By Richie Unterberger

For the Rascals, the last half of the 1960s had been wildly exciting and successful, with numerous classic hit singles and albums that allowed them to complete their evolution from first-rank blue-eyed soulsters to psychedelic-influenced composers of thoughtful originality and humanity. The 1970s would not be nearly as kind to the group, although they did manage to issue three more LPs. The hits stopped coming, original members left, and with their seventh album, 1970's Search and Nearness, they ended their long association with Atlantic Records. As they left the label even before the LP was released, Atlantic had little incentive to promote the record, which barely scraped into the charts at all, reaching a mere #198 in Billboard.

    In retrospect, the danger signs had been there for a couple of years. After their #1 megasmash "People Got to Be Free" in the summer of 1968, the Rascals never managed another Top Twenty single. While 1969's double LP Freedom Suite had been the band's most dedicated effort to reach into new and experimental territory within the album-oriented format, such ventures met with mixed commercial and critical reception from listeners who thought the group worked best as masters of the pop-soul-rock 45. Most crucially, on their following album, See, it was obvious that singer Eddie Brigati wasn't nearly as central a creative force as he had been in the past. While he and organist/singer Felix Cavaliere wrote much of the most popular Rascals material as a team, and though Brigati took almost as many lead vocals as Cavaliere, Eddie wrote just half a song on See, and didn't take any vocal leads of his own.

    Brigati composed none of the material on Search and Nearness, and while he did at least get three lead vocals, by the time the album was finished, he'd left the Rascals. He wasn't even pictured on the back cover photo, which showed the group reduced to the trio of Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish, and drummer Dino Danelli. At the time, the split was given an amiable spin, Rolling Stone reporting in the fall of 1970 that "Felix recently announced the departure of Eddie Brigati. Though the two remain good friends, Eddie had admitted that he wasn't satisfied with his own music, and wanted 'a rest.' He may study music formally." However, about fifteen years later (in Edward Kiersh's book Where Are You Now Bo Diddley? The Artists Who Made Us Rock and Where They Are Now), Cavaliere recalled the split in more bittersweet terms: "I couldn't believe he'd do that to me. I took him in and inspired him to be a lyricist. We were like this [he touches his thumb with his forefinger]. For him to turn on me like still hurts."

    Brigati's withdrawal left even more of the creative juice on Search and Nearness to Cavaliere than usual. Felix wrote six of the ten tracks on his own, and sings lead on seven. Those leads and compositions include both of the Rascals' final two Atlantic singles, the first of which, "Glory Glory," put the gospel influence that had asserted itself on several of the group's late-'60s 45s further to the front than ever. Key to the spiritual flavor of the track were the background vocals of the soul group the Sweet Inspirations, whose Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney) also sang background on "I Believe." Eddie Brigati's brother David can also be heard singing backup on "Glory Glory," but it didn't help the single rise above #58 in the charts. That was better than its follow-up managed—the funk-influenced "Right On" didn't even make the Top Hundred. The only other Rascals 45 on Atlantic to fail to chart at all was the one that had paired Spanish and Italian versions of "Groovin'."

    Songs such as "Glory Glory" and "Right On" were wholly in keeping with Cavaliere's determinedly optimistic, communally uplifting viewpoint as a songwriter; as he said in Teenset in 1968, "Many of our recordings have a little fantasy to them. They tell about what life could be like. We try to keep people happy, that's an entertainer's job. But that doesn't mean we don't know what's happening in the world and don't reflect it in some of our songs." Most of Cavaliere's other songs on Search and Nearness ploughed a similar gospel-rock groove, "Almost Home" (which sounded slightly like a more uptempo "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" in its mood) being perhaps the best of those. The tracks written by the other Rascals were indicative of other interests and directions pulling the group away from their blue-eyed soul foundation, including Danelli's contemporary jazz-influenced "Nama" and the more straightforward heavy rock of Cornish's "You Don't Know." Eddie Brigati's presence is most heavily felt in his lead vocal on the anguished, drawn-out version of the Boxtops' "The Letter," one of the few covers the Rascals attempted after their first two albums.

    When Search and Nearness was issued in March 1971, it bore a dedication to "Jerry Wexler, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Eddie Brigati, Arif Mardin and the entire staff of Atlantic Records, in fond remembrance of a beautiful five years." For in September 1970, Rolling Stone had announced that the Rascals had signed to Columbia Records, "hoping, as Felix Cavaliere says, to make its proprietors a 'little more soulful.' The grapevine reports that the new Rascals contract is a 'million dollar deal,' but no one wishes to comment on what that means, and it could mean anything." Dick Hollaert of the Rascals office told the magazine, "It was a straight business transaction. Everything was amicable with Atlantic straight down the line. We've always been treated well by the people at Atlantic. The Rascals moved to Columbia because it's got better worldwide distribution of recorded materials. The Rascals haven't been exposed record-wise in Europe, and Columbia offered a very good vehicle through which to accomplish this."

    The report added that "the group is looking for a new musician or musicians," Cavaliere declaring, "We're working more towards an R&B jazz feeling, and a new man would of course change the concept considerably." The new man didn't arrive, and in fact Cornish was also gone by the time their first Columbia album, Peaceful World, came out in May 1971. The Cavaliere-Danelli version of the Rascals kept the band going for one more Columbia LP, 1972's Island of Real, before the group finally broke up, neither of their Columbia albums having made the Top Hundred.

    The Rascals' lengthy association with Atlantic hadn't always been smooth; the label had been reluctant to release "Groovin'" and "People Got to Be Free" as singles, for fear that they departed too radically from the group's established sound (though both of those singles went to #1). In hindsight, however, the pluses of being with Atlantic seem to have far outweighed the minuses. Aside from it being a natural match since Atlantic had recorded many of the R&B and soul greats who served as the Rascals' initial inspirations, the company also allowed the group to produce all of their own albums from the very beginning—a privilege that few other bands in their position were able to enjoy. They were also able to use the top-notch arranging skills of Arif Mardin, and skilled engineers such as Adrian Barber and Tom Dowd, as well as relatively advanced recording equipment for the era. "We had the only eight-track in existence at Atlantic," Cavaliere told Keyboard in 1994. "Us and Les Paul—that was it. Believe me, guys like John Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful were really jealous of us, because we had eight tracks and they had four."

    For its part, Atlantic's success with the Rascals was crucial to helping the label make deep inroads into the white rock band market. "We really thought we had to do something through our music," observed Cavaliere in "What'd I Say": The Atlantic Story: 50 Years of Music. "Teach people love, if they weren't fortunate enough to have it in their lives. Teach people that your neighbor's color and race does not mean anything, it's his soul and heart—stop this war! From a record company point of view, I think Atlantic was probably not interested in those kinds of issues. I think they were out for one purpose, which was fine,  just to sell records and to make music. They felt it would be detrimental to our career. I mean, [Atlantic executive] Jerry [Wexler] told me that right to my face...We had a relationship with Atlantic, however, where I always just felt this tremendous respect for these guys. I mean, look at the records that came out of the place! So I always held back just a little bit, and I'm sure they did too, because they were doing so well with us." And taken together, their seven Atlantic albums—all reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music—made for an enormously important body of rock and soul music that wasn't limited to their justifiably famous hit singles. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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