The Rascals: Still Groovin’

The Rascals were one of the most beloved groups to emerge from the New York music scene of the 1960s. Consisting of Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Dino Danelli and Gene Cornish, the group boasted a dynamic blend of blue-eyed soul, high-energy rock ‘n’ roll and infectious pop, which spawned such seminal ’60s hits as “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’,” “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” “A Beautiful Morning,” “People Got To Be Free” and many others. After their discovery at a club in the Hamptons, The Rascals signed to Atlantic Records and teamed with engineer Tom Dowd and arranger/producer Arif Mardin. The group released seven albums on Atlantic between 1966 and 1971. After two albums for Columbia, the group broke up for good in 1972. Now, a reunion tour takes them back to the Island where it all began.

Through the years since the breakup, the group’s status among musicians and its ravenous fanbase only grew. Many promoters offered the group lucrative deals to reunite, but for a variety of reasons they turned down all offers. In fact, since as far back as 1982, Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band had been relentless in trying to reunite them.

The first tentative step in getting back together was an April 2010 concert for the Kristen Ann Carr cancer benefit at the Tribeca Grill in Manhattan. Bruce Springsteen and Van Zandt sat in for “Good Lovin’.” The group officially reunited at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY last December and again for 15 sold-out nights on Broadway this spring, as The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream. The “bio-concert” combines concert performances with a running documentary-style thread, produced by Van Zandt. As great as the reunion has been for the group and its fans, Van Zandt has probably drawn more joy than anyone from the experience, saying he enjoyed, “Watching all those classic songs come back to life right before your eyes. And the guys finally getting the recognition they deserve. And maybe best of all seeing the faces of the children and nieces and nephews who never saw them live.”

From a tour stop with Springsteen and the E Street Band in Europe in May, Van Zandt told me why he thought the idea of more than just a concert was needed, saying, “After 40 years, a reunion just didn’t seem like enough. I knew they had a good story and I felt it was time for the concert experience to evolve.”

On July 6, the group comes full circle and headlines at Jones Beach, a show that can be considered a homecoming of sorts. It was on Long Island, at a club called the Barge, that the group was discovered by promoter Sid Bernstein.

The group’s guitarist, Gene Cornish, fondly recalled the Barge shows. “Long Island was really home for us in the beginning,” said Cornish. Through the summer of 1965, the group’s legendary residency at the Barge sparked a bidding war among many record labels. Phil Spector’s Philles, Columbia, Capitol, RCA-Victor and Atlantic all wanted to sign the group. Cornish explained why the group chose Atlantic. “We were really impressed with their jazz and r&b roots,” he said. “They had a better attitude. They owned their own studios and they would let us produce ourselves, which was a big deal. They believed in the band.”

Van Zandt has been the catalyst for this reunion that no one thought could ever happen. He first saw the group when he was 16 at the Keystone roller rink in New Jersey. “Bruce Springsteen was at the same show, but they didn’t know each other yet,” Cornish said with a laugh.

Van Zandt talked about why it touched him so deeply seeing the group back then. “In the middle of the British Invasion,” he said, “they were a New Jersey band! Our first local brush with big-time show business. And they were the most exciting live band ever.”

Any squabbles or creative differences now long gone, Cornish was able to proudly give some insight into his three bandmates. “Eddie is the spirit of the band,” Cornish said, specifically citing the singer’s sense of humor. “Felix is a genius,” he said, going on to recall the way Cavaliere elevated the role of the Hammond organ in rock and pop music after he spent countless hours seeing such jazz organ greats as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff perform. He also credited Ray Charles as a major influence on Cavaliere’s distinctive vocal style. As for Dino Danelli, the group’s unsung drummer, he said, “He’s a force of nature. He keeps to himself. We call him ‘Count Daneli’ because he travels in the dark.”

Cornish claimed that early Duane Eddy, James Burton and Scotty Moore were major influences on his playing style. For the group though, Cornish stated, “The Beatles were a big spiritual influence.”

As for whether they would record for the first time in 40 years Cornish said, “We haven’t thought about that.” The group, along with Van Zandt, is focused on making the live shows perfect. When the live shows are done, “We’ll see what develops; it’s a thought.”

After a long discussion about some of the great music of the ’60s, mutual friends in the music business and how good he feels to be playing all of the shows in the New York area, Cornish said, “It’s going to be great to come home to Long Island.”