Donnie Iris Gets High And Mighty
SCENE - OCTOBER 21-27, 1982
By Marc Holan

(from left) Marty Lee, Albritton McClain, Donnie Iris, Mark Avsec and Kevin Valentine

It is the usual hectic day for the office staff of Belkin Productions. Typewriters are clicking. Papers are being shuffled from one desk to another. The office coffee pot is in overdrive.

In an office away from the hustle and bustle of the daily office activity sits Donnie Iris and the office's chief occupant, Chris Maduri. On the wall behind Iris is the National Record Mart poster of the main men of Pittsburgh Rock: the Granati Brothers, Norman Nardini, Joe Grushecky, Pete Hewlett and, of course, Iris. It reminds me of the poster for the film DINER, depicting a tight-knit fraternity of young men who have, in a way, graduated from school of Real Life.

With the arrival of keyboardist-producer Mark Avsec, we are ushered into another office where the interview is prefaced with talk of the Major League Baseball playoffs and the sagging record industry. It's like talking with guys you've grown up with - guys you'd like to hang out with.

The Donnie Iris story has been told many times before in these pages. It's the story of how Donnie Ierace, an avid bowler from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, found sudden fame with the Jaggerz, who had a late Sixties' hit with the "The Rapper", and later joined the final edition of those purveyors of White Funk, Wild Cherry, where he met Avsec.

A period of re-evaluation followed in the mid-Seventies with Iris working on demo tapes of songs he had written, and after signing with Belkin Productions, Iris joined forces with Avsec, who at the time was still in Breathless but worked with Iris in his spare time.

"The way this all started," Avsec recalls, "is that Kevin (Valentine - Ed.) and I were in Breathless, Al (Albritton McClain - Ed.) was with David Werner and Marty (Lee - Ed.) was in a band called the Pulse. It was a total hobby for everybody, except for Donnie and me."

With the dissolution of Breathless, Avsec and Valentine were free to join up with Iris on a full-time basis, and the success of BACK ON THE STREETS helped underline the fact that they were all having a good time as well as making good music. The eventual impact of BACK ON THE STREETS was that Donnie Iris had returned from rock 'n' roll limbo.

If BACK ON THE STREETS heralded Donnie Iris' return to the Rock Wars, KING COOL solidified his position as a songwriter-vocalist with a knack for penning teen anthems. KING COOL yielded two hits, "Love Is Like A Rock" and "Sweet Merilee," the latter of which ended up in the Top 20. A lot of touring followed, and then it was back into Jeree Reed's Jeree Studios in New Brighton, Pennsylvania where the first two Donnie Iris albums were recorded.

The result is THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, and album that brings all of the promise of the first two albums into one piece of vinyl. Songs like "Tough World" and the title track speak directly to hardcore rock audiences, and indeed, one can just imagine "The High And The Mighty" as the definitive Donnie Iris and the Cruisers' teen anthem. While on the other hand, the lighter side of the band is expressed in such songs as the Albritton McClain-penned "Love Is Magic" and the Iris-Avsec-Lee composition "This Time It Must Be Love," the latter of which is as funky as Wild Cherry ever was. Throw in a fun cover version of the Dave Clark Five classic "Glad All Over," and you have the most consistently strong Donnie Iris album thus far.

"We try to maintain the same punchy sound throughout the songs on this album," Iris explains, "I get a lot of inspiration from the audience feedback to our live shows. That's the main reason for songs like 'The High And The Mighty' and 'Tough World'

"I think getting the rest of the guys in the band to write is important," Iris continues. "If they can make it sound like the Cruisers, it's great. We encourage it."

One of the most tongue-in-cheek songs on THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY is a song entitled "Parallel Time," at the beginning of which Iris tells the world that he bowls for enjoyment. "Yeah, I really go bowling," Iris admits. "I went bowling last night. I had a 72, 130, and 199 for three games. I'm in a league with my buddies back home. I like it for the competition and the fun."

The one thing that strikes you about the Iris-Avsec relationship is the total lack of jealousy between the two. On the one hand, Iris is still the front man, the one whose name appears first, but on the other hand, Avsec, who has produced all three albums and co-written most of the songs with Iris, is the glue that keeps all the pieces together.

"He is the catalyst," Iris says of Avsec, "the guy who makes things go. He heads the whole thing. We do things the way he feels they should be done. You have to be able to get along with people to be a producer, and it wouldn't work at all if Mark wasn't there."