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Felix Cavaliere remembers it vividly. One day in early 1966, he was walking down Madison Avenue in Manhattan and first heard the Young Rascals on radio. "Somebody had a transistor radio and told us that Cousin Brucie, who at that time was the disc jockey in New York, was going to play 'I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,'" Cavaliere says. "I remember this rush, I remember throwing the radio up in the air. And the guy saying, 'What are ya doing, man? That's my radio!'" It's 28 years later, and the affable Sixties star is starting over in a decidedly different musical world; right now he's sipping Earl Grey tea at the Radisson Hotel in Phoenix, one of many stops on a recent press junket.
Thanks to the proliferation of oldies, classic rock and light-music radio formats, Cavaliere's distinctive voice hasn't left the airwaves since he first counted off "Good Lovin'" and began a timeless string of hits with the Rascals (the band dropped the "Young" after a few years). Yet stepping back into the spotlight wasn't on his list of things to do until longtime admirer and producer-to-the-stars Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt) approached the singer about ending his long, self-imposed exile from recording. The end result is an exquisite new album, Dreams in Motion.
Weary of the dog-eat-dog appetite of the music business, and the you're-only-as-good-as-your-last-hit attitudes that went with it, Cavaliere stopped making records shortly after his last hit, "Only the Lonely Heart Sees." That was in 1980, an eternity ago in the fickle world of pop music. Was' own custom label, Karambolage (distributed by MCA), seemed like an ideal place to begin again. P.J. Olsen, National Director for Adult Contemporary Promotion at MCA, is counting on programmers with fresh ears and long memories. But even with a proven track record like Cavaliere's, it's a struggle getting radio to play anything fresh out of the jewel case without pigeonholing it first. "You have to do a lot of setup," Olsen says. "We can eventually take [the album] to Top 40, but we have to establish a base first, and he's perfect for the Adult Contemporary format. So you want to make sure you give them the right songs and then you can branch out."
"If Not for You" is the perfect choice to mark Cavaliere's return to active duty. It's the kind of effortless soul ballad Ashford and Simpson might once have penned for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And if the close-knit harmonies make you instantly think "Rascals," it's because the background vocals feature Charlie and Richie Ingui of the Soul Survivors, a group whose 1967 hit "Expressway to Your Heart" was amazingly Rascalesque. Couple them with Cavaliere's pristine voice, exactly the way you remember it, and you've gotta wonder: Can ears accustomed to the bland stylings of Michael Bolton and Phil Collins stand this much genuine "blue-eyed soul"?
To stack the deck in favor of the new start, Was teamed Cavaliere with an array of songwriters, including some who've written for the likes of Bolton and Vanessa Williams. Yet Cavaliere takes the restrictive Adult Contemporary formula in a few unexpected directions, like the icy, lowdown funk of "Voices Calling" and the world-beat rhythms of "Stay in Love." The wild-man screams of Rascals hits like "You Better Run" and "Come On Up" are notably missing, but anyone paying close attention since "Groovin'" would realize that Cavaliere has spent far more time conveying the joys of peaceful tranquility than losing his temper. "My anger days, I'll leave to the Seattle guys, cause they're taking good care of that," he laughs. "And the rap guys are doing a good job with that, too. They're ticked off and with good reason."
When the Rascals rose to prominence, rock stars were rebels, leaders, visionaries. Now, too often, they sound like high-profile victims. Yet Cavaliere is sympathetic. "There were a lot of things going on in the Sixties, too, but right now something's wrong. And I think what the kids are getting that we never had is despair."
Although he doesn't refer to Kurt Cobain outright, it's obvious that the idea of a musician who hates his job greatly saddens Cavaliere. In his life, music has always been a therapeutic, healing force; the simple act of sitting behind a keyboard makes the pain disappear.
Despite Cavaliere's assertion that music has always been a reflection of what's going on, the projected adult audience for Cavaliere's new album probably doesn't want to know the whole picture. They want their radio without rap or metal, thank you, and most of all, the adults don't want what the kids are getting--a mess o' despair. The singer views the Adult Contemporary tag--one he's been stuck with since 1979's ultramellow Castles in the Air--with a mixture of amusement and confusion. "Being an adult, I don't mind it. There's this attitude, I don't know who has it, whether it's the record company or the radio station or the audience . . . it seems that the artist's age is important. To me, this is so silly.
"Could you imagine if they said to Picasso, 'Well, you've hit the plateau, now you're 30 years old, we would like you to put down the brush and easel and stop creating'? That's why a lot of artists go off the deep end, because you've taken that outlet away from them."
Rather than let music-industry nitwits cut him open and count the rings, Cavaliere pursued other avenues for his songwriting in Nashville, where the Bronx-born singer now resides. "The only part of the business that has retained its creative innocence is the songwriting. I've made a promise [to MCA] not to do any negative interviews," he says, breaking that promise. "But I mean, the business is crap. It really is, compared to what it used to be, it's terrible."