Donnie Iris and the Cruisers: King Cool and His Court

Donnie Iris and the Cruisers’ songs from the early ’80s are some of the great, under-recognized gems of the FM rock radio era. Despite the time frame, the tunes are timeless nuggets from a nexus where classic rock, new wave and blue-collar bar jams overlap. When serious music fans give the band an open-eared listen, they invariably say: “Donnie Iris should have been huge.” They’re one of those groups that’s just waiting to be discovered.

Cruisers songs have turned up on both of the big Girl Talk albums. The Cruisers have ties to Trent Reznor, Kiss, Wild Cherry, Santana, and Bon Jovi. Iris may have looked like buddy Holly, but he had a prescient über-geek rap that earned him the title King Cool.

What, you don’t know Donnie Iris? You’re not alone. He’s a regional hero with a minor national following in classic rock circles. Listen to some of the music first. Then we’ll talk about the band’s story. Don’t let the visuals prejudice you against the music. No-budget videos were just one factor in the band’s relative failure to break big.

Start with the Cruisers’ signature song, 1980’s “Ah! Leah!,” from 1980’s Back on the Streets. The group’s first single put them on the map and earned them a major-label deal with MCA imprint Carousel. It peaked at no. 29 on the Billboard charts and reached no. 19 on the Rock charts. It’s still in rotation around the country. Rush Limbaugh also uses it as a bumper (to the band’s chagrin). And it turns up 1:40 into Girl Talk’s “Friday Night.”

In “Ah! Leah!,” you hear all the group’s trademark elements. Donnie’s going crazy for a girl who’s bad news, but he can’t keep away. The singer screams high, then sinks low when it’s time get smooth. The recording is over 100 tracks deep – listen to that guitar sound and the stacked vocals in the bridge. Iris’ creative partner in the group was Mark Avsec, who was the Cruisers’ keyboardist, co-writer, backup singer, and producer. Avsec reinvented the Phil Spector-style wall of sound for the Pretenders era. Iris also was dragging some ’50s signifiers into the modern era.

Iris is a memorable character who is a true icon in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Born Dominic Ierace, he received the National Italian American Hall of Fame’s Lifetime Achievement Award in March 2010. Young Donnie – or, as pronounced in an authentic Pittsburgh accent, “Daaawnie” – grew up listening to the Skyliners and Beatles, then came into his own in an era when bands like Cheap Trick were skating the line between classic rock and new wave.

Donnie Iris: Jagger

When Iris became a sorta-solo commodity, he’d already been to the dance. In 1970, he was playing with one-hit wonder band the Jaggerz. The group earned 15 minutes with “The Rapper.” The bubbly gold single documented the nascent breed of fast-talking pickup artists with lines like “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” and “Coffee, tea, or me?” It hit no. 2 on the Billboard chart and was later covered by Wolfman Jack.

After the Jaggerz expired, Iris was working in a studio where he met another band in decline: Wild Cherry, best known for 1976’s “Play That Funky Music.” The Ohio group tried to reverse its flagging fortunes by adding Iris for its fourth album, Only the Wild Survive. It didn’t work, but Iris hit it off with keyboardist Mark Avsec, who had some ideas of his own.

After Wild Cherry disintegrated, Avsec and Iris convened a project that became the first Donnie Iris record. The duo drafted a backing band to play the songs they were writing. In 1980, Back on the Streets was released as a Donnie Iris album, but the group was soon formally rechristened Donnie Iris and the Cruisers. A Toronto reviewer called Iris “the new king of cool,” and it stuck.

Cruising

In the early Cruisers songs, Iris and Avsec alternately looked for love and lived out tough-guy fantasies (see “Agnes,” which has an indelible rhythm track that owes much to “Gimme Some Lovin’”).

Iris and Avsec honed the obligatory machismo that was so common at the time in tunes like “I Can’t Hear You No More,” in which Iris breaks out the pedestrian couplet “Stop all your bitchin’ / Back in the kitchen.” When the Donnie Iris persona fully formed, he’d go easy on the girls and present himself as guy who read Spider-Man comics, but wasn’t afraid to take a couple bruises if they’d bring him closer to romance. (Witness: this old live intro, which turns into a long story about being a geek who’s been injured in the game of love.)

In fact, the band’s best overall performance might be “That’s The Way Love Oughta Be” from the second album, 1981’s King Cool. The Cruisers are rapturously locked in. Iris’s voice goes places most singers can’t now and never will. The tune’s nuances even shine in a rough live version.

Technically, the Cruisers’ biggest hit was King Cool’s first single, the rhythmic romp “Love Is Like a Rock.” A live clip with polished audio received heavy rotation on MTV. On the radio, it hit no. 9 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart.

The album’s follow-up single, the doo-woppy “My Girl,” was the band’s highest-charting crossover success. It reached no. 25 on the singles chart. The first two albums are available as a one-CD, two-album disc.

On the next two albums, the band was in a holding pattern, at best. Iris, Avsec and their label were sued for alleged copyright infringement over “Ah! Leah!” for the innovative lyrics “here we go again.” They were ultimately vindicated, but the case dragged on for years, eating up valuable time, energy and money.

Album number three was 1982’s The High and the Mighty. Its high point was “Tough World.” The track is a helluva singalong and an anthem for fans, but didn’t set the charts on fire.

The band may have been distracted, but they kept working. In 1983, album number four, Fortune 410, took its titled from the model of Iris’ glasses. The single “Do You Compute?” was part novelty song, part product placement. In this track, Avsec’s keys take on a total ‘80s techno tinge. In the video, the band’s look is half regular guy, half Miami Vice. As image became increasingly important, the next wave of bands would lap the Cruisers.

All those songs are available on the 2001 MCA Millennium Collection. The comp is the most convenient entry point for Donnie & the Cruisers, and likely the only album you’ll find at Best Buy. It has almost every major song from the band’s golden era. Inside, journalist Bill DeYoung sketches a nice summary of the band’s varied sound in the liner notes.

As DeYoung points out, lots of Cruisers cuts have their roots on full display: He identifies “pure and honest homage to Holly-esque pop music, bubbly Beatles sounds and blue-eyed soul… Keyboard and synthesizer work [that] ran the gamut from barrel-house boogie-woogie to New Wave riffs ripped from the ranks of the Tubeway Army… Clean, straightforward rock ‘n roll… A double-time reggae beat, pure Police work… The brilliantly nostalgic ‘My Girl’ sounds uncannily like Huey Lewis & the News, who were just a month or two away from their first hits.”

True, some Cruisers songs sound like some other bands. But nothing sounds like the Cruisers.

Missing from the Millennium Collection is the last great song from the classic lineup, “Injured in the Game of Love.” In 1984, the band split with MCA/Carousel records, but had enough momentum to achieve some success with the independently released No Muss… No Fuss album. In some parallel universe, I like to imagine Avsec sold the single “Injured” to Bon Jovi, and it became a giant hit. In this world, however, it barely cracked the single chart’s top 100. The album’s out of print, and iTunes doesn’t carry the song, but it’s worth tracking down. Click HERE for a swell live version.

Without a major label behind it, “Injured” didn’t get much of a push. And it deserves a better video than the one it got. Avsec, who’s not a fan of the song, winces when he talks about the clip.

Transition Years

After five LPs, the Cruisers’ run at the big time was done. They’ve continued playing and recording. Over the years, they’ve recorded covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me,” Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” the traditional “Amazing Grace,” and most recently the Black Keys’ “Your Touch.” As of Spring 2010, the band is working on a Christmas album, which will feature Iris singing Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, his voice stacked until it scrapes the heavens.

Even in their glory years, the Cruisers were mostly an opening act, but the guys got around. They crossed paths with Journey, who were fans. In fact, the Cruisers feared they’d lose biracial black-white bassist Albritton McClain to the bigger band. They didn’t, but he and drummer Kevin Valentine left just before No Muss… No Fuss was released, to join a Cleveland synth-rock group called the Innocent, which also featured a pre-Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor. Valentine went on to record with Kiss and tour with Cinderella.

By 1988, Donnie and the remaining Cruisers had day jobs. Iris became a successful real-estate agent. Guitarist Marty Lee Hoenes, the only band member besides Iris and Avsec who never quit, became a graphic designer. Avsec went to college and became a respected intellectual property lawyer. After the “Ah! Leah!” lawsuit, the band had more legal turmoil, and he was determined he’d never be raked over the coals again.

When you talk about the work of “Donnie Iris,” you’re really talking about a partnership between two artists: Iris and Avsec. Iris is the voice and the face, but Avsec has been the bandleader since he group’s inception. Avsec and Iris co-wrote the band’s early material. Avsec is the sole songwriter on the band’s later albums. The band’s official website credits him as “the Cruisers’ chief operating officer.” The Cruisers is his most prominent vehicle, but he’s had several other high-profile musical breaks.

The Man Behind King Cool

Avsec joined Wild Cherry in 1975, shortly after the band recorded “Play That Funky Music,” but before they recorded the rest of the album. The LP scored two Grammy nominations (for Best New Vocal Group and Best R&B Performance by a Group).

During the ‘80s, Avsec was the songwriting and production specialist for his management stable, the Cleveland-based Belkin-Maduri Organization, whose lineup included Michael Stanley, Breathless, the James Gang, and guitarist Mason Ruffner. (Irving Azoff’s first documented management miracle was springing Joe Walsh from his James Gang contract.) Avsec hit a couple out of the park working for the Belkin-Maduri baby bands.

Avsec wrote and produced a disco song called “Mandolay” for a Canton, Ohio group called La Flavour. The 1979 song hit no. seven on the Disco chart and still gets spins in Spain.

As disco died out, La Flavour changed its name to Fair Warning. Avsec penned a big, arena-ready rock song, “She Don’t Know Me,” for a record that was going to be the band’s debut for MCA. The label shelved the project, kept the tune, and gave it to a new band, Bon Jovi, to use as a single for its debut album. Covers excepted, it’s the only Bon Jovi song in which no members of the Jersey group have a songwriting credit.

As the classic Cruisers lineup crumbled, Avsec launched a solo project called Cellarful of Noise. Writing and recording in his basement, Avsec starred in two albums of solid, archetypal ‘80s synth-rock. CBS released two Cellarful LPs, 1985’s self-titled effort and 1988’s Magnificent Obsession.

On tracks like “Can’t Squeeze Blood From a Rock,” Avsec proves himself a perfectly capable frontman. Valentine appears on both records. On the second album, Iris co-fronts the band, and Hoenes makes an appearance (as “Marty Lee”).

The self-titled LP is the one to get; Magnificent is a tad cheesy. Both are out of print, but the songs are easy to find if you know where to look.

Avsec has played keyboards for most of the James Gang reunion shows. In 2010, a song he co-wrote was the lead single for the expanded reissue of Santana’ Supernatural LP, the no. 26 top-selling album of all time. “Angel Love (Come for Me)” was recorded during the original Santana album sessions. Avsec originally wrote it in 1994 with Cleveland guitarist Alan Greene*. Texas guitar hero Mason Ruffner, a friend of Santana, wrote new lyrics for the song and recorded it for 1997’s I Got a Flame album.

*Greene is a longtime running buddy of Mr. Stress, the Cleveland blues musician that Chrissie Hynde name-checks beside Howard the Duck in “Precious.” Before the Cruisers, Greene was Avsec’s bandmate in a Cleveland band called Breathless, which featured alums of the Michael Stanley Band, a Cleveland institution that made a similar run at the big top. Greene also played in the Innocent with Trent Reznor and Cruisers McClain & Valentine. He contributed to both Cellarful albums.

So the Cruisers are still on the airwaves, and they’re still in the game. For more on the band, check out the excellent, detailed DVD documentary King Cool: Ah! History of Donnie Iris & the Cruisers.

The fan site Parallel Time has unmatched resources including music, old articles, and up-to-the-minute links.

And some dude wrote a half-decent profile of Avsec when the Santana song dropped.

The Cult of Donnie Iris

Some of us have accepted Donnie Iris as our personal entertainment savior. We think his best material is about as good as it gets. Some fans take it even further.

Over the 1990s, Iris graduated from local rocker to Pittsburgh celebrity, largely through the efforts of the WDVE morning drive-time show.

The show, then hosted by Scott Paulsen and Jim Krenn, aired a call from a fan who claimed to have seen Iris in a local grocery store, moving up and down the bread aisle, squeezing each loaf. Dialogue from the skit was the genesis for a series of bits centered around a fictitious store called Pants ‘N ‘Nat.

In the first Pants ‘N ‘Nat skit, a family of deeply stereotypical Pittsburghers visit the discount store, where they’re shocked to find someone who looks like Donnie Iris working as a clerk. They fear the “big rock star” is “all washed up.” But the clerk turns out to be Lonnie Iris, one of the Iris triplets, brother of Donnie & Connie. It spawned a series of sequels, and Iris became a recurring figure in the a number of popular skits. Iris has embraced the bits as part of his image and ongoing relevance.

The comedy clips might not make any sense if you don’t get the references — but if you’re from Pittsburgh, they’re hilarious. A lot of ‘Burghers really talk like that, but it doesn’t make them bad people.

The Cult of Dawnie isn’t just a ‘Burgh thing. In 2006, Canadian indie filmmaker Rico shot videos for “Ah! Leah!” and “Do You Compute.”

“Ah! Leah!” is more of a production, but his version of “Do You Compute?” sure are shite beats the original.

So that’s your crash course in Donnie Iris and the Cruisers. Check ‘em out. There will be a quiz.

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