The Rascals - Biography
By Bob Fagan
The Rascals were one of the late 60s’ finest examples of “blue-eyed soul,” a term given to white acts which emulated black soul and R&B performers. The band’s roots were in the nightclub act Joey Dee & the Starlighters, with Brigati, Cavaliere and Danelli – all from New Jersey - having been members. Joey Dee and the Starlighters were best known for their number 1 hit “The Peppermint Twist,” a dance number that paid tribute to the Peppermint Lounge in New York City, where they were the house band. For a period in 1960, the Peppermint Lounge was THE place to be seen twisting, and everyone from Jackie Kennedy to John Wayne made the scene.
The three Italian-Americans met up with Canadian guitarist Gene Cornish and formed The Rascals in 1965. Their manager Sid Bernstein (the legendary New York promoter who produced The Beatles concert at Shea Stadium) changed their name to the Young Rascals to avoid legal problems with another band of the same name. The band was signed to Atlantic. Their first single, “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” was a minor hit that set the blueprint for the band’s sound – black group-style vocal harmonies and typical R&B instrumentation –a vocalist, guitarist, drummer and organist. The band’s second 45, a cover of the Olympics’ “Good Lovin,’” was a number 1 smash. Their first album (The Young Rascals, 1966 Atlantic) rose to number 15 in the US.
By the band’s second album (Collections, 1967 Atlantic), at least half the songs were originals. The album reached number 15 in the US, the same position as its predecessor. “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” the single off the album, rose to number 16. The non-LP single “You Better Run,” a top twenty US hit, was included on their third release, Groovin (1967 Atlantic). This LP was, with one exception, all original material, the bulk of it by the songwriting team of Brigati and Cavaliere. The album showed the fruits of the band’s artistic growth, as they were now composing material that reached beyond their white-soul and dance roots.
The single “Groovin’,” was a soft, soul masterpiece, with percussion and conga drums by vocalist Brigati, and bass by Chuck Rainey, the New York-based session player who played with artists from Aretha Franklin to Steely Dan. The song spent a month at the top of the pop charts and reached number 3 on the Billboard Black Song charts, inspiring cover versions by such black artists as Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, whose own hit “Let’s Get it On” borrows some of the easy, laid-back sensuality of the Rascals’ hit. “How Can I be Sure,” with its swirling accordion and complex melody, was a jazzy nod to the band’s Italian origins.
Their next album (Once Upon a Dream, 1968 Atlantic) contained only one charting song – “It’s Wonderful” – which made it to number 20. The album itself, which saw the band drop the “Young” part of their name, made it to number 9. The greatest hits compilation Time Peace (1969 Atlantic) reached number 1 in the US. The followup, the ambitious two-record set Freedom Suite (1969 Atlantic) was the band’s entry into the “concept album” phase many top bands were going through at the time. Although it suffers, as most concept albums did, from a lack of focus and weak filler material, it did contain the hit “People Got to Be Free,” written by Brigati and Cavaliere in response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. (Besides this musical statement, the band insisted that black performers appear on the bill for all their live performances.) Musically and vocally the song reminds one of the work of Otis Redding and Booker T and the MGs; particularly the guitar playing of Gene Cornish, in its use of MGs’ guitarist Steve Cropper’s signature sliding eighths. (Booker T and the MGs had also covered the Rascals’ “Groovin’” not long after its release).
The experimental material on the seconf record of the set was sometimes tedious (the drum solo “Bang”) and sometimes effective. Guest performers included the R&B and early rock 'n' roll sax legend King Curtis, as well as jazz saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and Modern Jazz Quartet bassist Richard Davis, who had earlier contributed to Van Morrison's masterpiece Astral Weeks. The record made it to number 17 on the Billboard Album charts, although many of the group’s fans were dismayed by its distance from the group's signature sound.
Although the original quartet released a few more albums, it was really all over for the Rascals after “Freedom Suite.” Cavaliere began to write alone rather than with Brigati, and the latter left the band in 1970, followed in 1971 by Cornish. Cavaliere and Danelli carried on for two more albums, with replacements for Brigati and Cornish, before officially ending the band in 1972. Cavaliere made several solo albums, and Brigati recorded an album in the mid-70s with his brother David Brigati – the unofficial “5th Rascal,” who had also been a Starlighter, and a backup singer and vocal arranger for the Rascals throughout their career.
The band briefly reformed in 1988, without Brigati, and toured but did not record or release any new material. In 1982 Both Danelli and Cavaliere became members of Bruce Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt’s solo project, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. Both appear on that band’s first two albums; the first of which, Men Without Women (1982 Capitol Records) received much critical acclaim. In 2005, it was Van Zandt who inducted the Rascals into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.