Author: Novak, Jessica
Date published: June 22, 2011
Felix Cavaliere is just soul, all-American soul. For five decades his voice has transcended genres and generations, buffering the British Invasion of the 1960s as he and The Rascals recorded some of the biggest hits of the decade: "Good Lovin'," "Groovin'," "A Girl Like You," "A Beautiful Morning" and "People Got to Be Free."
But Cavaliere's success isn't limited to The Rascals. He has continued to write and record through the years, solo and with various groups and collaborators, the latest being 2010's Midnight Flyer (Concord Records) with fellow member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Steve Cropper. While other voices and talents have faded, Cavaliere's endures, making him a prime, if belated, choice for this year's 29th annual Syracuse M&T Jazz Fest, Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25, at Onondaga Community College.
"This is long overdue," Jazz Fest promoter and producer Frank Malfitano admits. "This is his debut appearance at Jazz Fest. I should have done it a long time ago. But everything happens in its own time. It happens when it's supposed to. This is the year when it's supposed to. It just feels right. And the combination of Robert Cray and Average White Band and Felix. . . man, that Friday night. . . I'm excited about it."
Friday's festivities start with gates opening at 3 p.m. and music beginning at 5 p.m. (see schedule, page 20). Felix Cavaliere's Rascals, with guitarist Mike Severs, bassist Mark Prentice (who hails from Watertown) and drummer Matthew Bubel, will take the stage at 6:30 p.m.
"We're kickin' it old school," Malfitano says. "There are so many people that weren't around in the '60s, '70s and '80s. They missed this. But these cats are still great and you're gonna see it at the festival. They're gonna bring it. They're gonna blow everybody away. That's what I'm excited about. All the people who have never seen these cats live are gonna get to see 'em just like I did the first time."
That first time was when Cavaliere, 68, played with his band Felix and the Escorts at Syracuse University. Cavaliere studied pre-med from 1961 to 1963 before leaving school to pursue a career in music. The group played fraternity and sorority houses on the SU Hill before and after football games. "The fraternities and sororities in the 1960s were very hip and they had great bands," Malfitano says. "Felix was like a campus band. So I saw him and I went, 'Oh my god.' It was awesome."
Although Cavaliere studied pre-med in college, he had focused on music, specifically piano, since age 6. For a time, he took three lessons per week. His mother wanted him to become a classical pianist, but he had different plans.
"I never really had the interest because of a very simple reason," Cavaliere says in a phone interview from his home in Nashville, Tenn. "You're not allowed to create. You play what those guys wrote many years ago note for note, and you're not allowed to make any changes. I rebelled against that. And then the influx of rock'n'roll, it's infectious."
Cavaliere's mother died when he was 14, which signaled a major shift in his musical path. "I was able to drift into La La Land," he says. A few years later a friend exposed him to an organ trio and the sound immediately clicked within him. He was fascinated by the ability of the organ to bring bass and lead parts to life, all while allowing the player to sing as well. He began making frequent trips to a showroom on 34th Street in New York City and would beg the staff to let him play the mighty Hammond B3 that was there.
Although he loved the B3, at the time it cost about $3,000, far beyond his budget. His first organ was a smaller version and about half the price. But it was enough to spur his musical career forward despite his planned educational path. "I was studying pre-med and that summer of my junior year just got really bitten by the show business bug," Cavaliere says. "I had a lot of people see me that encouraged me to give it a shot and that's what I did. Instead of going back to school, a few of us tried to take the semester off. Other guys got pressure, so they went back to school. But I didn't. I went overseas."
Joey Dee and the Starliters invited Cavaliere to tour Europe as a replacement for their organist who had recently quit. That experience exposed him to The Beatles, pre-1964 U.S. invasion, as he watched the Fab Four take over Europe before their leap across the pond. "That did it," Cavaliere says. "I just kinda said, 'Well, I know I can do this.' I was classically trained. I really felt like I had the chops and I certainly had the desire and people gave me the opportunity to bring my talents. So it worked."
Upon returning to New York City, Cavaliere made it a mission to put together his own band. The city was bursting with available talent, placing Cavaliere in a prime position to pick the best musicians around. At the time, pre-Beatlemania, there also weren't as many people with rock star dreams.
"If you were really good, you had a really good shot because there weren't that many people that were trying to do this," he says. "There was no real major kind of income for it. It hadn't really happened. Nobody really knew that it was going to be what everybody's son and daughter would like to do no matter what they were doing. It hadn't gotten to that level yet."
Cavaliere formed The Young Rascals with Dino Danelli, Eddie Brigati and Gene Cornish in 1965. In October of that year, they played an elite venue called the Barge in Southhampton, Long Island, and were quickly signed to Atlantic Records and managed by the influential Sid Bernstein. This move prepped them to brace the British bombardment, although other artists were forced to bow to its power.
"Even Motown artists had to go out and record Beatles tunes," Malfitano says. "The British Invasion was more than a wave, it was a tidal wave. But Felix had a base of about 8 million to 10 million people. When you're like the house band for New York City, that's pretty good insulation against whatever trend is going on in the industry. And the songwriting was so strong-their songs were amazing. That enabled them to survive."
The Young Rascals changed their name to The Rascals and gained in popularity rapidly. They appeared on television for the first time in 1965 on the NBC series Hullabaloo and were an inspiration for the term "blue-eyed soul," coined by the media to describe their music. For Late Show with David Letterman bassist Will Lee, a regular at the Syracuse Jazz Fest-although not this year-the Rascals during that period were his No. 2 behind The Beatles and only because The Beatles had a larger catalog of music.
"When I was a kid growing up in Miami, The Rascals were, besides The Beatles, something I was very, very focused on," Lee says. "I couldn't wait 'til the next record came out. I'll never forget the first time I saw them live. It was unbelievable. It was just so exciting."
The Rascals' noticeable absence of a bass guitar also fascinated Lee, even though that's his instrument of choice. "I was infatuated with the fact that they would pull that off without a bass player," Lee says. "Felix would play all the bass stuff on his organ. It's a really special feeling. When we cover Rascals stuff on the Letterman show, I have this foot pedal that has an organ bass sound emulated in it and I'll kick it in for the Rascals stuff-really get that Felix feeling."
Cavaliere and Brigati were the songwriting team of the group and by the late 1960s, the duo was leaning toward more politically and socially focused lyrics. They wrote the 1968 song "People Got to Be Free" in response to the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It addressed issues of racial tolerance, something Cavaliere has always felt strongly about and stood behind. Throughout the 1960s he adamantly refused to tour on segregated bills.
"It came from having an Italian mom that was kind of looked down upon even though she had a master's degree in pharmacy when that wasn't the case for women," Cavaliere says. "She was looked down upon because she was Italian. So that's always been an issue with me. It came across in the '60s when we had our whole movement about that. We all took it very seriously. It wasn't just a songwriting experience."
Cavaliere grew up within one of the first Italian families to settle in Westchester County and the experience significantly shaped his racial stance for the rest of his life. He still carries those beliefs with him today and was sure to hold fast to them even when he was discouraged by Atlantic to bring politics into his otherwise non-controversial music.
"They didn't think it was a good idea to politicize any bit of controversy because it alienated certain segments of the audience," he says. "They don't care about your view. They just care about selling records. So as an artist, as a person who is standing in front of people, I just felt a responsibility to kinda tell them where I was at and I don't know why I felt that, but I felt a responsibility. It's not trying to preach to people, that's the wrong vibe. It's trying to assess and state your opinion."
The follow-up song, "Ray of Hope," written for and about Ted Kennedy, enjoyed modest success. Around that time FM radio also became relevant and the band took a more experimental turn, especially noticeable on 1969's double album The Freedom Suite. But even bigger changes were just around the corner.
In 1970, Brigati left The Rascals, a major blow to Cavaliere. With only four members to start, losing a singer-songwriter completely changed the composition and direction of the group. "It was like if you build up a dream and the dream comes true and suddenly somebody wakes you up," Cavaliere remembers. "That's what it felt like. What the heck now? I really loved what we were doing. You write, you record, you tour. You write, you record, you tour. It's a blast, especially if you have success and we had tremendous amounts of success. It was a joy to our families, ourselves, our communities."
Cavaliere attributes Brigati's exit to issues he had dealing with some of the harsh realities of the difficult and, in some instances, corrupt music industry. Despite the loss, The Rascals continued and switched labels to Columbia Records in 1969. They veered in a more jazzfocused direction, but in 1971 endured another loss when Cornish left as well. The group tried to move forward but disbanded in 1972.
Although the change was significant, it wasn't an end for Cavaliere, who in 1974 released his self-titled debut, a project he collaborated on with singer, songwriter and producer Todd Rundgren. The next few years would prove busy for Cavaliere with the release of Destiny in 1975, Treasure in 1977 with a band of the same name and Castles in the Air in 1979.
Cavaliere's next solo album came much later, in 1994, after a self-imposed hiatus from the spotlight when he released Dreams in Motion. By this time, Cavaliere had a family of five children. Three of his daughters, Christina, Laura and Aria, appeared on the track "Voices Calling." In 1997 he and The Rascals were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and in 2009 he made it into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Cavaliere maintained his Syracuse connection and was inducted into the 1994 Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys) Hall of Fame by none other than Malifitano. "When I put the Sammys together I immediately thought about him 'cause I wanted to honor him as somebody who had gotten his start in Syracuse," Malfitano says. "I asked him if he'd come play and he just floored everybody."
Malfitano and Cavaliere kept in touch following the induction and in the mid-1990s the pair went to see Jimmy Smith at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. "We were at one of the big stages and it was starting to rain so we ran under the stage and who do you think was on the main stage?" Malfitano probes. "Robert Cray. So here we are full cir- cle, 20 some odd years later, and nothing is an accident. Nothing is a coincidence. It's really cool we're all coming together again."
Cavaliere has seen success in all its forms over the years. Awards, honors and fame have all been part of his musical journey. But his major highlight wasn't won at a ceremony or handed over in a check. "I had this fella approach me, this gentleman came up to me and said, 'Can I talk to ya, man? Ya know, you saved my life,'" Cavaliere explains. "And I said, 'What?' And he said, 'Well, I was in Vietnam and I'm a huge fan and I used to watch when you guys were on TV because we got broadcasts delayed over there. I was supposed to be on this patrol boat and instead I stopped and watched your Hullabaloo show and the boat was destroyed.' My knees just went bong, bong, bong."
Cavaliere notes that he's had many Vietnam vets describe the impact his music had on them during their deployments. Many soldiers have told him that songs like "It's a Beautiful Morning" helped inspire them to continue and, in some cases, perhaps saved their lives. "You kind of reach a place in people," Cavaliere says. "You almost can't believe that you've gotten that deep into their psyches, so to speak. They really feel like they know you even though they've never met you. That's a very, very, very big highlight in the career of a musician."
It's something about his voice, his depth, that enables Cavaliere to speak to people, and not for a singular time or period. For decades now, he has influenced, affected and continued to remain relevant in music. "His energy, his spirit, is so beautiful," Malfitano says. "He's like that in real life. So what you see on stage is him, his spirit coming through. What you see coming through his instrument is his soul."
Lee echoed the same sentiment, confirming it's his voice, his soul, that makes Cavaliere such a transcendent musical figure throughout his many years in music. "There's black R'n'B soul and there's white blue-eyed soul," Lee says. "And then there's just soul and that's what Felix is to me. He's just soul."