The Cost of Freedom: The Rascals’ Struggle for Change

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [African-Americans] are to be free”, wrote President Thomas Jefferson in his 1821 autobiography. Yet Jefferson followed that inspirational sentence with a more downbeat sentiment: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them”.

The Rascals, a 1960s rock group comprised mostly of Italian-Americans from the New York metropolitan area, spent their career trying to prove the top segment of Jefferson’s quote right and the second part wrong. “Shout it from the mountains on down to the sea/people everywhere just got to be free”, they sung on their biggest and most controversial hit. But unlike most other acts of the era, the Rascals didn’t just sing about ideas and ideals in which they believed. They employed them in their day-to-day dealings.

Political activism by rock musicians was far less accepted in the late 1960s when the Rascals decided to make a stand on Civil Rights. It was one thing to sing protest songs with metaphorical lyrics about racial integration; it was quite another thing to try and force promoters to integrate audiences and concert bills. When the Rascals did the latter and issued what guitarist Gene Cornish calls “an edict” that there be an African-American act on their concert bills, they caused their career irreparable damage.

Most critics point to the band’s dabbling in psychedelic music as the reason for the decline in their popularity. But their “psychedelic phase” (which lots of artists went though) actually came before two of their biggest hits, “A Beautiful Morning” and “People Got to Be Free”. And while the band’s involvement in politics wasn’t the only reason for its fall from grace, it set the stage for one of the most dramatic downfalls of any top-flight rock act.

Collector’s Choice Records recently reissued the six albums the Rascals (also known as The Young Rascals) recorded for the pioneering R&B label Atlantic Records between 1966 and 1971. Listeners usually pick up on the breezy, good time aspects of this New York quartet, but few people know of its social activism. The band members have has had well-publicized differences since the group fell apart in the early 1970s. But the one thing they agree on is that when it came time to making a political stand about racial issues, they did the right thing. And in forcing people to confront prejudice, they sacrificed a good portion of their own career.

Like a lot of rock musicians who came of age in the 1960s, the Rascals grew up immersed in the African-American R&B music of the 1950s. But unlike most white musicians, though, they started their careers playing alongside black musicians and did so while racial segregation was still at play in the early 1960s. Drummer Dino Danelli was a musical prodigy who, at 15, was playing with jazz legend Lionel Hampton. Felix Cavaliere, meanwhile, cut his musical teeth performing in a mixed-race teenage band called The Stereos (the Billboard Book of Number One Hits’ claim that this band was the same Stereos that had a 1962 hit with “I Really Love You” is incorrect, Cavaliere says. His was a high school act).

Cavaliere met up with Cornish and singer-percussionist Eddie Brigati when they played in Joey Dee and the Starliters, one of the first racially integrated acts in rock music. Band leader Joseph DiNicola (Dee’s real surname) may now be best known as the purveyor of the jaunty Number One hit “The Peppermint Twist – Part I”, but at the time he was something of a revolutionary, having black musicians and dancers in a major white pop act.

“We suffered mightily for that, without actually knowing it in those days”, explains David Brigati, a member of the Starliters and brother of Rascal Eddie Brigati, who replaced David in the Starlighters when David was drafted. “We were ostracized quite a bit for being integrated. The United States had ways of integrating the act or the show and then segregating you after the show, at the hotels and where you ate”.

Some Rascals members had dealt with prejudice themselves. Cornish grew up in Rochester, New York with a French-Canadian name (which he changed) and he was “beaten up regularly”, he recalls, because “foreigners back then might as well have been from Mars”. Keyboardist and songwriter Cavaliere says he couldn’t countenance any type of discrimination after having witnessed ethnic prejudice as a child: “Growing up in Westchester County I watched my mom, who was an educated woman, be prejudiced against by the Anglo-Saxon community we, unfortunately, moved into”.

The Rascals couldn’t have known it at the time, but just before they began their campaign against discrimination on the dance floor, another musical Italian-American who had experienced prejudice in his childhood was waging a similar battle: Frank Sinatra. In Marlo Thomas’ 2002 tome “The Right Words at the Right Time”, producer Quincy Jones writes that Sinatra “broke down (the tradition of hotel segregation) almost single-handedly. When Count Basie and I played with him at the Sands in 1964, Frank Sinatra hired seventeen bodyguards to protect us”, writes Jones. “He called for a meeting and said ‘If anybody even looks at the band funny, break both their legs.’”

1960s Top 40 disc jockey Joey Reynolds, who is credited with “breaking” the Rascals’ first major hit, “Good Lovin’”, notes that half a century ago, Italian-Americans were considered a minority and felt a kinship with African-Americans. “Italians organized and black people weren’t organized yet, but they began to with The Black Panthers”, says Reynolds, who is an Italian-American and now hosts a syndicated overnight talk show that originates from New York’s WOR-AM.

By 1965, Cornish, Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati had quit Joey Dee’s band “for financial reasons” Cornish says. Convening in a rehearsal space on Manhattan’s 54th Street, the trio hooked up with Danelli (who had already played with Cavaliere) and spent their first hours together bashing out 25 songs, which Cornish says was “unheard of. I came back that night after the rehearsal with a smile on my face that I still have to this day.”

A seed for the band’s name was planted when Eddie Brigati showed up at a rehearsal wearing a pair of 1920s-styled knickers picked from hundreds he had bought on deep discount on the Bowery, Cornish says. The band wore these knickers, along with Little Lord Fauntleroy shirts as a publicity gimmick to cash in on the popularity of British Invasion bands. Danelli then caught an episode of the old television show “The Little Rascals” and persuaded the others to use the name, which seemed to fit the clothes. Cornish says this came about after the band learned Cornish’s original name for the group, Them, had been taken by Van Morrison.

The group earned its reputation as a hot live act in the Hamptons, where they played at a club called The Barge which was “like the Studio 54 of its day”, Cornish says. They also took up residence at New Jersey’s Choo Choo Club and started to get written up regularly in Walter Winchell’s gossip columns. Eventually, Atlantic Records came calling. The Rascals were the first white act signed to the label, although the company had released music by white acts to its subsidiary labels.

“Atlantic was like this Holy Grail of jazz and, of course, Ray Charles and the Drifters”, Cornish notes. “It was a serious R&B label. When they signed us, one of the things that made us say yes to them is not only would we produce ourselves, but we’d be their first white act. Columbia Records wanted to give us more money. Atlantic said ‘We can’t afford to give you what Columbia did, but if you come with us – now here’s an invitation you can’t refuse – you can help us become a major rock and roll label’”. So the Rascals would begin to build the house that Led Zeppelin would soon inhabit.

The group’s debut record was a mid-charting, punky number called “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore”, penned by an outside writing team and sung by Eddie Brigati. After the disc was released, the group found the word “Young” was added to their moniker. A group called The Harmonica Rascals had threatened to take legal action.

“We had a fit because the word ‘Young’ was contradictory to our R&B attitude”, Cornish says. “We were elitist on our minds. We knew we played better than the other bands. We were hot. The only other band that could play like us was The Band themselves. The Band at the time was just starting to play with Bob Dylan. Before that, they were in the same circle we were. They were a white R&B band; we were products of that environment.”

With a name that now sounded a lot like the children’s TV show that inspired it in the first place, The Young Rascals released their second single, “Good Lovin’”. It was a cover version of a song by the R&B band The Olympics who had taken it to Number 81 on the pop charts in May 1965. The Rascals’ Cavaliere-sung rendition hit Number One on the pop charts April 30, 1966, knocking The Righteous Brothers out of the top spot. Both groups would come to be known as “blue-eyed soul”, an appellation than connoted white folks who could sing black music authentically, without the pop inflections some British groups brought to the genre.

Like the Rolling Stones and The Moody Blues, both of whom first made a splash in the U.S. with cover versions of R&B hits, the Rascals would be castigated for “stealing hits” from black musicians. However, a look at the charts reveals that all of those groups had hits with low-charting R&B songs after those songs had dropped off the charts. In most cases, records do not chart twice, so these groups were not stealing hits, but popularizing overlooked songs.

“(R&B) was our style”, Cavaliere explains. “And I equate it to an accent, like I have an East Coast New York accent. So when I say something, fortunately or unfortunately, it comes out with that type of vernacular. That’s the same thing that happened with the music. When we did a song, even if it was an English song, it came out like R&B even though that wasn’t what we were trying to do”.

The group’s self-production sometimes made for shaky results, such as the poorly arranged “You Better Run”, an otherwise driving number that stalled at Number 20 in April 1966 (Pat Benatar arguably cut a hotter version in 1980). Conversely, the Rascals’ follow-up single, “Come On Up”, was sharply performed, but not single material. But a roll call of hits then followed: “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long”, “Groovin’” (their second Number One), “A Girl Like You”, “How Can I Be Sure”, “It’s Wonderful”, “A Beautiful Morning”. Cavaliere and Brigati penned most of the biggest hits making them one of the most successful writing teams of the era. Their first four albums all charted in the Top 20. In 1968, Booker T and the MG’s scored a hit with an instrumental cover of “Groovin’” bolstering the band’s R&B credibility. The Rascals broke attendance records at the Hollywood Bowl and were being managed by powerhouse Sid Bernstein.

And then they made like Brian Wilson during the Pet Sounds era and decided to mess with a proven formula. In Wilson’s case, he delved into more intricate music. The Rascals put their dormant political ideas into action. Says Cavaliere, “(We felt) this is America and if we have tenants of freedom and equality then let’s not just talk about it and write it in some sort of legal document, let’s do it.” First, the Rascals took a stand against playing any concert where the audience was segregated along racial lines.

“One time some Southern reporter asked us ‘Is it true you don’t play unless half the audience is black?’” Brigati told WFMU radio host Glen Jones in 2002. “We told him we don’t play to segregated audiences. In Selma, Alabama, they were actually there with dogs, pulling black children out of line. And that kind of crystallized me about what side I was on. We refused to go on stage if they kept on selecting the audience.”

“We wouldn’t do (that) in my home and I wouldn’t bring it on stage”, Brigati continued. “Our home was open to everyone. We were taught, that there were (good) human beings from every culture, and then there were evil people of every culture.”

Overt politics entered the band’s music with their 1968 single “People Got to Be Free”, written by Cavaliere and Brigati as a response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The record proved to be their biggest hit, topping the charts for five weeks in the summer of 1968. According to Cavaliere, Atlantic balked at releasing a single, which was then seen as having an incendiary message: “They were hesitant for business reasons. They said ‘Why antagonize part of your audience? Why get involved? Just continue to make hit records, and we’ll make money.’ That’s really what it was about. I understand that. When you make a stand in one direction you alienate the other direction.”

Meanwhile back on the concert front, the Rascals had played a gig with an R&B group called the Young-Holt Trio, which would go on to have a hit with the instrumental “Soulful Strut” as Young-Holt Unlimited. Cavaliere says the Trio spoke to him after the concert, voiced appreciation for being on the Rascals bill and added that they “don’t get a chance to play for white people”. Cavaliere says: “It dawned on me, ‘Why not really try and contribute to this Civil Rights situation by having a white and black act wherever we go? You know, I was so naïve. Little did I know what I was saying was gonna be very disruptive to the prejudicial state of the United States of America.” So the Rascals made it a policy to have black acts on all their concert bills.

Both Cavaliere and Cornish separately say that when the band talked about this policy, the controversy it sparked was similar to when Beatle John Lennon made his infamous “we’re bigger than Jesus” remark. “It caused a lot of difficulty”, Cavaliere remembers. “Of course, being as stubborn as I am, that made it worse. It hurt us in a lot of ways in terms of revenue. But you’ve got to draw a line in the sand and say this is where we’re coming from. There were some real exciting times down in the South.”

What the group also couldn’t have anticipated was that shortly after audiences were allowed to integrate racially in concert halls (or perhaps because of integration?), black and white listeners began to listen to music that was split more along racial lines. Rock audiences favored guitars while black audiences moved into funk and disco. By 1979, some white rockers had become so hostile to disco that a mass burning of disco records drew an estimated 90,000 people to Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

When the Clash and Rolling Stones had black opening acts in 1981, those artists were booed. Who were the offending black acts? They were, respectively, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Prince. The Rascals played blue-eyed soul, not heavy rock, and when they aligned themselves with R&B concert audiences; they unwittingly alienated some of their rock base. This drifting apart would come to haunt the band when they attempted to move into the then-new genre of “album rock” in 1969.

On 5 June 1968, just as “People Got to Be Free” was climbing the charts, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The tragedy hit Cavaliere hard. Heavily involved in leftist politics at the time, he had several friends involved with the campaign who witnessed the shooting. The event inspired the band’s much-anticipated follow-up single to “People Got to Be Free”, “A Ray of Hope”, released in Nov. 1968. The song was written for the youngest Kennedy brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, who they considered a beacon of hope in one of America’s most turbulent years.

“A Ray of Hope” is arguably the Rascals most deeply moving single. It begins with an Impressions-inspired horn line that sounds like a call to arms, then moves into a chorus that makes good on the introductory fanfare: “As long as there is a ray of hope/Lord, I don’t mind going out and doing my work”. In the verses, Cavaliere sings about putting an end to “hate and lies” and praying for “a day when all men are free”. The message is as overt as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which was tagged onto the song’s coda out of sincerity, not silliness Cavaliere points out. A lot of work clearly went into the politically charged, artfully wrought effort. In the 1960s bands lived and died by their last single, so when “A Ray of Hope” reached only Number 24, trouble began to brew. Thus began the Rascals’ fall from grace.

Did “A Ray of Hope” die on the charts because the Rascals had gone too far with politics? Or did its musical complexity throw off casual listeners? Were disc jockeys now cool on the band because they were upsetting promoters and singing about racial injustice? Cornish says “we stopped making hit records”. But bands don’t make “hit” records, it’s disc jockeys, record company promo people, and listeners that do. Witness the commercial “failure” of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Cavaliere says it was the politics.

“We stood in support of Robert Kennedy and we were really trying to get him elected”, Cavaliere explains, talking about the song. “When (the assassination) happened, I was committed to what was going on. I actually thought we could make a difference. I thought, ‘Look we’re a rock and roll band, we’ve got a certain amount of clout and we might as well tell the audience what we think.’ I really thought that this is what God intended us to do. Kind of like ‘spread the word.’”

Cornish notes that the rock audience was changing at that time, and cites the band’s failure to play the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock (which would not happen until months later) as one reason their audience abandoned them. Still, he agrees the band’s fortunes declined because “we got carried away with the politics”. As an example, he mentions that long before protests against South Africa’s Apartheid rule became trendy amongst musicians, the Rascals refused such a tour because they would have had to play before separate audiences.

David Brigati says the pronouncement alone that “people got to be free” kept the band away from a Japanese tour when there was student unrest: “As simple as that (statement) is, it can be a dangerous statement in the wrong arena. That is, political people who would like to control their countries.” None of this could have endeared them to anyone in the music industry at the time.

If the lack of acceptance of “A Ray of Hope” threw the band’s confidence, the near-total failure of the next single, the would-be Civil Rights anthem “Heaven”, in February 1969, sent panic throughout the Rascals’ camp. Around the same time, their ambitious double album Freedom Suite, became their lowest-charting LP effort to date, hitting only Number 17 (although, to be fair, two-disc albums usually chart lower than single ones and this one contained an instrumental second disc).

“Heaven” was the first single since “Come on Up” written by Cavaliere alone, and its sole authorship credit signaled there were problems afoot. David Brigati says his brother and Cavaliere stopped writing together because Eddie’s lyrics were rejected. Cavaliere says both Brigatis “stopped showing up for work”. Cornish says the pair had disagreements about “getting work done on time”. Cornish explains that the band’s failing stock possessed Cavaliere to take control of things in much the same way as Paul McCartney did after the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein.

In taking control, though, the keyboardist alienated the other band members. “Felix was busting his ass to try and keep the level up”, Cornish says. “The ship was sinking and I think that’s what started Felix trying to control it. The more he tried it, the more it wasn’t working. All of a sudden people were pulling back.” Eddie Brigati has said he didn’t feel invited into the artistic process at that point, a feeling confirmed by David Brigati. The unyielding spirit of the group is what allowed them to fight against injustice in the outside world. But when the outside world proved hostile to their progressive ideas, the group members’ intractable natures proved a liability when used against each other.

Cavaliere’s bid to recast the group as an album rock act was the strained 1969 album See. The LP became the band’s first not to make the Top 40. Eddie Brigati’s rock-oriented voice gave the band its last Top 40 hit in the gospel-flavored “Carry Me Back”. Brigati quit in 1970, the day the band signed a new contract with Columbia Records. Ironically, it was the high-pitched, wailing vocal style he used on “Carry Me Back” that would become in vogue in the 1970s.

Cornish left during the making of the first Columbia album. Cavaliere and Danelli then reconfigured the band as a multi-racial, mixed-gender unit, adding a handful of jazz musicians. This version of the band released two ambitious and tuneful albums that melded Latin music, jazz, funk and pop. But this multicultural edition of the Rascals had little success and disbanded in 1972. It seems trite these days to judge music on the basis of its economic success, but flagging sales have caused more than one band to implode and the Rascals seem to be no exception.

Brigati reunited with Cavaliere on a track from the latter’s 1980 solo album Castles in the Air, but they became estranged again because of a dispute over royalties. The four original Rascals played together for the only time since their dissolution when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Brigati says he’s accumulated “years of recordings” and is looking for an outlet through which to release them. He rarely performs. Cornish and Danelli tour with an edition of the band called The New Rascals. Cavaliere tours with his own group called Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals. Danelli didn’t return phone calls for this interview. Eddie Brigati spoke casually to this writer but was busy caring for an ailing parent and unable to give a full interview.

Cavaliere admits the Rascals’ take on race relations was rooted in idealism. These days, it seems almost a prerequisite for pop stars to take up some cause or other. But as the Dixie Chicks learned, speaking out against the status quo can still have unintended negative consequences. Even as big an artist as John Lennon saw his solo career flounder because audiences in the pre-Bono era weren’t used to outspoken artists.

These days, mixed-race audiences (as they’re called now) are second nature to pop audiences raised on MTV. While the music channel clearly had its flaws, it’s largely responsible for bringing black music to white listeners when it started programming rap and R&B videos in the mid-’80s. The Rascals push to integrate audiences probably now seems like a quaint notion to the legions of white kids raised on rap music, or, for that matter, such mixed-race acts as The Black Eyed Peas or TV on the Radio.

Four decades on, Cavaliere says his political views haven’t changed at all. Cornish says he believes what the Rascals stood for was not only important, it was far more significant than what other acts at the time were doing.

“This whole Summer of Love (40th anniversary) thing is full of shit. Please quote me on that”, Cornish states emphatically. “All anyone talks about is LSD and all that. But there were important things going on. More than that bullshit Summer of Love thing was our attitude towards Civil Rights. We were doing positive things”.