Donnie Iris: the Rapper's Back
Rolling Stone, May 14, 1981
By Lloyd Sachs

PITTSBURGH - Backstage at the 3600-seat Stanley Theater, moments after receiving an ecstatic send-off from a near capacity crowd of fellow Iron City-ites, Donnie Iris weaves through a roomful of excited friends and family; among the later, it seems, only his Aunt Elma was unable to attend his new band's hometown debut. Stepping out of a garish yellow suit rescued from his days as the leader of the Jaggerz -the one-hit wonders who brought us "The Rapper" in 1969- Iris shakes his head: "I still cannot believe this is happening."

For Donnie Iris, a thirty-eight-year-old native of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, the recent success of "Ah! Leah!" has given him a second taste of fame. In addition, the single is one of the first real hits to come out of Pittsburgh since "The Rapper," which Iris wrote and continues to perform on his current national tour.

A white soul band that attained legendary status in Pittsburgh ("They were the only white guys who could do Temptations," recalls Iron City Houserocker Joe Grushecky), the Jaggerz were forced to return to the bar circuit after failing to duplicate their early success. "Sure, I was depressed for a while," Iris says. "But I was just happy we had a hit. It was cool to know that the band was still together and had gigs to play."

But due to "lack of direction," the group broke up. Eventually, after working in a local recording studio and doing a stint in the disco band Wild Cherry ("Play That Funky Music"), Iris got the chance to call the shots again. He and former Wild Cherry keyboardist Mark Avsec teamed up to write the songs for Back on the Streets, but not with the highest expectations.

"When we went into the studio, we were just hoping to get a record deal," Iris explains. The LP was initially released on Cleveland's small Midwest National label but was later picked up by MCA. After the single started climbing the charts, "MCA began to moan about wanting to get a band on the road," says Iris. "So we figured we'd give it a try."

The group Iris recrutied for this tour is a tight, exuberant, surprisingly tough unit that provides fresh, heavy-metal flourishes and dreamy harmonizing for Iris' craftsmanlike, hook-happy pop songs. But some of the arena audiences that that he has played to as an opening act have been less than friendly. In Chicago, going on before UFO, he was hit with a roll of toilet paper; in St. Louis, with Nazereth, he was booed unmercifully. Such experiences, if nothing else, have kept his ego in place.

"I've always thought of myself as being extremely lucky," he says. "The idea is to keep that luck going. Headlining the Stanley was a real kick. I think it's the type of thing I could get used to."