakable presence of Eddie Brigati, the band’s tambourine-happy singer and Cavaliere’s longtime writing partner. In 1988, Brigati was still smarting from the band’s breakup and reportedly refused to reunite. (Some sources say he was never asked.) The media had a field day, reminding fans there was little good lovin’ between the two.
But that was years ago, water under the bridge. The two have since smoothed over their differences, and, along with guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli, are staging one of rock’s more improbable comebacks.
Need proof? Look no further than to one of the last shows of the Rascals’ 2013 tour. Several thousand fans, of all ages, slogged through a Thanksgiving weekend snowstorm to catch their heroes onstage at Syracuse’s Landmark Theatre. Cavaliere and friends carried them back, so to speak, with hit after hit after hit.
The evening featured many memorable moments—including an onstage reconciliation of sorts between Cavaliere and Brigati—but perhaps the most poignant one occurred when the band took its curtain calls. That’s when Cavaliere, smiling and drenched in sweat, seemed to go off-script. “Thank you, Syracuse,” he uttered from the stage, his voice almost cracking with emotion. “I love you so much. I am proud to call you my own.”
With its quiet, tree-lined streets and gracious housing stock, the town of Pelham, in New York’s Westchester County, is probably an unlikely launch pad for a rock star, but that’s what it was for Felix Cavaliere. As a teenager, he cut his teeth on classical piano, but it didn’t hold his attention the way rock and soul did. Cavaliere soon traded in his Stamitz for the Stereos, a local, mostly black doo-wop quartet. (“Mixed groups in those days were a rarity,” Cavaliere says. “But we were well-received and a lot of fun.”) He was smitten.
When college rolled around, Cavaliere, a good student, considered his options—Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State, among them. He came from a long line of dentists and physicians, so going to SU because of its relative proximity to home and reputable pre-med program made sense. Studying medicine turned out to be the best mistake Cavaliere ever made.
“I guess I got a little disillusioned, you know,” he says, with a trace of a New York accent. “When I began finding out that some of my friends weren’t getting into medical school and a few of my own classmates seemed kind of lost, it really shook me. I guess it became God’s will that I started a rock ‘n’ roll band that became popular.”
The band in question was the Escorts. Much has been written about them, as well as SU’s nascent rock scene, which spawned such future celebs as Lou Reed ’64 (Velvet Underground), Mike Esposito ’62 (Blues Magoos), and Garland Jeffreys ’65.
“It was a great time,” recalls Cavaliere, speaking backstage after the Landmark Theatre show, which occurred almost a month, to the day, following Reed’s death. “I remember Lou. Of course, in those days, he was ‘Lewis Allan.’ I think he auditioned for the Escorts one time—kind of an odd guy who wasn’t all that good on guitar. Boy, did he prove us wrong.”
Jeffreys, an art history major who went on to become a popular singer-songwriter, says Cavaliere, even then, seemed primed for success. “He was a soulful cat,” says Jeffreys, best known for his Seventies’ radio anthem, “Wild in the Streets.” “Some of my fondest memories of SU are when Felix would set up outside on a Saturday afternoon and sing and play his organ.”
In his comprehensive website about Syracuse’s music history, Ron Wray explains how, in the early Sixties, “city bands” were all but segregated from campus, so university bands, such as the Escorts, held sway at campus functions, fraternity and sorority parties, and local bars and clubs.
“While the Twist was still filtering through local city bars, the university’s big band on campus, Felix and the Escorts, featured rhythm and blues as their main course,” writes Wray. It didn’t hurt that Cavaliere belonged to Sig Ep or hung with members of the football team. “Almost always, you could get a glimpse of Dave Meggyesy [’63], John Mackey [’63], or Jim Nance [’65], as they were some of Felix’s most devoted followers and were great fans of ‘soul music,’ as it was soon to be called,” Wray adds.
“In those days, SU was more of a football school than a basketball school, so I made friends with a lot of football players,” says Cavaliere, referencing the late Ernie Davis ’62. “Being at SU and playing in a white band that was embraced by black athletes was huge for me. I guess it was my destiny, if you think about it, because I would help form the first all-white band on an all-black label [Atlantic Records]. I probably wouldn’t have done that, if I had gone to school somewhere else.”
David Rezak, professor of practice and director of the Bandier Program in the Setnor School of Music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, was a local teenager during SU’s so-called “golden age” of music. “The Vietnam War, which was starting to heat up, became the great equalizer,” he says. “The fact you had the draft and a lot of students opposed to it, ultimately brought people together, regardless of skin color. … Music was critical to this process. There was some great stuff on the radio in 1962 and ’63, and nobody really cared if the musicians were black or white. If it was good, it was good.”
The Escorts enjoyed a two-year run, culminating with a lengthy stint in New York City, where they recorded “Do the Syracuse,” a regional hit that led to bookings in the Catskills. It was there that Cavaliere met and was later sought out by singer Joey Dee (second from right), whose band, the Starliters, needed an organist. Within hours, Cavaliere was on a plane to Europe, where Dee was touring in support of his hit single, “Peppermint Twist.”
“With Joey Dee, I got a taste of what it was like to be a professional musician, and I guess I got stung by it,” says Cavaliere, who did two European tours with the Starliters, as well as a year in the house-band at Dee’s Manhattan nightclub. “That’s when things really began picking up for me.”
Another turning point for Cavaliere was witnessing the impact of the Beatles, who opened for the Starliters in Stockholm in 1963. At that point in their career, the Fab Four were still mainly a curiosity—a British cover band, with an original hit single (“Please, Please Me”). When they took the stage in Stockholm, Dee and Cavaliere were gob-struck.
“I heard a great sound, and the audience was just going wild,” recalls Dee, who learned of the Beatles while working at the Star Club in Hamburg. “I knew something special was happening, but I just didn’t know what. … I mean, they were doing some of the same covers we were—songs by the Everly Brothers, the Isley Brothers, and Little Richard—but the reaction from the Swedish audience told me something was afoot. No one knew the Beatles would become such enormously successful songwriters.”
Cavaliere admits that seeing the Beatles reap all the glory for themselves inspired him to make the leap from sideman to frontman. “I hadn’t seen anything like it, since Elvis,” Cavaliere says. “I mean, the audience was going absolutely bananas over four singers who played their own instruments. When I saw the Beatles, I thought, ‘We can do that, too.’”
It wouldn’t be the last time Cavaliere crossed paths with the Beatles—a few years ago, he toured with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band—but, suffice to say, he saw the future, and it was a Union Jack. Cavaliere needed a band, a good American one, to fire the opening salvo against the British Invasion.
In the early Sixties, live music emanated from clubs on virtually every street corner in New York City. One such place was the Metropole Café, on 48th and Seventh, a hotspot for traditional and modern jazz. That’s where Cavaliere first spotted Dino Danelli, a stick-twirling, powerhouse drummer with Paul McCartney good-looks. Still a teenager, Danelli had already done time with such heavyweights as Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, and “Red” Nichols.
Cavaliere and Danelli instantly bonded and, in 1964, briefly made a go of it in Las Vegas, backing up singer Sandy Scott. When they returned home, Cavaliere introduced Danelli to some of Joey Dee’s sidemen, namely singer Eddie Brigati and guitarist Gene Cornish. (Brigati and Cornish could not be reached for comment.) The four of them began playing together and, in less than a year, were headlining some of the biggest clubs in New York and New Jersey.
Dee was not surprised by their success. “I detected some chemistry, whenever [Cavaliere, Brigati, and Cornish] backed me up,” says Dee, whose other guitarists would include future actor Joe Pesci and a shy “sui generis” named Jimmy James (a.k.a. Jimi Hendrix). “Those three had a sound that was natural, not artificial. Each one played off the other and could anticipate what the other was going to do. … I always thought they were an evolution of Joey Dee & the Starliters.”
Dee, who calls Cavaliere a lifelong friend and a consummate performer, was one of many tastemakers who thought the group would stick to playing covers. But when he heard Cavaliere and Brigati’s own compositions, he reconsidered. That all four members had worked with black musicians—the Starliters, for instance, were one of rock’s first integrated acts—gave them additional cred.
“As soon as we started jamming, we knew right away we had to start a band,” says Danelli, who also is an accomplished painter. “The Beatles changed everything. They inspired us to do our own material.”
Cavaliere says the Rascals’ signature sound—white pop melodies, steeped in muscular rock and soul—was unique for its time. “We would do a Beatles song here and there, but, instead of sounding like the Beatles, it would sound like an R&B song,” he says. “I don’t think our sound was intentionally planned; it just turned out that way. It was a natural progression.”
TV/radio personality Soupy Sales dubbed the quartet the Young Rascals, partly in homage to the The Little Rascals films, and, before long, they became regulars at the Choo Choo Club in Garfield, N.J., and the Barge in Southampton, on Long Island. (Below is a photo of socialite Edie Sedgwick dancing to them at the Barge, taken by Frederick Eberstadt.) “At the Choo Choo, they kept changing their name, so as to give the impression a different group was playing each time,” says David Brigati, Eddie’s older brother who also was one of Dee’s singers. “And the thing is it worked. The fans loved them, whether they called themselves the Rascals or the Pineapples.”
David Brigati, who arranged and sang background vocals on many of the Rascals’ songs, recalls those early recording sessions. “Ahmet always liked impromptu recordings,” he says. “Many of them were chaotic—you know, ‘ready or not, here we go’—and each song was usually done in a couple of takes. Arif was the secret weapon because he could score anything.”
In addition to giving the band room to grow, Atlantic was flush with sidemen who augmented the recording process. Some of them—bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist King Curtis, and flutist Hubert Laws—were stars in their own right. “Atlantic had a lot of jazz artists, and they always complained that the Rascals took up a lot of time in the studio,” David Brigati jokes. “I used to say to them, ‘Well, too bad. Get yourself a couple of hits, and we’ll talk about it.”
In 1965, the band’s first single, “I Ain’t Gonna’ Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” was an R&B scorcher that nearly cracked the top 50. The Rascals followed up with a fierce rendition of the Olympics’ “Good Lovin’”—with Felix handling lead vocals and the famous “one-two-three” countdown—which became their first No. 1 single. More top-20 hits followed, all of which were hefty slabs of “blue-eyed soul” from the pen of Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati.
Initially, Ertegun cleverly avoided displaying images of the band. “When we first went out on the road, Atlantic didn’t put our pictures on the [record] jacket because we were getting this incredible crossover, which was good for radio,” Danelli says. “Then we’d show up in-person, and people couldn’t believe we were white. A lot of that had to do with Felix’s voice.”
David Brigati recalls the time in 1967, when Otis Redding, days before his untimely death, visited the band in the studio. “He was very quiet and tired but sat down and listened to our vocal overdubs,” Briagti says. “Otis was amazed to find out we were white.”
With success came the inevitable labels and comparisons. The Rascals frequently found themselves lumped in the same category as the Animals, the Righteous Brothers, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels—respectable company, to be sure. “First and foremost, we were friends and had white groups that were pursuing a more racially integrated sound,” Ryder says of his relationship with Cavaliere. “It’s also important to remember that both bands worked, literally, under the same roof. I spent a lot of time over at Atlantic and developed a good relationship with many of their producers and engineers.”
As for the whole “lumping together” thing, Ryder understands the importance but can take it or leave it. “I never cared for ‘white soul’ and ‘blue-eyed soul,’ although both terms have been used interchangeably,” says Ryder, best known for his wailing vocals on “Devil With the Blue Dress On” and “Sock It to Me, Baby.” “I guess if someone hears and likes the music Felix is performing, they might be apt to search out music of a similar ‘label’—which might lead them to mine.”
Adds British singer Eric Burdon, whose rendition of the “House of the Rising Sun” propelled the Animals to stardom: “I’ve always appreciated Felix and have never felt there was any competition between our groups. I agree that ‘People Got to Be Free.’”
Not everything came easily for the Rascals. In an attempt to be taken more seriously, the group dropped the “Young” from its name, as well as its trademark knickers, Little Lord Fauntleroy shirts, and peaked caps. In their place came hair, beards, and beads, along with a heightened social awareness. The band also began pushing the creative envelope, which didn’t always jibe with the Atlantic brass. Cavaliere had to all but beg them to release “Groovin’” and “A Beautiful Morning,” both of which came to epitomize the Summer of Love in 1967. The songs also disproved the theory that pop radio needed a backbeat. “I didn’t feel like [writing] anything heavy or rocking,” Cavaliere told Puterbaugh. “I just felt this romantic bliss. And I was blissing for a good year and a half, two years.”
It’s been said that while the Rascals never brandished their politics, they certainly lived theirs. Case in point: The band demanded that a black act appear at every Rascals’ concert, a move that sometimes backfired on them. One such opener was Jimi Hendrix, whose musical pyrotechnics all but overshadowed the Rascals at a 1967 gig in Central Park. A teenaged Anthony DeCurtis was among those in attendance. “Hendrix just sucked the air out of the place,” recalls DeCurtis, an award-winning author and longtime Rolling Stone magazine contributor. “There was a sense that things were starting to change and that the Rascals might not have an easy time making the transition.”
Not everyone liked this approach, especially Eddie Brigati. Their partnership began to cool, and Cavaliere soon found himself writing alone. Record sales and concert attendance began to drop, and, by the turn of the decade, the Rascals left Atlantic for Columbia. Cavaliere had hoped to take the band in a more jazz-oriented direction, but Brigati and then Cornish walked. Various replacements were brought in, including veteran guitarists Buzzy Feitin and Robert Popwell and singer Ann Sutton, but with uneven results. Like the Beach Boys and Four Seasons before them, the turn-of-the-decade Rascals seemed doomed to irrelevance. Cavaliere had no choice but to pull the plug.
Much has been made of why the Rascals really broke up and why they remained that way. The usual answer has been “creative differences,” at least in the case of Cavaliere and Brigati. Both writers were under tremendous pressure from Atlantic to crank out material, going so far as to record virtually everything they wrote. “The pace took a tremendous toll on both us, and we just couldn’t do it anymore,” Cavaliere has said. Add to that some petty jealousies and poor business dealings, such as selling off the band’s publishing for a pittance, and you had a recipe for disaster.
Danelli concedes that drugs were also a factor. “You know, the drug culture was affecting us in various ways, and everybody was getting pulled in different directions,” he says. “Plus, Atlantic wasn’t really into us anymore because we weren’t sticking to the formula. Felix was heading in more of a jazz and gospel direction [e.g., the songs “Carry Me Back” and “Glory, Glory”], which I loved, but not everybody got it. Each of us started doing his own thing.”
Cavaliere took the breakup especially hard and responded by throwing himself into his work. He enjoyed brief success in 1980 as a solo artist, with the single “Only the Heart Sees” cracking the top 40, while touring with various iterations of the Rascals. (A court ruling allowed Cornish and Danelli to perform as the “New Rascals,” while Cavaliere could bill himself as “formerly of the Young Rascals.”) The rest of his time was spent as a journeyman—from touring with Ringo Starr and Steven Van Zandt, to collaborating with Don Was and Steve Cropper, to producing Laura Nyro and the Deadly Nightshade.
“It was great trying out things with Felix, like blasting the violin through a fuzz tone, and doing lots of overdubs of vocals,” says guitarist/violinist Helen Hooke, who worked with Cavaliere on the Deadly Nightshade’s 1975 self-titled debut. “Felix was very creative and helped us turn our ideas into a great album.”
Pamela Robin Brandt, the Deadlies’ bassist, says the choice of Cavaliere as producer was a no-brainer—due, in large part, to his personal value system. “Since fighting for gender equality and against sexism was important to us in 1975, in the same vital way fighting for racial equality and against racism had been important to the Rascals a decade earlier, the choice of Felix was a mutual decision between the band and our record company,” she says. “If you look on the album credits, you’ll see that virtually every fancy-schmancy studio cat on the East Coast played on it. And it was not for us. It was because they all idolized the Rascals … and wanted to work with Felix.”
Cropper (right), who rose to prominence with Booker T. & the M.G.s, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave, partnered with Cavaliere for the Grammy-nominated album, Nudge It Up a Notch. “Felix will go down in history as one of the most soulful kats [sic] to ever sing with a microphone,” writes the legendary guitarist. “He has a deep soul and the voice of a young performer. … It’s great to see him out there again with the Rascals because we older musicians have to keep the young generation educated.”
Joey Molland, guitarist and sole-surviving member of Badfinger, knows all about that. He and Cavaliere have done enough oldies shows together to realize that education is the key to longevity in the ever-evolving music industry. “You’ve got to be aware of what’s going on,” says Molland, who first crossed paths with Cavaliere in the early Seventies, as the Rascals were on their way out and Badfinger, which had just signed to the Beatles’ Apple label, was on its way in. “I’ve got nothing but respect for Felix, who’s got a lot of taste for recording the right songs, doing the right arrangements, and getting out there and singing. … He also knows about the industry side of things, like having a good manager and a good lawyer. Some of us learned the hard way.”
These days, Cavaliere is just as much at home playing to packed theaters as he is lecturing to packed classrooms, such as ones at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Even though today’s musicians are probably smarter than ever, Cavaliere insists they still have to deal with a lot of misinformation and misdirection. “The highlight of the whole Rascals’ trip is listening to and watching the audience,” says Cavaliere, who’s working with Steven Van Zandt on the next installment of the band’s reunion show. “But when you start talking about the business side [of music], it’s a different thing. … I’ve had a lot of musicians call me up and thank me for guiding their ship in a slightly different direction.”
One of those people will probably be SU’s David Rezak, a local promoter and booking agent who inducted Cavaliere into the Syracuse Area Music Awards (SAMMYS)’ Hall of Fame in 1994. The prospect of bringing him to campus for an industry lecture or a vocal workshop, he says, is irresistible. “When Felix does a song—even one that may have originally been done by someone else, it’s totally his,” Rezak says. “Students need to understand the difference between interpreting a song and imitating one. Felix is a fearless performer who stands by his interpretation every time.”
It’s this delicate dance between band loyalty and self-preservation that has probably made Cavaliere the legend he is. Further evidence may be found in his many honors and awards, including inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Rascals and the Songwriters Hall of Fame with Eddie Brigati.
Fans and critics alike think Cavaliere is at the top of his game. “I think Felix is one of the best,” says Anthony DeCurtis, who teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania. “He sings with such power but, at the same time, knows how to put across a lyric so effortlessly. I mean, he’s not out there, rubbing your face in it. He’s just singing, as if he’s talking to you. … He’s taken good care of his instrument.”
Melanie Stopyra ’83, who first saw the Rascals in Syracuse as a teenager, was on hand for their 1988 and 2013 reunion tours. She also has been to many of Cavaliere’s other concerts over the years, along with her husband, Gary ’80. “Felix has a great voice and a big heart,” says Melanie, who has formed a friendship with the singer. (She also managed to snag an autographed drumstick from Danelli after last fall’s Syracuse concert—not for her, but for her 12-year-old daughter.) “Seeing Felix onstage again with Eddie, Gene, and Dino reminded me of how much I’ve missed the Rascals. It also has made me wonder how much more great music could’ve been made, if they had stayed together.”
Only the band members, themselves—and, to a certain extent, Van Zandt—truly know what the future holds. “‘Magic’ is an overused word, but it sums up what we’ve been experiencing onstage lately,” Cavaliere says. “It’s the same feeling we had at our first rehearsal, years ago, in my father’s basement. … I really hope we can continue. It would be silly not to.”
Once Upon a Time photo by George Rodriguez