By Mary Alice Meli

Heat forces Iris to abandon trademark glasses.

Who came first? Donnie Iris and The Cruisers or Eddie and The Cruisers?

Donnie Iris, who was born Dominic Ierace in 1943 in New Castle and grew up in Ellwood City, claims his Cruisers were "way before Eddie and the Cruisers," and he's right.

The movie, about a mythical '60s rock star who dies in a car wreck and later is suspected of still being alive, was first screened in 1983. The novel by P.F. Kluge was published in 1980.

Donnie Iris and his Cruisers formed in 1979 after Iris and keyboardist Mark Avsec of Cleveland met as memebers of a group called Wild Cherry in 1977. Lead guitarist Marty Lee is another original Cruiser, bassist Scott Williamson has been with the group since 1985 and drummer Steve McConnell joined last year. All three are from Erie.

While there have been no tragic car wrecks, the Cruisers' career on the charts shows two ascents to Everest with "The Rapper" in 1970 and "Ah! Leah!" and "Love is Like a Rock" in the early '80s, followed by serious skid marks both times.

Now, in the early '90s, Iris has released a compact disc with the hope of another ascent. "Maybe it's a 10-year thing. Here he is back again, just like the dang locusts," he joked.

The CD, "Out of the Blue," was named by his manager Mike Belkin "because literally, we're coming from nowhere, we haven't recorded for a while."

Iris is betting that "if promoted right, 'That's The Way Love Ought To Be' could be as big a splash as Leah because it's really indicative of the things we do. Radio stations in Pittsburgh and Cleveland are playing it, but the one doing best in Youngtown is 'Temptation," Iris said.

Like many other rock bands, Iris has gone through a succession of names that are like mirrors of the decades which spawned them. While a student at Ellwood City Area High School, for example, he and several guys from New Castle formed a do-wop singing group called the Fabutons.

In the early '60s, after a short stint at Slippery Rock University where he realized music was more important to him than academics, he formed Donnie and the Donnells, the name still '50s-redolent, and began a serious apprenticeship.

As the bar band at The Club Natural in Beaver Falls, he played six nights a week and, in summer, nine times a week at Geneva-on-the-Lake. "We were all nuts; just crazy people. We used to drink all night and (after closing hours) play More (MOH-ray) in the back until 5 or 6 in the morning." More is a game where, in one version, players call out a number to try to match the total number of fingers the others show.

In the early days, Iris was influenced by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, all the while defining his own sound, which he says simply is "very good American rock and roll."

But toward the end of the '60s, rock group names got wilder, verging on the erotic or just plain nonsensical. Perhaps, for the last reason, he named his next group the Jaggerz, a name that shot to the top of the nation's consciousness when its only hit, "The Rapper," went gold.

It's Iris' joke on a nationwide scale. Sliding by anyone who may have read any other significance to Jaggerz is the fact that Iris dug into classic Pittsburghese for it. "Jaggerz are what you get on your clothes when you walk in the woods. They grow on jaggerbushes. Everyone in western Pennsylvania knows what they are."

After Iris and Avsec met in Wild Cherry, they clicked as a songwriting team and, before the end of the '70s, they knew they had the potential for a hot group as Donnie Iris and the Cruisers.

Working together, they made "Back On The Streets" in 1980 and "King Cool" in 1981, both albums earning slots among the top 100 albums on the charts. They were hot, with tracks like "Ah! Leah!," "Love Is Like A Rock," "My Girl," "Tough World" and "Do You Compute?"

But the next two albums didn't do as well, and the recording company, MCA, wanted to bring in an outside producer, displacing Avsec, and other song writers, which might have changed the Cruisers' sound.

"I flat out said no. I don't want to do that and they didn't pick up our contract," he said. "We wanted to be honest to our own songs, our records, our world."

However, he admits, "It might have been a better business decision (to go along with MCA) and for some that's OK. But that's not what we're about. Our whole thing is writing our own stories, our songs, and performing with our own people."

When they refused to go along with the recording company, Iris said, the person responsible for signing the group at MCA sued the Cruisers for breach of contract and frustrated their attemps to record elsewhere. The group stopped recording but continued to perform. After a four-year battle, the Cruisers successfully fought the lawsuit.

However, during the period when Iris was not writing or recording, he got bored. When a friend, Greg Best, a former Pittsburgh Steelers player who still holds the team record for making the longest return for a touchdown on a fumber recovery (97 yards), told him a mortgage company in Beaver was looking for representatives, Iris applied, thinking they wanted him to sing commercials for them. They didn't, but he stayed on as a sales representative and learned the business.

Now, he is one of three partners who co-own SIMCORP a mortage company in Beaver Falls, where he also lives with his wife of 23-years, Linda Grimm, and two daughters: Erin, a senior education major at Slippery Rock University and Addy, a junior at Blackhawk High School.

Bookings for the group have increased recently. The Cruisers play The Empire Room in Cleveland on Saturday, Al's Cafe in Bethel Park April 4 and The Eldorado in Greensburg, April 25. If the CD takes off in other major cities nationwide, a tour is possible.