Dino Danelli, the founding drummer for New Jersey rock and rollers the Rascals, as well as a member of Steven Van Zandt’s backing band the Disciples of Soul, has died at the age of 78.
Danelli’s death was confirmed on his Facebook page in a post from friend and Rascals archivist, Joe Russo. An exact cause of death wasn’t given, though Russo said Danelli’s “primary challenges” were coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure. Russo said the drummer’s health began to falter around 2018, and earlier this year he entered a rehab facility where he remained until his death.
On Facebook, Rascals guitarist Gene Cornish wrote of Danelli, “He was my brother and the greatest drummer I’ve ever seen. I am devastated at this moment.” He added in a separate post, Dino never cared about being a ‘rock star’ it was always about the music and art for him. Everything else was window dressing to him.”
Van Zandt also shared a tribute on social media, writing, “RIP Dino Danelli. One of the greatest drummers of all time. Rascals 1965-1971. Disciples Of Soul 1982-1984. On Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theater in Once Upon A Dream 2013.”
Danelli was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey. He began his career as a jazz and R&B drummer, but started getting into rock and roll after linking up with a group called Ronnie Speeks and the Elrods. He gigged around New York City, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, eventually teaming with Cornish, singer/keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, and vocalist Eddie Brigati to form the Young Rascals in 1965.
The Young Rascals scored their first Number One the following year with their rendition of Rudy Clark and Arthur Resnick’s “Good Lovin’.” Their debut album — with a cover photo featuring the band in their signature Little Lord Fauntleroy-style shirts — arrived that same year and was certified Gold by the RIAA. In 1967, the Young Rascals notched a second Number One with “Groovin’,” a signature track penned by Cavaliere and Brigati.
In 1968, the Rascals dropped the “Young” from their name, but their success continued apace with singles like “A Beautiful Morning” and “People Got to Be Free,” both of which appeared on their album, Once Upon a Dream. After that, the Rascals continued to release Top 40 tracks with decent regularity, but failed to match their biggest success. In 1971, the Rascals split.
After that, Danelli essentially went back to gigging around. He and Cornish formed the band Bulldog, which released two albums before splitting in 1975; he also played in the group Fotomaker, alongside former Raspberries lead guitarist Wally Bryson. In 1982,Van Zandt tapped him to join the Disciples of Soul, and he played on the group’s first two albums, 1982’s Men Without Women and 1984’s Voice of America. While he was no longer the Disciples of Soul’s drummer for 1987’s Freedom — No Compromise, Danelli — who’d always had a penchant for graphic design — did help with that record’s cover design and art direction.
The Rascals reunited for a brief tour in 1988 with all of the original lineup, except Brigati. The core four, however, were all on-hand when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2012, largely thanks to Van Zandt’s insistence, the Rascals launched a full-fledged reunion with The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, a concert/Broadway-style production that found the group recounting and recreating their story.
After a couple years performing and touring Once Upon a Dream, however, the Rascals split again. According to Russo — Danelli’s friend and Rascals archivist — the drummer was “acutely disappointed about the abrupt conclusion” of the reunion. “He didn’t want it to end and he was almost obsessed with conjuring ideas to keep the ball rolling,” Russo added.
Still, according to Russo, Danelli stayed busy creatively in his final years with the two of them working on various video, art, photography, and writing projects. Danelli also continued to make music, with Russo saying the two of them “wrote, recorded and produced entire albums worth of songs together.”
“He was the epitome of ‘cool’ and never ceased to impress me with his seemingly endless reservoir of ideas and approaches,” Russo said. “The word ‘artist’ is so commonly used to describe even the slightest level of self expression, but let me assure you Dino Danelli possessed a mindset, a creative philosophy and a set of skills as profound as any of the great artists you’ve ever read about.”