by Philip Harris
After 30 years in the business, Donnie Iris is local royalty.
There are people who can do extraordinary things and make them look easy. These are the people we call 'naturals'
and oftentimes their gift determines their destiny. Watching Donnie Iris sing is to watch a natural in action.
Unlike some singers who huff & puff or strain until it looks like they're going to hurt themselves, Iris is relaxed and
his delivery effortless. He's not working at it or trying too hard. He's enjoying himself and enjoying people enjoying him.
Iris is just a regular guy onstage and appeals to every regular guy in the audience mouthing the words to "Ah Leah"
or playing "Love is Like a Rock" on air guitar. No rock star pretensions here. He's just Donnie.
It's the voice, though, that amazes; clear and strong with a dynamic range, a wonderful falsetto and, just in case
you weren't paying attention, his trademark scream will help punctuate any frustration or heartache with the appropriate pathos.
At 54, Donnie Iris is singing better than ever, has released a new CD with the Cruisers called
Poletown, and is the recipient of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Donnie Iris comes from a musical family and he's been singing for as long as he can remember. He made his
first record, in Beaver Falls, when he was nine years old. He recorded a church hymn direct to vinyl, accompanied my his
mother on the piano, for 25 cents. He was hooked and began his musical journey.
In the 1960s Iris joined up with a bunch of guys and formed an R&B band called the Jaggerz. Towards the end of
1969 they released an album containing a song, written by Iris, called "The
Rapper." By February of 1970 the song was
number one around the country. But the success of the song turned out to be a double-edged sword for the band. "'The Rapper'
was unlike anything else on the album and the band was pegged with a sound they didn't feel really represented what they
were all about," says Iris.
"And then after that it didn't happen. The next project we did was O.K. but it never came close to what we did the
first time. And then five years later we finally broke up because we couldn't get that thing happening again. There were a lot
of different opinions as to what type of music we should record and I think that's what eventually broke up the band. The
group could really play together and sing together. I haven't heard anything like that in any band I've been in since the Jaggerz.
But you get into musical differences and you can't cope and you've got to go your separate ways," he says.
After a stint with Wild Cherry ("Play That Funky Music White Boy") as guitarist and background vocalist, Iris met
up with his keyboardist/producer/songwriter Mark
Avsec and guitarist Marty Lee. This led to a record deal with MCA and
a collaboration that continues to this day.
"The only reason I think that I'm still doing it is because of the collaboration with Mark," Iris says. "We work
great together. We're like brothers. I think that the fact that Mark is around, that Mark still wants to keep going, keeps me
going. In fact, he's always the one pushing me to do more. I get lazy. I'd rather go out and play golf. But as long as he wants to
keep going back into the studio, I'll keep going back."
The first two albums, Back On The Streets,
("Ah Leah") and King Cool ("Love is Like a Rock") were embraced by
AOR radio formats with the aforementioned songs moving into the Top 20. But, after two more releases,
High and the Mighty and Fortune 410,
the band was dropped from Carousel/MCA. (Back On The Streets
and King Cool have both been
re-released on CD.)
After MCA, the band went through a trying period but Iris never lost his faith in music. "There were some down
times but it was all business related. We were involved in two terrible lawsuits which we eventually settled and won. But still
for that whole period of time you're doing that, the music definitely suffers," Iris says. (Ironically, it was this experience
that inspired Avsec to become an entertainment attorney. He works out of Cleveland.)
But Donnie Iris continued to perform, and regionally, his popularity grew. Seeing the band became an event.
Pittsburgh radio began to play Donnie Iris all the time. WDVE's Paulsen & Krenn even developed a Good Donnie/Bad Donnie
routine as a regular part of their morning show. Donnie Iris was John Glenn back from the moon, the returning hero, the
prodigal son. Donnie was home.
Poletown is Iris' third post-major label release (after
Out of the Blue and Footsoldier in the Moonlight),
but the method for writing and recording all the Cruisers' albums has remained the same since
Back On The Streets and reinforces his reputaion as a team player.
"We do the music tracks first, 12 or 13 tracks, how ever many we think we can get done in the period of time
that everybody's going to be in the studio, usually two weeks," Iris says. And then Mark and I will get together to figure out
what we're going to do with the vocals. Mark writes the Iyrics. He's so prolific. He'll write the song to the track. Musically
it's collaborative. I love to work that way because it's spontaneous. We have no idea what we're going to do once we get
in there. And then somebody'll come up with a riff and well just build on it. It's much more fun to write that way."
Despite the fact that Donnie Iris gets all the glory, he's the first to share it with those around him. "Donnie is
an unassuming, unpretentious kind of guy," says Avsec. "He is exactly what he seems to be. We're good friends and we
laugh a lot. We make records so we can hang out together. If anyone ever deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award, it's Donnie."
(Article from InPittsburgh Magazine commemorating Lifetime Achievement Award)