Singer and organist Felix Cavaliere and the three other members of New York’s Rascals created some of the 1960s’ most soulful pop hits.
Signed to the mighty Atlantic Records, the label that issued so much great soul and rhythm-and-blues music, the Rascals reached No. 1 with “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’ ” and “People Got to Be Free.” Singles “How Can I Be Sure,” “A Girl Like You” and “A Beautiful Morning” were big hits, too.
Cavaliere, based in Nashville for the past 20 years, continues to tour and record. Nearly 50 years after he formed the Rascals with drummer Dino Danelli, singer Eddie Brigati and guitarist Gene Cornish, the 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s soul remains intact.
Cavaliere recently realized a long-time dream via his first holiday album, “Christmas Joy.” The 10-track collection includes his full-bodied remakes of two songs from the classic 1963 Phil Spector album, “A Christmas Gift for You”; an aptly bluesy rendition of Charles Brown’s 1960 holiday perennial, “Please Come Home for Christmas”; and a rocking sleigh ride with Chuck Berry’s “Run, Run Rudolph.”
Cavaliere had wanted to do a Christmas collection when the Rascals were still together, but he alone had such a wish. Decades later, when his manager suggested he do a Christmas album, Cavaliere was ready. Memories of his childhood in New York and the “A Christmas Gift for You” album inspired him.
“I drove my father crazy during the holidays playing that album in the house,” Cavaliere recalled from Nashville. “It’s so brilliantly done, but it’s not exactly a quiet, ‘Silent Night’ album.
“And going to Radio City Music Hall and stuff like that, when you do that in your youth, it sinks in and leaves a pleasant memory. That’s what we’re trying to do with the ‘Christmas Joy’ album, tap into those places where people really enjoyed themselves.”
Cavaliere grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in Westchester County, 15 minutes from New York City. He attended Alan Freed’s all-star rock ’n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues shows at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theater, absorbing the raucous, pioneering music performed there.
“When you start talking about soul, the people who really lived that life, they went through some grief and pain,” Cavaliere said. “That probably has a lot to do with soul. I lost my mom when I was a kid. That brought the soul out in me.
“It’s also environmental. I grew up where Alan Freed decided to bring rock ’n’ roll. What I thought was normal, contemporary singing was actually done by very soulful, phenomenal people.
“So when I entered the music world, I tried to reproduce what I’d heard. Like my dear friend Ben E. King. I adored his voice. Still do. So I try to sing like him and Sam Cooke. If you’re fortunate, which I happen to be, something changes in you. It’s totally subconscious. No thinking process. It just happens. Like my New York accent.”
R&B music from New Orleans also affected Cavaliere deeply.
“As a piano player, hearing somebody play like Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, the stuff that came out of the South, unbelievable,” he said.
The Rascals’ drummer brought New Orleans beats to the group via his experience with a previous band.
“Dino learned that syncopation, way before people at Motown started releasing it to the public,” Cavaliere said.
“Christmas in New Orleans,” a “Christmas Joy” track he wrote with fellow Nashville resident Henry Gross, is getting a good reaction, he added.
“If you take a subject as fertile as New Orleans and write about it,” Cavaliere said, “and put those little inferences and those rhythms and some of that instrumentation in there, it becomes a cool song.”
Cavaliere is performing the entirety of his Christmas album this month in a show dubbed “Rockin’ the Holidays with Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals.”
“I’ve never done this before, so it should be really a trip,” he said. “But the public has a way of latching onto the past. Although I really don’t mind playing the older songs all the time, people don’t realize that it’s nice to make a change sometimes.”