The Hit Song That Almost Wasn't
Music - Pop Released - Jul 24, 2013
The Young Rascals were excited. They had spent weeks in the studio recording what they were sure would be their biggest hit song ever. New York DJ Murray the K heard a playback and went nuts. “This is a smash, man,” he said. A top executive at Atlantic Records, however, didn’t think so. It wasn’t rock ’n’ roll. Worse, it didn’t sound “black.” It sounded Latin. No one was buying Latin music, certainly not 14-year-old girls who were the core of the Top-Forty buying public.
“What are you guys doing?” asked Jerry Wexler, the record exec. “You’re a rock ‘n’ roll band . . . Man, you’re going to screw up everything.” Wexler had the final say. Unless they made drastic changes to the recording, he wasn’t going to release it. The record was called “Groovin’.” Was Wexler being unreasonable? The early Rascals' hits were all covers of songs by black groups like the Olympics. Why change the formula?
You remember the Young Rascals, the Jersey band that had a string of top-ten hits in the late 1960s? In 1965 they were playing a bar in Garfield and by 1968 were headliners at Madison Square Garden. Wexler signed them because they were white and sounded black.
It took some arm-twisting by the band’s manager Sid Bernstein (the guy who brought the Beatles to America) and a visit from Murray the K, and Wexler finally backed off. A good thing. “Groovin’” went on to become one of Atlantic Records' biggest hits of all time.
HOW THE SONG WAS MADE
The band’s lead singer Felix Cavaliere wrote the song with an assist from fellow bandmate Eddie Brigati. At the time, Cavaliere was dating a girl named Adrienne. “Back in 1966 I was hopelessly in love,” says Cavaliere today. “I had met her at a friend’s house in Pelham Manor, N.Y., where I’m from, and she became my muse. Adrienne was my first serious girlfriend, and our relationship lasted about a year. Many of my best songs were written about her--or because of her--including ‘Lonely Too Long,’ ‘Girl Like You’ and ‘How Can I Be Sure.’
“Like most musicians, I always worked Friday and Saturday nights--which meant Adrienne and I only had Sundays together. ‘Groovin’ ’ expressed the bliss I felt relaxing with her on Sunday afternoons, watching the world go by.”
Rather than record the song at the Atlantic studio, they opted for Talent Masters on West 42nd Street, an old fur-storage vault that looked like a dump but had a million-dollar sound.
Cavaliere wanted to incorporate a Latin beat. “When I was in high school, I had led a house band at the Raleigh Hotel in the Catskill Mountains,” says Cavaliere. “Over those summers, I was exposed to Latin music and saw how many people loved dancing to it.”
The key was to keep the arrangement simple. “For the basic track, I played piano,” explains Cavaliere. The other band members played percussion, tambourine, and conga. “Arif Mardin, who supervised the sessions, orchestrated a Carmen Cavallaro-style lounge piano solo for me--to give the background a bit more texture. After we finished, I wanted a Latin bass line dubbed in on top of what we had recorded on the basic track.” Guitarist Gene Cornish couldn’t quite get the sound on bass that Cavaliere was after, so Chuck Rainey, a member of the King Curtis band, was called in. He nailed it on the first take. Next was added the sound of chirping birds.
“When we were just about finished,” Cavaliere says, “Arif suggested adding a harmonica--to drive home the carefree, Sunday feel.” There was no time to make any calls. Someone remembered a guy who swept floors at the studio. He played harmonica. Could he ever. A couple of takes and it was done. Add vocals and sound mixing by the recording engineer, and the song was ready for mastering. “Groovin’” was released in April of 1967 and climbed quickly to the top of the charts.
“My girlfriend Adrienne knew ‘Groovin’ ’ was written about her and us,” Cavaliere told the Wall Street Journal recently. “When I played her the single, she smiled and said, ‘Wow, that’s lovely.’ Andrienne was an angel who came into my life and left. We split up that year, amicably, and eventually she married a dear friend of mine. Sadly, she died about 10 years ago.”
After a 40-year hiatus, the Rascals are performing in New York again, and the tune everyone wants to hear is, of course, “Groovin’.” The song’s message is timeless.