Donnie learned how to sing from his Mother and then from Tony Bennett and Marvin Gaye. In 1970, as a member of the Jaggerz, Donnie earned a gold record for writing and singing the No. 1 song “The Rapper.”
In or around 1978, Donnie was asked to join “Wild Cherry” (“Play That Funky Music, White Boy”) in the group’s waning days. Donnie met Mark Avsec, his future collaborator and partner, in “Wild Cherry” and the two of them began discussing plans for a recording project. Oddly enough, Mark’s first love (at the age of 15) was a huge fan of “The Rapper” and Mark thought that was somehow profound. Then again, Mark sees profundity in a good many things.
Mark and Donnie began writing some songs in Donnie’s basement. Eventually, they wanted to lay down some tracks at Jeree’s Recording Studio. Donnie knew of a terrific bass player named Albritton McClain; he also heard about Marty Lee Hoenes, a hot young guitar player who was playing in a band called “The Pulse.” Donnie went to go see both Albritton and Marty and, after hearing them, invited both to come down to Jeree’s Recording Studio to record some tracks for an unknown project; Mark invited drummer Kevin Valentine to the same session (Kevin and Mark were then currently in the band “Breathless”). Mark brought some songs and sketches of songs, a couple of keyboards, and was eager to produce his first record. Pleasantries all around, within a couple of hours the boys were cutting the tracks for “Agnes,” “Ah! Leah!” and the other recordings that would comprise the “Back On The Streets” album.
The project revolved around Donnie’s voice and Mark’s song and production ideas – as well as the ferocious playing of Marty, Al, and Kevin. Mark and Donnie decided the record would be Donnie’s solo album, though they wanted the band to have an identity as well, e.g., Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. But what to call the band? At the time, Mark lived in Cleveland, Ohio and Donnie lived in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (that is still the case). All of the boys were constantly on the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes (particularly Mark) going to and from Jeree’s Recording Studio in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. Donnie suggested that the group could be called “The Turnpike Cruisers,” based on the 1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. The “Turnpike Cruisers” was promptly shortened to “Cruisers” and “Donnie Iris and the Cruisers” was born.
The song “Ah! Leah!” was passed by every major label. However, in 1980 you could still break new music on the radio. WMMS in Cleveland added the record. WDVE in Pittsburgh added the record. WBCN in Boston added the record. The phones exploded. The single and album were issued by Midwest Records, out of Cleveland, Ohio, and both began to chart on the Cashbox and Billboard charts. Eventually, Chrysalis and MCA/Universal made overtures to pick up the music – MCA/Universal prevailed. “Ah! Leah!” peaked at or around #29 in Billboard’s Singles Chart, achieved much critical acclaim, and was one of the most played songs in the Album Oriented Radio format in 1980. Donnie was christened by a Toronto reviewer after a blazing show at “The El Mocambo” in Toronto as the “new king of cool.” Hence, the follow-up album was called “King Cool.”
The “King Cool” album was recorded in the “stacked vocals” style that Mark and Donnie pioneered on the first album. It yielded the songs “Love Is Like A Rock” and “That’s The Way Love Ought To Be.” It also yielded the song “My Girl,” which reached at or near #20 on Billboard’s Singles Chart.
Beginning in 1980, the band began touring relentlessly, pausing only for bouts of recording. During a three year stretch, the band headlined shows all over the country and toured with dozens of artists, including Journey, Loverboy, Bryan Adams, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, The Romantics, Eddie Money, UFO, Nazareth, Ted Nugent, Joan Jett, Hall & Oates, and the Michael Stanley Band, to name a few.
Two other MCA albums followed (“The High And The Mighty” and “Fortune 410”) yielding songs like “Tough World” and “Do You Compute?” After Donnie and MCA parted ways, several albums were released on a couple of smaller labels (see the “Discography” section).
When litigation ensued in the mid-eighties, slowing the band’s ability to release a new recording, Mark put out a record (recorded in his basement) under the pseudonym “Cellarful Of Noise” (which was released by CBS Associated). Donnie joined Mark for the second album (called “Magnificent Obsession”), which featured the song “Samantha.”
In 1997, after a fairly long hiatus, the original band re-congregated at Jeree’s Recording Studio to record the “Poletown” album, which many consider to be the finest Donnie Iris and the Cruisers album. This album departed in a major way from Mark’s stacked production style, but the playing is typically ferocious (Albritton, Kevin, and Marty are absolutely brilliant), and the songs are lyrically and musically dark and brooding. This album was also the last time that the band recorded with Jerry Reed doing the engineering. Jerry Reed, a lovely and patient man, passed away in 1999.
In the late 1990s, with Tommy Rich behind the skins and Paul Goll installed on bass, the band recorded one of the many shows that they then regularly played at the “Nick’s Fat City” club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The live album culled from this show is a snapshot of the band during the late 1990s. In 1999, “Together Alone” was released – a very atypical Donnie record. After some false starts at trying to record a new album, Tommy eventually left the band, for the second time, in 2002. Initial tracks were cut for the “Ellwood City” album with Brice Foster on drums in 2003; additional tracks were cut with Kevin Valentine on drums in December 2004.
In August 2004, “Donnie Iris and the Cruisers” celebrated their 25th anniversary before 4,000 screaming fans at the Chevy Amphitheater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. All three drummers – Kevin Valentine, Tommy Rich, and Brice Foster were on the stage (as was Mark’s daughter, Danna, who began sitting in with the band as guest drummer when she turned 16 years old).
The “Ellwood City” album, three years in the making, was released in May 2006.
Donnie Iris is generally considered to be the best screamer in rock and roll. He is now an elder statesman of rock and roll. No young singer has yet upstaged him; no one ever will. Donnie is the real deal, both as a man and as a singer. He is a simple guy who wears a smile and loves his friends and his family. Life is better when Donnie is around. Here’s hoping that he’s around for a long time to come.
If you’ve never been to a Donnie Iris and the Cruisers concert, what are you waiting for?
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A conversation between Donnie Iris and Mark Avsec on a cool May evening, 2006
Mark: Hey, Donnie... We need a bio for the web site.
All we have is that “made up” one for you that was used years ago...
It amused me that so many people believed it was real. But, hey, let’s get the real story now . . .
Let’s start from the beginning. What year were you born?
Mark: 1943? Really? You just screwed me up. Because I looked up all kinds of people that were born in 1942. Among them were Lola Falana and Linda Evans. I was going to ask you if you ever did them. Did you?
Melody [Donnie’s significant other, shouts from the other side of the room]: I would never even ask that. [Laughter]
Mark: I will look up who was born in 1943.
Donnie: I have a book. Melody is going to get it.
Mark: Does it excite you to know that Lola Falana is one year older than you?
Donnie: [Laughs] You sound like Chris Farley. OK, I have a commemorative 1943 book.
Mark: Anybody of interest? I noticed that Dave Clark, Paul Butterfield, Isaac Hayes, and Elvin Bishop were born in 1942.
Donnie: Oh yeah, you had 1942 looked up.
Mark:: How old were you when you got interested in music?
Donnie: I must have been like eight years old.
Mark: So that picture of you when you’re singing in the microphone that is on the web site? How are old are you then?
Donnie: I’m about eight years old in that photograph.
Mark: Do you remember the song that you were singing?
Donnie: Let me think. “It Isn’t Fair.”
Mark: Who wrote it?
Donnie: I don’t know. Hey, George Benson was born March 2, 1943. Another Pittsburgh musician.
Mark: So, you’re older than George Benson?
Mark: How does that make you feel?
Donnie: By about three or four days I am older than George Benson.
Mark: Three or four days depending whether it’s a leap year.
Donnie: George Harrison was born on February 25, 1943.
Mark: And you’re February 28, 1943? So, George Harrison is three days older than you!
Donnie: Hey, the Beatles are on TV as we speak. Oh, Joe DiMaggio enlisted in the army in 1943.
Mark: Hey, if you would have been born on February 29th, one day later, then you’d be a leap year baby. Then you’d actually only be 15 or 16 years old today because you would have had only 15 or 16 birthdays. That’s heavy.
Donnie: [Laughs] Now you really sound like Chris Farley! [Smacking himself in the head] “I’m so stupid!” [More laughter – suffice it to say, the laughter never stops, it won’t be mentioned again]
Mark: What did you win the refrigerator for?
Donnie: I was 10 in 1950. [Note: Donnie was born in 1943; he was not 10 in 1950, but we’ll get back to this.] I won the refrigerator for being in a television amateur hour. This amateur hour was on TV at that time.
Mark: There probably wasn’t much on TV at that time.
Donnie: I’m pretty sure it was a TV thing.
Mark: I thought it was a Paul Whiteman thing.
Donnie: That’s what it was.
Donnie: Bobby DeNiro was born on the same day as I was. [Note: Only Donnie could call Robert DeNiro “Bobby”]
I have to ask my Mother. I thought it was a television show.
- [To Melody] Call my Mother, Mel. And ask her if it was a TV show. [Note: boy, he’s taking this interview seriously. J ]
Melody (from a distance): Tell him milk costs 32 cents for a half-gallon delivered to your house in 1943.
Mark: What was the next landmark date in your entertainment career after winning the refrigerator?
Donnie: Probably not until I got out of college. When I turned 12 I stopped singing. My voice started changing. I didn’t want to do it any more.
Donnie: I played drums, but no serious singing until college. Wait! My Dad bought me my first guitar when I was in the 11th grade.[Donnie’s Mom is on the phone]
Donnie: Hi, Mom: How are you? You have a cold. When was I on Paul Whiteman? Was that on TV or radio? [Pause] It was TV, Spark! [Pause]
I was eight? I was eight years old, Spark! [Note: the picture of Donnie on the web site of little Donnie singing in the white jacket is Donnie singing on the Paul Whiteman show] I’ll see you, Mom.
Mark: Tell your Mom I said hello.
Donnie: Mom, Mark Avsec says hello. [Louder] Mark Avsec says hello.
Mark: Are you going over there on Sunday (Mother’s Day )?
Donnie: Probably. John Denver was born in 1943.
Mark: You got the guitar. What happened next?
Donnie: It was giving me bleeding fingers so I stopped playing. I gave it up and put the guitar behind the couch. I didn’t take out again until three years later, at Slippery Rock.
Melody: (from a distance): They started serving SPAM to soldiers in 1943.
Mark: What made you want to play the guitar at 15? Was Elvis around?
Donnie: I’m not sure. Yeah, Elvis was around.
Melody (from a distance):You were trying to pick up some skank.
Mark: (Laughter) That is usually the motivation why we all begin to play musical instruments. [Note: Avsec always teaches his law students at Case Western Reserve University School of Law that the promise of copyright’s monopoly does not motivate songwriters to write songs nearly as much as the desire to woo women.]
Donnie: That definitely is a motivator. Skank money.
[Much laughter] Elvis and Buddy Holly and all of those people…You know what, Spark, I started listening to Ray Charles albums in college, and then I met a guy named Jim Evans who played guitar, and we played guitar and we put a band together. We were called the Trivells. Dave Amodie, Jimmy Evans, and I were in the group.
Mark: Who sang?
Mark: When did you think your voice was cool again?
Donnie: While I was in college. At some point I decided I didn’t want to be in college anymore, but I wanted to be in music.
Mark: Was it the skank money?
Donnie: That was probably it. All of the football players were taking all of the skank.
Mark: How do you spell SKANK?
Donnie: (Just laughs – He thought about calling his Mom to check)
Mark: In fact, I really didn’t know of your serious Ray Charles influences until we did NO REST FOR THE WICKED off of the new “Ellwood City” album. When we had that intense two or three minutes when the tape was running and you were just testifying on that one pass. And I’m thinking, man that is Ray Charles. We never explored that side of your voice.
Donnie: I’m surprised I never mentioned that to you. It was early, while I was at college. I never listened to a lot of rhythm and blues like Marvin Gaye and the Temptations until I was with the Jaggerz. But Ray Charles would have been one of the first great singers I listened to.
Mark: How long did the Trivells last?
Donnie: We needed a bass player so we got another guy named Dave Rieser. We found him at Slippery Rock (the college) and formed a four man band. At that point we called ourselves Donnie and the Donnelles. We played frat parties.
Mark: Now, did you get the premium skank because you were Donnie?
Donnie: Yes, I probably did.
Mark: How long did Donnie and the Donnelles last?
Donnie: Maybe a year or so.
Mark: OK, the folks can go get the Cold Nectar documentary to learn more on this subject. What was the band after Donnie and the Donnelles?
Donnie: The Jaggerz.
Mark: And everything about the Jaggerz also is in the documentary.
Donnie: Pretty much.
Mark: If you could name five musical influences in your life, and a group can count as one influence, what or who would those influences be, in no particular order?
1. Ray Charles
2. The Beatles
3. Marvin Gaye, my all-time favorite
4. The Temptations (and other Motown stuff)
5. Buddy Holly
Mark: Interesting including Buddy Holly.
Donnie: That’s heavy.
Donnie: He had that rockabilly thing that I liked.
Mark: I was struck, in helping to put together the web site, as I went through the old pictures, how much you looked like “Donnie Iris” as a young man. In fact, my favorite picture of you is the one when you were in the car with the ring on your finger; Marty and I included that photo on the disc itself. When I met you, you had these little John Lennon wire rim glasses. We were putting together the “Back On The Streets” album, and I mentioned Elvis Costello to you as a cool look. And you said, “I have my old glasses.” And that was it. That was the beginning of “Donnie Iris” for me.
But I was completely struck that in the old pictures that you looked like “Donnie Iris” as a young man.
Mark: (Pounding his forehead) “I’m so stupid!” So, what are the five moments in your musical career that are precious to you or have a lasting memory for you?
Donnie: Obviously the Gold Record with the Jaggerz for "THE RAPPER". I would say also the time with you guys when I joined Wild Cherry. Those were great times. Being on the road was great.
Mark: Particularly Albuquerque.
Donnie: Particularly Albuquerque when we just hung out and got tan. Obviously, meeting you was a moment in time that means a lot because of what happens after that. I’d also say the comeback album, “Back On The Streets.” And the follow-up “King Cool” album. Those are all milestones for me. And I’m going to say that hopefully the “Ellwood City” album will be another milestone.
Mark: Well, I don’t have the mastering refs back yet, but I do think that this “Ellwood City” album is really a good record for us.
Donnie: I do, too. It’s really good I think.
Melody (from a distance): They invented some sort of brassiere in 1943. It looks like a Madonna bra, all pointed . . . hickory perma-lift brassieres. “The lift that never lets you down.”
Mark: But does it separate? Because that was the breakthrough as I see it: when the bra not only lifted, but separated too. If you had a free afternoon, what would be the most ideal way to spend it?
Donnie: Laying next to my skank with a Courvoisier in one hand and Cuban cigar in the other.
Mark: We should mention that you are a cigar aficionado these days.
Donnie: Mention that.
Melody (from a distance): See if you can get some other people hooked on that nasty habit.
Mark: You’ve lived in Beaver Falls and Ellwood City your entire life.
Donnie: Right. I came to Beaver Falls in 1968.
Mark: So, Ellwood City is going to honor you again on June 17, 2006. How does that make you feel? It’s going to be called “Donnie Iris Day.”
Donnie: I feel great about that. That is going to be cool, especially with the album being called “Ellwood City.” I think the album will make an impact on some of those people in Ellwood for sure.
Mark: Plus, your nephew plays drums in Cherry Monroe, the band that is going to play in Ellwood City on June 17, 2006 in your honor.
Donnie: My nephew is playing? Great!
Mark: What’s your sign? Are you an Aquarius?
Donnie: I am a Pisces, the fish.
Mark: What is your favorite color?
Donnie: Purple, like Prince.
Mark: What is your favorite guitar?
Donnie: Fender Stratocaster.
Mark: Can you tell the difference between the Stratocaster and the Telecaster?
Donnie: In the sound? Sure. To me, the feel of the two are not that much different. I always liked the Stratocaster better because I really liked the sound.
Mark: What is the best group to ever come out of Pittsburgh?
Donnie: The Skyliners during the late 50s, when Joe Rock was with the group as songwriter and manager. That was when the group had the hit song SINCE I DON’T HAVE YOU and the singer, Jimmy Beaumont. Jimmy Beaumont was great. In fact, Phil Spector, when he was hot, I am told once said that Jimmy Beaumont “was the greatest white soul singer alive.” Jimmy Beaumont was a bad ass.
Mark: What’s your favorite cigar?
Donnie: That one you brought to me at the studio a few weeks ago: the PADRON ANNIVERSARIO 1964. NATURAL WRAPPER.
Mark: How appropriate.
Melody (from a distance): And he likes Altoyd mints to go with it.
Mark: Now, are you going to smoke a cigar tonight?
Donnie: Not tonight. Too chilly. If it was warmer, I might go out on the back porch.
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