Eddie Brigati has been swimming laps and working out on weight machines. “I’m a regular gerbil,” he says. The Garfield native doesn’t want the world to know where he exercises—fans sometimes still hunt down the former Rascals singer. But at 67, he has quit smoking and completed three years of voice lessons. “It’s Steven who’s giving me my marching orders,” he says, meaning actor and E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt. “He’s saving what’s left of my integrity.”
Van Zandt, an extreme Rascals fan, recently put the original band back together for the first time since they broke up in 1972 after several gold albums and a slew of hits, including the No. 1 singles “Groovin’,” “Good Lovin’” and “People Got to Be Free.” Van Zandt wrote, coproduced and codirected “Once Upon a Dream,” a nostalgic Beatlemania-like extravaganza about the band. In December the four original Rascals performed it for six sold-out shows at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. Van Zandt has since booked them a Memorial Day performance of “Once Upon a Dream” at the Seminole Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood, Florida.
In Brigati’s estimation, the show’s combination of live performance, video reenactments, archival footage, op-art backdrops and psychedelic lighting “surpassed anything we’ve ever done, and exceeded everyone’s expectations…. Only an alligator wrestler like Steven could have made it happen.”
New Jersey rock fans not yet born when Brigati, singer/keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli (a Jersey City native) were recording hits like “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” may recall watching Van Zandt’s over-the-top induction speech when the Rascals entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Check out the YouTube clip: Van Zandt, in signature head scarf, reminisced about “the greatest show—also the first show—I’d ever seen, the Rascals at the Keyport Roller Dome” in Matawan.
“They were wild,” Van Zandt went on. “Eddie would jump around. He was a wild man. Since then I saw everybody: the Beatles at Shea, the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones, the Who with Keith Moon, Rod Stewart with Jeff Beck…I’ve seen everybody, and that show still holds up” as the best. “Fantastic,” he concluded. “That’s when New Jersey soul was born—right there.”
If Brigati thinks so too, he’s not saying—partly out of humility, partly because he doesn’t want to talk about the past. “It’s all documented, you can read about that,” he says in the living room of one of his New Jersey homes—the one he calls his “music house,” in North Jersey, where he keeps his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame statuettes directly across from his 1963 Garfield High School diploma.
Brigati’s older brother, David, a singer, led the way into the music business. In 1963, Brigati replaced David in Joey Dee and the Starliters, best known for their 1961 hit, “Peppermint Twist.” For a time, the Starliters also included Cornish and Cavalieri. In 1964 Brigati, Cornish, Cavalieri and Danelli formed the Young Rascals in Garfield. Three years later, they dropped “Young” from their name. (Time moves very fast in rock ’n’ roll, especially in the blast furnace of what Brigati looks back on as “a million miles of touring and doing shows.”)
Brigati’s spiritual leanings can be inferred from the Native American art on his walls, the tribal blankets draped over the furniture and the Crow tribal medallion he wears around his neck. His feelings about “Once Upon a Dream” reflect a hard-won peacefulness. “I like to think of this as putting a wagging tail on a dead dog.”
The dog didn’t die peacefully. “We were really, truly one of the early refugees of the music business,” he says. “Basically, we had bad management, no management or poor management, all at the same time, and we were separated for 40 years because of it.”
As Brigati tells it, “We never had a T-shirt to sell. We never had a bass player. There was no marketing. All of that was really neglected.” Management and “the lawyers,” he says, “didn’t nurture what we were doing; they just took from it.”
By 1970, Brigati and Cornish had left the lineup. Brigati returned to New Jersey. (In 1988, Cavalieri, who shared songwriting and vocal duties with Brigati, took a new but short-lived version of the Rascals on the road.) All Brigati will say about the intervening years is that he’s been singing and writing and “defending the castle, surviving the industry.” During the interview at the music house, Brigati’s wife, singer Susan Lovell-Brigati, chatted with his sister, who had dropped by for a visit. The couple has been together 30 years.
Much depends now on Van Zandt, who is crazy busy. He spent most of the winter in Norway shooting the TV drama Lilyhammer, now in its second season. Van Zandt stars as a New York gangster trying to reboot his life in Norway. (Van Zandt has lately been so focused on acting that he is skipping Springsteen’s March tour of Australia; his replacement is Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.)
Coincidentally, Van Zandt might owe his acting career indirectly to the Rascals. According to Brigati, David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, watched the 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame telecast and was bowled over by Van Zandt. “He knew right then he wanted him for the show,” Brigati says. Van Zandt played Tony Soprano’s lieutenant, Silvio Dante, from 1999 to 2007.
Brigati says Van Zandt has assured him that “Once Upon a Dream” will not be “a one-shot deal.” So he keeps pumping iron and singing an hour or two a day to strengthen his voice. “It comes down to who can sponsor the production of it, who can take it on,” he says. “[Van Zandt] has an integrity about music, ambition, an awareness of our group, because he was a fan. He has the will and the nerve, and he doesn’t sleep.”
If it takes awhile to get the Rascals groovin’ again, that’s okay. “I’m looking at this in the Buddhist sense,” Brigati says. “The music goes beyond all the negativity that happened. All that stuff was fertilizer. I know you’re talking about half a century later, but believe it: The music keeps getting better. It’s better than ever.”
Performances of "The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream" will begin April 15 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in NYC and will last only 15 performances, ending May 5. The show made its debut in late 2012 in Port Chester, N.Y.