'King Cool' Donnie Iris talks about his road to being a Pittsburgh Rock 'N Roll Legend
April 23, 2015 12:00 AM
Donnie Iris sings "Love Is Like a Rock" at the Pittsburgh Rockin' Reunion at the Benedum Center on April 4.
At 72, Donnie Iris is still performing. Tonight he'll be inducted at the second annual Pittsburgh Rock 'N Roll Legends Awards at the Hard Rock Cafe, Station Square.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Joe Grushecky. Norman Nardini. Billy Price. Frank Czuri. Warren King.
They were all fixtures in the Pittsburgh music scene during the City of Champions era of the late '70s.
Donnie Iris, who was born in New Castle and was working out of Beaver Falls, was so removed from the scene, he asks me at one point during a recent interview, "The Decade was the one in Oakland, right?"
Doesn't really matter. He is being inducted at the second annual Pittsburgh Rock 'N Roll Legends Awards tonight, along with Porky Chedwick and Lou Christie, for a very good reason: He wrote two of the best loved hits out of this area -- "The Rapper," as a member of The Jaggerz in 1970 (a No. 2 hit), and "Ah! Leah!" with Donnie Iris and the Cruisers a full decade later (a No. 29 hit).
For that, he's known in these parts as simply "Dahnie" or "King Cool."
If you've seen him recently, maybe at the Pittsburgh Rockin' Reunion earlier this month with the Jaggerz, you know this: He is still bringing it live and at 72, he's still putting the exclamation point on that "Leah!" chorus.
Let's start at the beginning: What got you into this?
I started off really young. I was only like 6 or 7 years old. My mother taught me how to sing when I was real little. We had a piano in the house and she wanted me to sing. I would probably have rather gone out to play with the kids, but she wanted me to sing. She used to play piano in the church. I just pursued the career from when I was real young. In the '50s, I heard a lot of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra stuff, and then Buddy Holly and those guys in the late '50s. But the Beatles and the Stones and the Temptations and bands like that were most influential to me.
Pittsburgh Rock ’N Roll Legends Awards
With: Performances by Donnie Iris, Joe Grushecky, Billy Price, Frank Czuri, Johnny Angel, Rusted Root and more.
Where: Hard Rock Cafe, Station Square.
When: 7:30 tonight; VIP 5:30 p.m.
Tickets: $50-$200 VIP; benefits Cancer Caring Center; www.PittsburghRockLegends.com; 412-622-1212.
What were your first groups like?
I formed Donnie and the Donnells in college [at Slippery Rock University]. We played frat parties, cover tunes. I was just learning how to play guitar then. And then I left that group and went to another group to form the Jaggerz, that may have been '63.
What was the first song that you wrote?
I wrote a song called "Ilene." I think Jeree Records is the only guy who still has it. He had a place in his basement here in Beaver Falls and a lot of guys went down there to record. That's how he got started. The guy who recorded "King Cool" and "Back on the Streets" originally started in his basement.
The first song of yours to get noticed was "The Rapper." How did you come up with that? This was obviously when rapper had a different meaning.
That was just from playing clubs. I noticed a lot of guys at the bar would go up to chicks and started rapping to them. Another way of saying hitting on a girl. Not what rap means nowadays. We were basically an R&B band at the time, and I thought I'd give it a shot at pop music. Joe Rock [who managed the Skyliners] was managing the band at the time and we went to New York and went to at least a half-dozen record labels that turned us down. We finally talked to Neil Bogart, who was with Buddha Records, and he put it on his subsidiary label, Kama Sutra. He was the only guy who thought we had a chance, and sure enough he was right.
Why did you guys call yourselves the Jaggerz?
That was from the old Western Pennsylvania jagger bushes, those burrs that stick to your jeans. And it kind of fit in with the whole Rolling Stones/Mick Jagger thing, too. It was originally spelled with an S and we changed it to a Z, for some reason, I don't know why. One time with the Jaggerz, at a place in Beaver Falls we played six nights a week, The Shondells came down and tried to grab me from the Jaggerz to go play with them. It was a year or two before "The Rapper," but I thought we had a pretty good group.
How far and wide did the Jaggerz tour?
I don't think we were on any kind of extended tours, but we did a lot of traveling for TV shows. We went to "American Bandstand" and stuff like that. Some TV shows in Cleveland and a couple other cities.
You guys weren't really able to repeat that success with another song.
No, I think it was the old one-hit-wonder thing. One of those things, something just clicks. We tried a few tunes after that and they were pretty decent, but they didn't have whatever "The Rapper" had.
When the Jaggerz split [in 1975], did you think your musical career might be over?
I wasn't sure. I just thought I'd go ahead and try something else, and that's when I teamed up with B.E. Taylor. I knew he could sing like crazy, and I thought we could go out there and make some noise. We did a duo thing, probably for a year or two. We just did small venues, never did much recording. We were just kind of making a living. I think at the time Jimmie Ross decided to join the Skyliners.
You weren't all that connected with the Pittsburgh scene.
I knew all those guys. Not well. I wasn't much into that. I knew something was going on. I don't think I ever played The Decade. That's the one in Oakland, right? I don't remember ever playing there.
What made you join Wild Cherry?
As a part-time job, I was working at Jeree as a recording engineer. They were down there to do some recording. I met Bob Parissi, the singer, and Mark Avsec was the keyboard player in that band. The group was breaking up and they were looking for a background vocalist and guitarist.
Do a lot of people think you sang "Play That Funky Music"?
Yeah, man, a little bit. It would be easy to confuse that. I joined the band afterward.
What led to you recording "Back on the Streets" (The Cruisers' 1980 debut)?
After Mark and I met, we did some recording for Wild Cherry. In fact, we did an album down in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with Rick Hall, who had worked with people like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. The album was a stiff, it came out terrible, but in the meantime, Mark and I had roomed together in the band and decided we were going to try something on our own. He and I started the thing at Jeree's in New Brighton. We put all these tunes together that became "Back on the Streets." We got all these guys together in the studio without being a band yet.
How did you write "Ah! Leah!"? Did you know a Leah?
We started out with just the hook, not even realizing it was a name. We just wanted some sort of a chant vocal going on in the song. I said, "I know this girl named Leah. Why don't we just make the song about her?" It just fit in with that background vocal. She was a girlfriend of one of the guys in the Jaggerz, at least I thought she was. Years later, I had met this girl who worked with a real estate company in Beaver Falls, and we became friends. Through knowing her, we found out that her mother was the actual woman I was talking about. Her mother!
And how did you record it, with all those layers?
We wrote all those tunes in the basement of my house and all these tunes came out sounding really nice in the studio, and we realized that stacking my voice created this unusual sound. We hooked up with Carl Maduri and Mike Belkin in Cleveland to put it out on Midwest Records, but we started getting airplay on all these radio stations around the country and that's when MCA picked it up as a national record.
Were you thought of as a New Wave power-pop band? You had that look.
I guess we were kind of New Wave. I had that whole Buddy Holly look. I had been wearing contacts and just hated them and decided to go back and wear my old high school glasses and went back and got my yellow suit I wore with the Jaggerz and used it for the album cover.
Elvis Costello had a similar look, but you probably weren't a fan of his.
No, I wasn't. I hardly even knew who he was. I guess he had that nerdy look, too.
Do you remember the first Pittsburgh show after this success?
Yes. We had a big show at the Stanley. I think it was a New Year's Eve show. Norman [Nardini] was there, the Granatis were there. We sold out the Stanley. It was awesome.
So, even though you weren't part of the Pittsburgh scene, it seems like people here really embraced you.
Oh, they sure did. When we first came out with "Leah," we had a get-together at the Granati house, and Jimmy [Roach] and Steve [Hansen], who were the jocks at 'DVE, were there and we played it for them, and it wasn't long after that that they put it on the radio, and the song just took off. Pittsburgh and Cleveland were the first towns that embraced the stuff.
WDVE has had quite a bit of fun with you.
Yeah, they've kept me on the map, them guys. Even after the songs faded, they kept doing the "pants n'at" stuff. People would call the radio station with Donnie Iris sightings, and those guys would talk about it! It was so cool.
When you opened the mortgage company [in Beaver Falls], did some people come there just to see Donnie Iris?
[Laughs.] Some did. It got me some business I normally wouldn't. The way that all got started was we got involved in the lawsuit with this kid that claimed he had written the "Leah" tune. This guy out of nowhere filed a lawsuit claiming that we would have had to have had access to his song. This guy would put a bunch of tunes together and ship out cassettes to record companies. He said he sent one to MCA. We ended up going to court with this thing in Detroit. He had this background vocal thing going on, "Here I go again." His attorney was Bob Seger's attorney, so we knew this guy was serious. We were in Detroit for three or four weeks and we won the lawsuit, but it set us back. During that entire period of time, which took a couple years, I couldn't record or put out any records. That's how I got started in the mortgage business. This guy starting the mortgage business thought my name would do a lot to sell his company. And it did.
You continued to make records after the hits died down. Did you see that as the natural course of things?
Yeah, the band had peaked, but we were so much into recording. Mark is really at home in the studio. He loves it. I probably would have pulled out a long time ago if it hadn't been for him. He continues to want to do new stuff, which is cool because I'm pretty lazy when it comes to stuff like that. We're working on new stuff again. If not for him, it would have died a long time ago.
So, you're 72. When you started way back, you probably had no concept you'd still be doing this.
That's the truth! I can remember when I saw Chuck Berry on stage and he was like 60 at the time. I was in my 40s. I thought, "Look at this guy, he's 60 and still doing this!" I thought, "No way I'll be doing that." But here we are, I'm 72 and the band is still together and we still go out and play. The band still sounds great.
What does this Rock 'N Roll Legends honor mean to you?
It's great. It's going to be nice getting together with all the guys again. The other guys who were nominated are certainly all deserving of an award, too. Joe and Billy and Rusted Root. It will be great, it will be fun. It means a lot to me to win that thing.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.
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