‘The Rascals are Coming! The Rascals are Coming!’ (Scoreboard announcement at The Beatles Shea Stadium concert)
‘My God, you guys really are white!’ (Otis Redding on encountering The Rascals in a neighbouring studio)
‘Some people may not realize it, but The Rascals were the first Rock Band in the world … okay over in England, some guys were making some noise. But in the real world, in the centre of the universe – New Jersey – The Rascals were the first band!’ (Steve Van Zandt speech for The Rascals Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction)Embed from Getty Images
There’s always one.
One Summer of your youth that stays shimmering in your mind for evermore.
For me it was the long, once in a century, extraordinarily hot, Summer of 1976.
A Summer when I was not yet 21.
A Summer when my head and my entire being was aflame, aflame.
A Summer when the waters of The Cam glistened silver in the Summer sun.
A Summer when the Colleges of Cambridge never looked lovelier as I piloted (very inexpertly) down the River.
And, as always, a soundtrack in my head.
Summer Songs. Summer Songs.
And, there’s always one song that summons your shimmering Summer like no other.
For me, in the Summer of 1976, it was ‘Groovin’ a song of gossamer grace recorded by The Young Rascals in 1967.
Now, I don’t know about you but when I hear, ‘Groovin” the jazzments in my mind approach something like ecstasy!
Eddie Brigati, co-writer with Felix Cavaliere, of this miraculous song recalls that at the time they were living in a hotel right off Central Park in New York City.
Down the crowded avenue they would go on a Sunday afternoon doing anything they wanted to do!
When you’re in the prime of youth and the world is opening up for you to explore and conquer it’s indeed hard to imagine anything better than groovin’ on a sunny afternoon with the one closest to your heart.
You can just feel that life is getting better and better – endlesssly.
Let the future and responsibilities wait; for now smile, take a deep breath of fresh air and you’ll hear yourself saying, ‘Ah-ha-ha, Ah-ha-ha’ and you’ll remember those moments, those immortal moments, for the rest of your life wherever life takes you thereafter.
Groovin’ was an unstoppable Nunber One record that sat atop Billboard for four straight weeks.
Who wouldn’t be charmed by its relaxed groove? There’s a lazy Cuban feel to the recording emphasised by the presence of congas but not drums. The great Chuck Rainey on bass gives the song liquid momentum as does Michael Weinstein on harmonica.
The glory of the song though, as with all Rascals recordings, lies in the seductive beauty of their vocals.
Felix on lead with wonderful harmonic support from David Brigati (the Fifth Rascal).
Gene Cornish is there on guitar filling out the sound which is topped off with the birdsong!
Put that all together and you have, as Eddie Brigati said, ‘that simple little summer song that everybody knows’.
Amazingly, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records thought the song would not appeal as it was so different to the more boisterous R&B and Soul sounds Rascals fans had come to expect from them.
A clear case of underestimating the public taste!
Luckily, a figure seemingly ever present around the music scene in 60s New York, Disc Jockey Murray the K, bearded Jerry Wexler and argued with convincing force that Groovin’ was a sure fire Number One smash!
Now this wasn’t the first Number One The Rascals would achieve and it wouldn’t be their last.
Their debut at the summit of the charts in February 1966 was with one of the great rave-up records of all time, ‘Good Lovin’.
If you pair it with, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ by the Spencer Davis Group featuring the teenage Steve Winwood you have one hell of a party going on!
You got the fever? Here’s the cure!
One, two, three!
Versions of the song had previously been recorded by Lemme B Good (Limmie Snell) and The Olympics (benefitting from the production smarts of Jerry Ragavoy).
However, neither of those worthy platters could match the joyous, adrenaline fuelled, ‘I may just die on the spot’ stairway to heaven rush of The Rascals version.
Tom Dowd, legendary producer and engineer at Atlantic, captured the attack of The Rascals live sound perfectly – you feel you’re in the middle of that party with them and you never want the song to end even though you can’t possibly keep dancing at this rate for more than another sixty seconds!
On drums Dino Danelli demonstrates what a wonderfully drivin’ sticksman he was while the transcendent Hammond Organ break by Felix is playing on a loop in my head since the first day I heard it.
Gene Cornish provides wonderfully scuzzy guitar licks that don’t let up throughout.
As for the let’s start in overdrive and then really put the hammer down vocals you can hear why Otis might have been surprised at their complexions!
The Rascals, 1940s Baby Boomers all, had grown up in the New York/New Jersey area and all had born again experiences when they heard the likes of Ray Charles, Little Richard and Fats Domino on the airwaves.
Also important in the development of their sound was the ethereal DooWop singing of The Harptones and The Moonglows.
Especially epiphanic for Felix would be discovering Jazzman Jimmy Smith and the awesome power of The Hammond Organ (the same lightning bolt would strike Steve Winwood, Georgie Fame and Ian McLagan over in England).
After serving apprenticeships in local bar bands they came together as members of Joey Dee and the Starliters (David Brigati bringing them in). Touring Europe playing, ‘Peppermint Twist’ for all they were worth they found themselves on a bill with The, then unknown in America, Beatles.
The dime dropped that they should be front men not side men!
Soon they were tearing up venues like Manhattan’s The Phone Booth and coming to the attention of Promoter Extraordinaire Sid Bernstein who got them signed to Atlantic (their first white act!).
The Rascals catalogue in their glory days, 1965 to 1968, gleams with musical treasure.
There was something about The Rascals that chimed with the times. This is reflected in their third and final Number One record from 1968, ‘People Got To Be Free’ which was a fervent and frank civil rights anthem.
Undeniably preachy and of its time. Yet, yet – wrapped in glorious vocals and a swirling magic carpet of guitars, percussion and horns. I’m always in favour of anthems you can really shake a tail feather to!
And, you know, looking around this mean old world, who can disagree that the train of freedom, for so many, is long, long overdue.
As with so many 60s Groups ‘Personal Differences’ and the relentless grind of searching for the next hit took their toll on The Rascals and it would not be until well into the 21st Century that all the original members got together (for a theatrical celebration of their career devised by über fan Steve Van Zandt).
Most of all I love The Rascals for the youthful Joie de Vivre of their sound.
There’s something enormously affecting in the blend of their voices and the reaching for the stars arrangements of their songs.
I’m going to leave you with a personal favourite that has a yearning and tremulous charm that never palls.
And, that’s surely something to celebrate in world that’s constantly changing.
There’s an invaluable compilation of The Rascals work on Rhino Records. Tracks I return to over and over include, ‘I’ve Been Lonely Too Long’ ‘A Beautiful Morning’ ‘A Girl Like You’ and ‘Mustang Sally’.
Fans of the French Ye-Ye sound should check out Nicoletta’s version of ‘How Can I Be Sure’ which went out under the title, ‘Je Ne Pense Qu’a T’aimer’.