Story by Bob Girouard
Photos by Rahav
“With all due respect to my drummer friends—and most of my friends are drummers—he was and still is the greatest rock drummer ever.”
When Little Steven Van Zandt said those words in May of 1997 while inducting the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he spoke for a great many drumming fans. Now Van Zandt has put his money, his time, and his reputation where his mouth is, bringing the famously fractious foursome back together to tour and star in a series of groundbreaking Broadway shows.
It’s as if they never went away
Back in the ’60s, The Ed Sullivan Show was much like American Idol is now: a barometer of pop culture. Its impact on the baby-boomer generation was immense. And while in 1964 scores of future drummers were clearly affected by a certain lad from Liverpool, it wasn’t until March of ’66 that many of us late bloomers were witness to what seemed like the second coming of rock drumming.
At first, this particular Sunday night seemed no different from any other, as the stiff but likable host introduced the evening’s musical guest with his familiar lead-in: “And now, right here on our shew…the Young Rascals!”
People in the know had heard of this band out of New York with two great lead singers. One played a Hammond B3 and sang with a voice that sounded like Smokey Robinson colliding with Ray Charles. The other, tambourine in hand, sang like a bird and danced up a storm. To his left the guitarist churned out rhythms on a semi-solid-body Gibson while flashing a big smile.
This unusually soulful display was anchored by a drummer who was a show unto himself. It’s safe to say that many TV viewers had never seen anything close to this—almost totally enveloped by his Ludwig drumkit, he was bobbing his head from side to side; cracking his snare; slashing, splashing, and choking cymbals; twirling drumsticks; and assaulting the instrument with a combination of speed and power that was mesmerizing. The audience was going nuts. Tonight the message was loud and clear: A drumming prophet had spoken, and his name was Dino Danelli.
Brought up in the streets and nurtured by a doting mother who loved big band music, Danelli had magnetic qualities that were inherent from the start. “I was always treated like a star,” Dino says, “from my mother on up. She gave me so much. Whatever I did, it was met with praise.”
Danelli’s addiction to the drums was evident by the fact that he memorized the parts on every Gene Krupa record he could get his hands on. That, along with his sister’s doo-wop collection, provided the foundation that he built his own inimitable style on. From there, he was like a budding Picasso meets P.T. Barnum. At age twelve Danelli invited all the kids in the neighborhood to watch him play—for ten cents—in his basement, nicknamed Dino’s Casino.
Recalling his first drumset, Danelli says, “I took it from my grammar school—a real cobbled-together kit. I mean, none of the drums matched, and they were all different colors and weird sizes. It was a mess. But I made it work.” Dino’s Casino became so popular that it had to be closed by the police. Only a year later the young drummer was making the rounds of the local clubs, often with his mother in tow, sitting in with the likes of sax great King Curtis.
In 1959, the wild ride was only just beginning, as Danelli would sneak into the famed Metropole club in Manhattan, copping tips from his idols Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Sonny Payne. Krupa in particular became a mentor to the fearless upstart. “I remember standing in front of the club and watching Gene,” Danelli says, “thinking to myself, One day I’ve GOT to play on that stage.”
In 1961 Danelli did just that, with the group Ronnie Speeks and His Elrods. While literally living at the club, Danelli befriended the legendary Cozy Cole, who gave Dino his red Rogers set. It was at this time that Danelli developed his visual persona. “The club had mirrors everywhere,” he recalls, “so I learned to check myself out while I was playing, to see what would look good or not. Technically, I learned from everybody that played there. Even bad drummers have a lick or two that’s good. Everybody stole from each other.”
At the ripe old age of sixteen, Danelli headed to New Orleans, soaking up the sounds of the city’s rich jazz and R&B culture. “I didn’t believe what I was seeing down there,” he says. “It was one great player after another.” Danelli specifically attributed his syncopated bass drum approach to the influence of drummer Eugene “Bones” Jones of Sugar Boy and His Cane Cutters, who cut the original version (called “Jock-a-Mo”) of the staple New Orleans song “Iko Iko.” “You couldn’t help but absorb the 8th-note shuffles,” Dino says. “But what I got from Bones was the way he played his bass drum: open, but with solid accentuation. After I got back to New York everybody was doing it, including Ringo!”
In 1964, while backing the songstress Sandu Scott in Las Vegas, Danelli and organist/vocalist Felix Cavaliere planted the seeds of their own band. A year later, back on the East Coast, the two hooked up with vocalist Eddie Brigati and guitarist Gene Cornish (like Cavaliere, former members of the “Peppermint Twist” hit makers, Joey Dee and the Starliters), and the Rascals took flight.
Danelli’s big, splashy sound was the perfect fit for the group’s unique melding of rock and R&B. “In the beginning we were a cover band,” Dino says. “We didn’t have a plan, though our approach to instrumentation was modeled on Joey Dee’s band. In fact, it was the configuration that defined our sound: the Hammond organ with rhythm guitar and drums, minus bass guitar. My right foot was the bass, along with Felix’s bass pedals and Gene’s early rock ’n’ roll–influenced rhythms.
“Each of us brought something to the table with our instruments,” Danelli continues. “Felix had a world of sounds at his disposal. There was Gene, with the way he applied the rhythm. And from the get-go I treated my drums like an orchestra. I always wanted to be a lead singer—I just did it from the drums! It was amazing, the sounds Felix and I were able to come up with. Our instrumentation, although not unique, was used very effectively.
“In my mind,” Dino adds, “the other defining element was our vocals. Besides Felix and Eddie, there was Eddie’s brother, David, whose voice gave us that extra dimension. It was around the time of the Collections album that we really started to come into our own.”
The Rascals’ rise was meteoric, with SRO crowds at venues like the Choo-Choo Club in New Jersey and the Barge in Long Island sparking a feeding frenzy among record labels. The eventual winner was the R&B powerhouse Atlantic Records, which signed the now officially named Young Rascals—following objections by a group called the Harmonica Rascals—as its first white act. Promoter Sid Bernstein, acclaimed for bringing the Beatles to Shea Stadium, already had management dibs on the band, and the stage was set for a bona fide rock ’n’ roll monster.
Between 1966 and 1972, the Rascals recorded nine studio albums and more than a dozen charting singles, with total record sales today exceeding 30 million. Their greatest songs, among them “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’,” and “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” became instant American classics, each one elevated by Danelli’s inventive drumming. But as ’60s feel-good grooves gave way to ’70s bombast, the group failed to retain its lofty position in the rock pantheon, and the members decided to follow their individual paths.
Actually, Danelli and Cornish stayed close, and soon they formed the band Bulldog, which released two albums. A few years later the pair started the highly acclaimed Fotomaker. Back home on Atlantic, this new group was a pet project for label honchos Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who touted it as a sure thing. Danelli stepped out with a fresh, “melodic” approach, implementing multiple toms and additional cymbal coloration. But none of Fotomaker’s three albums—1978’s self-titled debut, that same year’s Vis-à-Vis, and 1979’s Transfer Station—became significant hits.
“Fotomaker was ahead of its time,” Dino says. “We had the songs, vocals, and musicality. It shouldn’t have missed.” Indeed, pop gems like “Where Have You Been All My Life” and “Miles Away,” though filled with hooks and inspired performances, got lost among the hundreds of new-wave and power-pop albums that flooded the late-’70s record market.
Danelli, for his part, was far from done contributing to the music world. In 1980, E Street Band/Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt formed his own group, the Disciples of Soul. Right from the start Van Zandt had only one drummer in mind. Danelli brought the perfect dynamic to Little Steven’s brand of rock, locking in a massive groove beneath the wall of guitars, horns, and keyboards. Ever the innovator, Dino experimented with electronics and triggering on a Plexiglas kit that that he designed himself.
When asked about the Disciples of Soul, the drummer recalls the band’s popularity outside the States. “Europe was wonderful,” he says. “We played to a lot of people and sold a lot of records. It was a great band, and over there Steven really had his own identity.”
Danelli recorded the Disciples albums Men Without Women (1982) and Voice of America (1984). And even though he had to leave the band because of an illness in his family, he maintained his affiliation, serving as art director on 1987’s Freedom: No Compromise and 1989’s Revolution.
Meanwhile, Rascals songs were suddenly being heard on soundtracks of Hollywood movies like The Big Chill, Legal Eagles, and Platoon. A band resurgence was inevitable, and in 1988 the original lineup, minus Eddie Brigati, appeared at Atlantic Records’ 40th Anniversary Celebration at Madison Square Garden, laying the groundwork for a fifty-city Good Lovin’ comeback tour that summer. Danelli was in fine form, integrating new rhythmic approaches to many of the band’s classic songs. And his showmanship was as remarkable as ever.
The reunion was short-lived, though, and the group soon broke into two distinct factions—Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals, and Danelli and Cornish’s New Rascals—both of which toured over the next decade. It seemed as if the lineup that longtime fans knew and loved might never work as a unit again. But the faithful were given reason to be optimistic on May 6, 1997, when Danelli and all his Rascals mates played together during the ceremony for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fittingly, Little Steven did the honors, bringing the house down with a hilarious and heartwarming tribute—which inadvertently proved to be his screen test for the Silvio Dante character on The Sopranos.
Once again, though, a full Rascals reunion proved to be elusive. Danelli continued to play the classic-rock circuit with the New Rascals, and he filled the rest of his schedule with music production gigs and creative projects in the worlds of art and film—until 2010, when the idea for one more attempt at a full-band get-together began to gain traction.
The spark this time was the annual dinner for the Kristen Ann Carr Fund for cancer research at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill in New York City. The star-studded audience was blown away by the majesty and power of the original lineup’s performance—augmented by none other than Bruce Springsteen on “Good Lovin’”—reminding everyone just how important the Rascals are in the history of rock, and proving that the band’s legacy has been untainted by the passage of time.
In fact, everyone in the group was so excited by the success of that evening that plans to hit the road were quickly devised. That would have to wait, but Van Zandt had a bigger idea anyway: He wanted to present an elaborate Broadway-style production that would give audiences a chance to see the classic lineup perform once again, but in a unique dramatic environment. The result is Once Upon a Dream, a “bio-concert” that features the Rascals on stage playing their most beloved songs, while a high-tech video screen shows filmed scenes of actors portraying key moments in the band’s history, as well as period news snippets and archival footage of the group.
Produced and directed by Van Zandt, with lighting and projection by the award-winning designer Marc Brickman, the show is ambitious, even by Broadway standards. But perhaps a bigger question than whether the multimedia concept could be pulled off was whether the band could live with each other for an extended period.
“As far as playing together goes,” Danelli says, “I knew that with the collective spirit we had at the Tribeca, plus the four of us committing to each other to do this with Steven, I felt it was finally going to happen.” Despite some initial obstacles, the project went into development in 2012. Following a rapturous sold-out six-night run at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, in December of that year, the show moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, where it played for two weeks early in 2013. This summer, Once Upon a Dream trekked across the U.S. It will return to the Great White Way in the fall.
Ultimately, the plan is to have the Rascals continue well into the future. From a playing standpoint, there’s no reason they shouldn’t. Danelli, somehow, is brasher and bolder than ever. The man is an ageless wonder, shaping and propelling the music like only he can. “I’m exercising and watching my diet,” he says when asked how he handles the rigors of playing consecutive thirty-song shows. “Plus, the multimedia aspects break up the song continuity. It’s pretty relaxed. Mentally, I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be, especially having not played some of this material for years. But after doing it and seeing the flow and the reaction of the audiences, I’m more confident now.”
On stage, Danelli is his quintessential self. Perched on a high riser, he takes a confident, animated approach to the instrument, which is in evidence on classics like “(I’ve Been) Lonely Too Long,” “Come On Up,” and “How Can I Be Sure.” Utilizing traditional and matched grips and integrating new rhythms into the songs’ arrangements, what he does with deep cuts like “Do You Feel It,” “What Is the Reason,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” “Hold On,” and “Heaven” is exhilarating.
Purists need not worry, though. “I’m trying to approach the songs in a way that anybody who remembers the original rhythms won’t be alienated,” Danelli says. “I’m not going to disappoint fans by trying to be so cool that nobody recognizes the songs. Though I am incorporating new parts during solos, bridges, etc. Most of it, I think, fits well. Steven, being a traditionalist, had some reluctance, but by and large he’s embraced everything I’ve come up with.”
Longtime Dino-philes will be glad to see Danelli once again sitting at a set of Ludwigs. For this tour he chose clear Vistalites, reminding us of his appetite for visual and aural stimulation. “I prefer them, and yes, they have a bit of a different sound,” he says. “Since the old days, I’ve been playing wood sets and acrylic sets, and I like both. But, at least for this show, I prefer the tone I’m getting out of the acrylic kit. I’m also preferring the new cymbals I’m using, a combination of Zildjian and Sabian models with holes in them. I like their timbre, their softness—they’re not as high-endy. You can crash and ride, which creates a beautiful wash behind solos. It’s a nice feel for me, and they allow me to hear the other instruments differently. Instead of articulating each note, they blanket them with a warmer edge. Interestingly, I think they were initially created as effects, but they’re much more than that, and I’m using them in a variety of ways.”
Based on the phenomenal success of Once Upon a Dream, Danelli is digging in and preparing for the long haul. “This time it’s for our legacy,” he says. “We’ve always been short-changed in that area, and so have all of our fans that have stood behind us for the last forty-plus years. We’re going to change all that by returning their thanks and putting a permanent stamp on the Rascals’ place in history, once and for all.”
Danelli’s art background has played a major part in his attention to aesthetics, in terms of both gear and performance, and some of the concepts that he’s introduced have become staples of many players’ setups and playing vocabularies.
Big bass drum. Although large kick sizes were not uncommon with big band drummers, rock players in the mid-’60s pretty much topped off at 22″, while contemporary jazzers were downscaling to 18″ models. Danelli was playing a wide-open 24″ drum (with newspaper as an internal muffler) as far back as 1961—well before John Bonham or Carmine Appice.
Mounting a rack tom on a snare stand. One of the hippest things—so simple yet so effective. Ironically, it’s used by more drummers today than when Danelli popularized it. “That was out of frustration,” Dino says. “In those days, if you hit hard, the bass drum tom mount would fall apart. So one day I just took an extra snare stand and put my rack tom on it. It worked great, and apparently some people thought it looked good as well.”
Timpani cymbal felts. “I was strictly going for the look on that,” Danelli says. “I just removed the tops of the mallets and put them on my stands. It looked cool…everyone was wondering where they came from, and nobody could find them!”
Cymbal choke and stick twirling. “I got the choke from Sonny Payne. The twirling was from him and Lionel Hampton. By the way, it doesn’t come through the thumb and index finger. It spins around between the index and the middle finger.”
Double-handed cymbal crash. “The double-handed crash came around ’88, during the Good Lovin’ tour. I was inspired by tennis greats Björn Borg and Jimmy Connors, and the power they got from that stroke. Though it’s kind of rough on cymbal stands!
Drummers on Dino
Dino Danelli was one of my earliest influences back in the day. I grew up with Gene Krupa as my first drum hero, then came Ringo when the Beatles hit. But Dino, well, he had that same flair that I had in my playing, so I could relate to him a lot more than Ringo, Charlie Watts, or Dave Clark. He really was ahead of his time. As a matter of fact, “Saturday in the Park” was my tribute to Dino. I’m so happy for Dino and company that they have reunited, and that they’re getting the respect they deserve. From one Italian drummer to another, my hat is off to you, my friend!
ROGER MANSOUR of the VAGRANTS
Dino Danelli was one of the greatest drummers of the ’60s. I would watch him play at the Barge in the Hamptons when the Vagrants played across the street at the Tiana Beach Club. I will never forget how his playing and solo would completely blow my mind. We did many gigs with the Rascals, and they helped us get signed to Atlantic Records. Great memories from an old friend!
“Dino was the Buddy Rich of my generation.” —Andy Newmark
I would watch Dino play, and it made me want to play. I copied his showmanship, like how he moved his neck and puckered his lips. I loved everything he played, especially his offbeats.
Dino Danelli—what an incredible musician, and a big influence on me. There is a passion in his playing with the Rascals that stands out now just as much as when I heard them for the first time. What is so crucial for a drummer, and what I always want to share with other drummers, is the importance of groove, and that’s what Dino Danelli brought to everything he played. The way his personality shines through makes his style unique and so relevant. When you listen to him play, it’s dynamics, it’s heart, energy, feel, groove—it’s everything about drums that makes music so powerful.
Dino Danelli affected me both musically and personally. I met him when I was fifteen years old and he was my idol. When he spoke to me, he treated me like a person, like a young musician, like I mattered. I am greatly indebted to him for taking the time to make me feel important. Dino played for the song, whether it was bongos to fit the mood of Central Park in “Groovin’” or driving like a freight train on “Come On Up” and “Too Many Fish in the Sea.” I wanted to be Dino!
I got to see Dino play at an event sometime in 1969. I was there with Delaney & Bonnie. His drums were all white, and he was set up on a very high riser. I just remember his hands flying furiously and this great sound coming off the stage. But what was most fun to watch was the intense energy he put into every song, and how great he looked doing it!
“I wanted to be Dino!” —Liberty DeVitto
When I first started playing drums, the Young Rascals was one of the most popular bands in the world. Thanks to my friend Andy Newmark, I was introduced to the playing style of Dino Danelli. Andy and I would soak up everything we could and watch him whenever possible, and then we would compare notes. I remember sitting in my parents’ attic, playing along to “Good Lovin’,” “Mustang Sally,” “Midnight Hour,” and just about everything else they had recorded. That was school for me. It was a period where Dino was king. It’s great to see one of America’s seminal bands back together, doing what they always did best, groovin’ with one of the most influential drummers of the era.
I’ve known Dino since 1964, when he was opening for Gene Krupa at the Metropole jazz club in New York City. He came off the stage and we started talking, and he showed me a cool rock drum pattern with 8th notes on the snare accenting the 2 and 4, with 8ths on the ride cymbal and a syncopated bass drum. It was awesome and very innovative. He was the man. I always loved Dino. Glad to see he’s back!
There were a few drummers who influenced me in terms of showmanship, but one man that stands out is Dino Danelli. He was one of the main drummers I would watch on TV and try to imitate when I was growing up and practicing. Thank you for the lessons. Much love and blessings to you.
“‘Saturday in the Park’ was my tribute to Dino.” —Danny Seraphine
I was about sixteen years old when the Rascals came out with “Good Lovin’.” However, I saw them a year before that at Madison Square Garden opening for James Brown. I had no idea who they were when they came on stage. Dino and the band completely blew my mind that night. In an instant they became my favorite band ever! I had never seen or heard anything remotely like the Rascals. Prior to them, I really liked the Beatles and the Stones, but those bands did not turn me on like Dino and the Rascals did. The Rascals had that American blue-eyed-soul thing going on, which I was deeply into. Dino was the Buddy Rich of my generation, no doubt. He was really laying down some deep shit. He was a serious player with chops, funkiness, and tons of soul. His feeling is what got me the most. When I saw Dino play, I knew for sure that music was the most important thing in my life. It’s quite possible that Dino is the main reason I dedicated my life to music back then.
The Rascals “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” and “Good Lovin’” from The Young Rascals, “(I’ve Been) Lonely Too Long” from Collections, “You Better Run” and “Find Somebody” from Groovin’, “See” and “Hold On” from See, “Peaceful World” from Peaceful World, “Jungle Walk” from The Island of Real /// Fotomaker “Plaything” and “Pain” from Fotomaker, “Name of the Game” from Vis-à-Vis, “Woman Like You” from Transfer Station /// Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul “I Am a Patriot” and “Undefeated” from Voice of America
Video: Modern Drummer Video Archive, “A Conversation With Dino Danelli and Liberty DeVitto,” October 2008
Although he’s played many types of drumsets over the years, Danelli will be forever linked to the Ludwig kits he used in the ’60s with the Rascals. Here are some of his most fondly remembered setups. Each of these particular outfits, with the exception of the “Claude Monet” rig, featured a 5×14 Supra-Phonic snare drum, a 9×13 rack tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 14×24 bass drum.
Silver Sparkle, Burgundy Sparkle, and Champagne Sparkle Kits
These drumsets were often seen on TV shows like Ed Sullivan, American Bandstand, Hullabaloo, Mike Douglas, The Tonight Show, Joey Bishop, and Music Scene. Danelli gave his famed silver sparkle kit to Willie Davis of Joey Dee’s band. “He was a great drummer,” Dino says, “and a fabulous showman.”
Yosemite Sam Kit
This was a real conversation piece, handmade by Dino, who covered the shells with posters of Yosemite Sam, Scrooge McDuck, and an American flag top hat. He gave the set to L.A. record producer Peter Bunetta.
Silver Sparkle Kit With Duo-Tone Black Stripe, White Kit, and Claude Monet Kit
The two-tone set was featured prominently in a photo of Danelli playing in a Nehru jacket. With the white kit, he painted the shells, hardware, and stands all white (though the set looks pink on the back cover of the See LP). The Monet kit featured jazz-size drums—18″ bass drum, 12″ rack tom, 14″ floor tom—that Danelli covered with prints of the painter’s works and secured with polyurethane. This set was used in 1969 and 1970, including on singer Tom Jones’ TV show, and was the last set Dino used on stage during the Rascals’ original run.
Zildjian has been Danelli’s primary choice throughout his career, though there was a brief stint with Meinl in the early ’80s and with Sabian between ’88 and ’90. The drummer’s ’60s setups generally included 14″ New Beat hi-hats, an 18″ or 20″ Medium ride, and 18″ Medium and Medium-Thin crashes.
Photos courtesy of Joe Russo/TheRascalsArchives.com
Dino’s Once Upon a Dream Setup
Drums: Ludwig clear Vistalite
A. 5×14 clear Vistalite snare
(5×14 Supra-Phonic 400
metal snare as alternate)
B. 10×10 tom
C. 10×12 tom
D. 16×16 floor tom
E. 16×22 bass drum
Heads: Remo Coated Vintage snare batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, Clear Vintage Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Clear Vintage Emperor bass drum batter and Clear Ambassador front head. No muffling.
1. 13″ Zildjian A Custom Mastersound hi-hats
2. 14″ Zildjian A Custom EFX crash
3. 16″ Zildjian A Custom EFX crash
4. 16″ Sabian AAX Aero crash
5. 18″ Sabian AAX Aero crash
6. 18″ Zildjian A Custom EFX crash
Sticks: Vic Firth RockN model
Playing Time on Cloud Nine
Rascals bass player/musical director Mark Prentice come full circle.
On February 10, 1967, I went to my first concert, and it was the Young Rascals. They played at my high school in Watertown, New York, the only venue large enough in our little town. I had just turned thirteen and owned a guitar, but what I saw and heard that night changed my life, and I decided then and there to become a musician. I’ve been really fortunate and have had a great career, played and recorded with dozens of my heroes, won a Grammy, etc., but all of that takes a backseat to playing with the Rascals. Dig it: I’m the bass player that gets to play with Dino Danelli, the guy that connected Gene Krupa to rock ’n’ roll for so many drummers. And I have the honor of being the only bass player to ever share the stage with all four original Rascals, so right now I’m on cloud nine.
Dino’s style is unique—powerful and definitive. He’s a force of nature that somehow supports and interprets the music at the same time. The subtlety of his playing is really deep, subdivisions superimposed over time and spread around the kit. I’m flying every time we get to hit together, and I’m very proud to now call him my good friend.
Dino’s approach to a song is so different and interesting. He takes these songs for a ride. His energy is totally “live” and changes with how he’s feeling it on a given night. The overall picture is the same, but he’ll play an across-the-bar fill or break a section down in a slightly different way and I’ll look up at him on the riser, and he’s cool as hell, ageless, and he’s somehow twirling sticks in the middle of his groove. Talk about living the dream!
I first hooked up with Felix Cavaliere just over a decade ago, and that association led me to this opportunity. I love all these guys. The Once Upon a Dream show is surreal, and I’m the luckiest cat alive.