The Eternal Rascal: Felix Cavaliere at 80

A career-spanning chat with the New York rock legend

Felix Cavaliere (Image: Wolfgang’s Vault)

There was a time when The Rascals, initially The Young Rascals, ruled the pop world.

They had 17 Top 20 hits and ten Top 10s, including three No. 1s. That started in 1966 with “Good Lovin’” in 1966, and was followed in 1967 with by “Groovin’” and 1968 with “People Got to Be Free.”

The first song was a cover, but the latter two were co-written by keyboardist/co-lead singer Felix Cavaliere and lead singer Eddie Brigati. What ran through most of the Rascals’ material was up-tempo optimism. 

 “I guess that’s the person I am,” Cavaliere told me, when we talked six years ago. “I had the good fortune of having a good childhood. I always felt safe and secure and positive. I got very lucky in that. With all due respect, to my ex-partner, Eddie, we were black and white. He had these demons.”

The Rascals re-united in 2013 to play the live (and loud) concert that was part of jukebox musical that was The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, a story about their life and times co-written by Steve van Zandt. It started on Broadway and toured, but when that ended, so did the Rascals, at least as the four-piece originals.  

Cavaliere, who celebrates his 80th birthday Nov. 29, did not stop: He put together a band with five younger musicians billed as Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals. That’s also what you’ll see at the top of Cavaliere’s website along with the appellation The King of Blue-Eyed Soul. But you look at the touring section and you’ll find The Rascals – well half The Rascals – have been on the road again as The Rascals Featuring Felix Cavaliere & Gene Cornish: Time Peace Tour. (Cornish is the guitarist.) They played seven dates this month, wrapping up on the 20th.

                                 

Rock and Roll Globe: What was the fallout, good or bad, from Once Upon a Dream?  

Felix Cavaliere: It’s been all positive. I think the amount of publicity we garnered from that is priceless, the number of people that come to my shows as Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals that saw that. There’s been nothing but accolades. The band got along famously. The most controversy is why did it end? We had nothing to do with it ending. Somebody pulled the plug and that guy was the guy responsible for it in the first place. Why they pulled the plug, I think you have to leave up to them. We were having a ball. The thing that I enjoyed most about it, after playing together a few months, after not playing together for X amount of years, it really sounded like a band again.

 

 

So, when it’s Felix’s Rascals, how Rascally is it? 

I co-wrote a lot of the songs and I wrote the music for every one of the songs that I do, so I don’t really look at it as Rascals songs, I look at them as Felix Cavaliere songs that happened to be played by The Rascals, which I’m certainly proud of. I just did a show at Atlantic City and one of the people there said ‘I can’t go a summer without hearing a Rascals song.’ It was a summer band. I look at it, like this: OK, you had a business, like Coca Cola and the people who were part of Coca-Cola are not there anymore, but you say, ‘I still like Coca-Cola. I’m going to go out there and drink all I want.’

 

I saw you and your band play this past spring. It seems like you’ve not lost anything in terms of your voice.

I’m singing in the same keys, I’m very proud to say. I hope that will continue, no one really knows but I think one of the good things about it is, if you keep swinging at the baseball chances are you’re going to hit it the next time it comes at you. It’s a muscle and it’s got to be used. 

 

In revisiting your past night after night, there’s obviously nostalgia, a rearview mirror approach. Is there any new music?

From the stage viewpoint, when I hit that memory nerve I seek a joyous response. If I sing a song and somebody says to themselves, ‘Wow I remember our first date, they played that song,’ that’s what I’m trying to do. If I do something that’s new and I see blank stares out there, it doesn’t make me feel good. If you advertise it as Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals I really think I’m expected to hit those nostalgic nerves.

 

Back in the day, did you feel part of a group of like-minded musicians, guys outside the band? A scene? Did you make friends?

You didn’t have time for many friends. (laughs) We were on a whirlwind path in those days. Two albums a year at that time, so that entailed writing, recording, promoting and touring – you didn’t have much time for hanging out. The people I was in touch with Jimi Hendrix was a good friend, John Sebastian was a good friend, [Mountain guitarist] Leslie West, years later. Mostly these occurrences happened when you were traveling and they happened to be in same place as you. Having a family at a very early age in my life, you really want to spend time with your family. I was never much of a party animal, going out to the clubs at night and doing all that. 

 

If you knew Leslie West …

I knew Felix in that band, too, Pappalardi. 

 

Were you two confused?

All the time. Our grandparents actually knew one another. It’s not that common a name, Felix. I really miss him, He was a good guy and he used to say to me, “Felix this is so cool – I get credit for what I did and for what you did too. It’s wonderful!” 

 

I knew Felix. He visited Boston and spent time with his ex-fiancée, Julie Hatfield, a friend and colleague of mine at the Boston Globe. He did some production for the Jon Butcher Axis. He had a tragic end. Drugs. And then shot by his wife, Gail. I went to the wake with Julie.

You gottta be so careful when you hit those heights. You lose your balance and you need somebody to pull you back, You don’t have that you go a little bit too far out. It’s a sad story.

 

You’re on the road a lot. What’s your main motivation for playing now: The fans and adulation, the financial reward, some combo?

It’s all of the above. The real crux of the matter is I moved to Nashville to be involved in the writing community and I really wanted to take part in creating new material with new artists and not be on the road. However, the way our industry changed to say the least, it didn’t work out that this was the place that I could retire from the road on because as we all know what it is – [music] streaming, lack of sales. I used to have a really great income from my writing and publishing and like everybody else you get used to a certain standard of living. So, we’re all on the road now. It’s good that I do enjoy it and it’s a great thing to have people love you.

The stories I get when we do our autographs after the show, it’s amazing how many people were touched. I love hearing their side of the story. Backstage at outdoor venue, a gentleman said “I’d been waiting to meet you a long time.” He was a Vietnam vet and handed me his dog tags god tags and he said, “You save my life.” I said, “What are you talking about?” Evidently, they had boats go along the Mekong River and go and pick up the wounded. [He said] “I heard you were gonna be on this TV show, Hullabaloo, and as a result I didn’t go on that boat and that boat was hit and everybody aboard was killed. 

I just… What can you say? Are you kidding me? I still have those dog tags. You never expect that.

Felix Cavaliere (Image: Felix Cavaliere)

Were you raised in a family that told you a rock ‘n’ roll career won’t last?

Both my parents were professional people, both in the medical field and they expected me to do that. My mom, who passed away when I was 13, was responsible for my entrance into music, in that she noticed and saw a talent when I was about 5 years old and nurtured that through some very serious lessons for eight years. I was trained to be a classical pianist. Interestingly enough, like my dad, he told me years later he told me what was going to happen regardless of my success.

 

What did he say?

Pretty simple. He said, I’m a dentist and I became a dentist and put my shingle up and I’m always a dentist. In your field, you have a couple of missed hit records and you ain’t a dentist no more, you’re a nothing. He was right about that. When you’re young you don’t pay attention, but as my career was going on I realized, ‘Oh my god, you’re right.’ To have lasted as long as I’ve lasted, as we’ve lasted, is rare. Usually, you’re long gone and then what do you do? That was correct advice.

 

When you wrote a song that became a hit, did you know that in your bones ahead of time?

The interesting thing about Atlantic Records [The Rascals’ label], it was on one floor of a building. The recording studio was abutted by secretaries then there was the hierarchy. The secretaries would hear it and swarm the building, come in and start dancing, and they would call in the hierarchy and you knew you had something when you got that type of reaction. You’ve got to have some reaction to a song you recorded; somebody’s gotta say yay or nay.

 

You were white guys on a largely Black label.

Yeah, it was amazing. The talent that was walking those floors. Unbelievable. I was very comfortable. I’ve always been comfortable with ethnic people; I consider myself ethnic. 

 

There was a lot of crossover then, a synchronicity between black and white? Cool?

I miss those days of crossover with the music. Now, it’s digressed to the point where you have to attract a certain demographic and it has nothing to do with music. It’s all business and it’s really sad. 

 

The Rascals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. But the band, for all intents, was done after Eddie left in 1970, and there were fallow times after hits stopped coming and FM radio changed the landscape. How did you cope?

What I did in those years I met a teacher, a guru, Swami Satchidanda, and I asked him “What the heck do I do?” And this was when “How Can I Be Sure” was out so we had a No. 2 record at the time. He looked at me and said, “You’re very lucky because you realize at a very young age that almost every profession has the same side of instability. Yours is more volatile than others but you’re there already. Basically, he was saying you have to find your peace and stability elsewhere. It made a difference in my life because you realize, it’s not just your money in the bank, it’s also your health and the type of history you’re leaving behind as a parent and as a human. I realized I had to change my direction to become more pure, become good, become healthy, and the hell with all the rest. Let it be. It is gonna be what it is. 

 

VIDEO: Steven Van Zandt inducts The Rascals into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

2 thoughts on “The Eternal Rascal: Felix Cavaliere at 80

  • November 29, 2022 at 3:26 pm
    Permalink

    Good interview… Truly.

    Would be interesting to interview Little Steven for an opposing viewpoint. He’s not so happy with Felix these days.

    Reply
    • December 8, 2022 at 3:30 pm
      Permalink

      That’s a good idea. I learned a lot from this story. Impressive that Felix can still sing in the songs’ original keys — and you get a real sense of the guy from how proud that makes him. Telling interview.

      Reply

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