Reaction in white, black, hip and teeny circles was predictable and followed class patterns. Blacks and prole white kids dug what was happening. Hip, middle-class whites were put off by lines like “I’m in love with you” and by Rascal arrangements, which were considered “too simple.” Teenies didn’t like the weird beards and funkier image that went with the musical changes and that obscured, for example, drummer Dino Danelli’s celebrated Paul McCartney features.
The first group Felix ever appeared with was called the Stereos. They were right off the streets of Pelham and Felix was the only white guy. Nobody played an instrument but the singing was strong. It was 1957.
In 1957, Eisenhower was still president and Frankie Avalon was still an unknown trumpet player with Rocco and the Saints in North Wildwood, New Jersey. The pejorative “Wop-rock” had not yet been born, but Felix’s musical predilections weren’t so popular around the neighborhood:
“I had a couple tough times, you know the old people. But time went by. I made a little money and they saw I was serious. You know.”
Joey Dee and the Starlighters, except for Joey and Felix (and for a brief time Felix’s older brother Dave), were also black, and Felix got a lot out of the group. (Later, Gene Cornish, who would become the Rascals’ lead guitarist and Eddie Brigati, who would become bassist and lead singer, joined the band.) He was with them in the early Sixties, playing organ and singing. He’d begun listening to Ray Charles and had visited black clubs where he found “the people were having more fun and they were less inhibited than anything I’d ever seen before … these people had nothing. They just came and enjoyed the beat and smiled. It went beyond music.”
In addition to giving the world its third version of the Twist — –Hank Ballard and the Midnighters wrote it and recorded it first, Chubby Checker “popularized” and (according to the elite corps of Wop-rockers and their Hebe entrepreneurial fellow-travelers who were beginning to emerge) “bastardized” it– — Joey Dee and his boys, the house band at the Peppermint Lounge in the West Fifties in Manhattan, represented the first full flowering of the Pop Life.
All the “names” in music, movies, journalism, even theater, could be found for a season at the Lounge, twisting away with all the anonymous proles from Brooklyn, New Jersey and Pelham. Felix was part of that of course, but his interest was more in what the band was playing than what the social ramifications would be. There were a couple of dynamite musicians with the Starlighters. One was Willie Davis, an incredible black drummer who has disappeared; the other was Sam Taylor, Jr., a mad guitarist and son of the famed sax player Sam “The Man” Taylor. Neither of them made much impact or had much success in music. Nor did Hank Ballard, The fact that all three were black impressed Felix with a sense of something larger going wrong.
The Rascals began in February, 1965 at the Choo Choo Club in Garfield, New Jersey, Eddie Brigati’s hometown. Felix, Eddie and Gene left Joey Dee together, and Dino Danelli, whom Felix met during a gig in Las Vegas, joined them a short time later. They had no name at first but everyone knew them as “the guys who wore knickers.”
Eddie first wore them to be funny since a lot of older Italians men in town occasionally wore their grandfathers’ knickers, but they got response and the whole band began showing up in them.
“We put them on as a joke,” Gene Cornish remembers. “We didn’t want to wear suits because it was too stiff. And we didn’t want to wear dungarees — –it really wasn’t being done except for the Stones and we didn’t want that kind of image.”
There were some other gigs after the Choo Choo Club, but they were on the same level. By July however, the band graduated to a nightclub called The Barge in Long Island’s chic South Hampton. People like Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Senator and Mrs. Jacob Javits– — the post-Peppermint Lounge crowd– — frequented the place. The “Guys in Knickers” socked it out regularly in 40 minute sets, doing English and straight rock as well as rhythm and blues, but it was the R&B that started the lines forming outside The Barge. What had become accepted fare in real prole bars like the Choo Choo was an innovation in South Hampton. Felix and the boys took full advantage.
In the summer of 1965, Sid Bernstein, a powerful New York promoter and agent, was presenting the Beatles in concert in Shea Stadium. Walter Hyman, another agent (now Dustin Hoffman’s manager), was working with the band and had been trying to get Bernstein out to Long Island to see them for weeks. Finally Hyman and his chauffeur just grabbed Bernstein as he was leaving his office one day, stuffed him into a limousine, and drove him out to The Barge.
“I looked at these funny-looking guys,” Bernstein remembers. “They don’t have sex appeal –— who’s going to buy those knickers? They looked like Italian kids from a Tremont Avenue poolroom I used to live near.
“Forty-five minutes later I felt I had heard the greatest group I ever heard in my life. They were so dynamic. They were beautiful. All of a sudden they had sex appeal.”
Bernstein, who doesn’t putz around once he’s on to a good thing, used the electric Scoreboard at Shea Stadium during the Beatles concert on August 16th to advertise “The Rascals Are Here.” He became their manager the next day. After signing them, he prefixed “Young” to the Rascals’ name, because someone had already registered “Rascals.” (The “Young” was dropped again two years ago when the boys reached their late 20s).
Shortly after that, in part because of Bernstein’s interest, record companies began making offers. Atlantic got the Rascals with a $15,000 advance, low in current times but good for pre-Johnny Winter days. The group’s first single, released on November 16th, was a Cavaliere/Brigati composition called “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” and it made the Top 50. Wop-rock, a genuine amalgam of tomato sauce and ribs grease, had been born.