Over the years, the Raspberries myth has raised as much disappointment as expectation. Several reunion attempts foundered over musical differences between lead vocalist Eric Carmen and lead guitarist Wally Bryson, but this summer, the two came together, along with bassist Dave Smalley and drummer Jim Bonfanti, agreeing to perform in conjunction with the launch of the House of Blues.
"If we were ever going to do it, this is the right kind of date," Carmen (pictured second from right) explains. "In terms of having the Raspberries play another date, it's not just four guys walking onstage. Is it a good sound system? Do you have someone good running the sound system? Do you have a decent monitor system, so you can hear the other guys sing? Is there a proper lighting system, so when the audience comes in, they can actually see you? All these things come into play. They know how to do it at the House of Blues, and it eliminates our having to go out and contract to get those things."
Formed in 1970 from the ashes of the Choir and Cyrus Erie, the Raspberries were Cleveland's most popular band for a time, notching hits in "Go All the Way," "Overnight Sensation," "Let's Pretend," and "I Wanna Be With You" before disbanding in 1975. The group filled a void created by the breakup of the Beatles and the creative decay of the Beach Boys. At their best, the Raspberries were power-pop pioneers who transcended those key influences, their soaring tunes melding imagery of career ambition and sexual drive.
Now the original members -- who last performed together in 1973 -- are adults, and rock and roll itself is old. It seems like a fitting moment for the bandmates to forget their musical differences, revisit good will, discover fresh technology, and reaffirm their classic tunes.
"The band has been rehearsing in the Cleveland area for the past three weeks," says Smalley, who lives in Phoenix. "It's going very well. It's a good atmosphere. It's kind of fun to look around after all these years and see these people, who were my fellow musicians and my friends, working together again. And it sounds like us. We've played in many different bands -- the Mods, the Choir, Cyrus Erie. Relearning the material has been interesting because we were, like, 20, 22 years old when we recorded it."
"Our fans have just not given up," adds Bryson (second from left). "I've said [a reunion] wouldn't happen, but they've been so persistent and loyal. I think we all kind of got the same feeling: 'Let's go and do this before we're freaking 95.' Eric has his amazing talent. He's a genius in some things, but clueless in others, kind of like me -- I've allegedly got a real high IQ and am clueless in other areas. But it's great to hear him play keyboard again. He can bring tears to your eyes."
Auxiliary vocalists Billy Sullivan, Paul Sidoti, and Jennifer Lee will be joining the group on November 26. And local response to this House of Blues event suggests that it might not be the Raspberries' only upcoming appearance; an HOB gig on New Year's Eve has just been announced.
"The intention initially was just to play one show," Carmen says. "As we started rehearsing, a number of very interesting things happened -- not the least of which was, we sold this first show out in four minutes. And because I have a website and the Raspberries have a website, I've got people coming in from Japan, Holland, Spain, England, and Canada -- as well as from all over the United States. And at some large expense, I might add. It totally knocked the House of Blues for a loop."
"We tried to do this in 2000," says David Spero, former vice president of education and programming at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, who managed Carmen in 2000 and 2001, and arranged his participation in the 2002 Ringo Starr tour. "The band had issues to work out, and the promoters weren't very receptive to it. Now, other people are talking to them about doing other dates."
Nine Inch Nails and the James Gang may have sold more records than the Raspberries, but Carmen may be the most successful solo musician ever to come from Cleveland. As a songwriter, he's done better than Nine Inch Nailhead Trent Reznor and Eddie Levert of the O'Jays, according to Spero. Still, neither Carmen nor his bandmates expect the Raspberries to reclaim lost glory or vault back into the national consciousness. Instead, the band members are reveling in the chance to finish their run on their terms.
"I don't think -- unless I am sorely mistaken - that the Raspberries are going to go out and take America by storm," Carmen says. "We may go out and play some dates together, but I don't know if MTV is going to be jumping on a bandwagon of guys 55 years old. Maybe VH1, but I'm not sure. The joy of this is to get on stage and play these songs well and have them sound as good as or better than they ever sounded, and to like each other and have no other forces interfering. We can control it now, as opposed to it controlling us."
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