FELIX CAVALIERE: NOW & THEN
A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Legend Speaks Out
On the Current Condition of the Music Industry
By Steven Acker for The Lowdown
AS A 16-YEAR-OLD ROCKER IN WARREN, OHIO, I built my first band’s following largely upon our repertoire of Young Rascals’ material. The Rascals were the bridge between the early 60s pop music of the Beatles and the Beach Boys and modern soul. Their music continues to inform rock, pop, and hip-hop to this day. I--and countless other young musicians around the world--crossed that bridge to build our own careers in music. Our band could not afford a Hammond B3 organ, nor did we have the means to haul it around. We made do with a Farfisa Mini-Compact. Nevertheless, we captured that Rascals’ blue-eyed soul feel close enough to establish a decent reputation for ourselves. You can understand, then, my excitement over speaking with Felix now.
When the most significant revolution in popular music since the Beatles came in 1981, it was Pat Benatar’s version of the Rascals’ “You Better Run” that MTV chose as its second music video. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Miami Steve Van Zandt in 1997 (what took so long?), organist, singer, and songwriter, Felix Cavaliere, continues to thrill live audiences around the world. At the age of 76, he is still going strong. As an observer of, and part of, the music industry all these years (he was a member of Joey Dee and the Starlighters nearly six decades ago!), Felix has seen many changes in the business, and he has a lot to say about them.
That is the focus of this interview.
July 3, 2019
SA: Let’s start with you overview of the music industry in 2019.
FELIX: For the most part, the people who run the businesses in the music industry could care less about the music. They care more about the bottom line. The band just rehearsed at a studio in Weehawken, NJ called SST. The owner, John Hanti is a rare example of the opposite: he cares about the music, and he takes good care of us. I came up from Atlantic Records. The people who ran Atlantic came to the United States as children of ambassadors. They were enamored with R&B music and created one of the finest collections of R&B and jazz music that the United States and the world have ever heard. That's the type of people I used to be around. There is a huge, huge difference between the old-timers and the new timers. The new timers are bean counters. And that's okay because that's the way it is. The old guys loved the music, they came to the shows. They respected the fact that you're an artist. Now it's all about putting as many people as you can in the seats. That's about it.
SA: Who signed you to Atlantic? Was it Arif Mardin?
FELIX: No, Arif was a staff worker at that time. He actually rose through the ranks after we were signed and he became one of the most well-known producers in the world. The people who were there at the time who signed us were Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun and of course, Neshui Ertegun. They were the people who were responsible for us being part of the label. Tom Dowd, too---a great engineer whose voice carried a lot of weight at Atlantic.
SA: Was Atlantic the label you wanted to sign with? Was it your first choice?
FELIX: We were very young. Atlantic was the only label that would allow us to produce ourselves. We wanted to produce our band ourselves. We did not want the staff to take over. We even turned down Phil Spector, who was one of the best producers who ever lived. We felt we had a unique sound and idea and that Atlantic was the label that would give us that opportunity. I will always be thankful for that. It was a big responsibility to hand over to a bunch of kids like us. They supplemented us in the studio with some of the finest people in the industry, like Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, but they left us in charge.
SA: You were probably the first rock musician to use the Hammond B3 organ as a lead instrument.
FELIX: I’m not sure about that, but I know I was one of the first to use it in a different way than some of the other players had because I played bass on it. I used the whole instrument rather than using it only as background filler—a pad, as they call it in our industry.
SA: There were hundreds of thousands of other keyboard players and organ players whom you inspired to play. A lot of bands, like a couple of my bands, that had B3s suffered many backaches from hauling them around.
FELIX: That's the truth. The B3 was not made at all for what it was used for. It was not made to haul up and down those steps. Now, many years later, Hammond makes organs that weigh 35 pounds, and they are very good. They still have the same sound, or very close to it. Leslie was another company that went along with the change. That B3/Lesley sound---they got it very close to the real thing. This is an example of modernization in our industry that has had positive manifestations. It's not all negative. The conflict has long been between Big Business versus Mom-and-Pop outfits. Rock and roll started in the early days with tiny, independent labels. They’d find talented people and put them out in the marketplace. But they always had to fight the big guys, they always had to fight to keep their own big artists, and it was not always in the artists’ best interests.
Bobby Blue Bland, for example. Here was a guy who was signed to a label, a phenomenal blues artist. But his label, which I think was in Texas, would not let him go and grow. He was never able to achieve significant international status because of that. They had him under contract and that was that and that was how the business was in those days. Some of the labels grew, like Chess Records and Stax, some eventually merged, and some eventually died. It’s a fascinating story, the way our industry has evolved.
SA: Most of the major independent labels like Atlantic, Stax, and Motown have been folded into or purchased by six mega-labels that basically own everything now? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
FELIX: That’s been true across the board. Small telephone companies, for example—they’re all gone. The big guys have taken over the entire planet. That's the way it is. What are you going to do? But there’s this thing that keeps most of us going and it’s called talent. There are still people out there with phenomenal talent. We still call ourselves artists and we still believe that talent will rise to the top somehow. With the grace of God, you’re going to be seen and heard, and that's what keeps everybody going.
SA: One of the reasons some people cite as evidence of cultural decline and the decay of pop music is the level of songwriting. Are there any new songwriters out there that you believe rise to the level of songwriting of the sixties and seventies?
FELIX: It’s more difficult now for good songs to be heard because of the way the industry is. Bob Dylan may be the best songwriter writer of our century, but for him to crack through now the way he did with his first album on Columbia? I don't see that happening anymore. I don't think that he would. The industry today is fully predicated on making money. If you don't make money, you're gone. In the old days, the Columbia Red Label kept great artists on the roster not just to sell product, but because they were unique- artists, like Stravinsky and Ornette Coleman. Columbia knew they weren't going to sell a lot of albums, but it was an honor to have those artists on the label. It was a privilege to present them to the public for all eternity. I don't see that happening anymore. They don't care about that.
SA: John Hammond was responsible for much of that integrity and philosophy, but we don't see many John Hammond's in the record industry these days.
FELIX: That was Columbia. They had another guy later named Bruce Lundvall who branched off with the Blue Note label and signed artists like Nora Jones; it wasn’t that long ago. Most of those artistic, boutique labels are not there anymore. I don't know where they are. So that's the difference. It’s like a big pinball machine game now. You must make hit records. You’ve got to sell tons of product and millions of streams on Spotify and all that kind of stuff just so you can survive. I don't profess to understand this new world.
SA: You've been quoted as saying that if you stick your opinions or feelings into your music these days, you're gonna get in trouble...that record labels don't particularly like to hear artists' opinions today. Many of today's pop hits, it seems, are superficial songs about broken affairs and broken hearts. There’s a lot of negativity in songwriting today.
FELIX: The songs reflect the times. If there's negativity in the times, there's negativity in the songs. It’s always been like that. It doesn't surprise me. The corporate monster that has taken over our country is the real problem. On the other hand, with computer technology, you can have a studio in your house for under $500. You can do a record in your own house now that we could only dream of in the old days
SA: Digital recording technology has truly brought democracy to young recording artists because anybody can do it now. You don't have to land a label deal and label money to go into a studio anymore.
FELIX: Absolutely. You've got this wonderful Internet, but nobody really knows whether it's a good thing or a bad thing because it screws up our entire planet and pushes people out of business, but it also gives artists a platform to sell their product. It’s both good and bad. I studied for many years with a guru from India. He asked me, “What is the difference between good and bad?” Take something like electricity. Electricity is great when you plug your steam iron in, but not so great when you plug the P.A. in wrong and electrocute the singer.
It’s an interesting world for young people today. I use a computer every day. I use it for my music now and I enjoy it. I really like it, but on the other hand, it's changed things, and not entirely for the better. You don’t have to be so talented anymore. You can correct a pitchy voice as easily as you correct misspellings on a Microsoft Word file. You don't have to study that hard, anymore. It’s a different way of thinking about things, but it’s also cool in its own way
SA: It's a double-edged sword.
FELIX: It is. And that's the way it's supposed to be I guess because that's how it is. But yeah, there's talent out there today. There's plenty of talent out there. The songs we hear on the radio are not as good, but not because the songwriters are not out there. It’s because industry standards have sunk so low and radio playlists have become so tight.
SA: Living in Nashville, have you written on Music Row?
FELIX: When I first came here, that was my plan--just be a writer. But things have changed so much over the years; we're all on the road now, all the time. It's enjoyable and there's an audience out there that wants to hear our music. And by God, it brings in the bacon, man. But unless you're at the top of the heap, you write a song today and you’re writing with maybe five people. It takes a lot of streaming divided by five to make any money.
SA: There is a Music Row way of songwriting, certain rules you must follow. It’s made modern country music records rather sterile and formulaic.
FELIX: The whole industry is like that, not just Country. In the old days, for us to make a change in a recorded song, we had to use a razor blade and scotch tape and have a careful hand. Now I can digitally make a change to any song and any recording within two seconds. I can cut it in half, I can add another chorus, I can do whatever I want. In the old days, you couldn't do that. But you could drive an engineer crazy enough to kill you.
SA: Your first political statement in the song was “People Got to Be Free.” It was a plea for harmony, understanding, and cooperation. It was a message that resonated then and still resonates today. How does it resonate with you today in the context of today's vast political and social divisions?
FELIX: Yeah. It is still relevant. I find that I have a tremendous rapport with my audience these days where I can communicate just as a human being rather than as a performer. I remember the days when we were able to hold an opinion and not piss off half the population of the United States. You’re not allowed to have an opinion today without alienating somebody, and that's absolute nonsense.
I supported Bobby Kennedy’s campaign then. I actively campaigned for him, and with him, and wrote “People Got to Be Free.” in response to his assassination. I was distraught. I was so taken aback by this stupidity. that somebody would shoot another human being like that, someone we had such high hopes for. We don’t know what might have happened had he lived. Maybe that’s why they shot him. That song was a result of that event. We were very involved, and I was particularly involved. I still am, even though I'm not as active as I used to be in public. I'm more private now because we don't have the status that we had in the industry of those days when we could carry a big stick. I wish that young people were more like that today, to tell you the truth. They let the world go by and then they complain about it. If you don't use your voice today through your vote, then you got nothing to say, buddy. That's how I feel about it.
SA: Let's talk about your spiritual philosophy. You've said that you are a living testament to the belief that family is the domestic church and that parents are the first teachers to inform their children about faith. You credit your mother for providing that foundation for you. Is this still important to you?
FELIX: Oh, of course. My parents, especially my mom, were adamant that I be brought up properly with a faith. The rules and regulations and tenants you learn as a child are what make you a better human being. Without them, you might as well be a wild animal. You've got to have faith in something, and my faith has been extremely helpful to me.
SA: What challenges do new artists face in the year 2019 face that the Rascals did not have to face?
FELIX: The challenges that young artists have today are humongous. There are so many people doing it. In our day, there were not that many people doing it. Now, there's a group in every town, a hundred groups, hundreds of people in every town trying to make it in the music business. This town—Nashville---certainly is the best example of that. Everybody wants to make it in Nashville. But as I said, you don't have to be that great to make it anymore. You don't even have to sing in tune. Listen to the voices of the fifties and sixties. Man, those singers were phenomenal. To this day, they are still unmatched. Another obstacle- is the cost of making it in the music business today. It's a big, big, nut to crack. Somebody's gotta pay for it and somebody's got to pay it back. That is far different than it used to be by multiples of fifty or even a hundred. You've got to invest a lot of your own money now to hit the top. Sad, but true.
SA: There was a time when record companies gave new acts advances and tour support money. Few, if any, new artists get advances today. They get no tour support. It's all on pretty much on them.
FELIX: It's not really a good idea these days to try this business. I'll tell you that right now. It's very difficult. That’s just the way it is. What are ya' gonna do?
SA: None of the players that are working with you on the road now played in the original Rascals. Do you still work with any of the original Rascals?
FELIX: No, no. They don't work anymore. Gene Cornish, our original guitar player suffered a heart attack while on stage with me last year. I don't know if he's going to be working again, ever. We’re getting up there, man. It’s a little more difficult now. I've never really stopped. I've worked all my life, so to me, it's just a normal day at the office. But the other guys have not done that. They don't have that work ethic going for them. I’ve got a great band of people from Nashville. I'm having a great time. I'm enjoying it.
SA: Looking back on your 60-plus years in the business, was there one event one specific event or development- that marked the beginning of the changes we've been discussing?
FELIX: It was right after Woodstock. That's when the big corporations jumped into this business. That was the turning point. Fifty years ago this year. Big Corporations saw Big Money in Big Acts--Mega Acts--and that was the end of the game, man. They started putting their corporate hands into everything, trying to create something that only God can create. They wanted to manufacture artificial intelligence in the music industry, and they've done it.
A friend of mine wrote a song called “It’s Not the Money, it’s the Money.” It’s just business. That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? And it's okay. I'm not here to be like a Communist or something. This is what happened, this is what our world is like, and you either deal with it or you don't, and that's okay. Because there are still people like John Hanti around. There are still people who give a damn, there are still people who care about the art and the artist.
So, I think we'll be OK. It’s just that right now, this period we're in---musically and creatively and artistically—is a little locked in.
SA: You knew Jimi Hendrix before he went to England. He went over there with Chaz Chandler with virtually no original material except bits and pieces, and he didn't even sing much. Six months later, he came out with “Are You Experienced?” one of the greatest, if not the greatest, debut album of all time. The transformation that somehow occurred within him was amazing. He rose to the occasion.
FELIX: Well, it makes a lot of sense because over here he was just a black guitar player. Over there, he was a phenomenon from the first day and the first night he played in a club in England. All the guitarists had heard about him and they treated him like a god from day one, whereas over here they didn’t give a shit. When he got those accolades from all those prominent musicians like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page…well, we all need accolades.
SA:: At the beginning of your career with the Rascals, a similar, huge opportunity confronted you. Atlantic signed the Rascals only five months after you'd been together. Do you feel now that having that opportunity had an impact on your creativity and your songwriting and prompted you to reach a new level?
FELIX: When Atlantic Records put the contracts in front of us, they believed that this could happen. They gave us complete control over our own work. They had the wonderful foresight to put two giant talents in the room with us. If you don't rise to the occasion then, you go home. It’s over.
They planted the seeds and they allowed us to grow. If Atlantic had not done that, I don't know what would have happened. I owe it all to them. I really do.