Wild Cherry: winning fans and fighting critics
SCENE - MARCH 17-23, 1977
By Jim Girard

Wild Cherry (l. to r.) Mark Avsec, Bryan Bassett, Bob Parissi, Ron Beitle, and Allen Wentz

The amazing success of Wild Cherry - via the platinum single "Play That Funky Music" and their debut album, WILD CHERRY - is something that puzzles a lot of people. Their almost unprecedented success with a debut album puts them high atop the list of new supergroups. They seemingly came out of nowhere, making themselves and their label [Belkin-Maduri Productions' Sweet City Records] instant winners.

Yet, the success of Wild Cherry isn't without it's hang-ups. They have been called a fluke, a one-shot wonder and worse things than that by the press - who see the band as some sort of disco machine. All this without even knowing who was actually in the group, how long they have been at it, or exactly why Wild Cherry is such a success where others have failed.

So, as the second Wild Cherry album, ELECTRIFIED FUNK, hits the stores [and the record charts], I think the time is right to unveil the mystery, as it were, that surrounds this group. Of course, there is no mystery at all, but there is still those people [especially in the music business] who think that Wild Cherry was the windfall scheme of producer Carl Maduri, and that their chances of scoring a hit again would be like lighting striking twice in the same place.

Wild Cherry, name and all, have been around for many years. I remember that when SCENE had a Pittsburgh extention in 1973, Wild Cherry was the hottest quartet in that area. Through all the various musical changes in the group, leader Bob Parissi has kept the band together. They have toured regionally for the last four years; their success being anything but "overnight."

"Many people in this business make a lot of money, but you might not hear too much about them for a long time. That's because their machine is functioning, not their mouths," says Parissi half-joking.

Because Wild Cherry was entertainment-oriented and able to be commercially successful as a dance band, the transition to recording act was not that difficult. They knew what people wanted to hear.

"Our basic thing," Parissi continues, "was to be quiet and do our job. We were a local band and it was profitable. We worked the circuit from Pittsburgh, to Charleston, to Youngstown, and rotated gigs, working for three or four booking agents who were great to us. We kept changing personnel in the band, and we knew that if we worked hard it would someday happen for us.

Musically, we have always changed with the times. We knew, from playing in local bands, that cult followings only get you broke. We weren't going for a cult following - even when we worked the local area, we were trying for the masses. It isn't selling yourself out; it's called success. What Wild Cherry wanted to do was be successful. All of the guys are commercially oriented and we all wanted to make it.

When Wild Cherry was recording its debut album, they were still a quartet. The band consisted of Bob Parissi on guitar, Bryan Bassett on lead guitar, Allen Wentz on bass and drummer Ron Beitle. Producer Carl Maduri brought in keyboard player Mark Avsec (alias "The Enforcer," and a veteran of Cleveland bands like Bluestone) to help on the sessions. Avsec worked so well on the sessions that he was hired as keyboard player for the road and is now a full-fledged member of Wild Cherry.

When Avsec first heard the takes of "Play That Funky Music," he knew the song was a hit.

"I knew from the start that there was just something about the song that made it a hit," Avsec says. "Even if you don't like funk stuff or our type of music, that song couldn't be denied."

"We are still in awe of the success of the record and the album," Parissi adds. "All of the musicians in this band were overdue - show me a musician in town that has been playing for eight years that isn't overdue?"

Even when you are overdue, there are problems accompanying such strong success. As Parissi discussed at length, a lot of people weren't ready for Wild Cherry. The main problem they had to overcome was showing their faces in concert; a lot of people who bought the album and single thought the group was black. Not that there was any real cover-up intended, but the album didn't have their photos anywhere on the jacket, and the title of the single "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)" was thought to be a black's imperative to whites. Regardless, AM and R&B stations across the country played the song for months, making it a giant hit.

Wild Cherry's second single, "Baby Don't You Know," was a sort of logical, albeit tongue-in-cheek, follow-up to their first hit. A lot of stations wouldn't play the record, though, as they felt it was too controversial - with a line like "Baby dontcha know those suckers was white."

The singles were all in fun," Parissi explains. "However, when we came out on-stage and the lights went up, people would say, "These suckers is white," and it flipped them out. People figured that because we sounded black, we must be black. We had a whole black audience at first - which is what R&B is all about. That's what we're dealing with and it was super. But now that people have heard us in concert and some FM stations play a few of our album tracks, our audience is about half and half."

With an initial identity crisis similar to that of the early days of Average White Band, it is fitting that Wild Cherry has toured extensively with AWB. The former is presently on the road with The Jacksons, as well as doing someshows with The Commodores, Rufus, AWB, and some headlining dates of their own.

Although Parissi is the leader of Wild Cherry and its main spokesman (not to mention chief songwriter and singer), he maintains that the group is pretty much a democracy.

"The band is a total unit," he says. "Of course, with every band, someone has to surface sooner or later. We don't have any superstars in the band at this point. We feel that each guy shines and if one of us didn't shine we would have to do something about it. And if one of us has a hang-up, the other four guys help him out."

What about the criticism that has been leveled at the band from the press and from those who resent the success Wild Cherry has enjoyed?

"A lot of people are down on us for one reason or another. We did get a platinum album and single, though," Parissi stresses. "People like us, but we've been put down by critics ever since we had a hit. People think it's great, but critics thing we ain't heavy - or something.

"None of us can successfully wear makeup and feel comfortable. We weren't born with makeup on. Take Kiss: someone had to come to them with a business mind and say "spit blood." A guy doesn't have a natural desire to spit blood, you know. Then I hear a guy on the radio saying "That was Kiss doing their Rod Stewart impersonation." What is that? I mean, Rod Stewart wasn't singing and the guys can sing and play rock and roll.

"Don't they know everything is copied off of something else? Did Cream think they were so heavy when they came out and did a copy of Willie Dixon? How about The Beatles when they took The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly and put it all together? Everything comes back in your face; someone is always gonna shit in your face when you are successful."

So it seems that Parissi is correct in assuming that his band's success will come from the record-buying public and from audiences who wish to be entertained, rather than from the critics.

"What we are mainly concerned with," he says, "is keeping the fans who bought our first album and getting some new ones with our second album. Who knows what'll happen. We might lose a lot of fans and get new ones.

"We were prepared for some people to hate what we do, but as long as the mass of people like us and what we do, that's okay. As long as we can keep ourselves happy making music we like and make people happy; that's all we care about. We want to entertain. We feel it is important to create something that is in demand and that you are happy doing."

Parissi and company play funky music because it's in their blood, not only because it's a currently successful formula. Their new album is going to open up doors for the band, as it broadens their scope somewhat. The single "Hot To Trot," which should follow the success patterns set by "Play That Funky Music" and "Baby, Don't You Know." But their are portions of the album that are not disco-oriented; ELECTIFIED FUNK journeys into the FM arena.

Parissi says, "We like making FM albums, but we want to make hit singles, too. The acceptance of FM and AM radio is definitely larger than the audience for R&B and AM radio. See, a lot of people liked our first single, but that didn't sell albums right off. Now, we have gotten tighter and better on the new album, we are totally happy with it."

Of course, one thing Clevelanders have to be proud of is that Wild Cherry recorded their first album here in town. They have proven that L.A. and New York aren't the only places in the country to make hit records. Their label, Sweet City, literally became a giant in the industry due to Wild Cherry's amazing laurels (which include platinum plaques, Grammy nominations and countless other awards). By not moving to L.A. or some other music mecca, the band has helped Cleveland's image as a rock and roll launching pad. Between Wild Cherry, The James Gang, Eric Carmen and a few others, the local scene now looks brighter than ever.

Parissi points out that Wild Cherry is determined to remain in Cleveland (although all the guys, save for Avsec, hail from the Steubenville area) and do its part to make the music business here more exciting.

"This is our home," Parissi says of northeast Ohio, "and if we can do anything to help musicians here, we will. If we can pass along an original tape to someone we meet, then we will. We know how important it is to break out. Everyone needs help; you're never so big you don't need help. Every musician will have his turn; then they'll know what it's like. And it isn't always easy..."

With a down-to-earth attitude about their success, plus lots of determination not to be a "one-shot wonder," Wild Cherry will be playing their funky music, quite successfully, for some time to come.