Play That Funky Music, Lawyer Boy
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Bill Lubinger

YOUNGSTOWN What'll it be? "Love Is Like a Rock" or "Ah, Leah"?

"Wanna try something?" the curly-haired man in glasses and a black blazer, directed his bandmates from behind a stack of keyboards.

With that, Donnie Iris and the Cruisers rocked through a version of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" in a sound check hours before a St. Patrick's Day concert at the House of Blues.

Mark Avsec, hunched over his Hammond organ, left leg pumping time, peered over his right shoulder at Iris, his longtime friend and collaborator, and smiled.

That night, Avsec's place was stage left. By day, his office is across the street, on the 21st floor of 200 Public Square.

There, he's also surrounded by music: gold and platinum albums from his disco days with Wild Cherry and "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)." Framed covers of "Cashbox" magazine -- one from 1976, a fresh-faced Avsec in a white leather jacket with Wild Cherry outside New York's Madison Square Garden; the other, in 1981, of Iris in a white suit and black bow tie with a smoke in his hand outside a garage in the Flats; a framed snapshot of Avsec with Ringo Starr at Blossom Music Center.

"This is my job -- I live and breathe Benesch now," Avsec, 52, of Broadview Heights, said recently. "But [music] is sort of my golf."

"Benesch" is Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff, where Avsec recently made partner for his progressive work as an intellectual property lawyer, specializing in entertainment and Internet cases. "IP" is a fancy term for copyright and trademark protection.

From kiddie music to real rock

Music is the thread of his life. Avsec grew up in Cleveland's Slovenian neighborhood at East 61st Street and St. Clair Avenue. His late father was a postman, his mother worked part-time at the Richman Brothers Co. plant on East 55th Street.

As a toddler, Avsec, the oldest of three, would wake from naps to the "Mickey Mouse Club," pretending to play sax or accordion as he marched with the Disney characters on TV. At age 5, his grandfather bought him a secondhand accordion for Christmas and he started lessons. By 9, nine, he was winning state competitions.

But as 9 nine became 13, his attention shifted to the Beatles and rock. The accordion was bumped by a keyboard. His bands rehearsed in the family room.

"Everything was all set up, all these cords all over the floor, all these instruments," his mother, Daniella Avsec, said. "You had to walk sideways through the room."

His brother Ken, a project director for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said a lot of kids who became big names in the Cleveland music scene hung out there, from Michael Stanley to Neil Giraldo (of Pat Benatar fame).

Avsec hooked up with a group that became popular locally, called Breathless. As his name became familiar within Cleveland music circles, Avsec skipped college after graduating from St. Ignatius High School. He wanted to write songs and work as a studio musician. He feared that if he didn't chase a recording career then, he never would.

His big break came in 1975, when a bar band from Steubenville named Wild Cherry was in town making a record. Lead singer Bobby Parissi wanted to add keyboard to one the song. Cleveland record producer Carl Maduri suggested Avsec.

The song, "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)," became a defining hit of the '70s. Avsec joined and toured with the band. His parents were in Public Square the day Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk awarded Wild Cherry keys to the city.

Late in Wild Cherry's run, the band added singer/guitarist Donnie Iris. Avsec and Iris developed an instant chemistry. (At 15, his girlfriend's favorite song was "The Rapper," a pop tune by the Jaggerz, sung by Iris.) When the band split up, Avsec and Iris recorded demos in a studio Avsec built in his basement and approached Maduri about getting their songs recorded.

"It was good stuff," said Maduri, now semiretired in Palm Beach, Fla.

Musicians were recruited, and Donnie Iris and the Cruisers were born.

Inspiring music and a 2nd career

Avsec, who in several interviews referred to his perfect pitch, has written more than 300 songs and has produced more than 25 recordings, including "She Don't Know Me" for Bon Jovi. He's recorded and arranged tracks with such artists as Mason Ruffner and Dave Edmonds and shared the bill with Santana, Dr. John and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Avsec is an American Music Award winner and has been nominated for two Grammys.

But the Avsec-Iris collaboration -- Avsec, the classically trained, amped perfectionist and Iris, the laid-back, fun-loving rocker -- produced such catchy '80s hits as "Love Is Like a Rock" and "Sweet Merilee."

"I always thought he brought the best out of me when we were producing," Iris said recently by phone from his home in western Pennsylvania. "He just has a way of firing me up."

Inspiration flows the other way, too. In late 1979, Avsec had a long symphonic piece in mind for a string octet. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan moved him to write the lyrics "here we go again," decrying another war, with a haunting background chant. The song was reworked as a rocker, but the war lyrics didn't work, so Iris suggested writing about a girl named Leah.

Over the years, they've met at least a dozen women named after "Ah! Leah!" or who had named their daughters after the song, including a Benesch executive.

Besides national airplay and commercial success, "Ah! Leah!" attracted a lawsuit. Avsec and Iris were accused of stealing the song.

"That was a bad time in Mark and Donnie's life," said Mike Belkin, the band's manager and friend for more than 30 years. "Mark wasn't his normal self. He was fighting an uphill battle that he shouldn't have been fighting."

They won, but it cost them more than $100,000 in legal fees. Belkin loaned them money to fight the case. Avsec has said it felt like he was raped.

He was furious and felt vulnerable -- that he could do nothing wrong and still have to pay so much money. Avsec needed to protect himself.

"I was ready for something more fair," he said. "There's so much luck involved in making a living at music. I got tired of that."

So he enrolled in college at 32, earned a philosophy degree from Cleveland State University in 1992 and a degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law 2 years later.

Avsec has been with Benesch ever since, earning a client's praise for his rational approach, patience and ability to explain difficult concepts.

"I think it has a lot to do with him being a teacher as well," said Mike Shea, president and chief executive of Alternative Press. Avsec, who demonstrates on a keyboard while teaching music industry law at the Case Western Reserve University Law School, represents the Cleveland-based publication as it expands into DVDs, licensing and recording.

Steve Auvil, who heads the law firm's intellectual property practice, was an Avsec fan long before he Avsec joined the company. He still recalls Donnie Iris and the Cruisers opening for the Michael Stanley Band at the old Richfield Coliseum when he was 19 or 20.

"The thing about Mark," Auvil said, "he's really a modest guy. You would never know [about his rock star background] because he wouldn't talk about it."

And doesn't live like it. Avsec's typical day is up at 4 a.m., often working with overseas clients for a few hours before grabbing a workout and then off to his downtown office, where his wife, Susan, is a business development manager.

He has two teenage stepsons, and two grown daughters from a previous marriage. His 23-year-old daughter, Danna, is a professional drummer who joined Donnie Iris and the Cruisers for part of last Saturday's show.

"Mark was -- and still is -- the brains of the band," Iris said. "He's the spark. I always called him 'Mark the Spark' because it's usually him who gets the band together to record."

And, it's usually Avsec pushing to perform, which Donnie Iris and the Cruisers does eight to 12 times a year.

"I'm probably more happier now than I've ever been," he said backstage at the House of Blues after their sound check. "It's a release for me now."

Still moving with the tune

As their two-hour concert wound down, Iris slipped into a slow, nightclubby intro to the tune everyone came to hear:

"Yeah, it's been a long, long time. Such a sight, you're lookin' better than a body has a right to. Don't you know we're playin' with the fire? But we can stop this burnin' desire." As the band picked up the tempo, the room bounced in time. "Ahh . . . Lee . . . ahh . . . here we go again," the members sang in fluid harmony.

Avsec, awash in purple spotlight, leaned back, eyes closed, lost in his music.