Like A Rock
Grandfather. Mortgage broker. Pop Star? Somehow Donnie Iris makes it all click.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 5, 1998
By John Hayes

Despite the city's recent musical successes, there's never been a style industry insiders could loosely define as the "Pittsburgh sound." Local pop music has always been eclectic and without a cohesive direction - a lingering cultural melting pot that survived the steel mills to forge one of the most colloquial original music scenes in the country.

Somtimes it's hard to tell where colloquialism ends and quirkiness begins. In one of the few American cities where local modern rock bands can draw 20,000 young fans, one of the most popular club attractions is an unsigned, 55-year-old mortgage broker who kneels at the edge of the stage in nerdy glasses and wails love songs written during the Carter administration.

Quirkier still, it isn't even nostalgia. Twenty-eight years after skimming the top of a supplemental pop chart, Donnie Iris remains one of the regions's highest-paid local acts. Although his part-time music career is limited to a recurring set list performed fewer than 20 times a year in Southwestern Pennsylvania, most of the shows sell out to an unlikely crowd of free-spending beer drinkers whose ages stretch from 21 to 50-plus. Almost 15 years after losing his last major-label contract, Iris is still considered a core artist at the region's top music radio station, and this weekend he and his band The Cruisers headline a concert at Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre.

Iris is one of those quirky 'Burgh things the region prides itself on - no less important to the local self-image than Heinz ketchup, "yinz guys" or the heroic efforts of countless kitchen chairs safeguarding the city's parking spaces.

Young Dominic Ierace of Ellwood City won a refrigerator in a radio station singing contest when he was 9. By the time he was 11, according to a remarkably candid 1980 band bio, the boy had been dragged through two broken marriages and a parent's alcoholism and suffered a nervous breakdown. He survived by fronting a local cover band and moved to Beaver Falls a year before self-releasing an album that no label wanted. "Introducing the Jaggerz" didn't sell many copies, but playing out was fun so the band released another. "We Went to Different Schools Together" didn't sell either until Buddah' Records' Neil Bogart signed the band to get access to a song he was sure he could sell, "The Rapper." For a brief, shining moment in 1970, The Jaggerz had the No. 1 song in the Record World magazine pop chart.

"They were fun times," says Iris in the office of Simcorp Mortgage Corporation in Aliquippa. "I was - what? - 24, 25 and the whole music business was just exploding and we were out on the road right in the middle of it. We opened for a lot of bands so we got to meet a lot of people. It was very fun."

The fun only lasted for a few more years. The Jaggerz' 1975 album, "Come Again," fizzled and died and the band lost its contract. Iris did a short stint with B.E. Taylor and signed on briefly with Wild Cherry two albums after "Play That Funky Music."

Within a couple of years, Iris and Wild Cherry keyboardist Mark Avsec left the band to start a new project that included guitarist Marty Lee and sax player Kenny Blake. Again, the major labels weren't interested. Donnie Iris & the Cruisers turned to Midwest National, a small Cleveland indie run by a regional promoter. Midwest got behind the band's debut, "Back on the Streets," and started pushing.

One of the first radio stations to embrace the new band was WDVE, which picked up a pair of songs Iris had written about his first two marriages. Within weeks other album-oriented rock stations were playing "Agnes" and "Ah! Leah!", and Midwest was wheeling and dealing with MCA Records. MCA re-released the album with sides 1 and 2 reversed to put "Ah! Leah!" right up front.

"Donnie was a good singer, but 'Leah' was a good song. That's why everything started happening for us," says Avsec by phone from his Cleveland office. "It always comes down to a good song. Once MCA got it, we were more than just a regional thing and everyone was playing it."

"It's hard to say why the band clicked," says Iris. "The song we wrote attracted attention for some reason. You could say it was a lot of things, but it was probably mostly luck. It's hard to put your finger on it."

With his geeky Buddy Holly frames and dust mop hair, Iris seemed the antithesis of the glittery disco stars and corporate rock lords who dominated the charts in 1980. He was Everyman, singing stories about betrayed relationships and driving the point home at the hooks with a piercing falsetto. Radio loved it.

In 1981 they released "King Cool" with its single "Love Is Like a Rock," and three more albums over the next three years. Donnie Iris & the Cruisers weren't superstars; they toured the nation's concert halls opening for bigger bands like Nazareth and Hall & Oates.

"I still have a lot of memories of how great those times were," says Iris. "We had a lot of fun, a lot of cameraderie. At the same time, it was a pain in the ass, too. On and off the tour bus. In one place and out another. We made good money, but for the most part, other than Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Youngstown, we didn't headline those shows."

The Cruisers weren't a part of the gaudy metal scene, the British punk explosion or the emerging New Music market. Despite their indie start, they were one of dozens of bands playing mainstream corporate rock for AOR audiences.

"When we opened for people like Nazareth, they just booed us off the stage until they heard 'Leah,' which was always the last song of the show," says Iris. "Once that happened they were fine, but by then it was too late."

By 1984 it was too late for Donnie Iris & the Cruisers. MCA dropped the band from its roster and prompty sued them for a breach of contract claim which a California judge described as frivolous. Iris and Avsec eventually won their case in 1986, but it cost them $100,000 to do it.

They played briefly together on a second offering from a Cleveland band called Cellarful of Noise, but money was tight and the music industry had long since gone off in other directions. His costly run-in with American jurisprudence had inspired Avsec to go to law school, he says, "mostly to protect myself and so that in any future projects, I have the football."

Iris was invited to an Aliquippa mortage firm, he thought, to sing a few radio jingles. Instead, he and former Steelers and Browns star Greg Best were offered jobs in a complicated business they knew absolutely nothing about.

"They were looking for loan officers and they thought our name recognition would help," says Iris. "They had the insight to know that it would work."

In a short time, Iris took his new business acumen and co-founded Simcorp. On the walls of his office hang memories from his previous career: his photo on the cover of Cashbox magazine and a copy of the chart listing "The Rapper" in the top slot. In 1992, Iris and Avsec collected some of their greatest hits and favorite cuts on "Out of the Blue." "Footsoldier in the Moonlight," a 1993 self-release, was the first album of new material they had recorded in years.

"I think the reason we're still working together is that we really like each other and every once in a while it's great to get together again and write songs," says Avsec.

Last years "Poletown" didn't get much of a spin from radio, even from the band's stalwart supporter WDVE. In November, with a little help from producer Rick Witkowski, the Cruisers recorded two live shows on the South Side club stage. "Live! At Nick's Fat City" documents the band's concert ritual with lots of crowd participation and a predictable set list that includes all the old favorites and a few new tunes, including the cover of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" that has become a Cruisers staple.

"The shows have become a ritualistic experience, like 'Rocky Horror', says Avsec. "They get mad if we change the set list. They have songs that they participate in. 'Love Is Like a Rock' is like a whole Greek festival - they have their parts and we have our parts."

"Live! At Nick's Fat City" was released on Avsec's Primary Records and is available only at shows or via the Internet (

Now a middle-aged grandfather, Iris says he's' still hopeful that someone somewhere might hear his new stuff and make it available nationally. Avsec is more realistic. "We've all changed now," he says. "Donnie is a business man and I became a lawyer. The music industry has changed... I have no illusions about getting back into the business at that level. There's nothing sadder than trying to relive glory days. We don't do that, we just go on."