It’s a well-known fact that people from Pittsburgh love telling people they’re from Pittsburgh (I know, cause I’ve done it myself). Not only that, but when a Pittsburgh sports team reaches the championship game/series, as the Penguins have done recently by advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals, Pittsburghers will not only boast about their hometown sports team, but will simultaneously tell you why they put French fries on their sandwiches, why they liked their ham “chipped,” and declare, without hesitation, that Donnie Iris is the greatest rock and roll performer that ever lived.
(left: The Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Pittsburgh Rock.)
Ironically, when talking about themselves, Pittsburghers are usually quite humble. That’s why you’ll never hear Donnie Iris (or his Cruiser sidekick, Mark Avsec) claim that they were always a little ahead of musical trends. Iris’ hit song “The Rapper” (from his group the Jaggerz) prophesized the coming of self-important rappers a good 10 years before hip-hop made a dent on popular culture, before people even knew what a rapper was, “Rap, rap, rap, they call him the Rapper / Rap, rap, rap, you know what he’s after.” His 1980 hit “Ah! Leah!” provided big-rock-stomp, a few years before 80’s arena-rock-decadence fully arrived. And a handful of his synth-driven numbers sound like they could have been created by a current day Brooklyn indie-dance act, although the tunes were written before many Williamsburg hipsters were even born.
Over the years, Pittsburgh has seen hometown acts Rusted Root and Anti-Flag make a noticeable splash on the national music scene. A tiny little girl with a big voice named Christina Aguilera has also done well for herself. Can’t forget indie-mash-up artist, Girl Talk, who is currently making Pittsburgh proud with his raucous live dance shows. Pittsburgh-minded indie fans may also know that Mason Jennings and members of TV On The Radio spent some time in the ‘burgh. That being said, when you mention Pittsburgh and music in the same breath, one name always tops the list–King Cool, Donnie Iris. Here’s a look back at his career (which, by the way, is still kicking):
Jim Shearer: To help put things in context for people who may not realize how long you’ve been playing music, can we go through some of the bands that you’ve toured with?
Donnie Iris: We did some things with Nazareth, we were out on a few things with Ted Nugent, we toured with Loverboy, Hall and Oates–we were out with those guys for a while. The Romantics, we had a lot of fun with them. That’s about it, I mean, we did some other ones, but they were here and there. We did one or two shows with Bob Seger up in Detroit a couple times.
Jim: I remember hearing a story where you played a show in Three Rivers Stadium with the Beach Boys?
Donnie: That was years ago with the Jaggerz. The Beach Boys and the Supremes were there, it was a big show at Three Rivers Stadium, but that was a long time ago.
Jim: Didn’t Bon Jovi open up for you at one point?
Donnie: Right, right. Bon Jovi opened up for us twice, once in Youngstown and once in Pittsburgh at the old Syria Mosque. We did two shows with them, [they were] a bunch of nice guys. Obviously, they just took off from there. This was during their first album. You could tell they were going places too. They were very good, very young, and very capable.
(right: A wily-eyed youngster by the name of Jon Bon Jovi opened up for Donnie & The Cruisers)
Jim: Do they remember the favor you gave them?
Donnie: Once in a while Jon will come to Pittsburgh, and he’ll talk about me a little bit and Norman Nardini a little bit. He’s been very gracious every time he comes into Pittsburgh and always mentions us.
Jim: There’s a lot of technology now, so when bands are out on the road, they have iPods, cellphones, satellite television, and web access to make the days go by faster. What did you do back in the day to kill time out on the road?
Donnie: We played a lot of cards out on the road. And we got into a little bit of trouble here and there.
Jim: Your grandsons are nearby, so we won’t go into any of the troublemaking you got into.
Donnie: (laughs) Yes, we won’t elaborate on anything.
Jim: “The Rapper,” the single you did with your band the Jaggerz in 1970, did that hit #1? Or did it peak at #2 on the Billboard charts?
Donnie: It went to #1 on a chart that they called “Record World,” and it went to #2 on Billboard.
Jim: Do you remember where you were when you found out “The Rapper” hit #1?
Donnie: I don’t remember exactly where I was. We were doing a lot of touring, we were doing a lot of TV shows–you know–Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and stuff like that. “The Rapper” stayed at #2 for a little while on the Billboard chart. Simon and Garfunkle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was #1.
Jim: Not bad company to be in.
Donnie: Not bad company at all.
Jim: How was it doing American Bandstand?
Donnie: It was great, it was a good time to be out there, and it was just unbelievable for us to come from Pittsburgh, playing small clubs, and head into something like that.
Jim: When you were in Dick Clark’s presence, were you like, “Wow, he’s a good looking man.”
Donnie: He was a nice guy. He knew all about our history and what we had done–he knew we were playing clubs and knew where we came from. He was very up on things.
Jim: How did it come about where you joined the band Wild Cherry?
Donnie: I was working in a studio in New Brighton, PA as an engineer. Wild Cherry had come into do some cuts and one of the guys was leaving the band. Bobby Parissi, the leader of the band, asked me to join them out on the road. This was after “Play That Funky Music” was a hit record. I joined them and went out for about a year-and-a-half, did some touring with them, and had a great time with those guys.
Jim: “Play That Funky Music” was obviously their monster hit, what was your role when playing the song live?
Donnie: I did background vocals and did rhythm guitar.
Jim: With the vocals, what parts did you come in on?
Donnie: Just the (begins singing), “Play that funky music white boy!”
Jim: In 1980, your song “Ah! Leah!” was getting lots of radio airplay. When did you find out that the major labels were interested?
Donnie: It was doing really well in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and a couple other cities under a small label called Midwest. Shortly after that we started getting all this airplay all over the place. We finally started getting calls from all these different record companies, till MCA finally made the best offer. We were in a good spot, there was a buzz out there about the band, and MCA signed us.
Jim: That track came off of your album Back On The Streets which has the famous photograph sequence of you wearing both a yellow tuxedo and a pair of whitey-tightie underwear. I was wondering–do you still own that yellow tux? And, do you still own that pair of famous rock and roll underwear?
Donnie: I own the yellow tux. I don’t know what happened to the underwear. They weren’t whitey-tighties by the way.
Jim: (laughs) Yeah, they kind of had rings around the edges–like ringer briefs or something?
Donnie: Actually on the front of it, it was like a Christmas gift, it had “Jingle Balls” written on there (laughs).
(above: Donnie shows us how to go from underwear to yellow tux in five easy steps.)
Jim: (laughs) What inspired that photo shoot?
Donnie: We were just fooling around having a good time out there, taking pictures somewhere in Cleveland.
Jim: In the early to mid-80’s there were a handful of artists who came out that had a similar sound to yours. Were there ever times when you listened to other bands and thought, “Wow, their music sounds very similar to the stuff I’ve been making?”
Donnie: No, not really. As far as we were concerned, we went in and just recorded whatever songs came to our mind. At that time I thought it was a bit different than most of the stuff out there, but I never got the feeling that other groups were doing what we were doing at all.
Jim: It seems like it could be easy to resent groups who mimicked your sound.
Donnie: I never had that feeling.
Jim: Going back to your early MTV videos–you always seemed to be having fun?
Donnie: That’s for sure. We did “Ah! Leah!” and “Agnes” out in San Francisco, and we did one out in Cincinnati for “Do You Compute?.” My favorite was “Injured in the Game of Love“–I had to down two raw eggs. That was a lot of fun.
Donnie: Yeah, we did a lot of that stuff. We never took ourselves too seriously on videos, that’s for sure.
Jim: Going back to the heyday of Donnie Iris and The Cruisers, what is one of your best road stories?
Donnie: We were on a bus tour, and we had just gone to sleep in the bunks. We heard a scream out of Mark Avsec, our keyboard player’s bunk. He was zipping down his zipper and he snagged something he shouldn’t have snagged. He screamed bloody murder. We had to pull the bus over, but our bus driver refused, because he was one of those guys that just did not want to stop. We finally talked him into pulling over, and after a lot of messing around we actually had to cut Mark’s pants off with a pair of scissors until the zipper finally came loose. That’s the best road story I can come up with off the top of my head.
Jim: I’ll never look at Mark the same way again.
Donnie: (laughs) No you won’t.
Jim: There’s a story about you recording an album called Cruise Control, which you were never able to release because you and MCA got into a legal tangle.
Donnie: We had run into legal troubles with MCA. We ended up going to court over it. Actually, nothing really came of it, nobody won or lost anything, but we did lose time because I couldn’t go into the studio to do any recording until that one was settled. Once it was done we were able to start recording again. That took a couple of years.
Jim: Were there songs written for Cruise Control?
Donnie: Yeah, we had a bunch of them. I know we had enough tunes to put on the album, but because of the lawsuit we had to back off.
Jim: Did those songs ever pop up on future Donnie Iris releases?
Donnie: No, that was on one specific thing and we decided to can all that stuff and start over again.
Jim: Are these songs around somewhere?
Donnie: Yeah, all that stuff is on tape somewhere. It’s probably at the studio where we recorded it.
Jim: Were there any goodies on there?
Donnie: There were a couple.
Jim: Do you perform them ever?
Donnie: No. I don’t even remember half of them–or any of them really, because we just kept writing and doing new stuff. I know we did a Four Tops tune, “I’ll Be There.” We did that on that session, but that’s the only other one I remember besides “Cruise Control.”
Jim: How has life been as an independent recording artist?
Donnie: I love it man. It’s great because we can go in the studio whenever we feel like it. There’s no real pressure to come out with an album at any certain time. It’s been a lot of fun. We’re definitely having a good time.
Jim: What do you think is your biggest hit? Not necessarily chart-wise, or sales-wise, but in your mind, what is Donnie Iris and The Cruisers’ biggest hit?
Donnie: In my mind, let’s see. I still think “Ah! Leah!” is the best tune we ever did, and not just because it was successful. We worked hard on it and went through all kinds of transitions before we finally put it together the way we wanted. It just has a unique kind of sound to it–that whole first album we did–we captured a magic. We went in with a bunch of guys that we never played with before and we all seemed to gel.
Jim: What song of yours is most fun to play live?
Donnie: The most fun song to do live has always been “Love Is Like A Rock,” because the people get involved with it and go crazy.
Jim: Was there ever a time when you didn’t want to play music?
Donnie: No. Never.
Jim: I’m sure throughout the years you saw people getting into music for the wrong reasons. Is it rewarding for you to know that you’re still playing music and the people who got into it to make a quick buck have fallen off the map completely?
Donnie: We always got into music, cause we wanted to make good music. Of course you do want to make money and you do want to be successful, but we always had fun writing songs and going into the studio. That’s what keep us going, it really does–and the fans. They’re always asking us, “When are you coming out with something new?” We’ll be out next year in 2009 with another album for the 30th anniversary [of the Cruisers].
Jim: You are one of Pittsburgh’s greatest legends. Do you have any good memories of bumping into other influential Pittsburghers over the years?
Donnie: I’ve met so many great people from Pittsburgh, from some of the Steelers, to Sophie Masloff [former mayor of Pittsburgh], to all the radio personalities–all just nice people.
Jim: How about Mr. Rogers?
Donnie: I did meet Fred Rogers, but just briefly. I ran into him at an airport once.
Jim: Did he know who you were?
Donnie: At the time I was with the Jaggerz, and he knew [who we were].
Jim: Andy Warhol?
Donnie: Never met the guy, but wish I could’ve.
(left: Donnie Iris, still kickin’ it in the ‘burgh.)
Donnie: Sure, I’d love to, if the opportunity ever came up.
Jim: What if I could set it up?
Donnie: (laughs) Yeah, do it. Set it up!
Jim: Finally, why is it that people from Pittsburgh love telling people they’re from Pittsburgh?
Donnie: It’s a great place to come from, a great place to live, and the people are great. The only thing is, I’m getting a little tired of the winters, but other than that I love it here.