By Richie Unterberger

Over the course of their first two albums (The Young Rascals and Collections, both also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), the Rascals had demonstrated why many fans and critics revere them as the best blue-eyed soul group of the 1960s. As fine as the best tracks from those records were, however, listeners at the time couldn't have been prepared for the explosion of creativity that took the band into bold new directions on their third album, Groovin'. Now writing most of their own material, the Rascals were incorporating thoughtfully orchestrated horns and strings into their organ-guitar-driven sound. Bits of psychedelia, too, were sprinkled over their newly sophisticated songwriting, which remained soulful while bursting with a new-found radiant, relaxed joy in keeping with the spirit of the Summer of Love. For all their ambition, however, the Rascals remained extremely accessible pop-rock masters—so much so that three of the album's songs were Top Ten singles, the title track hitting #1 in the middle of spring 1967 and becoming one of the best-loved rock classics of the 1960s.

    The considerable success of the Groovin' album itself, which peaked at #5 in the charts, was almost assured by the phenomenal performance of the "Groovin'" single. With its breezy feel—a harmonica as carefree as a summer walk on the beach, conga, classical-influenced piano, birdcalls (supplied by singer Eddie Brigati's brother David), a reliably soulful lead vocal from Felix Cavaliere, and impeccable background vocals with a call-response flavor—it was quite a departure from the original Rascals sound. There was no swelling Cavaliere Hammond organ, no crunching guitar, no full drum kit. Indeed, Atlantic Records was at first reluctant to release this Cavaliere-Brigati composition as a single. Of course, it not only topped the pop charts, but also went to #3 in the R&B listings, the Rascals being one of the few white acts of the era with a sizable following among black audiences. The Groovin' album also made the R&B Top Ten, as had its predecessor, Collections. The R&B audience paid yet further tribute to the song when the top instrumental soul group of all time, Booker T. & the MG's, took a cover of "Groovin'" to the edge of the pop Top Twenty later in 1967. Such was "Groovin'"'s popularity that the Rascals even recorded Italian and Spanish versions on different sides of a subsequent Atlantic 45.

    "Fee wrote the music and came up with 'groovin' on a Sunday afternoon'," explained Brigati in Melody Maker. "I just thought of what I'd do if I were groovin' on a Sunday afternoon and took it from there. When we do it on stage Dino Danelli stands up front with us and plays congas, [guitarist] Gene [Cornish] on harmonica, Fee on organ and me on tambourine. It sounds the same as the record." Film clips of the band performing the song at the time verify the accuracy of this description, Danelli's conga in fact being about half the size of the drummer himself, Dino slapping a stick on the conga's side as an additional effect. The slight Latin feel of "Groovin'" become overt on the dreamy, mildly psychedelic B-side, "Sueno"—a Cavaliere-Brigati collaboration, as every song on Groovin' in which Felix or Eddie had a hand was—which became popular in its own right.

    Also on Groovin' was the Rascals' next hit single, "A Girl Like You," which peaked at #10 in 1967. "It has a big band effect and a big rhythm thing with lots of brass, but it also has harp and piccolo riffs in it," explained Brigati to Melody Maker at the time. "It's pretty wild and different. That's all I can say. Wait 'til you hear it and I hope everyone digs it!" The track and its B-side, "It's Love"—which was decorated by swirling flute, classical-influenced piano, and eerie high wailing harmonies, though at heart it was a thumping soul-rock tune—was certainly indicative of the much wider assortment of instruments and arrangements the Rascals were taking advantage of in the studio.

    The orchestral arrangements on "A Girl Like You" were handled by Arif Mardin (most famous as producer of the disco-era Bee Gees), who did the same for "How Can I Be Sure" and "I'm So Happy Now." Those two tracks were the A- and B-sides respectively of the group's next-to-last 1967 single, "How Can I Be Sure," which reached #4 and featured Eddie Brigati's finest and most famous lead vocal as a Rascal. Again it was a track that took chances and succeeded gloriously, especially with its swoops in and out of waltz time, its melancholy ambience accented by an lonesome accordion. The happy-go-lucky "I'm So Happy Now," meanwhile, marked the first appearance of a Gene Cornish song (and lead vocal) on a Rascals 45.

    Like so many rock LPs of the time, Groovin' was dominated by songs that appeared on singles; no less than eight of its eleven songs were issued in the seven-inch format. Unlike many such LPs, however, the tracks were strong whether they'd appeared on 45 or not, and have been unfairly overlooked to a degree even by Rascals fans, so much do the group's hits dominate the most listeners' knowledge of their music. Brigati was keen to note the musical advancement the record marked in Melody Maker, exclaiming, "The whole album is very different to what we've done before and will, I think, surprise a lot of people. It goes from a big band sound on some tracks to a weird and somewhat psychedelic approach on others. All of it is our own work, except for the flute and violins. We had to hire session men for them." The LP-only numbers on Groovin' include "Find Somebody," which for a Rascals song has an almost shockingly pseudo-garage-psychedelic groove, with a curling circular guitar riff much like the one the Golliwogs (later to become Creedence Clearwater Revival) had used on their 1966 single "Fight Fire." There was also another Cornish composition, "I Don't Love You Anymore," with a conga and lilting Spanish-influenced guitar and melody that fit in well with the mood that had been established on the "Groovin'" single.

    Groovin' was still a product of its time, however, in how it filled out its running time with tracks that had previously been released as singles, though at least they hadn't yet found their way onto LP. "You Better Run," in fact, had been a #20 hit for the Rascals back in mid-1966, as the follow-up to "Good Lovin'." Though it sounded a little out of step with where the group was going musically a year later, it was nonetheless a stomping, stuttering soul-rock gem, and—surprisingly, considering its strength—largely created on the spot in the studio. (It was also faithfully covered on a 1966 UK Kim Fowley-produced single by a British band called the 'N Betweens, who would eventually evolve into Slade.) "If You Knew" had been used as the B-side of the Rascals' first 1967 single, "Lonely Too Long," and was a quite impressive, sweetly romantic pop-soul tune with some of Felix and Eddie's best dual lead vocals.

    Finally, there was also a lone cover on Groovin', of Stevie Wonder's "A Place in the Sun," which had ascended to the Top Ten for the soul great in late 1966. "All the numbers [on the LP] are our own except for one, Stevie Wonder's 'Place in the Sun,'" Brigati told Melody Maker. "But even that has our own interpretation. It lasts for about five minutes, opening and closing on a church sounding organ solo, with a big band in the middle." Brigati sang lead on the track, another indication of Eddie's taste for occasional sentimental ballads to break up the pace, Brigati also having taken the lead vocals for similarly romantic pop crooning on The Young Rascals ("I Believe") and Collections ("Since I Fell for You" and "More").

    As impressive an expansion of the Rascals' sound as Groovin' was, they'd venture into deeper psychedelic territory on their next album, which gave them a Top Ten LP even without the benefit of including any Top Ten singles. That story is continued on Once Upon a Dream, which has also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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