By Jim Youll

Donnie Iris, the energetic singer, guitarist and leader of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers, credits a nontraditional upbringing for starting him on his long and generally successful career.

"My mother was a semi-professional musician in a local 'big band' in the 40s; my dad - he was always in the background saying 'go practice'. Between him and my mother - they did give me a lot of support. They've always pushed me toward music," Iris said.

Mr. and Mrs. Sam Ierace of Ellwood City, Pa., didn't listen to Dr. Spock when it came to raising their son. The boy's father, claiming that "We just wanted him to be successful at whatever he would do," encouraged Donnie to be an entertainer "from the time he was two years old. Everybody wants their kid to be a lawyer or doctor or something but we never forced it on him.

"He showed the signs at a very, very early age and they never diminished," the proud father says today. "He went through the whole bit at weddings and the local clubs. His mother went with him and played piano when he performed."

When five-year-old Donnie won first prize on Paul Whiteman's radio talent show in 1951, the youth's parents saw that their intuition was right and took home a new refrigerator to boot. "I still have that refrigerator in my garage," a better-known Donnie Iris admitted thirty-two years later.

"He sort of walked into this singing business," Sam Iris said from his Beaver Falls, Pa., home. "It's all he ever wanted to do, though the encouragement was there from the beginning."

Iris's father, though not a musician himself, was no stranger to the entertainment field. For a long time he owned half-partnership in "Lou's Tavern," a local bar and nightclub. "It was strictly an entertainment place - not a mill tavern. Donnie worked for me in my joint back then," he said.

When Donnie entered Slippery Rock State College, he formed his first band, Donnie and the Donnells. He eventually merged that band with another college group to form The Jaggerz.

"The Rapper," written by Donnie and recorded in the late '60's, soared to No. 1. and eventually turned gold, giving The Jaggerz a taste of success, and Donnie second thoughts about the need for "higher education".

"We put him in college," Sam said. "After two or three years he realized that wasn't what he wanted to do. He told me he wanted to drop out so I said "Well, look - I'll back you with whatever you do, and that was that."

Then the Jaggerz broke up; Iris went to work as a studio musician at Jeree Studios during what his father termed "a dry spell."

While working at Jeree, Iris was asked to join Wild Cherry ("Play That Funky Music, White Boy"), where he met current Cruiser keyboardist Mark Avsec. The group disbanded a year after Iris joined, and the "King of Cool" embarked upon his prestigious solo career.

Though current members of the Cruisers performed on the Iris debut LP "Back on the Streets, (MCA)" released in 1980, they were not identified as steadies for the solo Iris. But all the musicians in today's Cruisers - bassman Albritton McClain, guitarist Marty Lee, drummer Kevin Valentine, and Avsec - are those original members.

The Cruisers' music has matured in unison with their leader's popularity. Their latest effort, "Fortune 410," reveals a fresh sound that "The High and the Mighty," their previous LP, only suggested.

And Sam Iris has been there all along, watching as a dream passed from one generation to the next became a reality. "Any time we're doing a gig within 100 miles (of Ellwood City), he's there," Donnie said. Indeed the elder Iris was in the crowd for the Cruisers' May concert at the State Theater; at Donnie's June show at the Blossom Music Center, he stayed on his feet most of the night entertaining a large group of friends.

"I always sort of bowed to anybody that had the talent to go ahead and become a vocalist and be good at it," Sam admits, adding softly, "I'm happy its turning out all right."