Read an Excerpt From ‘The Story of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers': Exclusive
In the new book The Story of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers, author D.X. Ferris sat down with Iris, members of his band and others who were around during their breakthrough years. He documented Iris' six-decade career through dozens of uncollected stories and more than 100 photos.
"For my money, Donnie Iris and the Cruisers are the best-kept secret from '80s radio rock," says Ferris, who has written two books about Slayer. "Today, if they're remembered at all, they're best known for 1980's enduring radio staple 'Ah! Leah!' But they never quit, and they're still hitting new career highs."
Ferris, who grew up in Pittsburgh, just like Iris, acknowledges there are hometown heroes like Donnie Iris and the Cruisers all across the country. "They're iconic in their dual hometowns of Pittsburgh and Cleveland — though increasingly obscure beyond the tri-state area," he notes. "They're inaccurately remembered as a one-hit wonder, though they scored three Billboard Top 40 hits and seven Billboard Hot 100 singles. They had a major-label deal that evaporated, but they soldiered on. And 38 years later, they have never gone a year without playing a show."
Iris has actually hit the Hot 100 with three different acts over the course of two decades -- first with the Jaggerz, who reached No. 2 in 1970 with "The Rapper" and then in the late '80s with Cellarful of Noise, a duo he formed with the Cruisers' Mark Avsec, who earlier played with Wild Cherry, best known for the No. 1 hit "Play That Funky Music."
"The Cruisers aren't exactly rock legends," Ferris says. "But in their prime, working limited resources, the Cruisers still managed to be a competitive presence on national radio. They weren’t headlining arenas. But they were in those arenas, opening for acts like Ted Nugent, Hall and Oates, Nazareth, Loverboy and UFO."
In this exclusive excerpt from the book, band members recall signing to MCA after scoring a hit on a local label and then being sent on the road. They weren't the Cruisers yet; they were still Iris' unnamed backing band. The group played some warm-up shows in Ohio, then lip-synced on the Solid Gold TV program. Then they hit it big and landed a gig opening a series of Nazareth concerts -- a great opportunity, but impatient audiences led to an incident like the one at the St. Louis Keil Opera House, where the band was booed without mercy.
Kevin Valentine (drummer): I was a big fan of Nazareth growing up, listening to it in cars, doing God knows what. One show, we started playing, and my drums sounded like utter rubbish, like, “What happened?!” The back of the arena was on a very steep hill. The road crew had managed to let my drums roll down the hill. So they went out of tune.
Iris: St. Louis was another one where they absolutely hated us. The crowd were not being good, until we did the last song, which was “Leah.” Then when they realized who we were, they started clapping for us.
Valentine: We had done all these shows, and they were great. People were just digging us. But St. Louis, I remember Hank [McHugh, the road manager] coming up and telling us, “This crowd, I don’t know. Be careful.” And we stepped onstage, and they started booing us from the very first note.
Marty Hoenes (then known as Marty Lee, guitarist): I can remember what the crowd looked like: They were camouflage.
Avsec: [Bassist] Albritton [McClain] is biracial and does not look Scottish. The Nazareth folks were Scottish. And so everyone was drinking by the bar one night after a show, and Albritton tells one of the Scotsmen his name: Albritton McClain. And Albritton McClain sounds very much like a Scottish name. And so the guys says, “No, no way, that’s not your name!” And Albritton shows him his driver’s license. And the Scotsman replies, “Well, fook me!” in a loud brogue. And everyone laughed. That is one of those lines that lived on infamy: “Albritton McClain, well, fook me!”
Valentine: They reminded me of a bunch of rough-and-tumble drinking guys. It was fun to play concerts with them, since I loved many, and played many, of their songs growing up in a bar band.
March 13, 1981: Donnie Iris opened for UFO in Chicago, at the packed Chicago International Amphitheatre, an arena with a capacity of 9,000. Depending whom you’re talking to, that concert was just another show, a triumph or an ordeal. The set was broadcast on local station WWLP, "The Loop,” FM 98. The show circulates in bootleg circles, and the performance sounds fine. But there was a lot going on that night.
The atmosphere was tense. UFO’s tough crowd tapped the long-haired heavy metal demographic. The concert had two opening acts: Donnie Iris and the Cruisers and the Romantics. Their different crowds might have helped move some tickets. But the bands didn’t delight the hard rock aficionados in attendance. The blog Soundaboard hosts a series of recollections.
Anonymous Commenter 1: I saw this show .... UFO was great, but for some reason they had the Romantics and Donnie Iris open for ’em. But my friend had the last laugh when he hit Iris in the head with a roll of toilet paper.
Anonymous Commenter 2: This was back in the day when bottles were sold, and the drummer of the Romantics was hit in the head and cursed out the crowd. UFO was great, and I remember Pete Way smashing his bass.
Jim Markovich, longtime sound man for the Cruisers and Ramones: Chicago, no real memories.
Valentine: Marty was getting pelted with quarters. That was a less-than-pleasant gig.
Iris: Chicago was one I remember.
Watch Donnie Iris and the Cruisers' 'Ah! Leah!' Video
Hoenes: It was not a run-of-the-mill show. We were doing big shows at the time. UFO was big. If they’re going to sell 10,000 seats, they don’t need any help selling to heavy metal fans. So that might not sell out the whole place. But if you put a couple different bands on the bill, that will bring in different people, and now you’ve sold out the whole arena. Another heavy metal band, you’re tapping the same crowd. I think that’s the same thing that happened with Hall and Oates [later]. For me, the show was only memorable from the standpoint of what went on during the show. We weren’t really welcomed by the heavy metal fans. And neither were the Romantics. We went on first. Probably about halfway through the set, I could tell we weren’t very well liked. At the time, our impression was, “These people hate us.” All we could see was the first 20 or 30 rows of UFO fans. The place was full, but all we could really see or hear was this black arena. All we could see was the absolute most hardcore UFO fans in the building, sitting up front. You could see their tolerance — or lack thereof — quite clearly. Things were being thrown. I could see the looks on their faces. I could see a … lack of enthusiasm. We got the impression we weren’t that welcome there. But they didn’t despise us. At least we had a heavy sound, especially “Leah.” They tolerated us, but just barely. Now, they despised the Romantics, because they didn’t have a heavy sound, and they were all dressed in matching leather, and their hair was perfect. They didn’t like them at all. They had already suffered through one band. And now they have to suffer through a second non-UFO act — torture! They might have been camped out for two days to get tickets. They have had enough. Happily enough, it was being broadcast live. We thought, “We’re not going to make a very good impression on Chicago. What a shame.” But the house mics that were recording the actual audience response were way deeper into the crowd, away from the hardcore UFO fans, and more into the general-metal-slash-rock crowd. So when we heard the broadcast and heard the response and the applause after the songs, the whole place was applauding after “Leah,” and it sounded fine. This was a big, good, warm response. And we got fairly high on the playlist on [Chicago rock station] WLS. So the good news was: It really was fine. That wasn’t the first time or the last time that we played on a show where we weren’t appreciated that much.
Valentine: There was a guy down front. He was just being a dick, flipping us off the whole time. So at the end of the show, we come out to bow. And I had my drumsticks with us. And I held out the sticks to him, and said, “Do you want these?” And all of a sudden, he turns into my friend, “Yeah, yeah! Throw me the sticks!” And I flipped him off and threw the sticks the other way. And that was so much fun to do in front of 10,000 people. The Romantics went on second, and they really got messed with. They wouldn’t even stop in between songs.
The players bonded together in one trial after another. And before long, they were no longer Donnie’s backing band. They were the Cruisers.
Avsec: Recording the first album, there was no real band. The band was aspirational. I intended to have a hit project, but it may never have happened. Now that we had a hit, we put the band together. Kevin and Marty and Albritton wanted an identity too, so the name was “Donnie Iris and the Cruisers” based on that Turnpike Cruiser idea. Even now, we are often billed as Donnie Iris. It’s whatever people wanted to say. When we were opening on bills for the first album, and the emcee dude would come up and say, “Please welcome Donnie Iris.” Kevin would yell from the behind the drums before he kicked off “Agnes”: “And the Cruisers!” This was a group effort.
And now Donnie Iris and the Cruisers were battle-tested and ready for their hotly anticipated debut in their first breakout market, Donnie's hometown, Pittsburgh.
The Story of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers is available now at Amazon and select retailers.