By Richie Unterberger

Over the course of their first three albums (The Young Rascals, Collections, and Groovin', all reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), the Rascals had evolved enormously as songwriters and soul-rock stylists within an astonishingly short period of time. That was true of several major rock bands of the 1960s, of course, but it was still remarkable that only a year and a half or so separated the blue-eyed soul raunch of "Good Lovin'" from the near-psychedelic bliss of "Groovin'." For all its innovative qualities, however, the Groovin' album had consisted largely of songs that were released on singles, a couple of them making their debuts on 45 considerably in advance of the LP's release. Once Upon a Dream marked not only a deeper immersion in the psychedelic ethos of the time, but also perhaps the Rascals' first long-playing record conceived of as an album, not just a collection of tracks cut during roughly the same period. Tellingly, it was also the first Rascals LP comprised entirely of original material, and featured just one hit single.

    Before the album was released, there had been hints that it would be a departure from previous Rascals longplayers, both in sound and attitude. "Our new album, and I say this in a humble way, will be Sgt. Pepperish," organist and singer Felix Cavaliere told Melody Maker in October 1967. "We'd really like to go on a world tour in Japan, Turkey, Europe and even the USSR to spread a message of peace. It would be a world peace tour. The message won't be simple pacifism, it'll go deeper than that. It's lack of communication that leads to ignorance and war. On our travels we have found already that young people are really groovy all over the world. Although we're not fighters or anything, we would like to do our bit to get them together. We feel there is freedom of expression in pop music today so that we can do this, and it is the Beatles who have opened up so many doors for so many people, both musically and as regards the press."

    Sixteen years later, incidentally, Cavaliere would speculate that the Rascals influenced the Beatles as well. Discussing Jimmy Smith's organ work with Rock Keyboard in October 1983, Felix observed, "He created a rising crescendo sound pattern that was tonal, by just putting his hands on the keys and moving up. I magnified that to the '60s level of monster sound, and I think my way of doing it had a very strong effect on the music of the Beatles...all of us were very aware of each other in those days. We took plenty from the Beatles, and I'm proud to say that they took something from us. We were working in a club in London, and Paul [McCartney] came down to see us. It was a small room, and in that kind of a place, a Hammond organ with two Leslie speakers and full reverb is quite an experience. You can't get away from it. It fills every corner, because the sound from the Leslie isn't straight; it's around. At the end of our set we played this jazz-rock number called 'Cute,' and at the end I did this effect, going from the complete bottom of the second manual to the midpoint and all the way up to infinity. I remember that Paul was very taken aback by that. He felt it. The next time they put out an album, it was Sgt. Pepper, and they did the same thing, using a whole orchestra [in 'A Day in the Life']. He took it another step. From Smith to Cavaliere to McCartney; that's how that one went. Where Smith got it from I have yet to find out."

    The specific influence of Sgt. Pepper and other psychedelic records of 1967 can be heard on Once Upon a Dream in the frequent use of brief instrumental and spoken passages and sound effects to link and introduce tracks; the abundance of session musicians and orchestration to embroider the quartet of actual Rascals; the eclecticism of styles and arrangements, which varied widely from track to track; and the whimsical, loose-livin'-and-lovin' optimism of much of the lyrics and music. It could even be seen, in fact, on the album's cover, which featured a collection of sculptures by drummer Dino Danelli, and—for the first time on any of their LP sleeves—billed the band as the Rascals, the group having outgrown the Young Rascals name. With any such risk-taking venture, the danger lies in having the ambition tip over into gimmickry that overwhelms the music. Fortunately, the Rascals, like the Beatles, didn't lose sight of the most essential ingredient—strong, memorable pop songs, all but one (guitarist Gene Cornish's "I'm Gonna Love You Too") written by the team of Felix Cavaliere and singer Eddie Brigati. And Once Upon a Dream has many of them, even if they didn't always sound like the blue-eyed soul with which the Rascals first made their mark.

    For all its psychedelic trimmings, however, Once Upon a Dream did contain one bona fide hit single, "It's Wonderful," which made it to #20 in early 1968. Remarkably, it was both wonderful and psychedelic, exuding the carefree relaxed vibe the group had perfected with "Groovin'," but adding a downright freaky instrumental break with high echoing harmonies that disappeared into the ether (and which would be sped up into oblivion on the track's fade), a brief snatch of free jazz brass, and criss-crossing laser beams of sound effects. (Adrian Barber—later to work as engineer on albums by the Allman Brothers, Velvet Underground, Bee Gees, and Cream—even gets a "Sound Effects Engineer" credit on the sleeve.) As a weird extended coda of sorts, it segues into "I'm Gonna Love You Too," a fusion of soul ballad and Salvation Army instrumentation that is one of the record's most overt nod to trendy psychedelicisms. The most overt nod is unquestionably the raga-rocker "Sattva," on which Cavaliere plays sitar, Danelli tabla, and Brigati tamboura, though even that become a typically Rascalian blue-eyed soul groover in the middle section.

    Yet several of the record's songs were as earthy soul-rock concoctions as anything the Rascals had done. "Easy Rollin'" was lowdown funky soul-blues, albeit with a wistful veneer; "Please Love Me" was urgent uptempo romantic blue-eyed soul with a thumping piano base, albeit with some bits where the song unpredictably drifted off into snake-charming jazz passages. "Singin' the Blues Too Long" was a tasteful homage to the sort of bluesy piano R&B mastered by Ray Charles (complete with wailing responsive gospel backup vocals), whom Cavaliere has always credited as a major influence. It was this kind of performance that gave the Rascals a bigger black audience than virtually any other white act of the era; the Once Upon a Dream album, in fact, would actually chart higher in the R&B listings (where it peaked at #7) than the pop ones (where it made #9). "My World" was the kind of bittersweet, high-harmony-bathed soul ballad that would have been a natural for a Philadelphia vocal soul group to cover in the late '60s.

    Elsewhere, the lushly orchestrated "Rainy Day" was the kind of sentimental ballad at which Brigati (who sang lead) excelled, and "My Hawaii" satisfied his soft spot for semi-operatic melodramatic pop of the pre-rock sort. Eddie also took lead on "Silly Girl," the sort of bouncy, out-and-out catchy romantic pop song with which the group might have had a hit single, though it didn't even make it onto a B-side. And "Finale: Once Upon a Dream" features as lead singer not one of the Rascals, but Eddie's brother David Brigati, whom Cavaliere had met back in the Starliters days, and who had contributed birdcalls for "Groovin'." Several other high-profile guests played on the record as well, including tenor saxophonist King Curtis; jazz flutist Hubert Laws; jazz soprano saxophonist Steve Marcus; and jazz bassists Chuck Rainey, Ron Carter, and Richard Davis, all of whom filled in the spaces unavailable to the Rascals in their bass-less onstage lineup (though Gene Cornish played some bass on Once Upon a Dream as well).

    Considering how unusual Once Upon a Dream might have sounded to some Rascals fans, it sold quite well, in addition to satisfying the group's newly grown appetites for lyrical and musical experimentation. They weren't done with those yet, either, taking an entire double LP for their next album, 1969's Freedom Suite, which has also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             unless otherwise specified.