Music News & Reviews

An original Rascal keeps those hits coming with show in Frankfort

In just about any picture you see of him, Felix Cavaliere will be smiling.

It doesn't matter if it's a shot from the 1960s, when the singer/songsmith was spinning pop-soul into gold with The Rascals, or today, as an older but active pop ambassador who has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Whatever the era with whatever music he was creating, Cavaliere has kept smiling.

"I guess that's another good fortune thing for me," said the singer/ keyboardist, who performs twice Friday at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. "I see a lot of people that are so negative. I just feel that if you've got a plus and a minus, then put me over on the plus side."

Cavaliere, who turns 70 next month, has had plenty to smile about throughout his career. His hits with The Rascals, nearly all of which he wrote with bandmate Eddie Brigati, helped to define pop-soul in the latter half of the '60s. Songs like Groovin', A Beautiful Morning and I've Been Lonely Too Long were created on Atlantic Records at the same time the label was promoting the R&B triumphs of Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett.

Cavaliere, who sang lead on most of the group's hits, especially early ones cut when the quartet was billed as The Young Rascals, was more than thrilled by the company.

"The philosophy behind Atlantic Records came from a jazz school," Cavaliere said. "By that I mean they captured a moment and they recorded it. Those moments were really magical in the studio. The entire cast, from the musicians to the people who were in the room assisting in production, like Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd (who became two of Atlantic's most famed producers), was so musically tuned in to the songs. The energy was so positive. I think that enthusiasm permeated the grooves of the records.

"So when somebody hears, say, Beautiful Morning, they feel that joy that was being sung and written about. It was the upward kind of feeling that music brings."

By 1968, The Rascals began straying from its pop-soul base and journeyed into more progressive and psychedelic turf. As such, albums such as 1968's Once Upon a Dream and 1969's Freedom Suite earned greater critical notice even as the band's sales and chart visibility began to slip.

"The beginning of our career was based on radio and the AM hits," Cavaliere said. "Then as time progressed and the FM stations came in, the album-oriented world started to take over. You know, you try to adapt to what's going on in the world. But your audience can be very reluctant to let you change. They like to hear what they like to hear. So it was kind of a constant battle between, 'Well, you guys are supposed to sound like this' and what we really did sound like.

"When the group broke up, I really felt we had an opportunity to extend and go into more of an adventuresome thing. But the audience has to accept that. And that's a tough, tough thing because people have this typecast idea of what you are, and that's it. That's what they see, that's what they hear and that's what they want."

Still, there were great moments on those final Rascals recordings. Its last Atlantic album, 1971's Search and Nearness — the making of which saw the departure of Brigati and founding guitarist Gene Cornish — was among the group's best works and yielded a minor radio hit, Glory Glory, that was less psychedelic soul and more overtly gospel.

"Eddie was not singing with us at that time. So to complete that album, I had the good fortune of using Cissy Houston. Of course, there's the gospel for you, right there. As soon as she opens her mouth, it's gospel.

"The interesting thing to me about the '60s was that we kind of grew up in front of people. All of us did. The Beatles, The Stones, we all grew up musically and grew up with what was going through our lives, be it relationships, whatever we were studying, politically motivated things, etc., etc. That's what was happening at that time. Search and Nearness. Exactly. I'm still searching."

The original Rascals are scheduled to reunite for a series of concerts in New York in December, although Cavaliere said he has mixed feelings about the event. "I'm just hoping that everybody's health and shape are good enough for them to really come to the plate."

Regardless of how the reunion turns out, he continues to perform with a Nashville-based unit dubbed Felix Cavaliere's Rascals to offer what he calls "unique paintings" of a celebrated pop-soul past.

"We kind of fit the songs to a new pattern. They're the same songs but different. Being able to make new ideas and new thoughts work keeps me young."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader