For those of us who grew up in the Clifton-Garfield area of North Jersey around 1965, the Young (as they were called then) Rascals were our band. More than the fact that one of the band members grew up in Jersey City and another in Garfield, the band kicked off at a local venue called "The Choo Choo Club," and many of our older brothers and sisters knew someone who knew one band member.
Felix Cavaliere and company were to us the way Frank Sinatra was to many people in Hoboken and Jersey City, and many of us modeled our bands after the Rascals.
They were local legends. They were the Jersey band well before Bruce Springsteen, and Cavaliere, founding member of the Rascals, acknowledged this close homegrown association during a telephone interview last week.
Cavaliere said the band’s fans in New Jersey and New York all felt a certain ownership.
Four number ones
From 1965, when they first came on the scene, to 1972, the Rascals scored four number one hits, six Top 20 singles, and they had six albums in the Top 20 charts. The singles included "Good Lovin’, "Groovin," "A Girl Like You," "A Beautiful Morning," and one of the great anthems of the 1960s anti war movement, "People Got to Be Free."
The Rascals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
Because the Rascals adopted a form that had previously been dominated by black performers, critics called Rascal music "Blue-Eyed Soul" although they covered a range of styles from rhythm and blues to jazz fusion. The band broke up in 1972 after a change of membership partly because of an attempt to expand beyond the format that made them famous.
Cavaliere released a couple of solo albums during the next few decades, but none reached the same commercial success as his work with the Rascals.
Along with these solo efforts, Cavaliere also produced singer-songwriter Laura Nyro and the cult girl band, Deadly Night Shade.
Although reunited with the Rascals later on, he has since moved to Nashville, where he continued his career in music as an advertising and record production manager. He worked with BB King and Isaac Hayes. In 1995, he went on tour with Ringo Starr.
At his peak, Cavaliere was considered one of the premier rock organists, often using innovative techniques that gave the Rascals a sound far superior to other bands. Unlike other bands that used the organ to fill, Cavaliere used it the way bands would later use the synthesizer, playing the bass parts with one hand and soloing with the other.
From middle class to the top of the Himalayas
Cavaliere said he grew up in Pelham, N.Y., where he took classical piano lessons as a boy. But as he began to listen to rhythm and blues records such as those by Ray Charles and Otis Redding, he knew he had to play that kind of music.
In his teens, he started going to the soul clubs in Harlem and did his best to learn all the R&B standards, both on the piano and later on the organ. In high school, he was the only white member of a group called The Stereos. Cavaliere became intrigued with performers like Charles and Fats Domino. At one point, he went to a club in the black community of New Rochelle and saw a band performing with an organ, sax and drum, and he was shocked at the fullness of the sound. He fell head over heels in love with the Hammond organ.
In a story that has become rock and roll legend, Cavaliere went to Macy’s in Manhattan, where one of the best Hammond organs was kept in a private room. He convinced the sales person to let him play it, and that salesperson let him return and play it frequently.
Then, he attended Syracuse University and spent time coming back to New York City to hang out at the Peppermint Lounge and the Metropole.
"I was a pre-med student for two years before I decided I wanted to perform," he said.
Forming his own band, he toured the Catskills, where he was hired by Joey Dee and the Starlighers for a European tour. He had the chance to catch the Beatles perform in Hamburg, Germany, and he was stunned.
"I thought their original material was great," he said. "But I felt I could put together a band that would do the R&B better, and I think I did. Basically, I put together a plan that included the best musicians I could find."
This included Jersey City native Dino Danelli, who played for a time with the Lionel Hampton band.
"Dino was phenomenal, although I think the public underrated him," Cavaliere said. "He was a brilliant musician, a real showman."
Cavaliere was then working with Brigati and Gene Cornish in the Starlighters, all of whom were sick of playing "The Twist" every night.
"Eddie was one of the finest singers around," he said. "I would come up with the titles, he would write the lyrics. We were trying to become another Lennon and McCartney. We came up with good songs. We’re still making a living from them."
In 1964 to 1965, they spent time in Cavaliere’s house and learned 25 songs, and in February 1965, began as the Young Rascals in the Choo Choo Club in Garfield.
"We built our chops in the clubs playing four shows a night from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m." Cavaliere said. "So (in concert) later we never got hoarse. We worked hard, pounding out the music."
People talked about them, eventually leading promoter Sid Bernstein to them, and he became their manager. The Rascals were the first band of white performers to be signed on Atlantic records, a point that Cavaliere is still proud of.
They hit the charts with "I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore." But it was "Good Lovin’" a year later that went to the top of the charts.
"’Good Lovin” went right to number one, and I don’t think we were mentally prepared for it," Cavaliere said. "This was our second record. I remember we were walking down Seventh Avenue and listening to Cousin Brucie on a portable radio."
He described the feeling as being on top of the Himalayas. He remembered how good it felt watching his fellow band members purchase homes for their working class families and making otherwise inaccessible dreams come true.
More hit singles and albums followed, shaping them into one of the biggest American bands of the ’60s, with numerous TV appearances, and even a concert in Central Park. Their 1967 hit "Groovin" was compared to the work of Ray Charles.
In the early ’70s, the band struggled internally, and eventually moved from Atlantic Records to Columbia. The band also changed personnel, finally breaking up in 1972.
Cavaliere’s performance at the Hoboken Arts and Music Festival is a kind of homecoming, even if he is bringing a band of professional session-players from Nashville.
"This band really rocks," he said. "I’m very proud of them. These guys make a living doing session work. We do Rascal songs and we mingle them with other genres. We like playing homage to our roots."
Cavaliere and his band will be appearing on Sept. 21 at 4:45 p.m. at the First Street Stage on Washington Street in Hoboken. For information call (201) 420-2207 or visit www.felixcavalieresrascals.com. q