Donnie Iris' epic career is Pittsburgh's brush with greatness
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - August 15, 2004
By Regis Behe

Dominic Ierace wanted to play baseball with his friends.

His mother wanted him to stay home and practice singing.

As mothers usually did in the 1950s, Carrie DiCola Ierace, who was a big-band singer, prevailed. Young Dominic had to imagine the other kids in his Ellwood City neighborhood turning double plays and hitting home runs.

"She was the one who influenced me and made me sit down and sing rather than going out and playing baseball," he says. "She would insist I come in and sing. At the time, I really wasn't crazy about doing it, especially when my voice was changing. But I'm certainly glad I did it now."

Half a century later, those neighborhood kids are too old to run the bases. But Dominic Ierace -- now Donnie Iris -- is still singing. More than that, he's one of the most revered performers in local music history, celebrating 25 years as a solo artist this weekend.

Becoming Donnie Iris

It started at Slippery Rock University in the early 1960s with a group called Donnie and the Donnells. It bloomed when the Jaggerz's "The Rapper" soared to No. 2 on the charts in 1970. It faded a bit when he took a supporting role with Wild Cherry in the late 1970s after that band had scored a hit with "Play That Funky Music."

But Donnie Iris really became Donnie Iris when he met Mark Avsec, who played keyboards in Wild Cherry. Avsec says he was looking for a singer to collaborate with and thought Iris, who was relegated to background vocals and rhythm guitar in Wild Cherry, would be perfect for what he had in mind.

"I was looking for a vehicle to write songs for, looking for an act, so to speak," Avsec says. "I told him, 'We should try to do something together, with you as the artist.' That's how we started working together."

Mike Belkin and Carl Maduri provided the backing to record "Back on the Streets" at Jeree Studios in New Brighton in 1980. But the original release's sequencing is curious, with "Agnes" as the first track on side one. It wasn't until the record was re-released on MCA that the sides were flipped and "Ah! Leah!" led off the album.

"I always thought 'Ah! Leah!' was the track," Avsec says.

Iris admits he never paid attention to such things, even though his best-known songs -- "Love Is Like a Rock," "My Girl" and "That's the Way Love Ought to Be" from "King Cool" and "This Time It Must Be Love" from "The High and the Mighty" -- were buried on Side One or on Side Two of the then-vinyl records.

"It's unintentional," Iris says. "I never picked up on that."

The details were left to Avsec, who notes that Iris' implacability and laissez-faire attitude were the perfect complement to his more intense personality.

"It was like yin and yang," Avsec says. "He's more laid-back most of the time, and I'm more Type A; I'm more neurotic."

But that didn't mean Iris was a pushover. Avsec says Iris always exhibited a great sense of music, from his love of Marvin Gaye and his refusal to settle for less than the best in the studio, which resulted in songs that were pop and rock gems.

Pittsburgh radio personality Scott Paulsen, who would later help immortalize Iris in a different way, remembers hearing "Ah! Leah!" and the other singles while he was working at stations in West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

"I knew that Donnie was from somewhere up here, but I didn't know much about Pittsburgh," Paulsen says. "Even then, we were playing his stuff. I always connected him with New Wave, which was out at the same time, '79, '80. ... But I never connected him with Pittsburgh. So it has nothing to do with the fact that he was the local guy.

"They embrace him here because he's from here, and that helps him, but there are pockets of places all around the country where he's huge, still, because of the sound of the music. It all comes down to the records, and the records are great."

Music alone, however, doesn't an icon make.

Comic alter ego

Iris still doesn't know why it happened, why his black-rimmed glasses and fuzzy crop of dark hair became identified with Pittsburgh. Why seeing "Dahnnie dahn at Giant Iggle buyin' a loaf a bread" became a pastime, and one of the most memorable comic skits during Paulsen's tenure with Jimmy Krenn on the WDVE-FM morning show in the 1990s.

Such a portrayal might rub a less-forgiving soul the wrong way, but Iris embraces his comic alter ego.

"People still do it all the time," he says. "It's basically the same stuff: Hey Donnie, I was at one of your concerts. Man, I was in the front row, do you remember that?"

Iris laughs at his own imitation, and according to Paulsen, that's part of the charm of the skits. He first used Iris for a bit called "Brush With Greatness."

"If you were going to have a brush with greatness in Pittsburgh, who would it be? Well, it would be Donnie," Paulsen says. "We'd have these stories: I was broken down on the side of the road, and this guy came by to help me, and he had this curly hair and Buddy Holly glasses, and it wasn't until an hour later that I realized it was Donnie Iris. They got more and more outlandish, and it led to 'Pants 'n' At.' "

Paulsen says "Pants 'n' At" worked because of Krenn's gift for Pittsburghese. The skits rank with the best comedy ever produced in the area, but Paulsen admits he wasn't sure how Iris would feel until he came into the studio and actually played himself in a sketch. It quickly became a phenomenon.

"The Donnie Iris thing, the sightings and stuff, that's when it started, and it kept going and going," Iris says.

"They did it all," he says of Paulsen and Krenn. "They had a hell of a lot to do with it. People called in and they loved it, and I can't go anywhere without people talking about it. It still goes on, every place I go, Lonnie and Donnie and Connie and the whole thing. It's great stuff. Those guys are very talented people. They understand people and what Pittsburgh's all about."

But sometimes, Iris' image overshadows his music. B.E. Taylor, who played with Iris as an acoustic duo in the early 1970s, says his former musical partner is much more than a comedy skit.

"A lot of people don't know Donnie's full talents," he says. "They know 'Ah! Leah!' and 'Love Is Like a Rock.' Some people remember the Jaggerz stuff. But a lot of his fans from the 'Pants 'n' At,' the 'DVE crowd, they're seeing one aspect of Donnie's talents. He's a very talented individual. He has a lot of different vocal styles that people miss."

What Iris isn't, however, is a lead guitarist. When Taylor and Iris were practicing before launching their acoustic partnership, Iris always played lead -- until the first song of the first gig.

"Donnie looks over and says, 'Take it, B.E.,'" Taylor says, laughing. "I was stumbling over it -- I just knew four licks, and I do variations of them -- but he never played a lead after that. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, 'I like playing the rhythm.'"

That might be the only discordant note of Iris' career.

King of Beaver County

There were times when he thought about moving away, to New York City or Los Angeles or Nashville, to be closer to the music industry. But Iris never felt tempted by the bright lights of celebrity.

"I would have never felt comfortable doing that," he says. "I felt if I could do something, I could do it right here."

Instead, he's the king of Beaver County, relaxing at a restaurant next to the Ohio River where everybody knows his name. Dressed in a Polo shirt and shorts, at 61, he looks like he's found the mythical Fountain of Youth.

Actually, he's on a lunchbreak from his day job as co-owner of Simcorp Mortgage Corp.

Get aht! Donnie does mortgages? Yeah, ain't you seen the billboards with Donnie's face on Route 65?

Iris got into the business when he was asked by an acquaintance to drop by his mortgage company. He thought he was going to record a jingle.

"He wanted me to be a loan officer," Iris says, laughing. "I told him, 'Why in the hell would you want me to do something like that?' I knew nothing about that stuff, nothing at all. That's the kind of stuff I had stayed away from all my life."

Iris had flirted with becoming a teacher before dropping out of school to pursue music. A day job with a suit and tie seemed the antithesis of the "King Cool" persona he'd built.

But Iris quickly took to the work, and by 1989 had set up his own company with a couple of partners.

"We do a lot of mortgages for people who (think they) can't afford one," he says. "We do a lot of work with FHA and VA loans, things that people don't know about. Most of my business is done like that, and it's satisfying to do that; it really is."

Never gonna quit

The mortgage business, Iris admits, doesn't quite match the excitement of being onstage. He and Avsec are working on a new record planned for release later this year. If it takes off, Iris wouldn't mind getting on a bus and touring as he did in the past with bands such as Loverboy, the Romantics and Hall & Oates.

But don't count on it.

"The thing that bothers me is that he's continued to make tremendous records," Paulsen says. "But for some reason, the situation in record companies has become so corporate, so contrived, that it's unlikely that a guy his age is going to have a hit record. It's not going to happen as easily if he were say, 19 years old."

Which is fine by Iris. He's outlasted legions of performers who are now nearing retirement, a condition he refuses to consider.

"I can remember 20 years ago, people asked me if I would still be doing this when I was 50," Iris says. "I'd say, 'I don't know.' At that time, hell no, I didn't think I'd still be doing this. But I think it's just the fact that we're still able to go and perform and people come and see us. We're still able to go into the studio and record, and I'll just keep doing it until I can't do it anymore."

Taylor thinks it would a crime if Iris quit.

"When you see Donnie, you see a guy that's having fun," Taylor says. "How long to you want to have fun? How long do you want to enjoy what you're doing? ... He's having fun, and he's still good. It's not like (people are saying), 'he's not as good as he used to be,' or 'he's OK.' Donnie's strong. He's singing as strong as he was 20 years ago. He might even be better."

The Donnie Iris file

Age: 61

Born: 1943, New Castle; moved with his family to Ellwood City as a child

Education: Lincoln High School, Ellwood City. Slippery Rock University, where he studied chemistry briefly before switching to an education major with an emphasis in Speech. Dropped out after two-and-a-half years to pursue a career in music.

First band: Donnie and the Donnells, at Slippery Rock University

First hit single: "The Rapper," with the Jaggerz, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts in 1970

Other notable singles: "Ah! Leah!," "My Girl," "Love Is Like a Rock" and "That's the Way Love Ought to Be"

Main musical influence: Marvin Gaye

Favorite sports: Bowling, football and baseball

Favorite pro team: 1979 Pirates

Daughters: Addy and Erin

Grandchildren: Dominick, 6, Sam, 3, and Jack, 2

Regis Behe can be reached at or (412)320-7990. Articles Articles Articles