Donnie Iris at HOF Burnoff: Putting the beauty with the beast - July 30, 2004
By Dan Kane

Should you ever find yourself in Aliquippa, Pa., and in need of a mortgage broker, be sure and call Simcorp.

It was there that I found rock ’n’ roller Donnie Iris, who has been a partner in the business since 1989.

Happily, Iris — who scored early-’80s hits with “Ah! Leah!” and “Love is Like a Rock” — hasn’t completely traded music for refinancing homes.

Iris and his band The Cruisers, a longtime Northeast Ohio favorite, still play upward of 20 concerts annually. They will perform Aug. 7 at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Festival Ribs Burnoff.

Born Dominic Ierace in Beaver Falls, Pa., Iris has an interesting story. He first played in a Pittsburgh-area band called The Jaggerz that scored a major hit with “The Rapper” in 1970. He later joined the band Wild Cherry, best known for its disco smash “Play That Funky Music.”

It was in Wild Cherry that Iris met keyboardist-composer Mark Avsec. Together they crafted an Iris solo album, “Back On the Street,” that was released on a small label in late 1980 then picked up by MCA and released nationally. Its single “Ah! Leah!” rose to No. 29 in Billboard and was a rock-radio staple.

The followup album, 1981’s “King Cool,” spawned two more top-40 singles, “Love is Like a Rock” and “My Girl.” In the years since, there have been seven more Iris studio CDs, a live album and a best-of collection.

Iris and the Cruisers, which includes original members Avsec and guitarist Marty Lee Hoenes, are in the midst of recording an album, and completing a band documentary that will be released on DVD. On Aug. 20 at Pittsburgh’s Chevy Amphitheatre, the band will celebrate its 25th year of existence.

I’ve been listening to your best-of CD a bunch lately, and those songs really hold up. “Ah! Leah” and “That’s the Way Love Ought to Be” have those hard-rock guitars and those perfect pop choruses.

Donnie Iris: We try to put the beauty with the beast. That’s what we’ve always called most of our music. We love the way rock music pounds and kicks, but we also love melodies and harmonies. We try to mix it all together.

Your guitarist, Marty, told me you can still hit all the high notes perfectly. I love when you start screaming at the end of the songs.

(Chuckles) Those are called “the screams at the end.” We put them on when they’re called for. I had a lot of problems a couple of years ago. I was smoking cigarettes like crazy, and it was starting to have an effect on my lungs and my breathing. So two and a half years ago, I quit cigarettes and it has made all the difference. I put the patch on, and from there I just healed.

Your band seemed poised to be really big in the ’80s after “Ah! Leah” and “Love is Like a Rock.” What happened?

I think what happened was we were put under a lot of pressure to do more records under certain time constraints from the record company, and it affected the way we wrote and the way we performed. But you know, it doesn’t matter as far as we’re concerned. We will keep playing as long as people keep coming.

You did have a handful of hits, more than most bands. Plus “The Rapper,” which was a huge hit in 1970.

It went to No. 2 in Billboard, which surprised everybody in the band and all the record people. We took that tune around to a bunch of different record companies who passed on it, and finally Kama Sutra put it out.

When you were growing up, who influenced you musically?

My mother did. She played piano, and she actually sang with my uncle’s band back in the ’40s. She kind of taught me how to sing. I’ve been singing since I was 5 or 6. As soon as I could carry a tune, I started.

What pop music did listen to as a kid?

Before the Beatles, I loved Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and all the Motown people. Then the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks. When I first started to play professionally with The Jaggerz, those were my biggest influences.

There’s a lot of girls’ names in your songs — Leah, Agnes, Merilee. Are these ex-girlfriends?

No. Leah was a name I always liked. When I was in The Jaggerz there was a girl dating the drummer named Leah. Agnes was picked because it rhymes well with everything else. It just fit.

What kind of audiences are you seeing at your concerts these days?

It’s an amazing blend of people and age groups. There’s the underground followers of us for years, and they’re bringing their kids. I like the fact that those kids are being turned on to good stuff that was done in the ’80s. They give us the inspiration to write new stuff that relates to them as well.