Blue-eyed soul at Maine Lobster Festival

Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals

By Dagney C. Ernest | Aug 02, 2017
Felix Cavaliere

Rockland — Years ago, a classically trained pianist and premed student left Syracuse University and began a journey that has taken him to the top of the Billboard charts, into several Halls of Fame and onto the Broadway stage. Friday night, Aug. 4, he will take to the Fishermen’s Memorial stage as the first of two headliners for the Maine Lobster Festival’s 70th edition.

Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals is fronted by original Rascals cofounder, songwriter, vocalist and Hammond B3 player Cavaliere, who tours these days with a top-notch band, playing Rascals hits including “Good Lovin'," “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” “Groovin’," “How Can I Be Sure,” “A Girl Like You,” “A Beautiful Morning” and “People Got to Be Free.” Three of these were No. 1 hits.

Cavaliere sang lead on most and cowrote, with Eddie Brigati, many of the group’s originals, including its last No. 1; “People Got to Be Free” topped the charts for five weeks. The tuneful plea for racial tolerance was inspired in part by the 1968 assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“It was really the Summer of Love until then, but there was a lot of turmoil, the war in Vietnam, especially,” he said by phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn. “But there’s always turmoil, you know? At least we had a link, and I always felt that link was the music.”

The link the music of that era made with listeners continues to draw fans to the Rascals' catalog. The songs — originals and well chosen covers; the band’s first monster hit, 1966’s “Good Lovin'," was a rework of a song by The Olympics — are blue-eyed soul odes to love, life and good vibes, performed with the passion of young talent. And the Rascals were young.

“Oh yeah, we were kids! Many years later, I ran into Paul McCartney and those were his very words; he said, do you realize how young we all were in those years? We all have grandkids that age now,” Cavaliere said.

Their youth and quick rise to fame didn’t prepare the Rascals foursome for the reaction “People Got to Be Free” elicited in some of the American audience. Because their music straddled the line between R&B and pop, the Rascals had both white and black fans. And when they started touring, the band insisted their bill include black musical acts. As racial tensions rose in the country, the band’s songwriters addressed it, even though their music to that point had been decidedly nonconfrontational.

“I’ve always thought there are many purposes of music – healing, calming, socializing, letting people know your thoughts,” said Cavaliere. “It’s a great communication, but also on a deeper level.”

Some of the reaction to the song, and the band’s tour lineups, changed the course of the Rascals’ trajectory. While the band continued to place songs in the Top 10 in Canada, “People Got to Be Free” was its last such hit in this country.

“When you’re young like that, you’re kind of naïve, you think everybody’s got a brain in their head, and they don’t! So it was quite a shock, the trouble it caused,” said Cavaliere.

From first rehearsals in a basement in 1965 to disbanding in 1972, the Rascals — their manager dubbed them The Young Rascals for the first few years — had five Top 20 albums, 13 Top 40 singles and three No. 1 hits. Cavaliere went on to a solo career, earning his own Top 10 hit on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1980 with "Only a Lonely Heart Sees." The 1990s saw him spending time as a touring member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll, Grammy, Songwriters, Vocal Group and Billboard halls of fame.

“I never really put much thought into any of this, I just kind of allowed it to happen. I mean, I started off life thinking I was going to be a doctor,” he said. “How I ended up being a musician … you know, I just think that’s the divine calling, I had no idea.”

He has tried his hand at other trades over the years, he said. At one point he lived in Connecticut and got into real estate. But “It just wasn’t for me. Something happens that calls you back to your music. And that’s fine with me,” he said.

About five years ago, Cavaliere and his former bandmates were called back together by Bruce Springsteen cohort Steven Van Zandt. The result, a nostalgic multimedia production, toured from coast to coast, including a stint on New York City’s Great White Way.

“It was really a treat! We were in the famous Richard Rodgers Theatre, where ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Oklahoma!’ and all that was,” said Cavaliere.

The Friday night Maine Lobster Festival performance by Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals will not be quite that extravagant, but Cavaliere’s many years in the music business, and performing for live audiences, have helped him put together a tight band and a sure-to-please show.

“In our times, there was no internet or Facebook or iPhones; our communication was the music. I really feel it bound our generation together, so I try to play on that and work on that,” he said. “I try to put together little vignettes of songs I know they know, so they can sing and have a good time.”

The band, which has been a unit for about 10 years now, has a good time, too. Cavaliere said Nashville has a tremendous musical community, “really wonderful, both for songwriting and for putting bands together and having these great musicians.” His Rascals are musicians who have migrated to the famed Music City from other parts of the country.

“They’re just excellent musicians, so I’ve been very fortunate! We’ve got a good bunch of guys and we have a good time; everybody kind of grew up on the music,” he said.

Concertgoers can expect to hear “all my songs, of course,” with a little twist.

“I try to keep their attention by not making them sound exactly like the record every time — I put little nuances in,” said Cavaliere.

While he enjoys the Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals shows — including an upcoming winter Flower Power Cruise — Cavaliere said he believes in always having “new horizons to go over and strive for.” The latest represents a musical return to original form: he has been asked to play piano with the National Symphony Orchestra.

“That was the impetus that started me in music altogether. It’s going to take some doing and working and some writing, but I’m really excited about this,“ he said. “I think that’s important, to look forward to doing things.”

He’s definitely looking forward to visiting Midcoast Maine; Cavaliere said he has friends in Portland, but Rockland will be a first.

“It’s a beautiful time of year to be up there, gorgeous! And we hope to get everybody up dancing and having a good time,” he said.

Those who wish to secure a seat for when they are not dancing can do so with a $25 ticket, available at mainelobsterfestival.com and at the main gate. The ticket includes festival admission — the latter on its own is $8; $2 for children age 5 to 12 and free for those younger.

The Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals show starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday and will be followed by a laser light show. On Saturday night, Aug. 5, Southern rock legends The Outlaws will perform at 7:30 p.m., with the same ticket scenario (see story linked below/on page Cxx).

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