“Let’s get on with the music!”
I decided that a discussion of the music of Eddie and the Cruisers would be expansive enough to warrant a separate article. Here in Part 2 of our look at this classic film, we will zero in on perhaps the single most appealing thing about the movie and that is not only the soundtrack itself but the way the music and the songs are wedded to the action. For a full discussion of the movie, including synopsis, cast discussion and how this movie got made, check out Part One but I encourage you to stick around for this part, as well, as this is an important aspect of any review of this movie. A second article also gives me my chance to talk at length about John Cafferty.
But before I do, I must talk about Jay and the Americans. Many are aware of this group who began in Queens in the late 1950’s. Christened by Lieber and Stoller, the group had a minor hit in 1962 with “She Cried”. Interesting that lead singer Jay Traynor was replaced in 1962 by another singer named Jay, Jay Black. This way the group didn’t have to change their name. They eventually hit with the excellent staples of oldies radio, “Come a Little Bit Closer”, “Cara Mia” and “This Magic Moment”. Anyways, one of the founding members of Jay and the Americans was Kenny Vance (b. 1943). Vance was with Jay and the Americans and maintaining an office in the Brill Building when one day in walked Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and Vance would shepherd the duo into becoming Steely Dan.
After leaving Jay and the Americans, Vance began producing records and supervising film music. He was in charge of the music – choosing songs, writing new ones and producing the soundtrack albums – for American Hot Wax (1978), Animal House (1978) and The Warriors (1979). Part of director Martin Davidson’s vision for the music of Eddie and the Cruisers was a synthesis of Dion, Jim Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. He approached George Thorogood and the J. Geils Band before he found Kenny Vance. Vance found John Cafferty.
Cafferty is the only notable musician to hail from Rhode Island, of all places. He put together a band in 1972 that, for the last fifty years, has been known as either John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, the Beaver Brown Band or simply Beaver Brown; they got the name from a paint can. For the first 8 years, they played the bars around New England and became well-known, building up a strong local following especially in beach resort towns like Narragansett and Misquamicut, Rhode Island and also places like Boston, New Haven, Asbury Park and Washington, DC. Then, in 1980, they scored a hit single.
The John Cafferty original, “Wild Summer Nights” b/w “Tender Years”, added much to the band’s rep and sold many copies up and down the Atlantic seaboard. When Kenny Vance brought Cafferty to Martin Davidson, the director made it clear that, if a deal was struck, he intended to use these two sides of Cafferty’s regional hit single in the film. Cafferty balked as these were “Beaver Brown songs”, not “Eddie Wilson songs”. And here, in a way, the future of John and his band teetered. Were they going to continue on the way they had for a decade? Local heroes gigging in beach towns in a region where the beaches were covered in snow half the year? Or would they take a flyer and align themselves with this director and his small film about a bar band from the Sixties? Perhaps Cafferty thought – like many did – that the film would go nowhere and it would at least serve to flesh out his band’s resumé. Perhaps an additional incentive was that Davidson planned to use Beaver Band’s sax man, Michael “Tunes” Antunes, in the film to portray Eddie’s revered player, Wendell Newton. A decision was made and John Cafferty and the boys from Rhode Island were on board.
Cafferty cemented a rep of sorts as a songwriter with three of the songs he wrote to be used in the film. “Boardwalk Angel” is on my Top 100 list of favourite songs. With this track, Cafferty captured perfectly a timeless sort of romance using one of the band’s strongholds, Asbury Park, as inspiration. The lazy sax of Antunes, the castanets, marimba and the genius inclusion of legendary vocalist Ben E. King flesh out this gorgeous recording, heard only briefly in the film. John also picked up on the Davidson siblings’ canny use of Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell” for the song he wrote to be used as Eddie and Wordman’s creation for the Cruisers’ second album. “Season in Hell (Fire Suite)” is a swirling, searching rocker that well exemplifies Eddie and Frank Ridgeway’s vision for a group that was pushing the envelope and forging a path into the future of rock & roll.
But the standout of the soundtrack is “On the Dark Side”. Rolling piano and Cafferty’s muscular voice begin the song as the vocal builds aided by crisp guitar. After a hand-clapping, crowd-pleasing break, the energetic song begins with John’s fiery singing and features a great sax solo from “Tunes”. The single was released in conjunction with the movie’s theatrical release and when the film went nowhere, the song followed along, stalling at #64. But when the film gained notice on home video and as part of the debut of pay cable, the single was re-released and became a massive hit, reaching the Top Ten, peaking at #7 on Billboard‘s Hot 100. “On the Dark Side” also reached #1 on the magazine’s Rock Tracks listing, a spot it held for five weeks.
While the success of the single certainly helped the movie’s reputation and marketability, there was much more to the contribution of John Cafferty, particularly in how that contribution related to Michael Paré. One of my strongest beefs when watching classic musical films has been how phoney it can look and sound when an actor’s singing or playing has been dubbed by a real musician. There is a separate article to be written, perhaps, on the best and worst examples of this. An example of one of the best would be Paul Newman as trombonist Ram Bowen in Paris Blues and one of the worst being Dooley Wilson’s elbows playing the piano as Sam in Casablanca, the only thing wrong with that classic. The main problem with vocal dubbing is that so often the timbre of the actor’s speaking voice does not match the tone of the singer’s singing.
With Eddie and the Cruisers, the viewer – even though they know differently – could swear that is Michael Paré singing. Paré plays Eddie as he should be played, as a brooding, stoic incredibly cool young man and his speaking voice, with the proper amount of Jersey accent, matches this. His voice when he talks is husky enough that one can easily assume that if he were to sing his singing voice would sound just like Cafferty’s mighty voice. Visually, the synching is dead on as easily seen in the opening when Eddie sings “On the Dark Side”. Also with a song like “Tender Years” there is nowhere to hide for Paré as the camera is right on his face. Watch his mouth. Perfect. Add to this the cleverly staged and apparently authentically rendered scene depicting Frank and Eddie writing “On the Dark Side”; Eddie speaks, then sings and it is seamless. Paré says that he’s been told by musicians that that is exactly how rock & roll happens and how songs are written. Without this part of the film working, the movie would have been an abject failure. But the melding of John Cafferty and Michael Paré to create Eddie Wilson is maybe the best thing about this movie and the phenomenon surrounding it. It’s worth noting that Matthew Laurence and David Wilson as drummer Kenny Hopkins acquit themselves well in this area also. The most accomplished actor among the cast, Tom Berenger? He must have studied at the Dooley Wilson School of Keyboardist Portrayals. I don’t believe that piano players move their arms that much.
John Cafferty contributed music to the sequel to our film. Good music, music that is much better than the film. The more I look at the track listing of the second soundtrack, the more I realize it is good from start to finish although it does contain some of the sounds of late Eighties rock that maybe haven’t aged too well. “Runnin’ Through the Fire”, “Garden of Eden” and “NYC Song” are all excellent. Speaking of the synthesis between Cafferty and Paré, watch the segment in the sequel showing Eddie running through “Garden of Eden” for the first time with his band. He shouts out the chord changes to them in Michael Paré’s husky voice and then proceeds to sing the song in a voice that sounds the same.
Then came the album Eddie and the Cruisers: The Unreleased Tapes in 1991. It features dialogue from both films and one good tune that hadn’t been released yet, “Fool and His Money” from the sequel. I had this album on cassette at one time but I see I foolishly got rid of it some time ago. A year later came Eddie and the Cruisers Live featuring songs from the films and songs from Beaver Brown albums performed in concert.
What a joy it has been for me over the years to find albums by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band – ones that are unrelated to the films. Tough All Over – I had it copied onto cassette back in the day – went to #40 in 1985 and featured working class anthems like the title track – #22 Pop, #1 Mainstream Rock – “C-I-T-Y” (#18 Pop, #9 MR) and the sublime and gentle “Tex-Mex (Crystal Blue)”. John wrote every note on the album, every word. I am thrilled to own on CD 1988’s Roadhouse with the excellent “Wheel of Fortune” and “Hard Way to Go”. My copy, though, does not feature the original cover. My copy has a picture of Eddie Wilson on the cover. Many pictures of Eddie.
A quick word about Scotti Brothers Records, the label on which the soundtracks and all of Cafferty’s music has been released at least since Eddie and the Cruisers. Scotti Brothers was founded by Ben Scotti (b. 1927), a former NFLer, and his brother, Tony Scotti (b. 1932), both boys hailing from Newark. Tony had been an actor and singer and had portrayed Tony Polar in another of my Top 25, Valley of the Dolls. In that film, Tony had rendered the excellent tune “Come Live With Me” in what would prove to be his only aired acting role. In 1974, Tony and Ben formed their label, one that became home for “Eddie and the Cruisers” and Beaver Brown Band albums and also music by Leif Garrett, Susan Anton, John Schneider, Survivor, “Weird” Al Yankovic and Canada’s The Northern Pikes. Scotti Brothers would later move into TV production and were responsible for (“were to blame for”?) the Baywatch television show.
Everyone’s a critic. Many commentators who may be missing the point and certainly much of the joy of the film like to make note of the fact that no one in 1963/4 would have even thought of making music that sounded like that which is heard in Eddie and the Cruisers. Fine. But how about the idea that that is what makes it cool? Maybe there was such a band in Jersey in the early Sixties that sounded like this. Sure you haven’t heard of them today – their music was so ahead of their time, the band couldn’t sustain itself. Maybe “Season in Hell” sounds 15 years too early. It was supposed to and, you’ll remember, it was rejected by Lou Eisen (played, actually, by one Kenny Vance) and Satin Records. Not only was it rejected but heckled.
Ever since the rise in popularity of Eddie and the Cruisers, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band have of course enjoyed much visibility, notoriety and financial gain. But they have also suffered the slings and barbs often to be leveled at those in the entertainment business. Part of the public’s disdain stems from the misguided assertion that Beaver Brown is not a band at all, really – they just provided the music for a fictional band. This as we’ve seen is simply not true. Another more complicated criticism comes from the band’s sound. John in particular was unfairly labeled a “K-Mart Springsteen” because of perceived similarities between Cafferty’s outfit and the E Street Band. Problem is the similarities are not altogether unfounded.
The bands do sound alike. Interesting to note that John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were both formed in 1972. But it’s foolish to say that John planned to have his group sound like Bruce’s. The E Street model is simply a good one. A larger conglomerate utilizing many players and many instruments – not the least of which is the predominance of a saxophonist (Another heartland outfit, the Silver Bullet Band, also employed a saxophone). This is simply a versatile way to present your musical vision. To extend the comparison, the only black member of each band was the sax man. Throw in the idea that Rhode Island’s Beaver Brown was providing the music for New Jersey’s Eddie and the Cruisers and that the band in the film was also sometimes knocked as a Springsteen clone. Heck, the only black member of Eddie and the Cruisers was also the sax player. Cafferty’s group is also a bar band, heartland rockers that sing anthems celebrating the simple man and life’s little accomplishments and also it’s struggles and failures. Heartland rock “has been characterized as a predominantly romantic genre, celebrating urban backstreets and rooftops, and its major themes include alienation, despair, unemployment, small-town decline, disillusionment, limited opportunity and bitter nostalgia”. The simple fact is that the E Street Band and Beaver Brown both have fallen into this category.
Certainly when Cafferty signed up to provide the music for the film, he was running the risk of having his band lose their identity and be swallowed by the Eddie and the Cruisers phenomenon – think about the re-issue of their albums like Roadhouse, the one I have on CD, with the original cover replaced by one with Eddie’s image all over it. Truth be told, though, this doesn’t seem to have affected John and Co. much. Nor their fans.
The Beaver Brown Band carries on after 5 decades in much the same way they did at the outset. And theirs is a story perhaps worthy of its own telling. Local heroes. The regular folks up and down the Eastern Seaboard knew about them from the beginning. They held them tightly, loved them dearly. Family visiting from out west would plan visits around Cafferty shows. Come on out this summer. Make it August. Beaver Brown will be at the Strand. They’re our local boys, you’ll love them. Legends in the bars up and down the coast and then their fans “lost” them to Hollywood. But the group’s work “as” Eddie and the Cruisers did not take them away for ever. It only served to burnish their sheen.
John and the boys came back home and are today performing in many of the same venues they always have and are enjoying the same adulation they have always received. 50 years after their debut, it was this band that returned Rhode Island to live music after the COVID-19 pandemic, providing comfort and a sense of returning to normal to line workers and office gals who had been shaken by the fear that gripped the world. John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band carry on performing at places like the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Massachusetts, the Flying Monkey in New Hampshire and right back at home at Roomful of Blues in good, ol’ Woonsocket, RI. And somewhere in the East tonight, the voice of America’s sons is alive and well and pleasing a crowd of regular folks.
For an incredibly detailed account of the Beaver Brown story, see their entry at the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame Historical Archive. John and the band were inductees in 2012. See it here.