Dino Danelli was simultaneously recognized and underappreciated as an elite drummer of rock ’n’ roll.
Danelli, best known for his playing with the Young Rascals/Rascals on songs like “Good Lovin’ ” and “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” died Thursday at the age of 78. While no official cause was released, he had been battling heart issues for several years.
The original Rascals — Danelli, guitarist Gene Cornish, singer Eddie Brigati and keyboard player/singer Felix Cavaliere — formed in 1964 and broke up in the early 1970s. They reunited in 2012–2013 for a series of shows that included a brief run on Broadway.
Internal tension, however, kept the group members from playing together all but once over the 40 years in between, and while conflict is hardly unique for a rock band, in the Rascals’s case it kept them from cashing in on several fertile periods for beloved 1960s groups.
Combined with the fact that later Rascals’s material like “Groovin’ “ and “How Can I Be Sure” was more mellow than their powerful early R&B-rooted songs, Danelli sometimes slipped below the radar for top rock drummers.
That’s somewhat ironic, since his drumming has been hailed by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Steve Van Zandt and Billy Joel. He played on three №1 Billboard hits (“Good Lovin’,” “People Got To Be Free” and “Groovin’,” on which he played conga), and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Rascals in 1997.
Gene Cornish, the Rascals’s guitarist, writes in his book Good Lovin’ about an early Rascals’s showcase in London when the road crew failed to properly anchor Danelli’s bass drum, so every time he hit it, it would slide a few more inches away from him.
Keith Moon of the Who, who had never met the Rascals but was in the crowd, was so taken by Danelli’s drumming, and so sympathetic to his plight, that he crept out on stage, below the sightline of the crowd, and wedged himself against the bass drum so it would stay in place for the rest of the show.
Danelli was profoundly grateful. But if he moved among the stars of the rock world, Cornish also wrote that stardom wasn’t what motivated him.
“He never gave a damn about the trappings of the rock star world,” Cornish wrote. “He was 100% about the music.”
Cornish allowed Danelli did at times enjoy female companionship on the road, which made sense for a guy who was rock-star handsome with more than a hint of McCartney. But he neither used drugs nor drank, Cornish said, instead almost compulsively filling his time with music, writing and art.
Danelli was born in Jersey City, fell into music early and gravitated to jazz and R&B. He played with Lionel Hampton as a teenager and sat in on sessions with artists like Little Willie John. He and Cavaliere traveled to Las Vegas in the early 1960s in search of musical gigs at casinos before returning to New York and getting together with Cornish and Brigati, who had been playing in Joey Dee’s Starliters.
Several of the early Rascals’s recordings, notably “Good Lovin’,” were songs previously circulated in the R&B market and played almost exclusively on black radio. Danelli and Cavaliere would scour city record shops to pick them up, and in the case of “Good Lovin’,” the Rascals’s arrangement was identical to the high-octane original by the Olympics.
Adept as he was at driving R&B, underscored in other songs like “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Any More,” Danelli would later sound equally at home with slow reveries like “It’s a Beautiful Morning.”
Cornish wrote that he was sold on Danelli from the first time they played together, in the basement of Cavaliere’s house in Pelham.
“I could not believe the sound that was coming from the drums,” wrote Cornish. “I had never heard or seen a drummer like Dino Danelli. He had the [worst] little drum set I’d ever seen and he was making it swing like Buddy Rich.”
The new band kept playing for so long the first day that Cornish and Danelli ended up sleeping in the Cavaliere basement. When Cornish woke up the next morning, his shoes were glued together and Danelli was laughing. Ah, rock ’n’ roll camaraderie.
The Rascals soon built a reputation as both a successful radio band and an electric live act, one of whose signatures was Danelli twirling his drumsticks. Danelli said years later that he approached live shows “as if I were a frontman sitting behind the drums.”
Like the other Rascals, Danelli was frustrated over the decades that finances and managers and personal differences kept the Rascals from playing together even when they were all still active performers.
They didn’t play at Woodstock in 1969 because their manager Sid Bernstein thought it was a bad idea. They missed the tour boom of the ’80s, when other 1960s bands were hot road acts and made back some of the money they often hadn’t made 20 years earlier. They were invited to be featured on the televised Atlantic Records 40th anniversary show in 1988, but Brigati was absent and their set was uninspired.
Brigati said a month later that he was “more upset that the TV cameras ignored Dino than that I was snubbed.”
Promoters and managers had hoped the Atlantic show would kick off a reunion tour, which didn’t happen. The group finally did reunite for two songs when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, but the tension was palpable and Danelli walked out when it was over.
From 1982 to 1987 Danelli played with Van Zandt’s Disciples of Soul, and Van Zandt eventually talked everyone into the elaborate Once Upon a Dream reunion tour in 2012–2013. It did well for a time, but was financially tenuous and Van Zandt cancelled it before a planned return to Broadway.
Joe Russo, long-time confidante and historian of the band, said Danelli was heartbroken when the reunion ended.
But for all the tension and drama, said Russo, Danelli agreed with the other Rascals that in the bigger picture they did well.
“Our music is very joyous,” Danelli told Harvey Kubernik in 2012. “No heavy angst or anything. It’s all very positive and you leave the show feeling better than you did when you came in.”