Donnie Iris was always an unlikely rock star, so maybe it's not so unlikely that his career and music have outlasted those of many of his more "likely" contemporaries. Coming out of the Pittsburgh area in the early '80s, he made his mark nationally with the 1981 hit "Ah! Leah!" Several of his other records of cheerfully sturdy mainstream rock charted in the Top 40 in the early '80s, before his career settled back to a level of regional success analogous to that of Cleveland's Michael Stanley Band.
Actually, "Ah! Leah!" was Iris' second coming. He had already had his biggest hit in 1970, when his band, the Jaggerz, went to No. 2 on the national charts with a goofy novelty type song called "The Rapper." So when the gangly, bespectacled Iris hooked up with Cleveland songwriter/keyboardist/producer Mark Avsec to launch his second career with Back to the Streets, the 1980 album on MCA that contained "Ah! Leah!," he was already making a comeback.
But this time, there was nothing novel or ephemeral about records that Iris was making. The glossy, multi-layered singles for which he became known plugged into the '80s' Top 40-rock mainstream without drowning in it. Like Stanley (or Bob Seger or John Mellencamp), he put out a series of songs that reflected an average "Joe six-pack" point of view without getting into heavy commentary about the lifestyle, unlike, say Bruce Springsteen or his many followers of the time, including fellow Pittsburgher Joe Grushecky. Iris made mostly weekend music with songs like "Love Is Like a Rock," "Agnes" and "Injured in the Game of Love," with its line "I like girls and rock and roll." Every guy in a baseball cap knew what he was talking about.
On stage, Iris looked and acted like one of the crowd, at a time when that was the last thing most rock performers wanted to be. He didn't exude the sort of manor-born rock star quality that was a hallmark of the '80s. when so many bands and artists had to have a strong, often bizarre, stage "look." The coming of MTV in 1981 exacerbated both the excess and the quick cycling of "look" trends. In the midst of this, Iris, not an especially MTV-ready artist, held firm for jeans and muscle tees and a short, nondescript haircut. He was his audience in more ways than one, at a time when the biggest star was Michael Jackson, an artist as different from "normal" as anyone could be.
The parallels between Iris' and Michael Stanley's careers have often been noted and are surprisingly apt. Despite not having any chart success since the '80s, Iris has continued to perform and release records regularly, although not on major labels anymore. He had several releases in the early '90s on Seathru Records, sponsored by his Cleveland-based management, Belkin Productions. Recently, the band self-released a new disc titled Donnie Iris and the Cruisers Live! At Nick's Fat City, which they are selling mainly at shows. Recorded late last year at a bar in Pittsburgh where Iris and his band perform periodically to sold-out crowds, it includes performances of most of their best-known repertoire, along with a frenetic version of "The Rapper" and a rocking cover of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher." Their most popular early '80s MCA releases were re-released on Razor & Tie, the same New York-based label that put out the CD versions of the early Michael Stanley Band catalogue. Avsec says the band has licensed their old songs from MCA and will start putting together a compilation album shortly.
Iris' partnership with Mark Avsec continues to this day as well. The multi-talented musician continues to co-write and produce almost everything Iris does. Like Iris, who has a "regular" job in real-estate loans, Avsec acquired another career along the way, but it's one that his dedication to music steered him into. At one point, he decided the best way to protect his own copyrights was to go to law school. He's now an attorney with the downtown law firm of Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff. Guitarist Marty Lee has also been a part of the Cruisers since the early days, while Paul Goll now plays bass and Clevelander Tommy Rich has replaced another Clevelander, Kevin Valentine, on drums.
Prior to the live album, Iris' last disc was Poletown, on which he made a small stab at going the Springsteen route (or probably, more accurately, the Joe Grushecky route) and writing an album that approached social commentary about the disruption of the lives of working class people. The title track dealt with a neighborhood in Detroit that was destroyed to make room for General Motors. Although such songs sound passionate and sincere (and the title track "Poletown" is on the live disc), it's not what Iris' fans go to him for. They want to drink a couple of Friday night beers and forget that anything matters more than girls and rock and roll.