By Richie Unterberger

In the three years between the release of the Rascals' "Good Lovin'" single in early 1966 and the appearance of their fifth album, Freedom Suite, in early 1969, much had changed in the group's world. Even their name had changed from the Young Rascals to the Rascals, but in other respects, their evolution wasn't merely cosmetic. Their music had expanded from its blue-eyed-soul base to incorporate psychedelia, jazz, and lyrics of social and religious import. Originally recording as a bass-less quartet motored by Felix Cavaliere's organ and vocals, Gene Cornish's guitar, Dino Danelli's drums, and Eddie Brigati's singing, they'd added a heap of orchestration and session men on different instruments as their studio arrangements expanded. The very fact that Freedom Suite was a double LP reflected the widening scope of both their ambition and the horizons of rock music in general at the end of the 1960s, the two-disc format never even having been employed by rock musicians prior to Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out in 1966.

    Such mutation in focus was not going to be embraced by all of the Rascals' fans, particularly as the band had been a hit singles machine between 1966 and 1968, even though their albums had sold and charted respectably well. Relative to previous Rascals LPs, and most likely relative to their own high expectations, Freedom Suite's commercial performance was disappointing, peaking at #17 and only staying in the Top Forty for six weeks. Despite containing a #1 single and a couple of other Top Forty hits, it signaled a downward turn in the Rascals' fortunes that never would be halted, even though they would continue to make records for several years.

    Yet less than a year earlier, the band's stock among listeners, critics, and the captains of the record industry could not have possibly been higher in the wake of that #1 single, "People Got to Be Free." Staying on top of the charts for an astonishing five consecutive weeks in the summer of 1968, it managed that rare double feat of getting people to dance and trenchantly commenting on a volatile social situation. With an unstoppable chorus and the band's peerless integration of horns into a soul-rock format, it was not only their biggest hit, but one of the landmark recordings of the era. So instantly did it lodge itself in the national consciousness, in fact, that by November 1968 it was the basis of a lengthy sketch on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, sung by Kate Smith and an uncomfortable-looking Jefferson Airplane. You couldn't make that one up.

    Despite its infectiously celebratory urge for brotherhood, "People Got to Be Free" was directly inspired by two of the saddest events of 1968—the assassinations, within a couple of months of each other, of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. "After King and Kennedy and what happened in Chicago, we just had to say something," Cavaliere told Billboard later that year by way of explanation as to the group's more pronounced social commentary. "We don't believe in violence and we don't believe in utter passivity. We want to point out a middle road to satisfy both extremes and solve the problems. We're not intellectuals or physical types like the Doors, though we do lean more toward the physical. We are entertainers first. We'd like to be known as the gentlemen of rock."

    Added Cavaliere to Terje Mosnes on television during a European visit in February 1969, "We feel that we have a little responsibility in expressing our views to the people, and so that's what we do in some of our music. Not all of it, just some of it. We tell them what we think should be in the world." He also clarified that the lyrics to "People Got to Be Free" "were written the next week, not the night" of Kennedy's assassination—"the night was kind of a shock to us all. That was the inspiration, I believe, for it." As to whether white people were just as affected by the song as blacks (who were responsible for the song reaching #14 on the R&B charts), he added, "Yes, but the black people feel more happy about it. The white people, they agree with it. But still, it's more part of the black man's life."

    But "People Got to Be Free" would not be entirely typical of the Freedom Suite album, as Dino Danelli acknowledged to Melody Maker around the time of the LP's release. "Our next LP is a complete departure from anything we have done before," he declared. "It's a double album. The first is full of lyrical songs and the second has instrumentals featuring the sort of numbers we play in clubs, and never record. It's beautiful—very jazz orientated. I love jazz and classical music, all those different forms. Each one of us comes from different backgrounds. I was in jazz for years and the others in classical music. All these different ingredients help us create an original style. We progress individually all the time, in our writing and performing."

    A few months before Freedom Suite was issued, another of its tracks, "A Ray of Hope," had also appeared as a single. It also consolidated their role as social commentators, Billboard reporting that it had been written about Senator Ted Kennedy, further marking "the Rascals' switch to guruing for the above-ground sub-psychedelic set who looks to the four Rascals as crusaders and compatriots whenever they tour America with their jubilant, kinetic live show; their durability has given them a larger voice."

    It was also indicative of a turn toward a more audibly gospel-influenced sound, which was even stronger on their next single, "Heaven," which was likewise included in Freedom Suite. Asked by Melody Maker whether its orchestral backing reflected the band's general direction, Danelli responded, "Actually, no. The record started out as a completely different concept. It was written for the four of us, then the brass happened and more people were added. We didn't want to release it as a single, as we were not really happy. But the deejays in New York seemed to fall in love with it and told us to go ahead and release it. It wasn't a number one, but it was Top Ten in the States." (Actually it only reached #39 on Billboard.)

    The most unusual feature of Freedom Suite was its division into one LP of fairly conventional songs with the usual Rascals soul-pop-rock flavor—even if these were ostensibly grouped into a "Freedom Suite"—and a second LP of three extended numbers that were almost entirely instrumental. While Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati had been writing as a team to supply the bulk of the material on the Rascals' third and fourth LPs (Groovin'Once Upon a Dream), here they were back to sometimes writing together (as they did for "People Got to Be Free") and Cavaliere sometimes composing on his own (as he did for "Heaven"). Gene Cornish got a couple of his songs in as well with "Me & My Friends" and "Love Was So Easy to Give."

    However, the album's most challenging aspect—and likely the one that hurt it most in the marketplace—was the decision to devote the second LP to instrumental material heavy on lengthy improvisation. While these admitted some of the band's more daring jazz influences in particular, they were not at all what was expected of a group that had made short pop songs their forte. It is worth pointing out, however, that Danelli's drum soloing during these cuts was not mere trendiness, but something he would have been schooled in as a drummer with a jazz background. "I used to play with Lionel Hampton," he noted to Melody Maker. "I played for him for about seven months when I was seventeen, in his big band. Then I split and started to jam with all sorts of old jazz cats. Maybe you have heard of them—Henry Red Allen? Then I went to New Orleans and played with everyone there, which was fantastic. That town is a gas! You see, when I started playing I was a protege of Gene Krupa. The guys used to like me because I was small and they took care of me." Further jazz cred was supplied by the appearances of David Newman (who took a tenor sax solo on "Adrian's Birthday"), King Curtis (who did the tenor sax solo on "Of Course"), and bassists Chuck Rainey and Richard Davis, both of whom had also appeared on Once Upon a Dream.

    Never again, however, would the Rascals stretch out so ambitiously and, some would say, recklessly. It was back to a dozen songs of more standard lengths and structures on their next album, See, which contained their final Top Forty singles, and has also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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