Gene Cornish (of The Rascals) Part II: What Makes The Rascals Unique, and Why Civil Rights Were Important To The Band

     When you talk to one of your musical heroes, you tend to babble like an idiot. I’m fairly certain I did that a few times during this interview with Gene Cornish, guitar player for The Rascals, a band that had more hits than you can shake a stick at. I was able to catch Cornish in concert not once but twice in one weekend in February, and what I was struck by was that whether he’s playing acoustic guitar with Tommy James and Jonathan Ashe or rocking out to “Good Lovin'” on an electric, he’s damned good. Period.

     What you’ll be reading in this part of the interview is Cornish explaining why The Rascals are different from other groups of their period, and why the group was so socially conscious and often stuck their necks out for what they knew was a cause worth fighting for.  I know that you will be as enthralled reading the interview as I was listening to Cornish tell these stories.

 

Part I of the interview can be found here: https://mccartneyfans.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/gene-cornish-the-rascals-guitar-player-will-tommy-james-at-nycfab50-event-saturday-february-8th/

 

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(Photo by Jennifer Dodge)

 

Me: In terms of your influences as a musician, who would you say made you most want to get into music?

 

Cornish: My first discovery as a kid at 12 years old was Elvis Presley. Elvis and his guitar player Scotty Moore, and then Ricky Nelson and James Burton, and of course Duane Eddy. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, those were the people who influenced me the most. Then of course The Beatles changed every musician’s life by making it possible for the guitar player who usually stood in the back while the lead singer stood in the front, to come up front and be a front man, too, and to write your own songs and to really be self contained and be self expressive.

 

Me: I saw Once Upon a Dream [The Rascals’ multimedia show and concert] in Boston (2013) and it was the first time I had ever seen The Rascals. What I was struck by the most was usually you have one or two people who stand in the front, like the front runners of the group. But with The Rascals each member of the group is their own person.

 

Cornish: It wasn’t Diana Ross and The Supremes or Tommy James and The Shondells, it was The Rascals. There was no Mick Jagger up front. It was Eddie and I up front and the two guys on pedestals. Everybody had equal billing. It’s a four man group, totally.

 

Me: That really came through. I was born in ’75 so I came to all of this great music late, and I was struck by, I think everybody knows “Good Lovin.’” When I was sitting at “Once Upon a Dream” I kept thinking, “Oh, they did that song too!” whenever a new song was played. “Oh, and that great song, too?”

 

Cornish: People are affected that way. I remember seeing The BeeGees and forgetting how many hits they had. “Oh, I forgot about that one. And that one.” The Rascals have the same way. We had 17 Top 20 records in a row, 5 of them went to number 1 and 7 of them went to the Top 10, and we had 8 albums. We sold 80 million records. It’s that kind of situation where it’s the same thing with Tommy James. Once he starts rattling off hits it’s, “Oh, I forgot about that one!”  You remember certain landmark songs with The Rascals. You remember “Good Lovin’” and “Groovin’” of course, and “How Can I Be Sure” “Beautiful Morning” “People Got To Be Free,” “You Better Run” with that kind of catalogue, you know?

 

Me: You hit it right on the head, especially with Tommy James as well as The Rascals. Your songs are similar in some ways but they’re really different. There’s an evolution there.

 

Cornish: The Beatles set that standard. Before The Beatles, every group, even The Four Seasons…when you listen to “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” there’s a similarity about them. But The Beatles never repeated themselves, and neither did The Rascals. We didn’t do any cookie cutter songs, there was no formula.  We just came up with ideas and mucked with it. Most of the music has really lasted. It’s not as dated as some songs are. If you’re old enough to remember The Rascals in the beginning, you can place yourself in that moment in time when you heard that song. With Beatles’ songs, Elvis Presley songs, I remember exactly being in junior high and hearing “Kansas City,” and I was like, “Oh my God!”  I remember exactly where I was. It was a school dance in the gymnasium in the 8th grade and Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” came on. Boom!  People remember “Groovin’” being at the beach in the summer sun of ’67.

 

Me: And that’s what I appreciate so much about “Once Upon a Dream” is that it’s not just a straight up concert, which would be great, by the way. It really paces the evolution of the band.

 

Cornish: Steven (Van Zandt) wanted to bring us out, but what he did was instead of sneaking in through the back door we came busting in through the front door. We said, “Here we are.”  We don’t know if we’re going to continue that show because a lot of people saw it. You’ve always got to refresh yourself otherwise you become, “Well, that’s what [The Rascals] do [the “Once Upon a Dream” show].” We can’t, The Rascals don’t do that, so we may go out this year just with a straight out concert, and that’s the concept, some fresh ideas in it.  We’re always evolving. We’ve fallen in love with each other all over again, and we’ve fallen in love with the music, and of course there’s also a rapport with the people in the audience, our fans. It’s just over the top.

 

Me: And that’s it. You can really sit in the audience and I was pretty close to the stage, and you could feel this love and excitement and energy coming off the stage into the audience.

 

Cornish: That’s what the music is about. The music wasn’t about the eve of destruction and doomsday. Even though it had some political settings in some of the songs like “People Got To Free” and “Ray Of Hope,” it was a ray of hope. It wasn’t like, “Okay, this is it. We need to go protest.” We didn’t wear our pockets on our sleeves. What we did was we gave people an option, an alternative, to protests.  We protested with our music. We weren’t getting in line on the marches and getting photo ops like some of the stars did. I’m not going to play down their motives, but we weren’t into that. Too many people were looking into the bitter side. So many times we got some Vietnam veterans who came back and said that “Beautiful Morning” was played instead or “Reveille” in camp.

 

Me: That’s the beauty of The Rascals’ music. “Once Upon a Dream” really hit that home for me. Yes the music evolved and yes you guys were [socially] active, but there’s a positive quality to the music.

 

Cornish: We worked towards Civil Rights by making an announcement in the papers that we would not do any shows, headline any shows, unless there was at least, minimally, one black act on the show because we had an integrated audience, we wanted an integrated show.

 

Me: I didn’t realize that. That’s really impressive. It reaffirms my feelings about The Rascals which is just good, positive music.

 

Cornish: That started the marriage between The Rascals and Steve Van Zandt. He worked against Apartheid in South Africa years ago and all of the things the white people were doing there. The Rascals were asked to come play in South Africa and we were told we had to either play for a black audience or a white audience, that we couldn’t play them both. So we chose the black audience and they cancelled our show. There were some major financial repercussions of that, but we survived that because it was the right thing to do. You can’t go to South Africa and work for ending Apartheid and sing “People Got To Be Free.” That just doesn’t work.

 

 

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~ by Jennifer Dodge on March 20, 2014.

2 Responses to “Gene Cornish (of The Rascals) Part II: What Makes The Rascals Unique, and Why Civil Rights Were Important To The Band”

  1. […] Part II of the interview can be found here: https://mccartneyfans.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/gene-cornish-of-the-rascals-part-ii-what-makes-the-ras… […]

  2. I run a shop on Etsy called hoarderhaven and one of my customers Lives in Washington where noticed the rascals were playing there this weekend, but then I didn’t see Gene Cornish on the bill, where is he playing? Not with the rascals? I only want to see them if he is with them because I will never forget his eyes when he played the harmonica on Groovin , that was my generation since I’m almost 70, I had a radio show for 12 years in Santa Barbara in the 70s and 80s. It seems these guys should be together can’t figure out why if they are not, I couldn’t find any info on him playing anywhere recently or currently. Thank you, Trina Simon, I hate to give my email because I have 18,000+ emails backed up, I prefer people call or text me at 805-895-2382, Cre8lite11@Gmail.com

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