RBC Ottawa Bluesfest: Rolling and rocking with Felix Cavaliere

Felix Cavaliere's Rascals will be at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest on July 6.

If you were a kid in the 1960s, one of the highlights of the week was The Ed Sullivan Show. This was often the launching pad for performers looking to break into the big time in North America.

In the mix of comics and puppets that were on the show every Sunday night were young musicians who played rock and roll.

Sullivan didn’t necessarily understand what the kids were playing, but the audience jumped when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones appeared.

Among the parade of rockers was a group called The Young Rascals. The band, formed in New Jersey in 1965, was on an awful lot in those days. 

For Felix Cavaliere, the show was a launch pad, but was it too much of  good thing? 

“Actually, I asked our manager to put a stop to that. I think we were on there too many times,” Cavaliere sid in an interview with ARTSFILE before his performance at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest on July 6.

“The first time on the show was extremely exciting and the second time, but after awhile I felt it was over. Look at Led Zeppelin. They never went on TV. If you wanted to see them you had to buy a ticket.

“We had the opposite philosophy. In those days that show was kind of like the beacon to get you over it. And it did that. There’s no question about it.”

Cavaliere remembers Sullivan himself as being “kind of dour. You could see he was obviously from a different generation. The way he treated most of us In those days … we were kind of stoners. He could see we were not on the planet. He didn’t like that.”

The Sullivan show was hard work, Cavaliere said.

The performers worked every day, Monday through Sunday. They would start at 7 a.m. and rehearse. On Saturday, they would do the show in front of a live audience. On Sunday it was live.

“It was a lot of work. You got a fee to do that show just as you would for a concert.

“He was an old newspaper guy. We had a little run in with him because he was using music acts as the stars of the show to hook the audience and the dressing rooms did not reflect that status.

“So we had run in with them and we got our room. I was always a little crazy you know.”

The Young Rascals evolved into The Rascals over the course of the late 1960s and they laid down some amazing hits Groovin’ (1967), Good Lovin’ (1966), People Got to Be Free (1968), How Can I Be Sure? (1967), A Beautiful Morning (1968) and A Girl Like You (1967). The output got Cavaliere, his writing partner Eddie Brigati, Gene Cornish and Dino Danelli into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

“We were very fortunate to be part of that era in rock and roll. The talent was amazing then. To survive you had to rise to a pretty high level.”

The Rascals were also lucky that they were signed by Atlantic Records, he said.

“It was a wonderful place to work. They wanted to make money but they wanted to make good music maybe great music too. I appreciated that. Those days are so over now.”

Atlantic allowed them the freedom to make the music they wanted to make, he said.

The British invasion was in full swing in those years, but Cavaliere said he enjoyed the competition from The Beatles and The Stones.

“Competition is always there in our industry because you have to get on the radio and you gotta make sales.”

The Young Rascals, circa 1965. Felix Cavaliere is on the left.

Plus he had a chance to see The Beatles up close before they broke into the North American market.

“I was in Europe working with Joey Dee and the Starliters and The Beatles opened for us in Germany and Sweden. I had an opportunity to see what was happening before came Stateside.”

Cavaliere was a college student in pre-med. But he was also building a reputation as a keyboard player. He was asked to join the Starliters in Europe because their organ player had quit.

“So I had to make a decision — to do this for a living or go back to school. When I saw The Beatles, it made up my mind, first of all because all the women in the place were going absolutely crazy. It was amazing, It was very loud with people screaming and hollering through the whole set.

That got him dreaming. “I thought this could be a good career.”

Musically, Cavaliere says, he didn’t feel challenged by The Beatles. 

“When I heard them playing American music, I went ‘OK they are basically a singing group’.

“But when heard them singing their own songs then my ears perked up. It was cool. They gave me the impetus to say I can do this.”

He credits The Beatles and others of the British Invasion.

“These guys helped us so much. They opened musical doors that were never opened. Radio had to play the Beatles. When they played Yesterday or Michelle I could write How Can I Be Sure. 

“They just made unbelievable contribution to us.” 

Cavaliere and Brigati were a team in those days, much as Lennon and McCartney were a team.

When he wrote a song, it was the music that always came first.

“The idea comes as a way the music sings to you; that is way I did it. I had a partner in lyrics who was a better lyricist. I would have the idea for the chorus and a title but I needed him to tell the story.”

They were emulating the Beatles.

“We had two guys in the beginning, they ended up with one guy. We had two guys in the beginning and ended up with one guy at the end.”

The first big Rascals hit was Good Lovin’.

“In the old days, we were working in clubs that did not allow original material. That was way it was in New Jersey and New York. That was because the drinking age was 21 and up. The club owners wanted Top 40, they wanted covers, they wanted people to dance so they would drink.

“I would go out of my way to listen to R&B radio stations that played records that nobody heard.”

That’s where he found Good Lovin’.

“I would buy the 45 record and bring them to the club owner if he complained.” Cavaliere got Good Lovin’ from a group called The Olympics.

“They weren’t the only ones that did it, but that’s the version I heard. It took off and became a No. 1 record before you could even blink.

The first original No. 1 came right after that. It was called I’ve Been Lonely Too Long.

“Sometimes you have a feeling, sometimes you think they are good and they aren’t. It’s the audience has to say yes. Everything has to be right before put it out into the marketplace where it has to go up against the competition. The radio stations would have to find a place for it, a slot for it among all these people, The Beatles, The Stones, Kinks. 

“A lot of our songs could have been hits, I really felt, but they couldn’t get released because the competition was so severe.

That’s over now, the radio DJs don’t have any control anymore.”

The roll came to a crashing halt when Brigati quit the band in 1970. The others followed soon after.

“We never overcame it.” It’s a sad story, Cavaliere said. “We lost a lot of money as a result.”

Today, he’s on the road with Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals playing the hits and enjoying himself.

“Frankly I don’t know what else I would do.”

He’s been at music since his mother put him in front of a piano when he was five years old.

“I don’t know how she saw the talent but she insisted that I learn. I studied very seriously for eight years.

“She would have liked me to be a classical musician but I wasn’t interested. She was anxious for me to be educated in every aspect in life. We moved to a town that had a great school and I will always be thankful for. My parents wanted us to succeed.”

The pace is a little slower. Her does three or four dates in a row.

“It’s different without having a record on charts. We are working around everyone’s schedule. And, seriously, everyone is on the road these days.

“Fortunately there are a lot of new casinos and new venues. And the audience hasn’t given up on us. I’m having a good time with a group of guys from Nashville (where he lives).

He is especially glad to play in Canada where Rascals records did very well back in the day.

Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals
Where: RBC Ottawa Bluesfest Videotron Stage
When: July 6 at 9:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawabluesfest.ca

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.