Gene Cornish Talks ‘My Life as a Rascal,’ Reuniting with Felix Cavaliere & More

Frank Mastropolo
Gene CornishDebbee Davis

Gene Cornish was at a crossroads in 1964. Cornish, born in Ontario, moved to Rochester, NY early in life and formed a band called the Unbeatables. The group made an early splash in New York City but soon found themselves out of work and dispirited. All its members except Cornish returned to Rochester.

Determined to succeed in the Big Apple, the guitarist landed a gig with Joey Dee & the Starliters, the “Peppermint Twist” pop group that included keyboardist Felix Cavaliere and singer Eddie Brigati. By 1965, the three musicians quit and, with drummer Dino Danelli, formed the Young Rascals.

The Young Rascals were wildly successful in the 1960s with hits like “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’,” “A Girl Like You,” “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” and “How Can I Be Sure.” The group’s original look was knickers, ruffled shirts and caps but, as Cornish tells Rock Cellar, they abandoned it when the costumes received a cool reaction from African American audiences. Their name was soon shortened to “The Rascals.”

Cornish published his memoir, Good Lovin’: My Life as a Rascal, in 2020. It’s an unflinching account of the guitarist’s life in and out of music, including his 2018 collapse on stage in Billings, MT when he went into cardiac arrest.

Although the Rascals are one of the earliest bands in which all the original members survive, relations have been strained over the years. Its members have performed in various combinations and with their own Rascals groups. The Rascals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

The band was brought together by Steven Van Zandt in 2012 for The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, a concert and theatrical extravaganza that had a Broadway run in 2013 and subsequent tour. The show’s tightly scripted setlist, synched to the audiovisual elements behind them, did not allow for improvisation by the musicians.

Cornish talked with us from his home in New Jersey as tour details were being ironed out.

Let’s talk about the upcoming tour. Unlike Once Upon a Dream, will you do extended solos?

Gene Cornish: We’re gonna keep it real. No self-indulgence. People want to hear the hits. And that’s what we had in Once Upon a Dream. They want to hear the hits and we’re gonna dig deep into our repertoire again.

The Rascals Once Upon a Dream

As I read your book, I thought, “There’s no way he’ll perform with Felix again.”

There’s no such thing as never. We were never gonna tour together and then along came Once Upon a Dream.

Did you think at that time that the band would stay together?

Felix and I had hoped that. After the end of the tour, we reached out to Dino and we reached out to Eddie. Eddie didn’t want to do any more. And Dino had a lot of demands which we couldn’t meet. We had a feeling he didn’t want to really do it. He was coming up with excuses.

Now Dino is incapable of playing drums anymore. He’s in a long-term facility. And Eddie turned us down again.

Who were your influences as you began to learn to play guitar?

James Burton, who played guitar with Ricky Nelson, Scotty Moore, who played with Elvis, Duane Eddy, Cliff Gallup and the Ventures.

So it was a rockabilly influence.

That’s what I kind of did when I joined the Rascals was rockabilly and English rock and roll. I had a group called the Unbeatables. We broke up and I joined Joey Dee & the Starliters and that’s when I met Eddie and Felix. And when we didn’t get along financially with Joey — I’ll be kind by saying it that way — well, he’s a friend. Joey gave me my first break. He was the only boss I ever had.

How did the band come up with its original look?

We had rehearsals up in Felix’s father’s house in Pelham, NY. We arranged during-the-week rehearsals for two weeks because Dino had a gig in Newburgh, NY on weekends still.

Eddie showed up at the first rehearsal wearing knickers as a joke. He’s kind of like a Harpo Marx-kind of character. And we had been discussing how we didn’t want to wear suits like the Beatles. We didn’t want to wear jeans like the Stones, what should we wear?

Eddie comes in and says that he and his friends went to Orchard Street down on the Lower East Side and went into a clothing store and found 50 pair of knickers that were from the ’40s. And they were 50 cents a pair so they bought everything. They spent $25 on knickers and took them home to see what fit. And we said that’s a great idea.

Eddie had a school friend who had a shirt manufacturing company and he made the shirts with the collars for us. We had knee socks and that’s how we got it.

When did you decide the knickers had to go?

“Good Lovin’” was number one and we were playing at the Fox Theater for Murray the K and we were on the bill with the Shangri-Las and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and Joe Tex and Patti LaBelle. We would do five shows a day.

The first three shows were filled with young kids, white kids. At night it was a black audience to see Joe Tex. We would go out and we would just do two songs and the audience wasn’t paying any attention to us. We noticed that they were giving respectful applause but there was no enthusiasm.

I said I think the knickers are killing us with this audience. We had a fight about it, not a fight but we had a long discussion about it. Finally, we gave up the knickers for the evening shows. And we got standing ovations from then on so the knickers were gone.

What’s the back story of “The Rascals Are Coming” appearing on the Jumbotron screen during the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium?

In the summer of ’65 we got this job for the whole summer at a place called The Barge in the Hamptons. Quogue, NY. Right on the beach. That summer we were getting a lot of attention from record companies.

We needed a manager. A lawyer and a Broadway producer came on the weekend to see the Rascals. They said, “Do you have off this Monday?” We said, “Yeah, that’s our day off.”

“Well, if we bring this man down to see you, his name’s Sid Bernstein. Maybe we’d like him to be your manager. We’d like you to audition for him.”

We said, “Sure.” So they brought Sid Bernstein down. They kidnapped him from the city because he was talent coordinator for the Hullabaloo television show at the time. And he was producing the Beatles and the Beatles show was coming up.

He came out anyway against his will and he loved the Rascals. We signed with him and on our day off, August 15, 1965, we attended the Beatles show at Shea Stadium. We were sitting in the dugout, the third base dugout where the Beatles were supposed to come through and go to the stage. Sid Bernstein, being the promoter, had the people at Shea Stadium put on the Jumbotron “The Rascals Are Coming.”

Now Brian Epstein didn’t like that. He didn’t know what that was about but he said, “You’d better take that off or I’m gonna stop the Beatles from playing on the show.” So, Sid took it off.

It was about the Rascals coming but no one in the audience knew who we were. It was just a whim on Sid’s part. Epstein became a fan of the Rascals after that. He was good friends with Sid and came to see us at the studio when we were recording and became a fan.

As a matter of fact, Epstein wanted to buy the contract from Sid when the first record came out. Nat Weiss, who managed James Taylor and a bunch of other acts, was Epstein’s business partner in New York. And they’re having a meeting and Epstein told Sid, “I think the Rascals are going to become big, I’d like to buy their contracts.”

Sid was considering it and then Epstein excused himself and went to the bathroom. Nat Weiss, who was Epstein’s best friend, said to Sid, “Don’t sell this to Epstein. They’re gonna be big, you should keep it.” And he did.

"Mickey's Monkey" by the Rascals on the Ed Sullivan show

You called the appearance on the Ed Sullivan show “the favorite performance of your career.” Tell me about that show.

One of our favorites, yeah. Back in the late ’50s, early ’60s when I lived in Rochester, Mom and I and Dad religiously watched the Ed Sullivan show every Sunday to see what rock and roll bands were on. They had Buddy Holly, all of the acts. I wanted to be on that show some day.

Back in 1959 my Mom and Dad took me and my band to New York City for an audition. Now my Dad knew nothing was going to come of it but he wanted to give me the experience.

So we went to the audition, then we were walking on Broadway in the afternoon and out of Jack Dempsey’s restaurant comes Ed Sullivan. My mother just walks up to him ’cause mothers have no filter. She goes up to him, she goes, “Mr. Sullivan, you know who I am? You don’t know but my son is gonna be on your show someday.”

One of the times we were on, the show fell three minutes short and we’d already played at the end of the show. So, Ed Sullivan brought us back and we had nothing rehearsed with the cameras so we decided to do “Mickey’s Monkey” and “Love Lights.” And that was the best performance we ever had on that show.

One of your earliest important shows was at The Scotch of St. James, a London nightclub.

We were at Scotch of St. James and we were doing a small tour of England. We had to play these little clubs. Even though we were big, big in America we were promoting ourselves as a new band, an underground band. We’re on the stage and in the audience, Roger Daltrey, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Graham Nash and Keith Moon.

Dino’s bass drum had not been nailed down to the stage. The roadies forgot to nail it down and it was sliding. Sliding forward, sliding forward. All of a sudden there’s a blur of a body that jumps on the stage and puts his back on the bass drum. It was Keith Moon.

So, Dino said, “You really saved me. I owe you a favor.” Keith Moon said, “Teach me how to twirl the sticks.” So, Dino created a monster.

You write about the fight to make your song “I’m So Happy Now” the B-side of “How Can I Be Sure.” What happened?

The A-sides and the B-sides were being written by Eddie and Felix. We co-published all the songs but the big money was in the writing. At one point I asked if I can I possibly have a B-side and Felix rejected the idea. He said, “We’re writing the hits, we deserve the B-sides.”

Eventually, when “How Can I Be Sure” came out, “I’m So Happy Now” became the B-side. It started to be played more than “How Can I Be Sure” and Felix protested with the record company. Eventually “How Can I Be Sure” became number two.

You write about influential New York DJs like Murray the K and Cousin Brucie. Tell me about New York radio in the ’60s and the role DJs played in breaking a record.

Radio stations were not segregated like they are now. They used to play everything: Top 40, new hits, there was WMCA and there was WABC in New York, WLS in Chicago, KRLA in LA. You would hear new songs on the radio as well as the hits. Totally different than now. Now it’s rap music, country music, jazz, R&B, oldies, all different worlds.

Cousin Brucie was the very first DJ in the world to play “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore.” On WABC. And we were so thrilled because we were told the day before when they were gonna play it. And we were all living together at the Hotel 14 upstairs from the Copacabana on East 60th Street. And we put on our little transistor radio on the shelf and for the first time ever, for two minutes and twenty seconds, the Rascals shut up and listened to him play it.

And about two weeks later we kidnapped Cousin Brucie after his show. It was wintertime and we had a fur coat we gave him and threw him in a limo and dragged him over to the Phone Booth where we were playing. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Bill Medley and Tom Jones were coming to see us play.

Let’s do a Lightning Round. Favorite guitarist.

James Burton.

Who is not in the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame who should be?

Tommy James & the Shondells.

Type of music that drives you crazy when you hear it.

It would be rap. It’s not music really, it’s a rhythm track with poetry or what they call poetry. I like Eminem. That’s about it.

This story appeared in Rock Cellar Oct. 13, 2022.

Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock

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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. He is also the author of the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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