CL Interview: Felix Cavaliere (of The Rascals)

August 5, 2009 at 4:21 pm by Eric Snider

Blue-eyed soul was a term coined in the ’60s for white singers who could sing in an African-American style. Felix Cavaliere was among the first, and best, of the type (although his eyes are brown).
 

In the latter half of the ’60s, as lead singer for NYC-based The Rascals (initially the Young Rascals), Cavaliere set the standard for blue-eyed soul singing; his pleading tenor had a natural infinity for blues and gospel inflections. When he covered R&B standards like “Mustang Sally” and “In the Midnight Hour,” his vocals were authentic and commanding.
 

During the Rascals’ too-brief period of chart dominance — bookended by No. 1 singles “Good Lovin’” (early ‘66) and “People Got to be Free” (summer of ‘68) — the quartet evolved from a good-timey garage/R&B band to a maker of sophisticated pop hits like “Groovin’,” “A Girl Like You,” “How Can I Be Sure” and “A Beautiful Morning.”
 

Like so many acts of the period, the Rascals were overshadowed by the Beatles and other British Invasion acts. They are one of the most underrated bands in the history of rock, and their music has sturdily withstood the test of time.
 

The Rascals began to fracture in 1970 — spurred by the departure of Cavaliere’s songwriting partner Eddie Brigati — and, after some artistic wrong turns, broke up a couple of years later. Cavaliere has not been able to approach the Rascals’ success as a solo artist, a puzzlement.
 

His most recent recording was last year’s Nudge it up a Notch, a collaboration with fabled Stax/Volt session guitarist Steve Cropper. A handful of songs on the disc are Rascals-quality blue-eyed soul, with the 66-year-old Cavaliere’s voice sounding vigorous, virtually undiminished.
 

Cavaliere is part of a package tour called Hippiefest, which stops at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Saturday (details below). A few weeks ago, I had a wide-ranging phone discussion with one of my favorite singers. Here’s an edited version of our talk.
 

Your voice sounds in great shape. Do you have to work at it?
 

There’s a genetic factor in that; there’s no question that I come from strong people who live long lives. But you have to take care of yourself. You can’t sit around and smoke and drink and bury yourself in bad habits. I lived in Danbury, Conn. for many years, and I shared a place with Willie Nelson’s manager Mark Rathbaum. This was in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He got me into working out and going to the gym. I have to thank him. It’s made such a difference in my stamina and my voice and my attitude. As we’re getting older, guys’ bodies are leaving them. It’s sad, man. Replaced knees. Mitch Ryder had two hips replaced. Ouch.
 

So, onto the Rascals. It’s my strong belief that the band does not get the credit it deserves in rock history. Do you ever feel shortchanged in that area?
 

A lot of that was our own fault. From the business part of it, we really failed. Most of the groups that turned out to be legendary had some type of legendary manager. We never did. And we didn’t know what the hell we were doing as far as business goes. The left brain/right brain syndrome. It happens in a lot of groups — guys think they know more than anybody and make decisions that are so detrimental. I look at the demise of the Rascals as a mini American tragedy. We broke up before our time, missed the big dollars.

But the [Rascals] music is still respected and revered. A lot of the music coming out now will not survive, even though the artists might be multi-zillionaires. But I don’t have any bitterness. You reap what you sow.
 

Can you give me an example of how you were victimized by a bad management decision?
 

OK — our manager said, “Let’s not play Woodstock.” There was a great idea. “What should we do?” “Let’s take the friggin’ day off.”
 

In the space of a few short years, the band went from the Young Rascals doing R&B covers and basic rock songs like “Good Lovin’” to lush, brilliant records like “A Girl Like You” and “A Beautiful Morning.” That’s a remarkable artistic evolution. Can you tell me how that developed?
 

Two reasons for the ascension. We had the Beatles and people of that ilk to contend with. That kept the bar very high. I never looked at it as an obstacle but an opportunity to explore what I was capable of doing. You had to listen to all the Beatles records — it opened the window for something like “How Can I Be Sure,” something balladic, something different in 3/4 time. It would’ve never been possible without those guys.

Then we had [legendary producer] Arif Mardin in the studio, this genius in the background making happen whatever you wanted to do. The Beatles had George Martin. When it came to Arif Mardin, we were just in the right place at the right time. Sometimes fate smiles on you like that.

I was having so much fun making the music that I never even looked at the business. A third-party friend of mine who had a masters in business had a meeting with us one night. He put a blackboard up, drew out a corporate diagram. Then he said, “This is what you guys are running,” and drew a picture of a candy store. “Oh my God, we’re running this like a candy store.”

That caused a problem — when one person tries to say let’s reorganize, and the other guys misunderstand your motives. They think you want to take over, that you have delusions of grandeur. But they don’t understand: The ship is going down. You’re in survival mode.
 

That guy was you, just to be clear.
 

Yeah.
 

There must’ve been a period of time when the Rascals were at their peak, spinning out hits, that you made some pretty good money, lived pretty high.
 

When you’re a kid you don’t know. I thought we were doing well. We had enough money to do what we wanted, the point being it never bothered me. I can’t say the same for some of the other guys in the band. But I was never really in it for making money; it was about making music. As long as I was making music I was a happy guy. Actually, that’s pretty much still the case today.
 

So what actually precipitated the band’s breakup?
 

We were like a four-wheel drive car and one of the wheels decided he wasn’t going to run anymore. [Eddie Brigati] quit. And before he physically quit, he mentally quit. He was my songwriting partner. For him it was a chore; me, I loved what I was doing: creating music, going into the studio. Are you kidding me? What more could you ask for outside the realm of family? I was in total bliss.
 

What did you think of Eddie’s state of mind at the time?
 

I thought he was crazy. “Gee, what a drag we have to go in and do another song.” It’s very difficult to understand why someone would want to quit a successful organization doing music. I could never fathom what was going through his mind. As the years progressed and I was able to psychoanalyze it some, I think I got some answers. There’s a certain type of person who just wants to pretty much stay home. They got no gypsy in their blood. But when you’re under 30, that’s nonsense.
 

As the Rascals moved into the 1970s, you kind of moved away from hitmaking into some high-concept, self-indulgent music. I think that contributed to the band’s commercial failures as well.
 

You don’t know that until you look back. One of the reasons, I was a real intense person who, when I got involved in something, had a tendency to get maybe too involved. To the point that it takes over your life. I was seriously into the Civil Rights Movement, Bobby Kennedy. And I got into yoga to the degree that it was an entirely life-changing experience as to how I viewed the material world. I kind of look at it like, “Did it ruin the business and save my life?” It could’ve ruined the musical part and saved my life. I guess I became overly indulged in world consciousness, but I do think it helped me survive.

But as I look back, you never know what would’ve happened if we stayed the course. The music could’ve become contrived. The 1910 Fruitgum Company [a '60s bubblegum act] is not part of the discussion anymore. It was such a unique time. People were writing what they were living. What I loved about it, the artists and the audience were all growing up together.
 

What’s it like being on a package tour like Hippie Fest? It’s easy for people to sit back and see it as cheesy.
 

It can be difficult. In the first place I don’t have my own band. That causes some consternation. I have a lot of musician friends who are older who would be delighted to come out on the road and play with me, but on a caravan like this it’s not something you can afford. I think the only self-contained band on the tour is Mountain. I don’t know how much longer I’ll tour. But for guys like me it’s best to look for package tours. It’s very difficult to go out there like the lone ranger and fill seats. So I’m happy to be on this show.
 

On a young tour like Warped, a lot of it seems to be about the camaraderie among the bands. Is that the way with the old-timers, or do you go your separate ways?
 

It’s a fraternity, and it’s getting smaller and smaller. There is camaraderie, sure. The topics change over the years, like guys exchanging ideas on what vitamins they’re taking. The conversations can be hysterical.