Artist Spotlight: Donnie Iris

Artist Spotlight courtesy of Dragonfly

If one were to make the “Mount Rushmore” of Pittsburgh music, who would be on it? Nineteenth century songwriter Stephen Foster is a given, as is legendary composer Henry Mancini. Slot number three would most likely depend on the tastes of the person at hand – Anti-Flag for the punks, Lou Christie for falsetto aficionados, Perry Como for incredibly boring people and so on. But that last spot… That last spot is interesting. To a Pittsburgher, it has to go to bona fide entertainment institution Donnie Iris. To a non-Pittsburgher, Iris would most likely be the last figure they would ever consider. After all, why should they? He was, after all, just a three-hit wonder; the subject of the a “where are they now” segment that will never get a proper follow-up. So why the disparity? How can one relatively small area consider him a legend, while the rest of the universe completely ignores his existence? The answer, in grand Western Pennsylvania fashion, both simpler and more complex than one would expect.

The Donnie Iris – or to be more specific Dominic Ierace – story begins with The Jaggerz, a six-piece outfit from suburban Pittsburgh. In sharp contrast to both their one big pop hit and the bulk of Iris’ solo work, The Jaggerz considered themselves to be an R&B/soul act. They were quickly brought to the attention of producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who signed them to their new Gamble Records label in 1968. The resulting album, the Gamble and Huff produced Introducing the Jaggerz, was full of the Philadelphia soul the duo would eventually be known for. It was smooth. It was very lightly funky. It was impeccably arranged. It was destined to be a surefire hit.

…It went promptly nowhere and the group was quickly dropped. No one outside of Western Pennsylvania even remotely cared. The band quickly regrouped, signing with midsize label Kama Sutra records. The first single for the album, the cleverly titled We Went to Different Schools Together(1), was an Ierace penned garage rock anthem called “The Rapper.” It marked a departure for the band not only sonically, but lyrically as well. Remember, this is early 1970. There really weren’t any major songs at the time that slyly warned listeners about the dangers of sexual predators. A worldwide top ten smash, “The Rapper” is a staple of oldies stations to this very day.

The only other Different Schools song to even come remotely close to the success of “The Rapper” is “Memoirs of the Traveler.” While never released as a single, it has been sampled by several major hip hop artists including The Game, Dilated Peoples and perhaps most notably, fellow Pittsburgher Wiz Khalifa.

Despite their sudden fall from the charts, The Jaggerz never completely lost their popularity in Western Pennsylvania. There is a local, completely unverifiable legend that claims the band passed on a nationwide television appearance in order play a local high school gym in front of their “loyal fans.” According to the story, they arrived one by one, each in a custom Cadillac. Whether or not this concert actually happened is beside the point. The fact that they, with a whole one hit to their name, a have a lore at all is something truly amazing. Spurred by a smash single and throng of rabid kids jamming themselves into a high school, their future was indeed looking bright. All they needed was that third album. About that…

The next major release from The Jaggerz was not, technically speaking, a Jaggerz album. It was a novelty record with famed DJ Wolfman Jack called Through the Ages(2). Both the album and its lead single, a questionable cover of “The Rapper,” really didn’t make much of an impact on the charts. They would release one more album as the featured artist, 1975’s Come Again. It went absolutely nowhere, forcing the band to quietly go their separate ways. Singer Jimmie Ross left for a gig in the doo-wop group The Skyliners, themselves a one-hit wonder(3). Keyboardist Frank Czuri formed a hard rock band called Diamond Reo. (No relation to the country band of the almost same name.) Ierace, deciding he need something to fall back on, embarked on a career as a production assistant at a local studio.

It was as a production assistant that he met Rob Parissi of Wild Cherry, the funk-rock band behind “Play That Funky Music.” In dire need of a guitarist, Ierace joined the group in 1979 for their fourth album, Only the Wild Survive. The record failed to sell. Seeing the writing on the wall, Ierace, now going by the “easier to remember” stage name “Donnie Iris,” and keyboardist Mark Avsec started writing and recording on their own. After a very brief flirtation with disco, the duo landed something a bit more their “speed” musically: Power pop. The new project, a now five-man lineup called Donnie Iris and The Cruisers, went to work.

The resulting album, 1980’s Back on the Streets, was not supposed to be a hit. Both Iris and Avsec were perfectly fine staying within the friendly confines of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. And then…

First released in the summer of 1980, “Ah! Leah” is vintage Iris – power chords and catchy hooks all wrapped in an awkward, semi-nerdy looking package. By the time everything was said and done, the single would hit 29 on the Billboard charts and land the band a contract with MCA. The two follow up singles, the Jeff Lynne-esque story song “Agnes” and the terribly aging “I Can’t Hear You” would receive regular airplay on rock radio. And speaking of “rock…”

The lead single of The Cruisers’ second album, King Cool, “Love Is Like a Rock” reached number 37. It wasn’t the biggest hit off the album – that would be “My Girl,” which peaked at 25 – but it was and is one of his most enduring. Iris’ alma mater Slippery Rock University uses it as the entrance music for its mascot, Rocky the Lion. It was also recorded by British glam rock legends Slade for 1987’s You Boyz Make Big Noize, the last full album with the original lineup.

Things would start going downhill after that. Their third album, The High and the Mighty, had no hit singles and sold poorly. The only real bright spot in this period was the Atari approved, synth-laden “Do You Compute?,”(4) which made it to 20 on the mainstream rock tracks.

Just like with The Jaggerz a decade prior, the band started to splinter apart. Mark Avsec released a solo album under the name Cellarful of Noise in 1985. Bassist Albritton McClain and drummer Kevin Valentine left to join Ohio-based new wave band The Innocent(5). Thanks to a nasty lawsuit with now-former label MCA, Iris’ 1986 album Cruise Control was (and as of this writing, continues to be) shelved. His last flirtation with the mainstream came in 1988, when the Cellarful of Noise’s progressive, yet still oddly behind the times, single “Samantha (What You Gonna Do?)” hit 69.

To most of the world, his career was over. But Pittsburgh is not, nor has it ever been, “most of the world.” And it was all thanks to these four letters: WDVE.

Created in 1969 as the FM wing of then-Top 40 powerhouse KQV, WDVE is one of the most popular and beloved entities in Western Pennsylvania. It has consistently been in the top three ratings-wise since the late 70s. The Pittsburgh headquarters for parent iHeartMedia (formally known as Clear Channel) simply reads “102.5, WDVE.” (It can clearly be seen from the highway.) Their playlists are used as a template for other classic-leaning stations in the Northeast. Anyone who grew up in the area with a taste for rock either have gone through a “DVE phase” or knows someone who has. They are the twenty-plus year flagship to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is, quite simply, a media juggernaut that cannot be stopped. And the key to assembling this empire? Going local.

The relationship between WDVE and the local music scene can be traced back to former program director John McGhan. McGhan wanted to move his station away from controversial radio guru Lee Abrams’ “Superstars” format, but was unsure how to go about it. It was then it hit him: The station should focus on local talent, and do it in a very big way. Pittsburgh acts not only needed to be played, but treated with the same level of respect as their national, “industry-approved” counterparts. And played they were. Diamond Reo and the Granati Brothers shared billing with Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. On-air personalities always made sure to mention Iron City House Rockers bandleader Joe Grushecky’s close friendship with both Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven. McGhan’s strategy worked, to the point that it landed him a better, much higher-profile job with NBC radio.

The concept of local music on local radio didn’t die when the program director left for New York. That void would be filled by well-known personality and former program director Jimmy Roach. Like McGhan, Roach had a love for the local scene and knew many of the artists personally. He also had a soft spot for on-air comedy, which hadn’t been heard in the Steel City since the early 60s. The station, at Roach’s absolute insistence, lured the then-San Francisco-based broadcaster Steve Hansen back to town. The duo, known officially as “Jimmy and Steve in the Morning,” set out to make radio fun again… and promote the living hell out of the local music scene, of course. It quickly became the most popular radio show in town. They were more than just entertainers, they were kingmakers. But few knew just how far their reach truly was.

In the middle of 1980, Jimmy Roach was visited by close friend and musician Rick Granati. Granati had gotten ahold of his neighbor’s new single, and immediately felt that Roach needed to hear it. The neighbor was Donnie Iris, and the song was “Ah! Leah.” Roach, in turn, played it for John McGhan’s successor, Steve Lange. It was added to the station lineup the very next day, on heavy rotation. The song was a legitimate, international smash, and it was all thanks to the disc jockeys at DVE. To the station heads, it was proof that McGhan’s “local first” strategy could not only attract new listeners, but could affect their purchasing habits. To Iris, it was the beginning of the comeback he never thought he would have.

In addition to just playing his records, Jimmy and Steve made sure that Iris was integral part of the show. They would inevitably get the “first scoop” on whatever he and The Cruisers were planning on doing next. They did live remotes from his concerts. He would make special appearances on behalf of both DVE and morning show. He appeared in their very, very popular skits. Iris even played on the station’s softball team. This relationship would continue until 1986, when Jimmy and Steve briefly left for Miami. Iris was their last guest(6).

Jimmy and Steve would be replaced by fill-in host Scott Paulsen and, eventually, Pittsburgh-centric comedian Jim Krenn(7). Like their predecessors, Scott and Jim used their show to promote the newest in local talent, such as The Clarks and The Gathering Field. They also carried a soft spot for Donnie Iris, albeit in a more playful fashion. See, large portions of the show – and pretty much all of Krenn’s stand-up act – was based around the part roast, part celebration of the “yinzer” Pittsburgh stereotype. And where did all of these various characters and caricatures do their shopping? Why Pants ‘n Nat, the “discount clothing where yinz get more.”

Notice the key phrase in that skit: “You really goin’ down Donnie Iris like that?” The message, one embraced by the hosts and the station alike, was clear. A “real” Pittsburgher listened to Donnie Iris and The Cruisers. The theme of “Donnie Iris = Western Pennsylvania” continued throughout the 90s in such sketches as “Donnie Iris Christmas” and “Donnie Iris Stole My Date.” All the while, DVE station cemented his musical legacy by playing his classic tracks about as much as “Freebird” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Concerts were promoted; anything even remotely resembling a single was spun. It reached a point that even traveling musicians and comedians needed to comment on him just to appear relevant. He wasn’t just a Pittsburgh musician anymore. To an entire generation, he was Pittsburgh music.

As the millennium approached, Iris stayed as oddly popular as ever. He had his own light beer, the aptly named “King Cool Light.” He was briefly the spokesman for local cable company Armstrong, telling prospective customers that their Zoom Internet was just “too cool.” His likeness was plastered on a collector’s cup sold by a local fast food chain(8). This even happened:

But how? How did a now 70-something guitarist remain at least semi-relevant for this many years? For one, he is the only rock-era star to make any sort of lasting impact outside of the metro area. Joe Grushecky is remembered more for his famous friends (and the mini-set he gets to play with said friends when they come to town) than any of his songs. The closest any of the Granati Brothers ever came to the mainstream was co-authoring an album track for Aaron Carter. The Clarks only seem to get airtime on WDVE and on the PA system at Heinz Field. But everyone has heard something Iris has written, even if that “something” is just “The Rapper” or a seemingly random sample. He “made it,” no matter how minor that “it” might seem to be.

But there’s another reason, one that goes beyond local radio play, friendly DJ banter and surprising softball savvy: His music is fun. It’s not “complex” or “challenging.” None of his albums will ever appear on a top 10 list. But there are moments in life where all a person wants to do is sit back, relax at let some man in a loud, questionable suit and horned rim glass sing about a girl. It’s the kind of thing that just makes you feel good. And that will never go out of style. Not if Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has anything to say about it.

…’N nat.

Suggested Tracks:

The Jaggerz – “The Rapper”
The Jaggerz – “Memoirs of the Traveler”
Donnie Iris and The Cruisers – “Ah! Leah”
Donnie Iris and The Cruisers – “Agnes”
Donnie Iris and The Cruisers – “My Girl”
Donnie Iris and The Cruisers – “Love Is Like a Rock”
Donnie Iris and The Cruisers – “Do You Compute?”
Cellarful of Noise feat. Donnie Iris – “Samantha (What You Gonna Do?)”

Footnotes, Regular Notes and Barely Connected Ramblings:

1. We Went to Different Schools Together is the only “classic” Jaggerz album on Apple Music. (I don’t have Spotify.) Unless you’re dying to hear yet another cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends” or want to know the bands thoughts on marijuana (spoiler: they aren’t fans), I’d avoid it like the plague.

2. That Wolfman Jack album isn’t as bad as you might think. It’s worse. Much, much worse.

3. The Skyliners big hit was “Since I Don’t Have You.” A version of the group still tours.

4. That’s not a joke. Thanks to a cross marketing deal, the Atari 1200XL was the official computer of Donnie Iris. Atari also allowed the band to use it on their album cover and in the video.

5. Aside from McClain and Valentine, The Innocent featured a struggling Cleveland musician by the name of Trent Reznor. I don’t suggest looking for this album. It’s not very good.

6. The woman on the clip above, Michelle Michaels, is not only still with WDVE, she still has the same time slot. I am actually listening to her show as I type this.

7. 90s kids might know Scott and Jim but don’t realize it. Remember the old Nickelodeon show Action League Now? That’s them. Paulsen is the one doing the narration; Krenn is the one doing most of the voicework. The female voices were provided by Kris Winter, the morning show’s news reader at the time.

8. The chain in question, Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe, has been releasing collectable cups since the mid-80s. Every self-respecting Beaver County resident has at least one in a cupboard somewhere. My parents have the Iris cup, but my dad can’t figure out how to work the camera on his phone. I will update this post with the picture if/when he does.