The Rascals’ Gene Cornish

Wild Legacy
The Rascals’ Gene Cornish
Cornish photo by Elliot Stephen Cohen.

Gene Cornish is fond of the time he spent in the ’60s pop band The Rascals, which he credits for having never been sidetracked or making a bad decision… until its very end.

“We had the right manager at the right time,” he said. “And we chose the right record company that put us with the right people.”

Born May 14, 1944, in Ontario, Canada, 20 years later he teamed with singer/keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, drummer Dino Danelli, and vocalist Eddie Brigati to form The Rascals. One of America’s most successful acts of the 1960s, the group recorded classics including “Good Lovin’,” “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” “Groovin’,” “How Can I Be Sure,” “A Girl Like You,” “A Beautiful Morning,” and “People Got To Be Free.”

This achievement is commemorated in the band’s new box set, The Complete Singles A’s and B’s – 47 tracks collecting for the first time both sides of every Atlantic and Columbia release, with early songs in both stereo and mono.

“We called those the ‘money mixes’ – made for AM radio to be heard through one speaker,” Cornish said of the latter. “The stereo mixes were taken from the original master multi-tracks, so they couldn’t be remixed… which is a blessing because flexing with magic is not an improvement.”

“There wasn’t one night we didn’t kill onstage – we never once went out there and phoned it in.”

In his years with the The Rascals, Cornish played 36 Gibson guitars, though, “Gibson never gave me a pick.” For the past 15 years, he has referred to his Fernandes with Fender Noiseless pickups and D’Addario strings as “my workhorse.” Others in his collection include a Stratocaster with Joe Barden pickups, a Telecaster, and several D’Angelicos including an Excel SS, Excel Madison, and Premier EXL-1. His current amplifiers include a Fender Hot Rod Deville with four 10″ speakers, a Supro Rhythm King with a 15″, and Fender Blues Deville with four 10s.

In 2013, Rascals superfan Steven Van Zandt managed to reunite the band for a Broadway show and tour called Once Upon Dream. When it ended, members went their separate ways.

Cornish, a survivor of two quadruple-bypass heart surgeries and colon cancer, still tears it up onstage with Rascals tribute shows. He’s also member of a The Platinum All-Stars with drummer Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Jeff Beck), keyboardist Geoff Downes (Buggles, Asia, Yes), Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (Guns ’N Roses), singer/guitarist Phil Naro (Brian May, Peter Chris), and bassist Rudy Sarzo (Ozzy Osborne, Whitesnake).

Cornish with his Gibson Barney Kessel in the Rascals. Photo courtesy of Publicity Media/G. Cornish.

What are your earliest memories of moving to America?

In the early ’50s, if you were from another country, you might as well have been from Mars. Kids were not as sophisticated, and they beat me up all the time because my name was spelled “Jean-Paul.” I told my mom, “I’m not speaking French any more,” and changed the spelling of my name to Gene, like Gene Autry. My dad bought me a little ukulele, and the first proper song I learned was “Singing The Blues,” by Guy Mitchell.

What was your first exposure to American rock and roll?

In February of ’56, I was at my dad’s bait store, where there was an old black-and-white television on a shelf. I looked up and there was this guy with sideburns playing a guitar, another guitarist behind him and a drummer. It was Elvis with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. I turned up the volume, and that was all it took for me.

Because your mom had sung with Ozzie Nelson’s big band, did you meet Ricky in those days?

No, not until around ’68. But I used to watch “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” all the time, and I loved [Ricky’s guitarist] James Burton. “Believe What You Say” is, to me, the ultimate guitar solo. James always played – actually mimed with – a Rickenbacker on the show because Ricky had an endorsement deal, but of course he played a Telecaster on the records.

Who were some of your other early influences?

Well, Chuck Berry, and because of Duane Eddy I bought my Gretsch 6120. I loved “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures, which I still play in shows. Bobby Rydell was one of my idols; I was 15 when his first hit, “Kissin’ Time,” came out. The bass was so predominant that I talked my father into buying me a Fender bass. So, I was a double threat as guitarist and bass player on the early Rascals’ records.

Along with 70 million other people in America, you saw The Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February, 1964. How did that affect you?

The Beatles changed my life and that of virtually every other guitar player because guitar used to be in the back of a band while the singer was up-front. All of a sudden, the bass player was also the lead singer. I had never seen that. It was just magic.

Did seeing George Harrison playing a Country Gentleman inspire you to get one?

Yes, I did buy one because of him, but it got stolen before The Rascals’ first rehearsal. I was playing a different Gretsch when I realized, “George has his guitar, McCartney has the Höfner violin bass, Buddy Holly had the Stratocaster… I gotta find my own guitar.” I found it in a Gibson Barney Kessel, a double-cutaway jazz guitar, and used it on all my records.

The Rascals were unknown when you attended the Beatles’ Shea Stadium concert in 1965, and promoter Sid Bernstein had the scoreboard flash the words, “The Rascals Are Coming.”

We had just signed with Sid as manager about three weeks earlier, and were in the visitors’ dugout, where The Beatles came out. When (Beatles’ manager) Brian Epstein saw the sign, he had a f***ing fit and started screaming, “I’m gonna cancel the show right now if you don’t take that sign down!” That was our first brush with The Beatles (laughs).

Cornish with a D’Angelico Excel SS. Photo by Elliot Stephen Cohen.

What’s the story behind the Rascals turning down Phil Spector’s offer to produce at a time when the band was still playing small clubs?

We were at The Barge, in the Hamptons. Phil had flown from L.A. to see us play. We knocked him out. When he came backstage afterward and told us he wanted to produce us, we were in shock. Felix, who was more educated and more worldly than any of us, told Phil, “You’re the greatest producer in the world, but we want to produce ourselves.” Phil said, “Do you know who you’re talking to?” We said, “Yes, but we have our own ideas.” He stormed out so frustrated that he kicked a fire hydrant and broke his foot.

Did you ever run into him after that?

Yes. Seven months later, we had the #1 record with “Good Lovin’” and were at Cantor’s Deli in L.A., laughin’ and talkin’ at four in the morning, when Phil walked in with this huge bodyguard who looked like Odd Job in the James Bond films. We all dove under the table! Phil was still walking with a cane, and he came over, tapped on the table with the cane and started yelling, “Get up here, you little c***suckers! You all got some balls. Nobody has ever turned down Phil Spector!” Then he looked me in the face and started laughing, “You guys were right. I’m proud of you. You did good.”

You also had a pre-fame encounter with Les Paul, who had one of the few eight-track recorders in ’65.

We were brought to his house late one evening and recorded a few songs – The Beatles’ “No Reply” and “Slow Down.” But we were still fresh, not ready to be recording artists.

The Rascals turned down several major labels before signing with Atlantic. What made the band realize it was their best option?

There were several reasons. Columbia was bigger, RCA was bigger, Capitol was bigger. They all wanted us, but they were just corporations who would have thrown us into the studio with staff producers and we would’ve had no say about how the music was recorded. Atlantic, on the other hand, was the most respected label. They were the top black label long before Motown, and we were going to be their first white act. They said, “We don’t have as much money as CBS, RCA, or Capitol, but if you come with us, we can get into the rock-and-roll world.” That was a real invitation for an unknown act that didn’t even have original songs at the time.

So, considering Atlantic’s history with legends such as Ray Charles, The Drifters, and The Coasters, how intimidating was it being in their studios the first time?

Well, at first we couldn’t believe that they said we could produce ourselves, and also that they wouldn’t charge us for studio time, which is the way many record companies recoup investments. But they said, “Since you don’t have a track record, we’ll let you be your own producers, with some adult supervision. ”That meant Tom Dowd, who worked with Aretha Franklin, Cream, Allman Brothers, and other acts, and Arif Mardin, who was Atlantic’s house arranger. We were really blessed to have two of the best help us along. They never demanded or tried to control anything – they just made suggestions.

What was your basic equipment during the Rascals days?

I started with the Barney Kessel and used the same Standel amp in the studio and onstage so my sound would be consistent. I then went to a Gibson Byrdland, then a Les Paul, which was too heavy – I actually herniated a disc in my neck because of it before switching to an SG Standard. I did own one Stratocaster later on, which you can hear on “See.”

Did you use effects on any of the recordings?

Only on one song – the beginning chord of the solo on “Come On Up” uses a Sam Ash Fuzzz Boxx.

How did the band come upon “Good Lovin’’’ and what’s the story behind your iconic riff on that song?

Felix and Dino went to Harlem one day with a copy of Billboard, and on the “Bubbling Under” chart was “Good Lovin’” by The Olympics. We knew these records weren’t going to get a fair chance on the pop stations, so we covered it. Basically, my guitar part was the piano part on their record. The very first time I played it was on the record, sliding the notes rather than playing straight quarter notes. I used that same style on the riff for “You Better Run.”

Besides The Doors, The Rascals were the only major band of the ’60s that didn’t use a bass player onstage. Wouldn’t you have had a fuller sound with one?

It was credibility thing. The Beatles set the bar – except for the last performance with Billy Preston, they never brought anyone else onstage. It was a sacred number. The Beatles were four, The Rascals had four.

But the Beatles had a bass player.

Felix handled the bass part perfectly well with organ pedals. He had it all down.

Was there ever any thought of having Eddie learn bass?

We actually bought Eddie a Fender Mustang Bass in ’67, which he still owns but never learned to play. He wasn’t physical like that or had the head to learn. Eddie’s job was doing what Jim Morrison did – he was the personality of the band, and the most lovable one to the fans. I was relegated to the George Harrison position, where I would get two songs on an album. When we first started, Eddie, Felix, and I sang an equal number of songs, but then Eddie and Felix became the lead singers. Onstage, they were magical. Certain songs fit each of them, but Eddie basically became the balladeer. Felix could never have pulled off “How Can I Be Sure.” That was a different world.

Would you agree that after The Rascals last big hit, “People Got To Be Free,” in ’68, the quality of singles like “Heaven,” “See,” “Carry Me Back,” and “Glory, Glory” was not up to the standard of the earlier work?

Well, all songwriters – Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Elton John, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, or John Fogerty – you’re lucky to be in a zone for three or four years, then you kind of run out of fresh ideas. You don’t connect anymore. I talk to Billy Joel. He won’t make another record – wants nothing to do with it. McCartney keeps going but he’s not writing any new classics. Smokey Robinson ain’t writing anything. If you have your time, you’re really blessed.

Why did Eddie, who was Felix’s songwriting partner, leave the band in 1970 and basically do nothing in music until your Once Upon A Dream musical in 2013?

I can’t speak for Eddie, but he had difficulties with Felix. Felix couldn’t get him to live up to deadlines with lyrics, and it was a struggle for Felix. Eddie took the idea that, “Felix is acting like my boss,” but Felix just wanted to keep the work going. The day we were signing a contract with Columbia, Eddie got into a shouting match with Felix, and when Eddie walked out of the room, that was basically the end of The Rascals. The songwriting broke down and the spirit of the band broke down with it.

Cornish with a Danelectro Wild Thing. Photo by Elliot Stephen Cohen.

In retrospect, was leaving Atlantic a bad decision?

Yes, we should have never left Atlantic. Our time to be relevant, songwriting-wise, had passed, but they still pushed the hell out of our records. They wanted to keep us alive, but spent a lot more time with Aretha Franklin, who went a from a $15,000-per-year guarantee to a million dollars. So, at the end of our five years, they were still offering us the same $15,000. Columbia offered us $200,000 and said, “Look how many records we’re selling with Chicago – 30 million on each album around the world.” So, we said, “That’s for us.” We were not thinking. We were going to lose Arif Mardin, have to produce ourselves, and be in the corporate structure. It was just a bad deal all around. Even Clive Davis, who signed us, said in his book it was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. Felix was the guy everybody thought could carry the whole thing by himself. But, he couldn’t. It was the four of us.

The Rascals are about the only famous ’60s band that today could do a full reunion with original members.

You nailed it. We checked it out, and there are bands where members are still alive but incapable of performing. We are still capable. We showed it on the 2013 shows. I would love to play with the guys again, without a doubt. Felix wanted to continue, but Dino and Eddie were shell-shocked. The Rascals were never smart. That’s the real tragedy of the band.

What about a new album?

It would be foolish to make another album, because nobody’s in the zone anymore. What are you gonna compete with, the greatness from before?  Arif Mardin is no longer with us, and he was the only person that all four of us respected totally. Sometimes it’s better to just leave things be.

What are your fondest memories of the time when The Rascals were one of America’s biggest bands?

There were so many things that went by so quickly. There wasn’t one night we didn’t kill onstage – we never once went out there and phoned it in. Even if one of us was sick, we still poured it on, and we loved each other when we were together.

Like brothers.

Totally. We’re still like brothers; sometimes we agree to disagree.

This article originally appeared in VG November 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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