The Rascals: Summer of ‘65

What a summer it was for The Rascals in 1965. Sunny days spent in The Hamptons, living near the ocean and playing The Barge at night, packing the house with a red-hot, straightjacket-tight R&B sound draped in the Union Jack of British Invasion-style rock ‘n’ roll.

For four young New Yorkers what could be better than escaping the sweltering city heat for a few months of breezy fun and performing in a carefree atmosphere, full of smiling, dancing patrons who were just there to party?

“When you came into The Barge, from the moment you entered there, we had you,” recalls Felix Cavaliere, an original founding member of The Rascals who wrote many of the band’s best-known hits.
Having a secret weapon like Adrian Barber, sound man for, of all people, The Beatles going back to their Star Club days, manning the board helped The Rascals turn heads. Working his magic, Barber added sonic richness to The Rascals’ live sound.

“We sequestered him in the United States,” remembers Cavaliere, who is still making music 45 years later, having just released his second collaboration with Booker T. & the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper, Midnight Fever. “He became an engineer, and he became a producer, but he also was way ahead of his time in kind of like refining the acoustical sound of a club. In those days, that was not really done.”

As Cavaliere recalls, referring to other clubs where The Rascals plied their trade, “Everything else was a basketball court; [the sound] bounced all over the place.” With Barber corralling the stray, ping-ponging emissions from their amps and sonically surrounding crowds who came to watch them, The Rascals took no prisoners.

“The sound system was all around the room, and there was no way you were going to escape the sound from the stage, and it was just wonderful,” says Cavaliere of The Rascals’ shows at The Barge, a floating night club on Long Island. “I mean, people really just lost their balance, man. It was so cool because obviously there was drinking and a lot of extra-curriculars going on, and we were on the water. We were literally on the bay. There were people that would walk over the side thinking it was the exit (laughs). Yeah, it was a little bit of San Francisco and California that came to the East Coast.”

A little bit of Hollywood also blew in that summer, according to Cavaliere. “It was so much fun, and they were all luminaries there, because it was in the Hamptons. You know, Betty Davis used to come every Sunday. It was just magic, it was so much fun. And it was a summer that I’ll never forget because we lived right across the street on a beach, the kind that many people would just dream of being on, never mind living on. Pretty cool … pretty cool for a bunch of young guys, it was a lot of fun.”

More than that, it was the year The Rascals went viral. Formed in 1964 close to New York City in the Garfield, N.J., hometown of members Eddie Brigati (vocals) and Dino Danelli (drums), The Rascals came together when Cavaliere, Brigati and guitarist Gene Cornish left Joey Dee and the Starliters. Danelli, a teen jazz prodigy who had toured with jazz legend Lionel Hampton and played with Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati before The Rascals, joined later. For Cavaliere, the move from the Starliters had been a long time coming, circumstances being what they were.

“Well, frankly, the only reason that I was with Joey Dee was because I was unable to do anything on my own until my status with the United States government was settled as far as the draft,” explains Cavaliere. “I really could not do anything or start anything until that was kind of left behind me, so to speak, and so I took that job. I was in college. I left college knowing full well I was going to get drafted … I always knew what I wanted to do. So, I mean, that wasn’t the problem and I certainly didn’t want to be a sideman for anybody. I wanted to be a leader, and I had some ideas, but I had to be patient and I had to wait. And that’s exactly what happened. When I was refused as far as military duty was concerned, I was able to go out and start the band. And unfortunately, or fortunately, all of the other guys had to go through that very same process before we could really get our feet on the ground and start marching.”

Ah, but first, they needed a name, and it was funny man Soupy Sales who gave it to them.
“Yeah, great story,” says Cavaliere. “Well, real quick, we wanted to get known, so he had a big hit record. You know, ‘The Mouse,’ and he was one of our favorite guys, as far as being on television, and we made an appointment with him at WNEW television station, and he saw us. We said, ‘Look, you’ve got a hit record. You need a band.’ And everything he said made us hysterical. We laughed, ‘cause we loved him. And he says, ‘Well, what do you call yourselves?’ And, ah … we had a couple of names, he says, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll call you …’ but we couldn’t print it (laughs). So, we actually did a mini-tour with him, and he gave us the name The Rascals. He said, ‘This is not really what I call you guys, but this is the best I could come up with.’ We got it from him, you know. Great man.”

Then, it was time for basic training, with early rehearsals conducted in a place familiar to Cavaliere.
“What I remember is so vivid in my mind, because the first time we rehearsed was at my family home, which was right directly across the street from a high school,” says Cavaliere. “And what I remember was a crowd of kids outside, who were listening to us jam. And I kind of knew we had something pretty good, because, you know, they were there. And it was the first time, so that was a good sign to me, a good omen.”
With fortune smiling upon them, The Rascals took their set of well-drilled cover songs to the club scene, debuting at the Choo Choo Club in Garfield. Thinking back, Cavaliere’s memories of that first show are a little fuzzy.

“Oh, God,” says Cavaliere. “I don’t remember too much about that, the first one. Of course, I remember the environment … because the reason it was called Choo Choo Club was because, literally, there was a train right behind the dressing rooms. Oh yeah, every time you got to [a certain part of a] song, where you heard a whistle coming through, it was really funny.”

Club owners, on the other hand, often were not amused when bands, like The Rascals, that they hired to play covers would try to slip a few original songs in their sets. Nor were they lenient when it came to fashion.
“Yeah, absolutely, covers, because the venues demanded it of us,” says Cavaliere. “You know, in those days, it was 21 and over, drinking, suit and tie, and you know, pretty strict. If you did your own song, you had to really, really, really sneak that one in (laughs).”

Likewise, The Rascals rebelled when it came to their outfits, with Danelli coming up with a solution that Cavaliere reluctantly agreed to while the band was booked for the summer to play The Barge. These “choirboy shirts with knickerbockers,” as they’ve been described, were uniforms Cavaliere could have done without.

In good-natured fashion, Cavaliere says, “Well, we could only blame one guy for that, and it’s the drummer. As I said, we had to have ties and jackets, like that, and we were struggling with it, couldn’t stand it. So, Dino said, ‘I know there’s a way we could attract some attention and maybe get rid of these darn ties and jackets,’ and he came up with wearing knickers, kind of like what AC/DC ended up doing. We didn’t have the ties, but the club owners demanded that we put a tie on. You can look cute [they said], but you’ve got to look dressed. So it was kind of a compromise, and I really didn’t care for it at all.”

Trudging onward, The Rascals built momentum while playing at The Barge. Word of their infectious act eventually reached the right people, leading to new management with legendary impresario Sid Bernstein, promoter of The Beatles’ famed Shea Stadium show.

“We met Bernstein during that period of time,” relates Cavaliere. “Interestingly enough, as soon as we met, our salary doubled, ‘cause they went into management and said, ‘Look, you’ve got a nice club here. How about paying the band?’ (laughs)  At The Barge, I’d been running the group out of a business book called ‘This Business of Music.’ I didn’t know anything about the music business.”

Bernstein, introduced to The Rascals by a third-party businessman who’d seen their act and then recommended them to the famed manager, was instrumental in introducing The Rascals to a world beyond The Hamptons.

“Sid was a unique kind of guy,” says Cavaliere. “He could see in the forest a really good acorn that was about to sprout, you know, and he could point that thing out to other people and get them really excited about it. However, on the nuts and bolts end of things, he was not good. He was not good on the ‘let’s not spend more money than we have on the tour of Europe,’ that kind of thing. His expertise was like in spotting it and in nurturing it and kind of like selling it to people, getting them all psyched about it - interesting man, very interesting … he was a visionary.”

Among those growing increasingly excited about The Rascals were the good people at Atlantic Records. Seeing the potential of this white, blue-eyed soul act playing what essentially was black music, Atlantic, a label that was home to mostly African-American artists, signed The Rascals at Bernstein’s behest.

“Well, first of all, [it was] the only label that would allow us – and I say ‘us,’ even though it was my idea to produce ourselves, I really wanted to produce the band; I didn’t want an outsider coming in and changing what I thought was developed already – they were the only label that gave us that opportunity, for want of a better word,” says Cavaliere. “We are and were completely in control of the music. And the fact that three-fourths of my record collection came from that label, and also, that there was really no white acts on the Atlantic label until we got there, it was a thrill, obviously. As a young musician, to be part of that family was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I mean, seriously. They were great, they were all about music, and I know business is business and what was going on down the hall in the finance department … I don’t even care. I’m telling you, as a musical family they left their mark on America and the rest of the world.”
So did The Rascals, although not without having to overcome some obstacles, the first being a change in their name. Soon after signing to Atlantic, the label found out that another group, Borrah Minnevitch’s and Johnny Puleo’s Harmonica Rascals, was going to protest the group’s use of the name The Rascals. To get around this problem, Bernstein rechristened the band as The Young Rascals, which irritated Cavaliere and the rest of the band.

“Hated it,” says Cavaliere. “As I say, it was not our idea. We had nothing to do with it. And that’s … you know, the name of a band is really important to the band. It’s something that management should have consulted us about. There was a lot of resentment, and the choice of names I thought was horrible. You know, the joke I tell about it all the time is that when I first moved away from New York City and went into Connecticut, people used to come into my home and want to know about that little dog, if that black circle around his eye was real (laughs). And that says it all, you know.”

Unable to change their name until 1968 or ditch those hated uniforms until after their first #1, 1966’s “Good Lovin’”, Cavaliere and company put aside their frustrations with those issues and set about recording their self-titled debut LP. They’d had a minor hit in 1965 with “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” which would appear on The Young Rascals album, a high-energy, full-throttle blast of R&B and British Invasion rock highlighted by well-crafted harmony vocals and arrangements that electrified kids all over the country. Filled with covers of tracks like “Mustang Sally” and “In the Midnight Hour,” The Young Rascals really took off when their cover of The Olympics’ “Good Lovin’” charged up the charts all the way to the top.

“Oh man, I couldn’t even believe it,” says Cavaliere, remembering how he felt when he heard “Groovin’” went #1. “Seriously, like who would have ever thought that was going to happen? The only inkling we had, as I said earlier, is … that song was a record that was done by The Olympics, and they did it entirely different. I just recently read a Rolling Stone article that really ticked me off. These young kids, they don’t even know what they’re talking about. But if they listen to the Olympics record, it was a chop shop. It was a Latin groove. We heard that thing on the radio, and like I said earlier, you had to play covers. We showed the guy that it was a cover, even though it was like an obscure record on a black station that I was listening to, and we converted it to, basically, rock. From the first day that we played that song live, people jumped out of their seats and got up and danced. So, you know, you got something here. Now, again, as kids, we didn’t know how to interpret that into sales, but the record company did.”

Working on the production and engineering end of things, Tom Down and Arif Mardin also knew what they were doing, and their wizardry helped The Rascals develop their studio chops.
“Yeah, we had a good band,” says Cavaliere. “And the only thing that was missing was we didn’t have a bass player, which I did at that time on the organ. It’s interesting, ‘cause today, it’s kind of the other way around. But when you transfer yourself or transmit yourself from a live act to a recording act, it’s a major change. It’s kind of like no makeup on a woman, or like having no clothes going out the door. There’s nowhere to hide. You can have a great stage show and a nice show and dancers all around you, which sounds very familiar to today’s world, you have to play and you have to sing. And we didn’t even have things that tuned you up like they do now. We had to actually perform. That’s a whole different ballgame, you know, and we had to learn it. So, we did the best we could, and we had phenomenal teachers. You know, Tom Dowd was the engineer and he had recorded everybody, as I say, in my whole musical collection. The Drifters, you know, like Miles [Davis] and Ray Charles, so we were very fortunate to be brought in the Atlantic kind of idiom, which is, and was, a jazz world in that … you know, you produce it in the studio. You make it happen, and you turn on the recording button. You play it and you do it until it sounds good and then you stop. And that’s a different way of doing it from how we do it now. You can layer, layer, layer, layer, layer … fix, fix, fix. We can take all of the soul out of it. We can take all of the life out of it very easily and get it down so that it’s perfect and nobody cares (laughs).”

Nobody, but nobody, took the life out of The Rascals back in the mid-1960s. With that summer of 1965 serving as a springboard, The Rascals became the foremost practitioners of blue-eyed soul, racking up 18 U.S. hit singles and five gold albums until it all disintegrated in 1972. Still, even with all the recrimination, lawsuits and back-biting that ensued, Cavaliere has fond memories of that wonderful summer of 1965.
“I had that conversation with Paul McCartney a few years back,” says Cavaliere. ‘We were backstage and he said, ‘Do you realize how young we all were then?’ Because we all have kids that age and older … we were in our 20s. We were babies. We didn’t know anything. And I just laugh. I said, ‘You know, I never even thought about it.’ But, again, when that happened, we never even thought about it. Oh, man, are you kidding me? I mean, like I say, look, there’s nothing like being with a group of guys and going out and singing songs, and having people in the audience know the songs and know the words, there’s nothing like that. I mean, that’s what people dream about their whole lives. And it happened to us. What can I say? I mean, I’m just so thrilled that I was there.”

- Peter Lindblad

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