FELIX THE WONDERFUL CAVALIERE
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."
Next month marks the 25th anniversary of Woodstock, but for Cavaliere it also marks the end of the music business as he knew and loved it.
"After that, the Wall Street people knew that there was real money to be made and they ruined the business. They ruined it. They took it from that little ma-and-pa, candy-store type of [operation]--We love music, so we're gonna be here'--to what it is today, which is corporation, business. . . . I heard a friend of mine, a songwriter from the old days, say, 'There's more deal and less feel today,' and that's what's happened."
If anyone knows how good the record industry used to be, it's Cavaliere. In 1965, Atlantic Records, determined to sign the Rascals to its R&B roster and break into the white-rock market, inked an unprecedented deal for the young Italian-American rockers.
Atlantic even beat out Phil Spector in a hotly contested bidding war, not by offering the most money, but by allowing the group complete artistic control. In those days, no group, let alone a new one, was allowed to produce itself, design the album covers and choose the singles. The Rascals' self-sufficiency paved the way for artists like Prince to call their own shots, but even the Purple One's deal didn't grant him unlimited recording-studio time, the way the Atlantic-Rascal arrangement did.
"We used to sleep there [Atlantic's New York recording facilities], but, unfortunately, a lot of the Atlantic artists really were ticked off by this--Wilson Pickett and them cats," Cavaliere says. "I mean, we were there forever. You had to literally ask us to leave. Could you imagine creating in a studio? Nowadays, it's unheard of, cause it's too expensive."
History has been slow in recognizing the Rascals' considerable contributions to rock. Perhaps this is because the group's catalogue, save for a greatest-hits album, was out of print for most of the Seventies and Eighties. Yet when you consider that the Byrds are still revered for uniting Dylan sensibilities and Beatles instrumentation, and the Beach Boys' mix of Four Freshmen, Chuck Berry and Spector still inspires awe, it's curious that the Rascals' revolutionary alchemy of Ray Charles, the Beatles and modern jazz is so undervalued. Nonetheless, it was a sound that caught everyone by surprise and spawned a host of imitators--complete with Hammond B3 organs--for years to come. After the Rascals went to No. 1 with "Good Lovin'," a song the band didn't write, Cavaliere began a fortuitous songwriting partnership with Rascal Eddie Brigati. The band worked its way back to No. 1 a second time with "Groovin'." The album of the same name, the third in little over a year, captures the band at the peak of its powers as a unit. The old Rascals/Hammond sound is downplayed and new, head-turning directions are added to the mix: the mystical jazz of "It's Love," the continental flavor of "How Can I Be Sure," the psychedelic/flamenco (!) sounds of "Sueo" and the downright heavy-metalish "Find Somebody." "Groovin' was a big album for us," Cavaliere says. "That's when all cylinders were kicking in. In those days, they didn't take the time to produce or create and preproduce that they do now. What they did was just hurry you along because they wanted product out. That's why you see so many Beatle albums and Stones albums. We didn't get this year-or-two hiatus in between product that you get now.
"I really think what happened to my partner was he burnt himself out writing so much. Quick, quick, quick! Two albums a year, that's a lot of work." Not to mention the strain of having to go toe to toe with the Beatles every six months. When the Fabs released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Rascals abandoned their "Young" moniker and traded in their former R&B persona for a fistful of love beads. The band's next two releases closely mirrored what was happening in pop culture. Once Upon a Dream captured the Summer of Love and extolled the virtues of all things psychedelic, while Freedom Suite was a wake-up call to the politically charged climate of 1968. The combination of socially aware lyrics, sound effects and soul on the latter anticipates Marvin Gaye's What's Going On album by several years. One track, "Look Around," offers listeners the strange sonic opportunity of hearing the Rascals and Adolf Hitler at the same time! Although that album contained a third No. 1 single, "People Got to Be Free," it was the last in the chain of hit albums. It was followed by a sharp decline in popularity and sales for the group, a decline that seems hard to fathom in retrospect; Rhino's recent Rascals double CD Anthology 1965-72 makes a strong case for the overlooked latter half of the group's career and its forays into jazz. But beyond the lack of sales, internal tensions were also taking their toll.
"Naturally, when you're with creative people--and we were crazy to begin with--your [interests] jump around," explains Cavaliere. "We had guys becoming Jehovah Witnesses. Myself, I went into yoga. Some guys got involved with drugs. Anything you throw in that mixture comes out in the final product. . . . Guys who are smoking buddies, all of a sudden one guy quits, now you got a problem when he's around the other guy. The more volatile the personalities are, the more tension." But the irony of basic human situations clashing with the supposedly idyllic vibes of the hippie generation is not lost on Cavaliere. "The only thing I can tell you is I'm very embarrassed by what happened to us. We go around--especially Sixties people--talking about peace and love and harmony and getting along, and we don't even do it amongst ourselves. We failed as human beings, but we were successful as musicians. Okay, what's more important? Well, that's a good question. To me, losing a friend is a terrible thing."
Although three of the four original Rascals briefly reunited in 1988, it yielded no new music. "We did a little minitour. And it just didn't feel right. I'm curious to see what's gonna happen with the Eagles reuniting." After all these years, Cavaliere still betrays the hurt of the breakup, to the point of not even referring to his former bandmates by name. "We'll always be tied because of the past. That doesn't mean we have to sit down and play together. No, we do not get along. No, we do not speak, and I have no desire to speak to them anymore because of the things they have done to me.
"Who needs that, man? Life's too short." Dreams in Motion doesn't dwell in the past, either. Rather than re-create a pastiche of the Rascals' sound, Cavaliere immersed himself in the latest MIDI technology. "It was like being in Disneyland. We've got new instruments to play with, sampling to play with. I just went wild."
Cavaliere has no problems with being sampled himself. Unlike his contemporaries in the Turtles, who sued De La Soul for sampling their past work, Felix is flattered that the same group went back to Once Upon a Dream to sample "My World" for "This Is the Daisy Age," and that Brotherhood Creed sampled "Groovin'" on the recent hit "Helluva."
"They should give credit for it, or give you whatever it is by the book. What it means is that there was something done that long ago that still has relevance today. . . . I love it."
Having a hit record in the Nineties wouldn't hurt in the relevance department, either. In the meantime, while the new Cavaliere songs try finding a home on radio, turn to any oldies station and chances are it'll be playing "People Got to Be Free" for the zillionth time:
"See that train over there? Now, that's the train of freedom. It's about to arrive any minute now. You know, it's been long, long overdue . . ."
It still sounds damned good.
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