It was the mid-'60s, and the British Invasion was well underway. Aside from a handful of intrepid defenders — the Beach Boys, the Turtles, the Byrds, and the Lovin' Spoonful in particular — it was lonely on the front lines of the American resistance. Fortunately, there was another band in those ranks as well, a group from New Jersey. It was born from the ashes of harmony act Joey Dee and the Starliters, whose instrumental ensemble included, at one time or another, Jimi Hendrix, Charles Neville, and future actor Joe Pesci.
Originally dubbed the Rascals — then the Young Rascals after it was discovered there was already a group called the Harmonica Rascals — the foursome included singer and keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, singer Eddie Brigati, drummer Dino Danelli, and guitarist Gene Cornish. They wrote and recorded a string of Top Ten hits that made them a steady fixture on the U.S. and Canadian pop charts and helped define the mix of rock and R&B that came to be called "blue-eyed soul." A phenomenal string of hits that took them to the end of the decade — like "Good Lovin'," "Groovin'," "People Got to Be Free," "How Can I Be Sure," and "A Beautiful Morning"— resonate even today.
Although it was eventually able to shorten its handle back to the Rascals, the band began to disintegrate with the onslaught of the '70s. Last year was the first formal reunion of the original foursome via a multimedia concert performance and theatrical spectacle dubbed Once Upon a Dream.
Produced by devoted fan, former Soprano, and E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt, the show's Broadway debut garnered critical raves and sold out seats. The show plays South Florida prior to embarking on a nationwide tour. New Times spoke with guitarist Cornish about his reaction to the Rascals' return. His enthusiasm was infectious.
New Times: How are you enjoying this revival so far?
Gene Cornish: Oh, my God. We're on cloud nine! Steven Van Zandt has really put the thing together correctly. He created what he calls a bioconcert. It's kind of puzzling to the people on Broadway because it's not a play, but it's not a concert. We have a 50-foot screen behind us with prefilmed segments of all four of us talking to the audience between songs. We never leave the stage for two hours and ten minutes. We play 30 songs. This isn't the Jersey Boys. This is the real Rascals.
We do have young fellows depicting us when we were young and a couple of segments where we talk about our legacy and how we fought, how we grew, our successes, our family ties, our reverence and respect for R&B music and civil rights. In between the songs, there are little vignettes on the screen, and then people finally get to know where the Rascals came from and where they disappeared to all of a sudden, like a trapdoor, boom, bam.
How did Steven Van Zandt become involved in this project?
He became enamored with us back when he was 16 years old. He saw us at the Keystone Roller Rink in Jersey. As a matter of fact, Bruce Springsteen was there too, but they didn't know each other. And Steven says, still to this day, it was one of the best concerts he has ever seen in his life. He was always a fan and a supporter. He tried to get us together back in the '80s, but it wasn't time yet.
Then we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. And then in 2009, Steven and Maureen Van Zandt were being honored at the Kristen Ann Carr Cancer Foundation, and they wanted to do something special that evening. So Maureen said to Steve, "Why don't you try the impossible one more time?" So he called us up, and because I was a cancer survivor and some members of our extended family have been afflicted with that disease, we all did it for no money. We were offered millions of dollars, but we didn't think that should be the real factor at this point.
So what's the reaction been like?
The curtain drops and the fans say, "My God, they're really here." The Rascals are saying, "My God, the fans are really here." None of us really had an idea of the amount of love and passion and acceptance that we've had. People have waited 42 years for this, you know? The people are so excited. We've had all rave reviews about the show. And it's such a great thing because we get to play our own songs. We do some songs we never got to play live back in the '60s.
"Find Someone to Love." A song I wrote called "Away Away." "If You Knew," "Heaven," "It's Love." And during the songs, this great genius, [lighting, stage, and video designer] Marc Brickman — who did everything from Roger Waters' The Wall to Cirque du Soleil to Blue Man Group to Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney — has created this visual eye candy. It just doesn't stop. There are a bunch of stills behind us. I've seen shows that do that, but this is a multimedia show that can't be described. You have to see it.
It must be wonderful to come back to this kind of success and acceptance after 40-plus years.
It's been a long time coming, because we haven't been around for a while. It's not like we kept popping up every ten years and jumped up and down. We have been away for a long time, and here we are, stronger than ever, and every one of the reviews has been great, and every one of the fans — we call them friends, really — shows up in droves, and they're just overwhelmed. It's just a blessing.
So what was it like during the rehearsals?
Relearning your songs, you can become lazy after so many years. But we really made sure that we play the songs the way the people heard them on the records. There's nothing worse than hearing a sloppy version of a hit you've heard so many times. You want to hear the guitar solo the way you heard it originally. We try to nail every single nuance. It's not karaoke. It's the real deal. We're proud of what we're doing; it belongs to us. We're not a cover band. It's the Rascals covering the Rascals.
The title Once Upon a Dream was the title of a Rascals album.
It certainly was. It's based upon what it was... a dream. Felix would say to us, "The Beatles are the greatest thing, but the next big band will come from New York, and we'll be that band."