They’re the toughest white group in Harlem. You can hear them at 125th Street and Lennox Avenue, in Watts, Los Angeles, on the South Side of Chicago, at Broad and South in Philly– — wherever there are black music stores blaring soul into littered streets — –right along with Ike and Tina, Rufus Thomas, Pharoah Sanders. It’s at the point now where the Rascals don’t get their gold record if the black street people don’t dig their latest single.
Felix Cavaliere grew up in Pelham, New York, on the far side of the Bronx, out where the skyscrapers and 16-story modern tenements of New York give way to lower horizons and less dramatic life-styles. It is one of the neighborhoods where the city’s hard-hats go when they leave their construction jobs. In the Forties, when Felix was a kid, it was already being “invaded” by blacks.
Asked to explain his attraction and affinity for black music, Cavaliere can only hesitate, then mumble something about “feeling and rhythm … you, know, the rhythms are tighter, more together, happier in a way” … If you have to ask, man, if you didn’t grow up with all those skinny-strap undershirts and St. Francis miraculous medals shining in the sweat of July and boiling macaroni, with that tough punk posturing that separated you from the corniness of Confession and the old man’s belly …
Down the block, on one of the corners where your boys never hung out, the black guys who were moving in were striking singing poses and harmonizing songs like “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins and “I Only Have Eyes for You” by the Flamingos, and they were better; sure, the old people in the neighborhood could talk all they wanted to about “eggplants” (a generic term for blacks in Italian ghetto slang), but the music these guys were making made more sense than the white stuff by Bill Haley and the Comets or Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, or the Mario Lanza 78s Uncle Georgio was always hauling out and announcing as “real music.” And the black chicks were always switching by with their high, firm butts and their little smiles. It was hipper, the whole thing, the way the blacks walked, danced, played cards — –they were outside all the crap.
The reasons why records by three Italians and an Irishman with the kinds of working-class backgrounds that are usually antithetical to blacks are listened to and even purchased by blacks are, perhaps, deceptively simple. The Rascals, particularly Felix Cavaliere, beyond being dedicated to R&B and soul, understand it. If that sounds too easy, try considering that “understanding soul” has to do with letting down real barriers, bridging a couple of cultures and identifying intelligently in an almost Stanislavskian sense.
The superficial aspects of soul can be picked up easily — –the vocal inflections, rhythmic, harmonic and lyrical techniques, the choreography, the jive– — but an understanding of the basic sadness and bleakness that most black music covers and seeks to transcend is simply beyond the scope of white groups like the Soul Survivors, the Detroit Wheels or, in hipper circles, Janis Joplin, Al Kooper or Canned Heat. What is needed, to get it on, is a (temporary) loss of self, or more directly, the realization of another “self” in an “alien” culture.
When the Rascals did Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Tour” and “Mustang Sally” in 1966 and ’67 they were, in a sense, paying dues (even though the songs were hits). You have to start somewhere, and as imitations go, the releases were excellent. But unlike the Stones, Joe Cocker, Delaney and Bonnie, Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater and Dr. John, who use soul and R&B as a jumping off place for their own styles, the Rascals submerged themselves in the form and then surfaced — –in tunes like “Groovin’,” “Girl Like You” and “People Got to be Free”– — with nothing less than a new musical persona. (This holds true despite the fact that the change did not occur evenly, that “imitation” and “real” records overlapped for a time.) The white Rascals were writing and performing black songs; it was as if they’d discovered a kind of funky alchemy.