Two famous brands should mesh perfectly Nov. 26 when power-pop pioneers the Raspberries launch Cleveland’s House of Blues, the city’s first major new downtown music club in at least 15 years. The Raspberries were one of Cleveland’s most popular bands, notching hits in “Go All the Way,” “Overnight Sensation,” “Let’s Pretend” and “I Wanna Be With You” before breaking up in 1975.
With Eric Carmen as key voice and Wally Bryson on lead guitar, the Raspberries formed in 1970 from the ashes of legendary area bands the Choir and Cyrus Erie, filling a void created by the breakup of the Beatles and the creative decay of the Beach Boys. At their best, the Raspberries transcended those influences, creating soaring tunes whose imagery seamlessly melded career ambition and sexual drive.
Now the original lineup – Carmen, Bryson, drummer Jim Bonfanti and bassist Dave Smalley, who last performed together in 1973 – are adults and rock ‘n’ roll itself is old, if not mature. Carmen, Bryson and Bonfanti live in greater Cleveland, Smalley in Phoenix.
The professional setting of Cleveland’s House of Blues, one of eight such venues in the country, apparently helped the band paper over musical differences that scotched former reunion attempts, discover fresh technology and reaffirm the classic tunes they plan to perform even better now.
“I pushed for a Raspberries reunion,” says Anthony Nicolaidis, talent buyer for the Cleveland House of Blues. “We started thinking about our grand opening bands last June. The list included the most popular national acts with northeast Ohio roots, including Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, and the Pretenders. The list also included the Raspberries. To be honest, some folks at House of blues were, like, Raspberries? However, my gut said this was the band to open the House of Blues. In my mind, nothing would be more dramatic than a reunion of the Raspberries. I thought, if I could make this show happen, it would be something Clevelanders will remember for a long time.”
The hunch paid off. The premium seats sold out in four minutes, the rest of the 1,200 in an hour. “Every day, we get phone calls and e-mails from all over the world about tickets,” Nicolaidis says. “Several music professionals are flying to Cleveland for the show. It is getting more national press than I ever imagined. In my 10-plus years in the music business, I have never experienced anything like this.”
The House of Blues, a national club franchise and production company that mounts concerts in 22 venues around the country, put it all together for the band, says Carmen, who has had his share of club experiences where the sound system fails and the lighting is bad.
“If we were ever going to do it, this is the right kind of date,” he says. “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.”
He recalls a gig early in his solo career, a charity benefit bill he shared with Peter Frampton at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall. Carmen went on first, and during the solo on his signature tune, “All by Myself,” the pickup fell into the piano. To compound this sonic fracture, the PA system on the left side of the stage didn’t work for the whole show.
“That’s what happens when you are not in control of the production values. 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.”
First and foremost, however, is the music. “The band has been rehearsing in the Cleveland area for the past three weeks,” says Smalley. “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,” says Bryson. “I’ve said it (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 got allegedly 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.”
A lot of the Raspberries material “is a real kick to play after all this time, and we can make it sound better than we ever did live,” Bryson says. “We’ve got some better PAs and better technology to help. I’m not talking about tapes, that’s bullshit. We’re old school; we actually play.” Joining them Nov. 26 will be auxiliary vocalists Billy Sullivan, Paul Sidoti and Jennifer Lee.
And that might not be the only date, based on the response to this House of Blues event. A New Year’s Eve gig – in Cleveland — is practically assured.
“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 web site 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, who managed Carmen in 2000 and 2002 and arranged his joining 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, Spero says, but Carmen might be the most successful solo musician to come from Cleveland. As a songwriter, he’s done better than Nine Inch Nailhead Trent Reznor and Eddie Levert of the O’Jays, says Spero, former vice president of education and programming at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
“We are going to do another show in Cleveland,” says Bonfanti, who got the reunion going after the House of Blues proposed it to him this summer. Four different booking agents have approached the band, but “right now our focus is to deliver the absolute best Raspberries show we can muster,” he says. “Raspberries broke up 30 years ago, when we were at a certain level in the grand scheme of rock and roll. Over the last 30 years, we’ve been elevated to a whole new level we’ve never been at. We’ve added fans who are younger than you’d expect, all based on the music. Because of that, we have to deliver the best show we ever have.”
“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 nice thing is we could really have fun with this. We also can control it, which we couldn’t do before. Other people were telling us, ‘You got to be on the road for the next six weeks.’ Now we get to say, ‘We’re not going to be on the road.’ We will put it together in such a way that it’s comfortable for everyone.
“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.”