Mark Avsec started playing accordion at the age of four; by the time he was nine, he was the Ohio state accordion champion. He switched to piano and got into rock after he heard the Beatles. Upon graduating from St. Ignatius High School, he started playing in recording sessions for Cleveland record producers Belkin-Maduri Productions and decided not to go to college. One session he did was for a Steubenville group called Wild Cherry. He wound up joining the group, which soon scored a number one national hit record in 1976 with “Play That Funky Music [White Boy].”
Singer Donnie Iris joined Wild Cherry in the group’s waning days. Avsec and Iris became friends, and Avsec put together a group around the charismatic front man. Donnie Iris and the Cruisers – for which Avsec has written songs, played keyboards and produced albums for the past 27 years – scored three national top-40 hits in 1981 and 1982, including “Ah! Leah!”, which still gets airplay today. The group still performs, and Avsec is producing Iris’ newest album, scheduled for a May release. Several other artists, including Bon Jovi and the Grass Roots, have also recorded Avsec’s songs.
About 20 years ago, Avsec began to wonder how long he could continue to play rock music – not realizing that answer was, apparently, forever; besides, he had a family to think about. He started college at age 33 and law school at 37. “The impetus for me to go to law school,” he explains, “was that I got sued for the song ‘Ah! Leah!’ – a frivolous suit. Somebody claimed they wrote it first. It cost me a lot of money personally, even though I won the case. It was a real eye-opener.”
Now Avsec is one of very few attorneys in town specializing in music-business law. “Looking at the type of cases like the one I went through,” he says, “I feel like I am uniquely positioned to litigate those cases, because I really understand the musical nuances of those cases. And I’ve been on the plaintiff’s side, too, in meritorious cases.”
He joined the intellectual property group of Cleveland law firm Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff in 1995. He also teaches music-business law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and served as the chairperson of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts for about seven years. He plays about 10 dates a year with Iris and recently has been tapped as the James Gang’s and Joe Walsh’s designated keyboard player when they make appearances. He’s been able to combine his creativity, studio experience and knowledge of the law by creating twice-monthly podcasts called “The Benesch Beat” on various law topics.
“I like my life now,” says Avsec. “It’s very balanced. There’s a part of me that conforms to all this law stuff – I like that, actually. And yet, there’s a part of me that’s still very much into the music.”