Album of the Week, November 29: King Cool by Donnie Iris and the Cruisers

IrisCoolDominic Ierace was born in a small town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh in 1943. His mother — a former big band singer — taught him to sing, and he performed and competed throughout his youth. With the advent of rock, he taught himself guitar, but switched to drums and quit singing for a few years as his voice changed. He was part of a college circuit band while at Slippery Rock State College. As that group broke up, he helped found the Jaggerz, who managed a significant hit in 1970 with The Rapper [#2]. When the band failed to follow up on that success, he started doing studio work, eventually settling on an easier version of his name, Don Iris. He was hired by Wild Cherry as part of their touring band after the success of their first single Play That Funky Music [#1, 1976]. While working with the band, he met keyboard player and producer Mark Avsec, and the two began working together. They crafted a smart power pop album for Midwest records, Back On the Streets. When the lead single, Ah! Leah [#29, 1980] got some local airplay, MCA signed Iris and re-released both album and single. On the strength of that success, Iris and Avsec returned to the studio and crafted a brilliant bit of 80s rock.

Title King Cool
Act Donnie Iris and the Cruisesrs
Label MCA Release Date August 1981
Producer Mark Avsec
U.S. Chart  #84 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Sweet Merilee [#80]
  2. The Promise
  3. Pretender
  4. Love Is Like A Rock [#37]
  5. That’s the Way Love Ought to Be
  6. My Girl [#25]
  7. Broken Promises
  8. King Cool
  9. Color Me Blue
  10. The Last to Know

Donnie Iris — as he was now billed — has a versatile voice with a good range, great flexibility, and a distinctive edge. Avsec is a strong keyboardist and clever producer, layering sounds to amazing effect. The pair had assembled a crack band for Back On the Streets — Marty Lee (guitar), Albritton McClain (bass), and Kevin Valentine (drums) — and made them the official Iris band for King Cool, crediting it to Donnie Iris and the Cruisers. A fun, tight unit with a flair for solid rock and a good sense of musical history, they turned out a pop gem. Loosely a song cycle — about rock star King Cool, his dream girl Merilee, and the challenges of blending the rock life with romance — it hits all the right tropes with fresh energy.

Sweet Merilee is a love song, an ode to the woman of the singer’s dreams. A classic please-don’t-go ballad with just the right amount of crunch, it’s a delightful start to the proceedings. The Promise — written by Lee, unlike most of the Iris/Avsec tunes — is a soaring message of hope. A low-key epic of the power of love, it propels the energy, using a mix of guitar and keyboard to underscore its anthemic feel. Things switch to a New Wave vibe on Pretender, a you’ll-regret-being-so-cool number that surges along smartly, then fades out with a gorgeous vocal.

Love Is Like A Rock wasn’t the Cruisers’ biggest hit, but it remains their best known song. Written by the whole band, it’s a glorious romp. Celebrating love and music in equal measure, the song works as a party anthem and a serious reminder to stick with what matters. Marty Lee also turns in some of the best guitar work of the early 80s, providing energy that inspires a great vocal from Iris. Things get sunny on That’s the Way Love Ought to Be, a charming, keyboard-driven celebration of romance. The harmonies on the chorus are stunning, and the whole package is one of Avsec’s finest productions.

Somehow the band manage to raise the stakes as they kick off side two. My Girl is a doo-wop dream, a giddy celebration of love gone right. Charting a fresh but retro sound that would later be adopted by bands like the Stray Cats and Huey Lewis and the News, the Cruisers take us for a perfect drive. The lyrical cycle gets darker again on another standout, the dynamic Broken Promises. Lee provides a chunky, swirling guitar, and the rhythm section kicks into high gear. Avsec’s production is flawless, allowing each part to shine while blending them into a stunning whole. The keyboard arc under the chorus harmonies is aching, the vocals are gripping, and Valentine turns in that rarest of rock animals, a drum solo that actually means something. Blended with a heart-breaking vocal effect from Iris and a slowly building keyboard line, it helps tell the story with panache.

The title track makes the song cycle explicit again, as we hear the story of how Cool and Merilee try — and fail — to balance the passions of music and love. Color Me Blue is a wonderful concoction, a mix of clever wordplay and smart music that draws down the curtain on the story. Iris channels his inner Elvis for the vocal, and the overall effect is shimmering and delightful. The Last to Know is something of a coda, a slightly overwrought rock ballad that is all well and good but doesn’t quite live up to the other nine tracks.

That’s fine, however, because those nine are flawless. With tight playing, smart writing, a sense of fun, and great production values, Donnie Iris and the Cruisers crafted a timeless classic.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Cruisers worked together for three more pretty solid albums before breaking up. Iris and Avsec have pursued side careers in and out of the music industry, occasionally reuniting with various Cruisers lineups over the years. Both Back on the Streets and The High and the Mighty (1982) are solid efforts. Fans of the Iris/Avsec magic will find something to enjoy on every outing. The 2001 Millennium Collection is a great overview with the best of the hits and just a bit more good stuff.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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