By Richie Unterberger

When "Good Lovin'" exploded across the airwaves and rocketed to #1 in the spring of 1966, it instantly established the Rascals—then known as the Young Rascals—as the top blue-eyed soul band in the United States. Like most overnight sensations, however, the Rascals had paid their dues for years before their big break, learning the R&B fundamentals in small clubs, sometimes as apprentices to a big star. The sudden success of "Good Lovin'" meant an LP was needed before the band had developed as songwriters, and the album featured just one original composition by the group. Like the Rolling Stones' first album and tapes of the Beatles' live Hamburg performances in late 1962, however, the record's a valuable document of their formative influences, from rock'n'roll and the British Invasion to cutting-edge mid-'60s soul music.

    Although the Rascals meshed as if they'd been playing together for years when they got together in early 1965, like many a top band, their formation resulted from crossed paths that couldn't have been planned by the most calculated of designs. Organist and keyboardist Felix Cavaliere had initially planned to study medicine at Syracuse University in New York State (where Lou Reed was one of his fellow students), and in fact did obscure recordings as leader of Felix and the Escorts, who included future Blues Magoos guitarist Mike Esposito. Cavaliere, singer Eddie Brigati, and guitarist Gene Cornish all passed through the Starliters, the backing band of Joey Dee, famous for the monster 1962 chart-topper "Peppermint Twist." Though the sidemen would eventually come to make music that far outshone the leader in terms of originality and influence—as the Beatles, say, did with a singer they once backed, Tony Sheridan—the stints in Dee's band gave them valuable grounding in the organ-dominated music with which they originally stormed the charts.

    All three of them had made some recordings before 1965—Cavaliere with Felix & the Escorts, Brigati as a backup singer on Dee's hit "What Kind of Love Is This?," and Cornish as leader of Gene Cornish & the Unbeetables, whose novelty single "I Wanna Be a Beatle" he'd co-written. Meanwhile, Cavaliere had picked up a gig backing singer Sandy Scott for shows in Las Vegas, recommending as drummer his friend Dino Danelli, who'd played with such luminaries as jazz master Lionel Hampton and early soul star Little Willie John. When the ex-Starliters, itching to get out from Dee's shadow and do their own things, decided to form their own group, Danelli was a natural to complete the lineup. And, starting in the Choo Choo Club in Brigati's neighborhood in northern New Jersey in February 1965, they built up their chops and reputation over the next half year, coming to the attention of promoter Sid Bernstein at the Barge club in Long Island.

    Bernstein was most famous, of course, for promoting the Beatles' first performances in Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1964. In 1965 he was after bigger game, promoting the Beatles' Shea Stadium concert and—with the Rascals—moving into artist management. At the Beatles' August 15, 1965 Shea Stadium concert, in fact, Bernstein arranged for the scoreboard to flash "The Rascals Are Coming"; soon afterward, the group (now renamed the Young Rascals) snagged a contract with Atlantic Records. By the end of the year, they'd recorded their debut single, "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore"/"Slow Down," both sides of which also appear on their debut LP.

    Penned by the songwriting team of Pam Sawyer and Lori Burton, "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore" was an impressive start, clawing its way up to #52 in the charts. The very first bars introduced a key foundation of the Rascals' signature sound—Cavaliere's rich, swirling Hammond organ. "We were the first ones to use a B-3 in a pop group," proclaimed Felix in an interview with Rock Keyboard in 1983. "When I worked with Joey Dee & the Starliters, I played a Lowrey. As a matter of fact, they used it for both the bass lines and the top, the way we [the Rascals] ended up using it too. But I found the Hammond to be a far superior instrument. I was turned on to it at a black club in New Rochelle, New York, where I heard my first jazz organ trio. I just went into bliss!    I couldn't believe what I was hearing from just three guys—drums, organ, and sax. I had to play that instrument."

    While "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore" also featured a heartrendingly pouting vocal from Brigati, it would be Cavaliere who took the lead vocal for "Good Lovin'," as he would for most of the Rascals' hits. Though wholly identified with the Rascals for the last forty years, "Good Lovin'" was in fact a cover of a song recorded by the Olympics, the Los Angeles soul group whose sole big hit, the Coasters-style "Western Movies," had been released back in 1958. After Cavaliere and Danelli found it in a Harlem record store, the Rascals gave the song an arrangement that upped the intensity by a few hundred percent, starting with the electrifying "one-two-three!" countoff and peaking with Cavaliere's burning organ solo, kicking into life again after a dramatic false ending. "We really didn't want that record out," Cornish admitted in Rolling Stone in 1970. "I didn't like the mix or the sound. Some of the fellows tried to deny that it was our record for the first couple of weeks because we were embarrassed. When it got to be number one, they didn't deny it."

    Dominated by covers, the LP The Young Rascals served as a survey of the influences that would soon form the bedrock of their own original material. Some of the songs were much like those being covered by British Invasion bands in the early-to-mid-1960s. Sung by Cavaliere, their debut B-side "Slow Down" had, of course, been recorded brilliantly by the Beatles in 1964, the Fab Four's version even giving them a #25 hit when released in the US as a single. Felix also took lead vocals on the Wilson Pickett classic "In the Midnight Hour" and "Mustang Sally," the latter soul standard originally performed by Sir Mack Rice, though Pickett would have a big hit with it in late 1966. Cavaliere also sang lead on the album's sole band-written cut, the uptempo soul dance tune "Do You Feel It," which he co-penned with Cornish.

    Other than "Good Lovin'" and "I Ain't Gonna Eat My Heart Out Anymore," perhaps the standout number on the LP was "Baby Let's Wait," another tune co-written by the Sawyer-Burton team. This too was treated with a wonderfully tender, dramatic lead Brigati vocal, as well as a monumental opening Danelli drum roll, mournful backup vocal wails, and some of Cavaliere's finest Hammond organ swells. It sounds like it could have been a hit single under its own steam, and in fact it was, but not for the Rascals. For prior to their #2 single "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron," it had been cut as the Royal Guardsmen's debut single in 1966; their own quite commendable, though somewhat more pop-oriented, version would reach the Top Forty as a reissued 45 in early 1969.

    The remaining three covers were somewhat more surprising choices, given the band's blue-eyed soul image. Brigati took another lead vocal for the standard "I Believe," written in the early 1950s for pop singer Jane Froman, and subsequently covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Frankie Laine, and the Lettermen. If it seems odd for the Rascals to be tackling such a pre-rock pop tune, it should be remembered that rock bands often included such material on their LPs in the early-to-mid-1960s as sort of a testament to their versatility, all the way up to the Beatles' covers of "A Taste of Honey" and "Till There Was You." Clearly Eddie had a taste for such pieces, as he'd sing lead on another pair, "Since I Fell For You" and "More," on the Rascals' second album, Collections. The remaining two tracks, both sung by Gene Cornish, were covers of two big 1965 hits, the Beau Brummels' "Just a Little" and Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Though again these seem odd selections for the Rascals to take on, they would have needed to play a wide repertoire as a club band in 1965, and at least Dylan's arrangement of "Like a Rolling Stone," like so much of the Rascals' set, featured a prominent organ.

    It should also not be overlooked that such contemporary giants as Dylan and the British Invasion were influences on the Rascals as they began to write their own songs. Original material would assert itself as a much larger part of the band's music on their second album, Collections, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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