Felix Cavaliere

Tuesday, April 2, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 2, 2002, in Nashville, Tenn.

Ken Paulson: [Felix Cavaliere playing soft keyboard music] Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a respected songwriter, and founding member of the Rascals, Felix Cavaliere. [Applause]

Felix Cavaliere: [Plays and sings] ”It’s a beautiful morning. / ” [Applause] Thank you. “I think I’ll go outside for a while / and just smile, / take in some clean, fresh air, ’cause it ain’t no good / staying inside if the weather’s fine and you’ve got the time. / It’s your chance. / Wake up and plan another brand-new day. / It’s a beautiful morning. / Each bird keeps singing his own song. / So long. / I got to be on my way now. / Ain’t no good hangin’ around. / Got to cover ground. / You couldn’t keep me down. / Ain’t no good / if the sun shines and you’re still inside, / you’re still inside, still inside. / You shouldn’t hide. / No, no.”

Paulson: Wow. [Applause] I don’t want to hear you — I do not want to ask you any questions; I just want to hear you play.

Cavaliere: Well, thank you.

Paulson: There’s — the folks who work with us on “Speaking Freely” remind me that I occasionally have a “fan moment,” where I just — it becomes clear that I have everything you’ve ever recorded.

Cavaliere: That’s wonderful.

Paulson: Well, it’s been quite a career, and, culminating with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and continuing on. You now live in Nashville.

Cavaliere: Yes.

Paulson: And do you still write and record?

Cavaliere: Well, I’ve been doing a lot of touring, and I’m trying to get back into writing, because, as you know, touring nowadays, the airlines have become a little difficult to deal with, you know. I’m so tired of taking my shoes off. I don’t know. [Laughs] I remember your mom telling you, “Make sure you have good socks on,” you know. But I’m trying to get back into writing because of that fact. And as far as recording, I, I’ve done a live project, which is really the first time I’ve ever done a live album. I really had a good time doing that, so hopefully we’ll get that out into the marketplace.

Paulson: Well, let’s talk a little bit about where that path to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came from. When did you first get a sense that rock and roll was going to be a career for you?

Cavaliere: Well, I think I was in high school at the time, and I had been studying classical music, and some fellows who were older than me asked me to join a band. And, of course, the band in those days was a mixture of a wedding band, a bar mitzvah band, and a prom band, and — but I got a segment where I did, like — You know? [Plays and sings] “Come on over, baby. / Whole lot of shaking going on.“ And that became what the band was known for very quickly. So I said, “Hmm. Maybe this is what I should do.” Because my mom wanted me to be a classical pianist. My dad wanted me to be a doctor. And I said, “Well, music heals, so maybe that’s where I belong.” [Laughs]

Paulson: Well, that was a classic you just played.

Cavaliere: Yes. And those — those songs, which were really piano-oriented, were very simple for me, obviously, and I just right away felt very comfortable in that kind of, like, world, you know. Of course, why not? I mean, you get all that attention, and I was a little, tiny little guy. So it was not a real conscious effort; I just wanted to do it.

Paulson: There are stories of bands: Felix and the Escorts, the Stereos, and then a stint with a name band, Joey Dee and the Star Liters. How did you get hooked up with that group?

Cavaliere: Well, I had been working in the Catskill Mountains on a summer break from college. I was in my second year of pre-med, and I just really did not want to go back to school. I just wanted to pursue the life of a musician. And this band had come through, and they had been the headliners at this hotel where I was working. And I was kind of — you know, I was playing in the lounge and all kind of things. And anyway, they, they needed someone to more or less substitute for one of their musicians, who had gotten a little homesick and left and gone back to the States. So I went to Europe with Joey Dee and the Star Liters. I met them in Hamburg, Germany, which was turning out to be just, you know, a wonderful experience, because while we were there, we worked with this group which at that time was unknown called the Beatles. And, you know, I saw this, this world that — of course, I had no clue of what I was getting into. And now that I think, I wonder if I did the right thing. But I know, musically, I had a good time. But it was insane as — people screaming and hollering and people with long hair. It was very interesting for a young kid. I was about 19.

Paulson: And that, in turn, led to what became the Young Rascals.

Cavaliere: Yes. I had a plan when the Beatles and all the rest of the English bands came over here. I thought, “You know, the way to offset this is just to put the best musicians that I can find together.” And I had sort of a limited sphere, but it was a big city, which helped — New York area. And I just found the best people that I could find and put together that band, which, you know, we had a record deal within six months. You know, I don’t know if that would happen again today, but the power was because each, each one of those people in my band pretty much had their own band at one time or another. So there was more than one place to focus.

Paulson: You first hit the charts in, in a modest way with “Ain’t Gonna Eat My Heart Out Anymore.” And then you stepped to the microphone for your first big hit.

Cavaliere: Yes.

Paulson: I wonder if we could hear a little bit of that.

Cavaliere: Well, yeah, that was a surprise to us all. That was — [Plays and sings] “I was feeling so bad. / I asked my family doctor just what I had. / I said, ‘Doctor, Mr. M.D., / can you tell me what’s ailing me?’ / And he said, / ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. / Yes, indeed.’ / For all I need is good love. / Good love. Good love.” [Applause]

Paulson: A huge record. It had to be intoxicating for you.

Cavaliere: Well, it was interesting, because, you know, I heard that song on the radio done by a group called the Olympics, and it was done in a Latin form. And we took it to the bandstand, and from the minute that we first did that song, people got up and danced immediately. So, you know, you just never know what is a so-called “hit.” That just was an instant hit. And it came out, as a, as you said, as our second record. Choo! So we were really unprepared for that level of the business. You know, we had a modest hit. As you say, we were kind of building ourselves. And it really caught us off guard — pleasantly, though. But now, you see, my next goal, so to speak, was to be able to write our own songs. We really weren’t ready for that yet. So there it is now. So we tried.

Paulson: So what did you first put together?

Cavaliere: Oh, Lord, we tried a lot of different things, and it was getting a — it was getting a little shaky there, because the record company’s going, “Hmm, haven’t seen a hit for a few records here, you know?” So thank goodness this one came along. See if you know this one here. [Plays and sings] “I’ve been lonely too long. / I’ve been lonely too long. / In the past, they’ve come and gone, / and I feel like I can’t go on without your love. I’ve been lonely too long. / Oh, lonely so long.” Whew. So, you know. [Applause] We were so lucky at that time, you know, to be able to put a string of hits together. Otherwise, we might not have been able to, to write our own.

Paulson: The remarkable thing about the Rascals, beyond the music, is that you survived your early image-making.

Cavaliere: Oh, yes.

Paulson: This was — I was watching a recent re-release of a series — I guess it was “Hullabaloo.” It’s now out on DVD. And there is a very early image of the Young Rascals, at the time, and you’re all dressed in schoolboy outfits, or what somebody’s impression of what a schoolboy outfit would be. And you’re all actually in a classroom, and, ah, it’s choreography, and it’s —

Cavaliere: With Alan King.

Paulson: I think that’s true.

Cavaliere: Yeah, we had a lot of fun.

Paulson: Weren’t you horrified, though?

Cavaliere: Well, the — the way that all happened, it just shows you how innocently you can get into trouble. In those days, you had to wear a tie and a jacket to perform in front of over-21 audiences, which is pretty much what every — everyone was in the clubs that we were working in. Well, we — we’re very, you know, restrained and constrained in that get-up, so we said, you know, “We’ve got an idea.” We came with these costumes, which basically were knickers and a top. And they said, “That’s very nice, but you have to wear a tie.” And, you know, see, we figured, “Well, it’s still better than wearing a suit.” So we got into that, and then we got discovered, so it was like, “Give us a couple more weeks; we’ll have another one,” you know. And we never got there.

Paulson: Are you telling me that outfit was the idea of the band?

Cavaliere: It was our drummer’s idea, yeah. [Laughs] Our artistic director.

Paulson: Sounds like a drummer. All these years, I’ve been thinking overzealous management. This poor — this really hip, young band forced to wear these costumes. I had no idea it was your idea.

Cavaliere: No, we walked right into that. But, as I say, it was a combination of bad thinking and — as soon as we had the opportunity to kind of get out of that, you know, we did.

Paulson: And actually, a remarkable evolution. You went from being a top-40 band with a name the Young Rascals with costumes to becoming the Rascals and, in time, a very hip image. Double albums, like the Beatles’ “White Album.” You had “Freedom Suite.” I want to talk about the evolution of your music. Was there a point — I mean, we’ve just touched on “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” which had to give you some confidence.

Cavaliere: Yes.

Paulson: But then comes a monster record in “Groovin’.”

Cavaliere: Yeah.

Paulson: Can you — I mean, that is one of the best-known songs on the planet.

Cavaliere: It was another one that was in that list of — see what I have here. [Plays intro to “Groovin'”] See, the reason behind this song is that, we’re always working on Friday and Saturday, when everyone else is out, so we couldn’t be with our, ah, girlfriends, see, so — [Plays and sings] “Groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon. / Really couldn’t get away too soon. / I can’t imagine anything that’s better. / The world is ours whenever we’re together. / Ain’t a place I’d like to be instead. / Just groovin’ / down a crowded avenue. Just doin’ / anything we like to do. There’s always lots of things / that we can see now. / We can be anyone we like to be. / All those happy people we could meet. / Just groovin’ / on a Sunday afternoon. / Really couldn’t get away too soon. / No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. / Groovin’. / Uh-huh, uh-huh. / Groovin’, yeah. / Groovin’. Groovin’.” [Applause]

Paulson: When you finished with “Groovin’,” did you have any sense that this was a song that you would listen to — we would all listen to for the rest of our lives on radio, on television, in elevators, and in frozen food sections?

Cavaliere: [Laughs] No. No, you know, the interesting thing is that we were all — the — that generation was all growing up together, and we had this tremendous communication with, with our peers. I think a lot of us were you know, falling in love. A lot of us were contemplating getting married. You know, I think we were all kind of living this wonderful, musical world together, which, you know, as I say — you said earlier, the Beatles opened up the door for so much of this. Between the Beatles and Bob Dylan, I mean, it was just, you know, just grab on and see where we go, you know? And so you never have any idea when you do a song, you know. It’s audience, it’s people, they say, “Oh, yeah, it’s good.” “Oh, it is?” I mean, we really don’t know, because it all comes from the same source, so to speak, you know.

Paulson: You talk about people growing up together, and growing together. And the Rascals — like the Beatles, like the Rolling Stones — went through an evolution. And you went from — as a writer and performer, you went from songs that entertained, that people would want to dance to, until you got an itch to say something. I mean, and that’s what this show is largely about: performers who have used their music or their art to make a difference, to move people, to call attention to injustice. And there came a point in your career where you were no longer simply satisfied with writing the dance record. Can you talk about that?

Cavaliere: Yeah, I, I’m not sure of exactly when it happened, but I — I can remember one major turning point, and that was when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, you know. And that whole year, where Martin Luther King and, and, you know, our world really turned around. It just brought a reality to me. I was active in campaigning. I was actually seeing someone who was in the room that terrible night when he was shot. And, ah, I don’t know. It’s just — something just happened. She was never the same after that. And I don’t know what the connection was that we had or I had with this man, but it really just moved me to say, “You know what? We’ve got to really make a statement here. We’ve got to do something here, because this —“ I mean, unfortunately, I feel the same way today about what’s going on in our newspapers. If you, if you look at the news today, it is just sad what’s going on in this Mideast thing. Somebody’s got to stand up and say, “Hey, you know what? Pay attention,” you know? And that’s just what I felt like. You know, well, it’s none of our business. But it is our business, you see, because the universe or whatever gave us an audience, so that means there’s a lot of people out there listening to us. We better tell them something. And I just felt driven to say something. And the record company did not agree with me. [Laughter] They said, “This is not your business. You’re not a politician. You’re supposed to make money for us. That is your purpose in life.” I said, “I don’t think so. I think, while we’re making money for you, we’ve got to at least clear our consciences, our souls just by saying, ‘Hey, look. This is where we’re coming from. This is what we believe. If you want to be part of our so-called family, don’t have any illusions about where we’re at. This is where we’re at.’” And being from New York and being a Sagittarian, I think sometimes I may be a little bit too blunt. [Laughter] But it was a drive. It was a thing that — you know, I just said, “We gotta do this.” And, and, you know, I was so proud of that, because after all of the aggravation that we took from the people who did not want it out, it became number one in America, in South Africa, in Berlin. Places that were oppressed felt that message, you know. And I, I just have always been real happy with that.

Paulson: Do you remember where you started with “People Gotta Be Free”?

Cavaliere: Oh, yeah, I remember it exact — I mean, it was like just a, a blast from the sky. I was in Jamaica, as a matter of fact. I was taking a little hiatus, and I was down there all by myself at a little place called Ocho Rios. And I had my radio, my shortwave radio, and I heard that horrible news, you know. And I, I don’t know what to do. So a lot of people who create, we do what we do, and that’s what I did. I just started playing, you know, a song, and that was the song. [Plays keyboard] And I came home, and I spoke to my partner about it, and, you know, we put it together. And it — it still was a very interesting record, very interesting time.

Paulson: Can we hear that?

Cavaliere: Yeah, I’d like to try that. Let me see if I can find a little organ sound. It’s a little more, ah — let’s see; how about this? [Plays and sings] ”All the world over, so easy to see. / ” [Applause] “ / People everywhere just want to be free. / Listen. Please listen. / That’s the way it should be. / Peace in the valley. / People got to be free. Ha ha, yeah. You should see / what a lovely, lovely world it would be now. / Everyone learned to live together. / Uh-huh, yeah. / Seem to me it’s so easy. / Why can’t it be? / Why can’t you and me learn to love one another? / Oh, now all the world over, so easy to see. People everywhere just want to be free. / I can’t understand. / It’s so simple to me. / People everywhere, they just got to be free. Ha ha, yeah. / If there is a man who is down / and needs your helping hand, / all it takes is you to understand. / Well, you can see him through. Believe me. / Seem to me, we all got to solve it individually. / I’ll do unto you what you do to me. / I said Lord, Lord, / they’ll be shouting from the mountains / on out to the sea. / There’s no two ways about it. / People got to be free. / Ask me my opinion; my opinion will be / it’s a nat’ral situation for a man to be free. Ha ha, yeah. / Now, oh, what a feeling just come over me. / It’s enough to move a mountain, / make a blind man see. / Everybody’s dancing. / Come on; let’s go and see. Peace in the valley. / People got to be free. / Peace in the valley. People got to be free. / Peace in the valley. / Now we all can be free. Ha ha, yeah. Believe it now.” [Cheers and applause] Ha ha. Thank you. Yeah, thank you. Absolutely.

Paulson: Wow. So I know you probably have your favorites. Is that the best thing you’ve ever done?

Cavaliere: Well, I mean, as I say, it brings tremendous joy, just to feel what we feel together. You know, see, there’s a connection that music has that is — is almost like prayer, and we all kind of tune in, and we think the same things, and we kind of feel the same things, and then we just go about our business. I love it. It’s just wonderful. And we do that all over the world. So I think that song has, has kind of done that very well over the world, you know. And I think that and, really now, “Beautiful Morning” is another one that’s emerging as a real communication between people.

Paulson: When you talk about “People Got To Be Free” and the record company not wanting any part of that, and then for, like, I don’t know, maybe a three-, four-year period, protest music, socially conscious music was commercial. And then — and today, it is not. Why don’t consumers care about that kind of music?

Cavaliere: I think, really, the people are ready for that. They’re just not being allowed to hear it, you know. We must, we must realize that the people really are not in charge of what they’re hearing. You see, that’s the tragedy. The record executives are in charge. And I think they’re missing the boat. I really don’t think that they know what the people want to hear, you know. I think they think they know. But if you look at record sales and you look at the fact that they’re blaming the taping of music or the sampling of music or the cloning of music, I don’t believe that’s it. I think what’s happening is, you know, that record that you own, that you treasure — I mean, I was the same way. I mean, I didn’t eat lunch to have those records, those — they’re not there anymore, because they’re not there anymore.

Paulson: Clearly, you’re a man of convictions. And when you were having number-one records in this country, being young, successful, and having convictions could be a dangerous thing. [Laughs] You — you shared with others at the time that you didn’t want to perform as the Rascals without, basically, an integrated bill. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Cavaliere: Well, you know, I think, you know, you run into some difficult — I think John Lennon was the best at opening his mouth at the wrong time. We did a show one time with a group. I think they were called Young-Holt Unlimited, or something like that. And they came up to me backstage, and they said, “You know, we really appreciate you having us on this bill with you, because you don’t understand we play to our own people. We don’t get a chance to play to the other sides of the fences, and it’s just great, because that’s what we want to do; we want to cross over.” So I said, “Of course! We force them to cross over.” [Laughs] Oh, my goodness. I had no idea of the trouble I was causing by that. I really didn’t have any idea that it would be so — you know, because as I say in that song, I mean, this is so simple. I mean, it’s just so easy. If you don’t approve of the show, don’t go.

Paulson: Right.

Cavaliere: But don’t put up a sign and protest and say, “Blah blah blah blah blah,” because nothing’s going to happen to the kids and all that kind of stuff. That’s nonsense. You know? But whatever it is that they tried to put over, it happened, and as a matter of fact, we were in Birmingham, and there was a protest. There was a major protest because the show was integrated. And it was just amazing. I got to meet Stokely Carmichael and those people. And he actually called me up and said, “Look, our quarrel’s not with you. We understand, you know.” And I said, “Well, you know, quarrels are quarrels. I mean, if we’re starting trouble, then we’re just doing the same thing in reverse, you know. Let the show go on. Let’s, let’s —” And anyway, that particular statement was something that was heartfelt, and it happened to me as a boy, because I come from Italian-American background, and I felt always that I was — my parents were kind of put into a little box. I don’t like little boxes. I think we’re all the same. We should treat each other the same.

Paulson: Thank you so much for being a part of this. I’ve long admired your music, and I cannot let you go without one more song.

Cavaliere: [Plays and sings] “Don’t know what it’s all about. / But I feel I’ll soon find out. I’m sure, never felt this secure. / It’s nothing like I ever thought it would be. / Someone opened up a door for me. / Was a girl like you. / A girl like you. / It must be you brings this feeling to me, / fills me confidently, / brings the best out in me. It’s just you / and nobody else, darling.”