EYE To Eye with (Donnie) Iris
SCENE - February 12-18, 1981
By Marc Holan

Donnie Iris (nee Ierace) perks up when our conversation turns to the recent Super Bowl game. Al though more of a baseball fan than a football fan, Iris' interest in football comes in a close second to the Great American Pastime.

"What a comeback story Jim Plunkett [Oakland Raiders quarterback and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player -— ED.] is, man," he marvels. "What a story. He was like an outcast. They didn’t even want him in San Francisco. All through the season I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether he was good or just lucky. Maybe it was a combination of the two, but the guy’s definitely gotta be good for what he did."

Rock ’n' roll has had it's share of Comeback stories, and Donnie Iris' resurrection is one of them. While "Ah Leah!," Iris’ paean to his second wife, Leah, hangs in there in Billboard’s Top 50 hit singles, Iris is currently preparing to go on the road in support of the single and the album from which it was taken, BACK ON THE STREETS. Rehearsals have been going well with the same recording band that played on the album: Iris' producer / keyboardist / co-songwriter Mark Avsec, drummer Kevin Valentine, bassist Albritton McLain and guitarist Marty Lee. Donnie Iris doesn’t look or act like the typical rock ’n' roller. His black horn-rimmed glasses look like they are being worn out of necessity, not out of some fashionable attempt to make himself look like Buddy Holly. He admits that he has tried other styles of glasses but has always returned to this particular style. "I remember when I was in the Jaggerz it was ‘Don't wear your glasses on stage,"' Iris recalls. "Because people who wore glasses back then weren't cool."

Originally, Iris began his rockin’ 'n' rollin" at Slippery Rock College in Pennsylvania with a band called Donnie and the Donnells. There was another group on the Slippery Rock campus, The Jeweltones. In 1962, Donnie and the Donnells and The Jeweltones combined forces to form the Jaggerz. "The name had nothing to do with the Rolling Stones," Iris says in clarifying a common misconception about the band. "lt came from the burrs you pick up on your socks and pant legs when you walk through the woods. Those things are called ‘Jaggers' in western Pennsylvania.

"The first couple of years we did obscure R&B stuff and some popular R&B tunes," Iris continues. "Then when The Beatles and the Stones came in, we started doing stuff like that. We went both ways: R&B and rock ’n’ roll, whatever was popular was what we did. "Later on towards ’65, '66, ’67, we were mostly a soul band. We did a lot of Temptations, Four Tops, stuff like that, then we recorded for Gamble & Huff in 1969. We had a couple of singles with them. The Philadelphia R&B Sound" After nothing happened on a national level with their association with the prolific production team of Gamble & Huff, the Jaggerz decided that they'd try to record some of their own material and peddle it to other record companies. "That's when we did 'The Rapper' and two other tunes," Iris explains. "We signed with Neil Bogart and Buddah / Kama Sutra Records, and ‘The Rapper’ was a hit."

Indeed. "The Rapper" eventually reached the Number Two position on the charts in 1970. A subsequent LP, WE WENT TO DIFFERENT SCHOOLS TOGETHER, failed to break the laggerz and in retrospect, placed them in the dubious category of "one-hit wonders." The Jaggerz stayed together, though, earning a living playing the bars in and around Pittsburgh, and in the summers, they'd take up residence at one of the bars in Ceneva—on—the—Lake. One summer they'd play The Cove; the next summer they’d move across the main drag to the Castaways or The Sunken Bar. But by 1976, the Iaggerz were ready to call it quits.

Back home in Beaver Falls, Iris met B.E. Taylor who had been playing bars as a solo musician. The two hit it off, and decided to form a duo. "We used electrics," Iris recalls. "We were doing Beatles songs and some of our own stuff. We'd keep a beat by banging on the stage with our feet. I did that part-time and worked at Ieree Studios doing some engineering, and that’s where I met Wild Cherry and Mark Avsec."

Iris and the members of Wild Cherry hit it off so well that by 1978 [after the national hit "Play That Funky Music"] Iris had joined Wild Cherry and toured with them. After the group disbanded, he went back to Jeree Studios doing more engineering and singing background vocals for some local commercials, but during the last days of Wild Cherry he and Avsec had talked about doing something on their own, and even though Avsec jumped into Breathless with all his energies, the Donnie Iris proiect remained a priority for the production aspirations of the multi-talented Avsec.

"We finally got the ’Okay!' from Mike Belkin and Carl Maduri," [Iris' managers} Iris explains. "Mark was still with Breathless, but he had outside interests in producing La Flavour. He was just a busy guy, and most of his real effort was behind this album. I could feel that this was like a baby to him." BACK ON THE STREETS was finished last Spring, but the album and its first single, "Ah Leah!" weren't released until early Fall. It has taken this much time [and the breakup of Breathless] to get a band together to take Iris' message on the road. They've even be doing an updated version of “The Rapper" in concert. "With Mark on the keyboards, it's got a New Wave sound," Iris enthuses. The band is permanent, but as of now un-named.

"We’re still trying to think of a name," Iris admits, "but we haven't decided on one for sure. The next album will be Donnie Iris and whatever the name of the band is. "We want the name to pretty much tell what the band is. Somehow this whole thing is Cleveland and Pittsburgh." Knowing his love for the Steelers, I jokingly suggest either the Pittsburgh Browns or the Cleveland Steelers. "Hey, that's not a bad idea," lris admits. "I like that."