When Donnie Met Leah
Ellwood City rocker celebrates the Cruisers' 25th anniversary
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - August 20, 2004
By Ed Masley

A youthful 61, Donnie Iris is throwing a party tonight at the Chevrolet Amphitheatre to celebrate 25 years at the helm of the Cruisers, the local group with whom he took three singles -- starting with his greatest hit, "Ah! Leah!" -- to the national Top 40 in the early '80s.

"I wanted to name the band the Turnpike Cruisers because we were going back and forth between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, but we decided to shorten it. It would have been better as the Turnpike Cruisers. I believe that to this day." -- Donnie Iris

Donnie Iris in Concert

Where: Chevrolet Amphitheatre, South Side.
When: 7:30 tonight
Tickets: $19.79; 412-323-1919.

But by that point, Iris was no stranger to the life of a Top 40 artist. He'd toured as Wild Cherry's guitarist in the aftermath of "Play That Funky Music," a chart-topping single from '76. And before that, he'd written "The Rapper," a song his group, The Jaggerz, took to either No. 1 or No. 2, depending on your source, in early 1970.

Born Dominic Ierace in a town that's soon to be an Iris album title, Ellwood City, the local music legend was all of 4 or 5 when his piano-playing mother taught him how to sing. By the time he was 7 or 8, he'd made his first appearance on the radio in Beaver Falls.

"It was called 'The Chuck Wilson Show,' " Iris says. "Or maybe 'The Chuck Wilson Amateur Hour.' I don't remember for sure. They did it at the high school auditorium or something. But I used to sing on that every Saturday for I don't know how long. I also did 'The Paul Whiteman Show' in Philadelphia. I think I was 9 years old or something like that. But that was my early start. She played piano and I sang."

He never learned to play piano, but his father bought him a guitar around the time he hit the 10th grade.

"My uncle played guitar, and I wanted to kind of emulate my uncle," Iris says while smoking a cigar along the river at his favorite local haunt, a place called Kelly's in Bridgewater, Beaver County. "I learned how to play a little bit, but then I put it away 'cause it was just too hard to play. I mean, my fingers would bleed."

He laughs, then says, "So I put it away for I don't know how many years, until I got to college," by which point he had discovered rock 'n' roll.

"Probably my second year at Slippery Rock [University], or maybe the second semester of my first year there, I started picking the guitar up again and practicing," he says. "That's when I started going at it hard. So I picked up a couple of guys in college, started out calling the band the Tri-Vels, did maybe a couple of months like that, two guitars and drums. And finally we got this other guy that came to Slippery Rock who knew how to play bass. So we hired him and ended up as Donnie and the Donnells."

With the Donnells, Iris hit the local frat scene, playing the hits of the day as well as guys just learning how to play could play them. But it wasn't long before the Donnells' leader got the call up from a group called Gary and the Jeweltones, who, as Iris notes, "played up at Geneva on the Lake" all summer long.

"Their singer was leaving the band," he says. "And he was Gary, so Gary was gone, and at that time the group became the Jaggers. That probably would have been '64, something like that, because I remember it was right around the time the Beatles hit the States."

Although it would be easy to mistake it for a tribute to the singer of another early British band, in truth, the name refers to jagger bushes in the woods. And it ended in the letter "s" until they saw a picture in Life magazine in 1969 with a drum head bearing the band name The Jaggers.

Richard Kelly
Donnie and the Cruisers in a vintage photo
Iris says that shortly after he joined, "We went on the road to Milwaukee and Green Bay and Grand Rapids, six nights a week, four sets a night, at clubs, small clubs. And that's how we got started. I had left college. I got into music so heavy that I quit college."

At the time, the Jaggerz were a cover band.

"I can remember doing Motown tunes and some British Invasion stuff -- the Kinks and the Beatles, tunes like that," says Iris. "I guess we honed some skills for probably four or five years until we decided we were gonna start writing some songs. And luckily enough, we put maybe six or seven tunes together, and one of them was 'The Rapper.'"

By the time he wrote "The Rapper," the group was being managed by Joe Rock, who'd launched the Skyliners onto the national scene.

"We went to New York and took our tapes to all these record companies," says Iris. "Joe knew a lot of record people, but we still got turned down by a bunch of people until finally Neil Bogart of Buddah decided to give us a shot [on Kama Sutra]. He put the record out, and he just brought it home. A home run. That happened in '70."

A playful put-down of a singles-bar Lothario, "The Rapper" proved to be the Jaggerz only major hit.

Cherry pickin'
"It was probably '74, '75 that the group broke up," says Iris. "Jimmy Ross was called up to the Skyliners to sing, and the rest of us just took off in different directions. I went out with B.E. Taylor for a while, did a duo with him playing colleges, clubs. ... And at that time, too, I was working at Jerree's studio doing some engineering for different people who were going in and making tapes. That's where I met Wild Cherry -- Bobby Parissi and Mark Avsec."

The band had come to New Brighton to work on demos for a follow-up to "Play That Funky Music," and with one of their guitarists on his way out, it wasn't long before Iris was back on the road with a new gig.

As Avsec recalls, at the time, "I had this girlfriend. I was crazy about her. She was crazy about 'The Rapper.' And when I met him in the band, I really liked the person first and foremost. I found him a very likable person. We actually roomed together."

It was on the road together with Wild Cherry that Iris and Avsec decided to try their own thing, more a rock 'n' roll thing than Wild Cherry's funky-white-boy music.

"I was looking for the opportunity to really sort of architect a project," Avsec says. "And as I got closer to Donnie, even though he didn't do a lot of the lead singing in that band, from what I heard him do, I knew the guy could sing."

It wasn't long before they'd found their secret formula -- stacked vocals.

As Iris recalls, "While we were in the studio, we discovered that if we layered my background vocals, it created a sound. I don't know how many times we layered the vocals on 'Ah! Leah!' but it was maybe 60 times per note. It was nuts. We were in the studio for hours -- for days -- just doing the background vocals, but a sound took place. And the reason we had stacked the vocals that way is because when we started recording, we weren't pleased with the way they sounded until we stacked them up."

That sound was perfect for the New Wave '80s, taking a cue, as it did, from Roy Thomas Baker's production on those early records for the Cars but with a more insistent bass line and an arty vocal breakdown that was damn near Bowie-esque.

"I remember the Pretenders had just come out," says Avsec, "and I'm sure it didn't come off like that, but we wanted to do this record that was very urgent-sounding with passionate playing, good musicians playing with reckless abandon almost, then over top of it put all these weird melodies and lots of harmonies."

Released on Cleveland's Midwest Records, run by the Belkin-Maduri organization, whose Mike Belkin had signed on as Iris' manager, the single, a true '80s classic, quickly started making waves on radio.

As Iris recalls, "I remember getting together with Steve Hansen and Jimmy Roach at the Granati Brothers' house. And they loved it and put it on the radio. So they were very supportive right off the bat. I think it [WDVE-FM] was the first radio station in the country to actually play the record."

With Chris Maduri using his connections to push the record, it quickly moved from local airplay to regional airplay to national airplay. After grabbing the attention of several major labels, Iris signed to MCA, and soon, "Back on the Streets," the album he and Avsec had recorded with a handpicked group of talented musicians from the region at Jerree's, was back on the streets on MCA, and "Ah! Leah!" was No. 29 on the national charts.

Turnpike Cruisers?
As luck would have it, the duo was able to get the same musicians they'd called into Jerree's to tour in support of the album. And that's how the Cruisers were born, with Iris on guitar and vocals, Avsec on keyboards, Marty Lee (Hoenes) on lead guitar, Albritton McClain on bass and Kevin Valentine on drums.

"I wanted to name the band the Turnpike Cruisers," Iris says, "because we were going back and forth between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, but we decided to shorten it. It would have been better as the Turnpike Cruisers. I believe that to this day."

Fortunately, everybody in that early Cruisers lineup sang, the only hope of capturing the magic of "Ah! Leah!" in live performance.

"All they did was learn the parts, and we went out and did it that way," Iris says. "And then, we did some vocal effects electronically to get 'em as close as we could. Recently, though, over the last four or five years maybe, with all the technology, we've been using vocal samples for the songs like 'Leah,' some of the tunes that need it."

A second album, "King Cool," yielded two more hits, the No. 37 "Love Is Like a Rock" and "My Girl" (not to be confused with the Temptations hit), which peaked at No. 25 in 1982.

"Of all the songs we had on those two albums, 'My Girl' was the highest charting," Iris says. "I think the reason was it had gotten a big push from one of the MCA executives who really loved the song."

"My Girl" was the airplay hit, but the people's hit -- and the one you're more likely to stumble across while flipping through the dials today -- was "Love Is Like a Rock."

"It didn't chart as well," says Iris, "but it sold more records."

His third and fourth releases for the label, "The High and the Mighty" and "Fortune 410" (its title a reference to Iris' trademark Buddy Holly glasses) didn't get much airplay. "Tough World," from the third one, peaked at No. 57 while "Do You Compute?," from the fourth, peaked at No. 64 in 1983.

Looking back two decades later, Iris says there may have been good reason for those records not getting the kind of support he'd gotten on the first two.

"We even felt at the time that those albums probably weren't as good as the first two," Iris says. "At least the vibe that we were getting in the studio wasn't as good. I mean, it was still good, but it didn't quite match up to what we had on the first two records. So the airplay dwindled."

As to why those records weren't as good, he says, "I think when you're first getting together and putting this stuff out, there's no pressure to be putting more records out. We just went in and had fun making records. Every time another album came out, there were always deadlines. We had to get a certain amount of stuff out at a certain time so they could get the record out by a certain time. It affects things."

Other reasons ranged from the actual tape they'd used to cut the third release (it partially disintegrated) to disenchantment with the label's not pushing "Love Is Like a Rock" enough.

"Sometimes it's hard to keep sucking it up," says Avsec. "And I guess it just felt tired. We were getting formulaic."

It only made things worse that Iris and Avsec were hit with a lawsuit surrounding "Ah! Leah!" that dragged on for several years.

"Some guy from Detroit had sent a bunch of tapes out to different record companies all over the place," says Iris. "And he had one of the lines in the background vocals that said, 'Here I go again.' And in 'Leah,' the background vocal is 'Here we go again.' And he thought we had somehow heard his record and stolen his tune. He felt that we had to hear that song to write our song."

The case was eventually thrown out as frivolous, Iris says.

"But it cost us time and energy. From the time that 'Leah!' was out through the following two albums, this thing hung over our heads. For two, three years. Before it ever got to court, Mark and I went up there to defend ourselves. It was a dark cloud over our heads for a couple of years, and we had to think about it, had to think about what we were up against. Finally, when it was over it was over, but a lot of time had been lost."

And even after getting through the lawsuit, Avsec can look back today and say, "I don't know if the cloud ever lifts."

'We'd drop everything'
The Cruisers were dropped after "Fortune 410," but were back with another release, "No Muss ... No Fuss," in 1984.

"We hooked up with another label," Iris says. "I can't even remember the name of the label, but we put an album out and they went out of business shortly after, so that didn't help at all. But we kept recording. We kept playing. And we're still doing it.

"We're working on a new album, and hopefully, we'll try to get a record deal from somebody. If not, then we'll just put it out on our own label. We've been putting out little tidbits here and there that never got much airplay, but a lot of the Internet people have picked up on them."

Those albums include 1992's "Out of the Blue," 1993's "Footsoldier in the Moonlight," 1997's "Poletown," 1998's "Live! At Nick's Fat City" and 1999's "Together Alone" (with cameo vocals from Michael Stanley and the Clarks' Scott Blasey).

"You're not gonna find those records in the store," he admits with a laugh. "But you'll still find the first two. 'Back on the Street' and 'King Cool.' Those are still available through Razor & Tie."

And you can still catch Iris in his Fortune 410 glasses leading the latest edition of the Cruisers through their greatest hits.

"I only wear 'em on stage now," he says of the glasses, "because I got the very last pair. I can't get 'em anymore. If I break 'em, I'm screwed, man. It's become a staple."

What would happen if he turned up for a gig without them?

"The fans wouldn't like it all," he says with a laugh. "The fans would not dig it."

The band is performing as many as 18 shows a year between here and Ohio. "We do at least one tune from most of the albums we put out," he says. "And the first two naturally have the most songs in the set."

The show tonight should also feature songs from "Ellwood City."

"It's a lot like the first couple of albums we did," he says. "The layered vocals. We had gotten away from that for a while and just decided to spend the hours and do the layering."

While 12-18 shows a year feels right for now, he says, "If it made sense to get on the road again, I'm sure we'd drop everything and go out. It would have to have the support of a label and all that. And seriously, we don't have high expectations, but I've had surprises before that I never thought someone would get behind, so it's not out of the question."

Life off-stage
When he's not recording or performing, Iris runs a mortgage company. "I've had it since '90," he says. Then, with a laugh, he adds, "So if you need to refinance, if you're at a high rate, call Donnie Iris. He'll fix you."

Donnie Iris on the streets of Aliquippa.
Separated the past several years from his wife, Iris has two daughters, ages 35 and 30, and three grandchildren -- Dominic, 6, Sammy, 4, and Jack, 3. Dominic is named in his honor.

Avsec, 49, is a lawyer now. For obvious reasons.

"I got really interested in copyright infringement litigation," Avsec says. "I probably took that more personally than anybody else. I thought, 'You mean that can happen? You can do nothing wrong and you can lose everything?' 'Cause we lost everything the song made just to pay our lawyers."

Even as the focus of their lives has changed, though, recording together remains a passion, as it does for Marty Lee and the rest of the current Cruisers lineup -- bassist Paul Goll and drummer Brice Foster.

"Anytime we're able to get into the studio and start doing new stuff, we're fired up and ready to go," says Iris. "Years ago, somebody asked me if I'd still be doing this at 40. You don't know. You hope you're doing it at 40. Maybe. Maybe not. Then, the question comes, 'Will you be doing it at 60?' all of a sudden. And at that time, maybe 20 years ago, I thought 'Hell no.' "

So then, will he still be doing this at 70?

He laughs.

"I like that question," Iris says. "I don't think so, man. But who the hell knows what's gonna happen? I feel great. I still like getting out there. Still like playing. I see the fans of ours from years ago, their kids are with 'em now. As long as they like the music. ...

"But you know, it's funny. You can be 60 or 70 in the country music field, no problem. Willie Nelson and those guys. And now it's starting to happen with rock 'n' roll, the Stones and people like that. They're still out there doing it."

For Avsec, the concert tonight -- on Donnie Iris Day, as declared by the mayor of Pittsburgh -- is, above all, "a celebration of friendship that's endured for 25 years. We've been through a lot together, and we still love each other. We love seeing each other and we love playing together. And we just want to celebrate that."