Backstage & Center Stage with Tommy James and Felix Cavaliere at BergenPAC!
We’re currently backstage at BergenPAC in Englewood, NJ, before Tommy James and the Shondells’ September 16, 2016 concert with Felix Cavaliere and his Rascals.
We climb the three flights of stairs to the “meet and greet” room where we’re welcomed by Carol Ann, Tommy James’ manager. Carol introduces us to Dan Taylor, a well-known DJ from New York’s WCBS-FM 101.1 radio, and we swap stories with him about Peter Noone, star of Herman’s Hermits.
We also spot a familiar face in the crowd — Ron Gravino, Vice President of the Garden State Arts Foundation, an organization which sponsors concerts at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. Over the past few seasons, shows produced by Ron and the GSAF — which are free to NJ residents — have included performances by such groups as Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits and Tommy James and the Shondells.
Soon, we get a chance to say “hi” to Tommy James ourselves. Tommy is very excited to tell us about the progress being made on his autobiography, Me, The Mob, and the Music, as it’s being made into a major motion picture.
Talking about the upcoming movie brings our thoughts around to a conversation we recently had with Russell, an elementary school friend of ours from back in the 1960s, who was telling us about Tommy James’ appearance on a 1969 TV show called Generation Gap. On this show, two teams — one older and one younger — were required to answer questions about the opposing team’s generation.
According to Russell, on one particular episode, Tommy appeared singing the last few bars of “Crimson and Clover” with the ubiquitous tremolo effect partially obscuring the lyrics, and the older team was required to decipher what he was saying. One of Russell’s indelible memories of childhood involves watching this show with his parents, who had no idea in the world what lyrics Tommy was singing, whereas Russell absolutely did!
Upon being reminded of this momentous television event, Tommy laughs heartily saying “I remember that show,” going on to add, “I hope it wasn’t my appearance on it that got it cancelled!”
As it’s getting very close to showtime, we’re escorted back down the stairs to the BergenPAC theater where old memories will be revived and new ones will be created on this night of music by Tommy James and The Shondells and Felix Cavaliere and his Rascals.
Within moments of taking our seats, the audience hears the all-familiar swirling of a Hammond B3 organ as Felix Cavaliere, sporting a spiffy looking chap cap, captures the easy groove of Wilson Pickett’s hit, “In the Midnight Hour.” On the screen above Cavaliere, the moon rises over a skyscraper and the lights of the highway pulsate to the rat-tat-tat of the drumbeat. The background vocalists punctuate the famous “Wait” lyric, but it seems the audience can’t wait as their toes are already tapping and their heads are bobbing!
With their hands now waving high over their heads, the crowd gets into the music as Cavaliere cleverly segues into a smokin’ version of Sly and the Family Stone’s well known hit, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
As this crowd of folks mainly in their 50s and 60s instantaneously starts to “be themselves again,” letting the music of their youth melt the years away, that familiar groove infects the souls of everyone present at BergenPAC and reminds everyone of the carefree times of yesteryear away from the complications of life in this — the 21st — century.
Welcoming the devoted crowd noting, “We’re old enough to be alive and dancing!,” Cavaliere performs a song we were all madly in love with during the monumental Summer of Love — 1967’s “A Girl Like You.” The ladies clap along, many certainly feeling like the special girl in the song as Cavaliere sings, “Must be you that caused this feeling in me/You that fills me confidently/You that brings out the best in me.”
As images of a younger Felix “sing” from the screen behind The Rascals, the actual Felix takes center stage, right up front where he belongs.
After performing “Love is a Beautiful Thing,” Felix, the king of blue-eyed soul, says, “I’m often asked, ‘How did your songs come about?’” And in response, he answers, “For this next one, I was on Oahu and The Rascals already had a number one song. At the time, I was madly in love and I just felt like singing a song, so I wrote this one.”
At this point, Cavaliere and his Rascals launch into a masterful rendition of Felix’s 1967 hit, “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” a song which communicates the message of the flower power generation — a message which needs to be repeated and disseminated even today: Take time to see the beauty which is all around you.
That said, however, sometimes in life things aren’t always beautiful.
Perhaps Pat Benetar felt this way in 1980 when she recorded Cavaliere’s 1966 hit, “You Better Run.” As Cavaliere and the band perform the song, the driving drumbeat and bass accompany the famous “Whatcha trying to do to my heart” lyric.
There’s also a wicked guitar solo which rocks the house as the band drives home the message that you, me — and maybe even Pat Benetar — had better run!
As the crowd cheers, Cavaliere introduces “the very first Young Rascals’ song on the Atlantic label,” 1965’s “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore.” With the bass thumping and guitar tremolo swirling, the audience can’t help but move to the groove in their seats.
Felix says, “A long time ago, The Rascals played clubs and the club owners used to tell us we needed to get the people up and dancing, so we wrote songs to do that.” At this point, Cavaliere and the band perform “Come On Up,” while images of 60s dancers gyrate on the screen behind them.
As the band continues to play, Felix tells the crowd, “Back in the day — all over the world — we had music. Music brought us together. It was how we communicated — so now let’s all sing together.” They then segue into Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” the audience joyfully singing backup to Cavaliere’s lead.
“Doesn’t it feel good?,” shouts Felix!
“YEAH!,” answers the crowd.
Moving on to a song which Cavaliere describes as “the B-side of ‘Good Lovin’,” he and his Rascals perform a soulful version of “Mustang Sally.”
As they play, Felix says, “Put some lights on the audience,” where he sees the fans standing and dancing. Revealing to the crowd that for a musician like himself, “This is inspiration!,” Cavaliere begins to chant the famous chorus of “Land of 1000 Dances” — “Na… na-na-na-na… na-na-na-na…” — people singing and cheering on their feet as he adds harmonies to their vocals.
Going on to explain how another song of his was written, Cavaliere tells the audience that even though many musicians “tend to work on Friday and Saturday nights,” their women don’t necessarily like that. “’What am I supposed to do while you’re up working?,’ they wonder, so I wrote this song to ‘fill in the blanks’ to help make things better on Sunday.”
Moving on to a soulful version of “Groovin’,” the crowd drinks in the feelings emanating from the stage, but soon starts to clap mightily for the guitar solo and then for the entire group as they segue into three classic 60's hits, “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie,” “My Girl,” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” the audience members singing all the parts.
Followed by cheers from the standing crowd, Felix says, “We love you!,” and the audience claps and sings along on The Rascals’ 1967 hit, “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long.”
Telling the Jersey audience that two members of the original Rascals came from cities in the Garden State — Garfield and Union City — Felix and his Rascals perform 1967’s “How Can I Be Sure?”
“I’ve been doing this next song for many years,” Cavaliere says. “Everyone please say a prayer for our brothers and sisters serving overseas to thank them,” going on to add, “No one said that back in the days of the Vietnam War, but people now realize ‘People Got to Be Free!’”
As the band plays a dynamic version of this 1968 chart-topper, Cavaliere sings, “Listen, please, listen, that’s the way it should be/Peace in the valley, people got to be free,” his soulful vocal followed by a slapping and rollicking bass solo.
Concluding his segment of the evening by saying, “Hope you had a good time!,” Felix wraps things up by telling the excited crowd, “It’s all about a celebration, so I’m gonna send you off with a good love song!” With this, Felix and the group perform a roof-rocking version of their 1966 #1 hit, “Good Lovin’,” which results in wild cheering and a standing ovation from the packed house at BergenPAC.
After his set, Felix takes some time to meet his fans and sign autographs in the lobby. He even takes a moment to chat with us, saying, “When I’m in New Jersey, it feels like I’m coming home. In fact, with the Rascals, our very first-ever engagement was right here in NJ — in Garfield!”
Before long, the lights dim in the theater proper and Tommy James and the Shondells hit the stage running with an exhilarating version of Tommy’s 1971 solo hit, “Draggin’ The Line.” Rockin’ the house with their powerful sound, James’ voice has never sounded better.
“Thanks for having us,” James, 69, tells the crowd, “Let’s make something happen!”
As the breezy tremelo electric guitar begins to play, James starts to croon the lyrics to The Shondells’ incredibly popular Top Ten hit, “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” This song sends a powerful message of “love is the answer” as timely today in 2016 as it was when James originally recorded it back in 1968.
As James sings, women are already dancing in the aisles. The lights flash colors raining down on the band as the music fills the audience with good vibrations and Tommy performs 100% from his heart.
“Are you guys okay?,” Tommy asks the crowd.
“YEAH!, they respond, shouting, “Rock and Roll! Rock and Roll!”
At this point, Tommy and the band burst into a bright and bubbly version of his 1967 hit, “Gettin’ Together.” Following a joyous guitar solo, Tommy sings, “Gettin’ together never felt like this before,” but it’s clear from the looks on the faces of the crowd that these folks have absolutely felt like this before when they were young — and, now, again! — as the rush of feelings of youth come back upon hearing these memorable songs sounding so good.
Tommy proudly tells the audience about his book, Me, The Mob, and the Music, his true story detailing his experiences making records for a company which was a front for one of the most powerful organized crime families in New York City. He goes on to explain to the crowd that the book is being made into a film and, in the final scene, Tommy imagines himself saying goodbye to the man who made him a star but who also made his life terrifying. At this point, Tommy expertly performs a slow unplugged version of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a song which takes on a completely new meaning given all he reveals in the book.
Following a powerful rendition of 1969’s “Ball of Fire,” Tommy continues with a 1970 hit he co-wrote and produced for the group, Alive N Kickin’. Filled with mighty harmonies and power chords, James and his band make the song their own as they put a fresh spin on the million-selling Top Ten hit, “Tighter, Tighter.”
Many in the audience at BergenPAC start to scream as James and the band break into their #1 smash from 1968, the psychedelic “Crimson and Clover.” With Tommy singing lead, accompanied by a veritable wall of sound behind him, James and his group sound like a symphony. The famous wailing tremolo on the final refrain, “Crimson and clover, over and over,” reverberates and fills the souls of those dedicated fans “over and over” and brings the entire audience to its feet.
And if that’s not enough for this enthusiastic crowd, the next song really gets these fans moving — the Jeff Barry and Ellie Grenwich composition — 1966’s “Hanky Panky.” As the audience “hankys” and “pankys” to the infectious beat, James’ vocal entices everyone to hanky-panky together to the groove and the crowd willingly obliges, cheering and clapping heartily at the end.
Tommy and the boys follow this up with a second rendition of “I Think We’re Alone Now” — this time, an up-tempo version as heard on the original 1967 #4 ’45, the lights punctuating the rhythms of the music and bathing the stage in a rainbow of color.
Even though Tommy spent much of his career worried about “hit men,” he and The Shondells prove to this audience at BergenPAC what a hit-making machine Tommy has been over the course of his career as they play one of the greatest dance songs of all time. People rock in front of the stage and in the aisles to 1968’s Top Ten smash, “Mony Mony,” lights flashing on the fun-loving audience as they raise their arms in agreement on the “Yeah, yeahs!” And for the icing on the cake, Tommy makes his way through the audience as the band jams, encouraging everyone in the house to “feel… so… good!”
“Do you want to hear some more?,” asks James, who then gives the crowd a stunning version of his 1969 gem, “Sweet Cherry Wine,” before seguing back into a reprise of “Mony Mony,” as people smile, cheer, and wave their approval as thanks to Tommy James and his band for this stunning evening of music.
For more on Tommy James and The Shondells, please see tommyjames.com. To learn more about Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals, see felixcavalieremusic.com. To check out future upcoming performances at BergenPAC — including Roger McGuinn on Sept. 30, Gladys Knight on Oct. 21, and Herman’s Hermits featuring Peter Noone with The Buckinghams on Nov. 17 — please go to bergenpac.org.