By Mary Alice Meli

While the music of the '90s is more technologically advanced than it was in the '60s when Donnie Iris, lead singer of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers, got started, the tunes and the lyrics are still drawn from the lives and experiences of the artists.

Iris said recently the most autobiographical of all his songs is "10th Street." He grew up on Crescent Avenue near Tenth Street in Ellwood City.

At SIMCORP in Beaver Falls, Donnie Iris, wearing glasses, clowns with partners Lynn Shelley, left, Priscilla Micinko, right, and representative Doug Mclltrot. The mortgage company's name was created from the initials of Shelley, Iris, and Micinko.

"I used to get out of bed in the morning and walk across the street to West End School. It was my school, and the song is about the school and the kids I grew up with and, later on, about the bars we hung out in."

In the song's opening, Iris sings about Pooch, Billy, Bobby and Ricky the Knife. Pooch is Raymond DeFonde, who lives in Portersville, Billy is William DeSanzo, who could not be located for this story, and Bobby is Robert "BoBo" Fike, who now lives out of state. Ricky the Knife is a fictional character used to fit the rhyme scheme.

DeFonde's wife, Agnes, said DeFonde had a 1947 Chevy that he bought even before he had a driver's license. Iris called it the greatest suped-up car in Ellwood. Mrs. DeFonde said the West End kids went everywhere in it, and DeFonde had it all through high school.

Rose Fike of Crescent Avenue, who lives near Iris' family home, said her son and Iris "were the greatest pals. They would dress in the sloppiest clothes. Bobo got some clothes that were too big from my nephew and gave some to Donnie, and the two of them looked like bums."

Mrs. Fike said while they "never got in any trouble, they did some naughty things they shouldn't have, like playing with garbage cans."

Iris' sister, Karen Levitt of Crescent Avenue said, in summer, sometimes as many as 20 kids could be found sleeping-out on the family's front porch. After playing until late, one favorite activity was "killing the dog." In a precursor to the sub or hoagie, Levitt said they'd buy a loaf of Italian bread, or dog, which would be cut in half and spread with everything everyone wanted and then sliced up for all.

In the backyard, Levitt said, Iris produced plays and musical performances by the Donnie Iris Dancers. For a stage curtain, "we'd have a bedspread on the line in the backyard and all the neighborhood moms would sit on chairs. And we'd sing and dance and put on plays."

A phrase later on in the song refers to Crazy Lou's, which Iris said is a reference to a former bar on Spring Avenue, Lou's Tavern, which was owned then by Lou Cavaliere and Iris' father, Sam Ierace, who still lives on Crescent Avenue.

Looking back at what he and the West End boys used to get in to, he said, "We weren't bad. We were..." He hesitated, searching for the right word.. "... mischievous. We did crazy stuff." He did admit that, like the fictitious Ricky, a true West End boy always carried a pocket knife.

There is music on both sides of Iris' family. His mother and his aunts all sang and played piano. His mother, Carrie, now of Ellport, sang with the orchestra of Curly Venezie, now deceased, who was related to his father.

Iris' musical training began at an early age when his mother taught him to sing and, at ages five and six, encouraged him to perform at wedding receptions at the Moose Club.

He said he remembers singing "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and '50s tunes like "Cry," by Johnny Ray. He grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and everyone from Buddy Holly to Elvis Presley, Smokey Robinson, Sam Cook, Jackie Wilson and his favorite, Marvin Gaye. He was also influenced by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Today, he said he enjoys Michael Bolton, "although he's overexposed on the radio now" and Barbra Streisand whose voice "puts chicken skin on you." But "mostly I love to listen to great guitar players like Stevie Ray Vaughn."

A new generation of Donnie Iris fans are bing grown in Ellwood now, thanks to Iris' cousin Rick Venezie, Curly's grandson.

Venezie coaches the Ellwood City Area High School wresting team.

Two seasons ago, Venezie said the team was dragging with only four wins and eight losses. They had no spirit and he looked around for a way to pump them up. There were six matches left in the season.

Loan officer Iris gives his trademark eyeglasses a rest as he digs out information for a client.

He brought the Donnie Iris cassette he always plays in his truck to practice one day. The kids liked it. They liked working out to it.

He played it on the bus during trips to matches. The wrestlers asked to borrow the tape to dub it since the early albums are no longer available. They began bringing in their tape players and headsets to listen to it privately during workouts.

The team won five of those final six matches, finishing the season 9-9.

This season, Venezie started the practices with Iris' music and they finished 8-10. Although the freshmen always ask, "Donnie Iris, who's that?" Venezie said it's not long before they, too, are asking, "Hey, Coach, you bring your Donnie Iris?"

Venezie said he had to make three trips to Southern Park Mall in Boardman, Ohio, before he was able to buy Iris' new compact disc, "Out of the Blue," by Seathru Records. It was sold out the other times he tried to get it.

Iris said he leased "Ah! Leah!," "Love is Like a Rock" and "That's the Way (Love Ought To Be)" for the CD from the MCA recording company that owns the master recordings. The group wanted MCA to do a "best-of" release of songs from all the early albums that now are out of print. However, Iris said, MCA didn't seem to think there was enough of a market for the project and turned them down.

But MCA doesn't know about Venezie and his Donnie Iris wrestling strategy.