The Rascals timeless summer hit “Groovin’ has an ethereal groove that was shaped by Atlantic Records producers Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin.
The New Jersey band was the first white act signed to Atlantic–before the label signed Led Zeppelin in 1968. Dowd and Mardin had sharpened their empathetic chops with Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and others.
Every time I hear “Groovin’,” flavored by a Cuban conga riff (no drums on the record) and Gene Cornish’s low rider harmonica I go back to the summer of ‘67. I was 12 years old. The Cubs were building for the future. And my father, then a Republican, took me to Old Town–then a very groovy strip of music clubs, head shops and strip joints. There were possibilities.
Steven Van Zandt, the fine guitarist of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band talked the Rascals into reuniting for “Once Upon A Dream Starring The Rascals” which runs Nov. 5-10 at the Cadillac Theatre in Chicago.
“Their music so represented the ‘60s, certainly the idealism of the ‘60s, that we couldn’t have picked a better group,” Van Zandt told me during a recent stop in Chicago. “You realize you’re taking people out of the modern constant assault of negativity and cynicism, and for two hours you are putting them in a place that despite the tumultuous events of the ‘60s, there was hope in the air. You depended on that. Suddenly people are feeling that during the show. Its a bit of a bath, rinsing off all that negativity for a couple of hours. This is what it is all about. Looking forward to the next day, next week–knowing life is going to be better. And continue to be inspirational and motivational.
“Well, those days are gone. It’s all gone, you know?”
Van Zandt had kept in the Rascals orbit since he first saw them in 1965 at a roller rink in New Jersey. His future Boss was in the house. Van Zandt hired Rascals drummer Dino Danelli as drummer for his early 1989s offshoot Disciples of Soul band. Danelli also designed the Rascals album covers.
“The greatest drummer ever, indisputably,” Van Zandt said.
Not a bad reference for a guitarist who regularly plays with E-Street drummer Max Weinberg. Van Zandt explained, “The old school drummers came from jazz and as the rock era went on, less so. Dino played with his wrists at the time in that jazz style. He was a big fan of Buddy Rich and those guys. He not only developed their style in terms of flexibility and speed but also the showmanship of twirling the sticks in between beats. Nobody else did that in rock. When the Who came to town, Keith Moon would say, ‘Let’s find out where the Rascals are playing’.”
In 1997 Van Zandt inducted the Rascals into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. “But it didn’t feel like enough,” he said. According to Van Zandt the Rascals were looking for a creative idea that could add to their legacy, rather than dilute it. “As I told them the (concert-Broadway) idea, they were intrigued by it,” Van Zandt said. “A bit wary of how they would interact with the other guys after all this time, certainly. And would there be an audience?”
The great Rascals (L to R) Gene Cornish, Eddie Brigati, Dino Danelli and Felix Cavaliere, 1968
In “Once Upon a Dream” the Rascals come alive again in concert with contemporary lighting and design from Marc Brickman (Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Springsteen) and even an Ed Sullivan introduction.
The band should grab a new audience.
In a 1987 show before Rascals vocalist-keyboardist Felix Cavaliere appeared at the Park West (with an eight-piece band and horns!), Cavaliere told me, “I think we’ve (the Rascals) been neglected. I once was involved with an artist, and I found that in the world of art there’s just as much hype involved in making yourself a known entity as there is in selling cornflakes. On one hand, it makes me really ticked off. But on the other hand, it says the music has endured besides that fact…..There’s a right way and wrong way of doing reunions. Whatever principles that group stood for are the only way I’ll be involved in it.”
There were always possibilities.
Van Zandt, 62, found a soothing tonic while growing up with the Rascals blue-eyed soul. (“Groovin’” crossed over to number 3 on Billboard’s black music charts.)
Van Zandt’s mother remarried when he was seven years old. “That’s why I am Italian-American with a Dutch name,” he quipped. “My father adopted me. He was the only father I really knew. He was in the construction business. My mother didn’t have to work, but she liked being out of the house. She became an assistant in a doctor’s office. There wasn’t a lot of music around the house. They liked Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, which I grew up with.
“We defined ‘The Generation Gap.’ My father, ex-Marine, Goldwater Republican. Here I was the only freak in Jersey with long hair. It was very tough growing up from the mid-teens to the early 20s. We reconciled. My Dad realized playing rock n’ roll was not quite the same thing as being a drug addict or a criminal, although I think my parents would have preferred me to be a criminal because there was more regular work. Thank goodness my friend Bruce Springsteen got on the cover of Time and Newsweek because it justified the whole thing.
“Our generation was a complete break from the previous generation. And I don’t think that’s happened before or since. Now parents and kids share a lot of things together. We. Did. Not. Share. Anything.”
I am four years younger than Van Zandt, but I understand how we found community in music. Through music, someone heard us.
Van Zandt added, “It was also the most extraordinary time in (music) history. I call that a renaissance period and I mean that sincerely. That period from ‘51 until 1970, absoutely a renaissance period that will be studied for hundreds of years to come. When you go back and look at the Hullabaloo’s and Shindigs, it is interesting how the Rolling Stones come on and then Marvin Gaye comes on. The Kinks and Curtis Mayfield. No wonder we grew up feeling integration was a normal state of society. That period gave us among the greatest music ever made, right there with Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. The birth of rock obviously in the ‘50s and the epitome of rock in the ‘60s, of course colors everything that goes on today and will continue to color pop music in all of its forms until new instruments are invented.”