A conversation with The Rascals' Gene Cornish
Everyone loves The Rascals’ many hits, among them “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’,” “People Got to Be Free,” “How Can I Be Sure?” and “A Beautiful Morning.”
But knowledgeable fans know that the light of that morning eventually dimmed for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group, originally called the Young Rascals and made up of keyboardist/singer Felix Cavaliere, vocalist Eddie Brigati, drummer Dino Danelli and guitarist Gene Cornish.
The Rascals evolved out of Joey Dee & the Starliters, the house band at the fabled New York Peppermint Lounge nightclub, which they immortalized in their chart-topping 1962 hit “Peppermint Twist.” In his new book Good Lovin’—My Life as a Rascal, Gene Cornish, with help from co-writer Stephen Miller, tells the story of the historic band, within the context of his own dogged rise to guitar hero acclamation.
Born Gene Paul Gorley on May 14 1944 in Ottawa, Canada, Cornish is the son of a tour bus driver who virtually abandoned him and his mother—a former big band singer and Rockette—when he was very young. She then met Ted Cornish, owner of a gas station in Rochester, N.Y., when he and a friend rented the cottage next-door during an ice fishing trip across the border.
Thanks to the immeasurable support of Ted Cornish, Gene learned to play guitar, lead bands, make records, and move to New York City, where he landed the fateful gig with Joey Dee & the Starliters. He recently recounted all this and more in a sometimes emotional talk with centerline.news:
How did the book come about?
It took 25 years of looking for the right writer! I finally found Stephen Miller two-and-a-half years ago, and he’d come in from Long Island to where I live in New Jersey and we’d get together every Friday at a friend’s.
What was the collaborative process like?
I brought no notes and didn’t prepare! We’d sit there for four hours and I’d get my frustrations out, laughing, crying, yelling, screaming, pounding on the table. It was a total exorcism. It was very emotional talking about The Rascals: I had always made a point of not airing our dirty laundry out too much.
You’re revered by a lot of guitarists for your musicianship, but you were sort of the “quiet Rascal” compared to the singers and songwriters Cavaliere and Brigati. Your book really fills in your extensive background and experiences before, during and after The Rascals.
I was born in Ottawa, but I grew up in a very white-bread musical world in Rochester, N.Y. In my mind, my ‘musical director’ was [AM radio station] WBBF and Nick Nickson, its head DJ. We had it on 24-7, and I head songs by Dion, Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Everly Brothers, and then—oh, my God!—The Beatles! But I was a rockabilly kid when I came to New York City.
You give Ted Cornish a lot of credit for the man you became.
I was four-years-old when he married my mom and took me under his wing like I was his own flesh and blood. It was the usual childhood—Boy Scouts, Little League. He taught me how to throw a curveball and knuckleball, and football. He bought me a set of drums when I was eight, and it lasted a day! So the next day they were gone, and he bought me an Arthur Godfrey ukulele! I got my musical genes from my mom, but Ted Cornish gave me my life.
You say in the book that you spent hours learning how to play the uke, then taught yourself how to play guitar—and that after seeing Elvis Presley sing “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Dorsey brothers’ Stage Show you really immersed yourself in rock ’n’ roll.
I was a studier--and my dad took me to studios and clubs. He bought me a Fender bass because I liked it on Bobby Rydell’s [1959 hit] “Kissin’ Time”—which blew me away—so I was a double-threat: I played guitar and bass, and was able to get gigs with other bands when I wasn’t with mine.
Ted Cornish also took you to Philadelphia to record.
We recorded at the same studio as Bobby Rydell—whom I now can gratefully call a friend! And we used his engineer.
Speaking of bass, did you ever play it with The Rascals?
I played it on some of the early records, like “(I've Been) Lonely Too Long.” When I think about it now, it was a take-off on “Kissin’ Time,” because it was so dominant on the record.
As a guitarist, of course, you’re revered by fans of The Rascals and other guitarists in general. In his foreword to your book, Felix Cavaliere points out that your playing was very influential, different from everyone else’s at the time: “reliant on certain fingering and rhythmic structures that others simply did not play.” How do you describe your style?
I describe it as me: A bit of rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll, and R&B—which I learned from Felix--and Dino--since I hadn’t really been exposed to it before. I play behind the beat—not on top of the beat like the English bands and the Beach Boys. Dino had played R&B in New Orleans before The Rascals--just behind the beat. Rlaxed and not nervous. When I was in upstate New York, everything was played double-speed.
"I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore"
You mention in the book your solo on “I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” the Rascals’ 1965 hit.
They needed a solo on the record, and I never practiced solos or learned anybody else’s--other than James Burton, who played with Ricky Nelson. So we got all the vocals done and it was time to do the guitar solo—my first shot at a solo on a record with The Rascals—and it wasn’t coming easy! So I decided that it was going to be magic or tragic, but not mundane--and was bending strings, and it sounded very eerie. When we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Steven Van Zandt, who inducted us, said that guitar part was very sexy!
Steven Van Zandt inducts The Rascals into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Are there any other guitar parts of yours that stand out?
The second guitar break on “Good Lovin’” had a little twang thing that was brought way up in the mix. Years later I realized it was something Burton did in [Ricky Nelson’s] “Just a Little Too Much” that I’d absorbed—but I absorbed everything he did. Same with [Elvis Presley’s guitarist] Scotty Moore, on the second solo of “Hound Dog.”
You talk about how when The Rascals hit it big, everyone came out to see you, and you got to meet many of your heroes. What was it like meeting Scotty Moore?
I was walking down Broadway and saw a line of people outside [Manhattan music club] Iridium, when it was located across from Lincoln Center. It was Les Paul’s birthday, and people were there with their guitars for Les to sign. I ran into a guitar magazine friend, and Scotty Moore was in line behind him—in a terrible-looking plaid jacket. He said, “Gene Cornish! I say this humbly: I love what you played on ‘Good Lovin’.’ I was about to masturbate! I said, “Scotty, my favorite guitar solo is the second solo on ‘Hound Dog’. It just jumps out of the speakers!”
He said that they were just a four-piece band [the Blue Moon Boys] at Sun Records—Elvis, [bassist] Bill Black, [drummer] D.J. Fontana and Scotty--and that before the session, Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, who wasn’t exactly the coolest guy in the world, said that from then on, Elvis would be a solo act, and the rest of the guys just sidemen. Scotty was so irritated that he banged the strings on the neck of his guitar and just echoed and twanged the solo! I thanked him for the story and told him that I thought I subconsciously did the same thing out of aggravation when I did the solo on “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” thinking, “I ain’t gonna play this goddam solo anymore!”
Of course you talk a lot about The Beatles. You even learned every song on their 1964 album Meet The Beatles.
They opened the door for us. Before them, guitar players were meant to play behind the likes of Elvis, Ricky, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, on songs by writers like Carole King and Otis Blackwell. Then all of a sudden they came out, and the bass player, Paul McCartney, and guitar player, John Lennon, were the lead singers and wrote their own songs. Holy crap! It opened our doors and killed a lot of careers.
The Rascals even had Sid Bernstein, the famed Beatles promoter, as their manager!
Everyone loved The Beatles, but The Bronx, Brooklyn and Long Island loved The Rascals more. We were local, and had more soul. We were the new Dion & the Belmonts, and being Italian didn’t hurt. Three Italians and one white guy!
As a “local” band, then, your only competition was the Lovin’ Spoonful.
[The Spoonful’s singer-songwriter/frontman] John Sebastian told me that they owned New York from 14th Street and downtown, and we owned it uptown. We first became friends because their producer saw us at [floating Westhampton nightclub] The Barge and wanted to sign us, but we were never going to be the Spoonful!
You note in the book that the Rascals turned down Phil Spector! But they did work in the studio with the great producers Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, and became so successful that everyone came to see them—superstars including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Roger Daltry, and Sonny and Cher, and Hollywood legends like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and even John Wayne!
My dad and John Wayne looked identical!
But it was all a far cry from the Peppermint Lounge—not to mention Rochester!
I was just a rockabilly kid who came to New York City! The good Lord took me from Rochester to the Peppermint Lounge: I could have been dropped in Queens or New Jersey or ended up being a mailman, but I got dropped right in the epicenter of rock ‘n’ roll, which is the Peppermint Lounge and Joey Dee & the Starliters—and meeting Felix.
Within six months after Felix formed The Rascals out of the Starliters, they had a record deal and were on their way. Felix, in his foreword to your book, credits your “pure grit and talent and determination” for positioning you to be a big part of it all.
My life—and that of The Rascals—has been blessed. We never made a bad move.
But it ended badly, and in the book you don’t hold anything back in terms of the band’s clash of personalities and infighting, eventual fall from pop chart dominance, and the hugely successful but regrettably truncated The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream theatrical event and national tour produced by Steven Van Zandt.
It was a high point and we’re forever grateful for what Steven did for us. He was our hero.
But at book’s end, the Rascals everyone loved when they were together seem hopelessly far apart.
It’s weird. I haven’t talked to Dino in three years, and worry about his health. Bottom line: He’s the greatest drummer of his era who ever played rock ’n’ roll, as far as I’m concerned. I listen to some of those records and go,”Wow!” Then I laugh and cry and think how well we all played together, no matter how much grief and stress there was. It’s the music that counted.
What about your own health? You’re quite open about the health issues you’ve dealt with, including a 30-year drug habit—for which you once sold all your guitars.
I was a functioning addict, and now with the coronavirus, I’m up-to-date quarantining in my apartment!
But as Felix points out in his foreword, 50 years after meeting you, you still have “that same energy and that same smile.”
We formed The Rascals as brothers, and shared in everything. We were devoted to the music and loved and supported each other for five years—and nobody f**ked with us. We were The Rascals—that’s who we were, and nobody could take that away from us! What we gave to the audience--and what they gave back to us—was amazing.
Any final thoughts on the book?
Even though it’s my words, I have a hard time reading it. I keep it in the bathroom along with my reading glasses, and pick it up at random and no matter where I open it, I can’t read it. I realize how blessed—and directed—I was, by God and my dear angel friends, in getting the right manager and record company, and Tommy Dowd and Arif Mardin. We were blessed in getting everything The Beatles had.
Like I say in the book, I was an only child who was supplied with the best brothers you could ever have.