He’s King Cool, you know: Donny Iris & the Cruisers were ’80s Rust Belt rock ‘n’ rollers

By on August 31, 2018

If you haven’t watched this classic three-hour full episode of “Night Flight” which originally aired on August 17, 1984 (featuring the original commercials as aired!), that means it’ll be new to you, but it also means you still haven’t seen the two live concert performances by ’80s Rust Belt rock ‘n’ rollers Donny Iris & the Cruisers.

Watch now on Night Flight Plus!

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Donnie Iris (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) and the Cruisers perform “King Cool” (with its lyrically uncool chorus: “He’s King Cool, you know/He’s all right, you know/He’s King Cool, you know/He’s no fool, you know”) and “Sweet Merilee,” which we found on the 8-song live Sony “Video LP” Blossom.

Iris belongs to a subset of 1970s and ’80s-era heartland rock ‘n’ rollers who fronted their own bands and championed the blue-collar working man ethos.

Most of these bands hailed from workingman towns and were beloved by a loyal local following who considered them hometown heroes.

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A few developed a rather substantial regional fanbase, but, for most of these bands, they weren’t widely known outside their local area until they had a national breakout hit.

A few examples might include the Michael Stanley Band (from Cleveland, Ohio, they’re also featured in this full episode of “Night Flight”), Willie Nile (from Buffalo, NY), Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (who were huge on the Jersey Shore rock club scene, where Bruce Springsteen & his E Street Band also got their start) and Joe Grushecky and his  backing band, the Houserockers, who actually got their name from Grushesky’s first band, the Iron City Houserockers.

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Like Grushecky — from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — Donnie Iris the Cruisers also found local fame in that part of the Rust Belt, particularly in western Pennsylvania.

They played a lot of shows in Cleveland too, often opening for the Michael Stanley Band, including the three nights in August 1981 when they were filmed at the Blossom Music Centre ampitheater in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

A home video of this concert was released on VHS in 1981, and finally released on DVD in 2006 to help celebrate the concert’s 25th Anniversary.

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Read more about Donnie Iris below.

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Donny Iris (b. Dominic Ierace on February 28, 1943 in New Castle, Pennsylvania) grew up in Ellwood City, PA, and found his first real rock ‘n’ roll fame with the band he formed around 1963, the Jaggerz.

They’re considered one-hit wonders for the enduring success of their singular funk-pop novelty-ish hit “The Rapper,” although band actually enjoyed two additional local Western Pennsylvania radio hits with “Gotta Find My Way Back Home” and (“That’s Why) Baby I Love You.”

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Iris eventually left the Jaggerz and joined Wild Cherry, who are also considered a one-hit wonder act, for their mega-hit “Play That Funky Music.”

Iris’s fortuitous meeting of Wild Cherry’s keyboard player Mark Avsec led to the two of them forming a musical songwriting partnership.

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Iris and Avsec both left Wild Cherry and formed Donnie Iris & the Cruisers with Avsec, bass player Albritton McClain, drummer Kevin Valentine, and a hot young guitar slinger named Marty Lee Hoenes.

Their name came from the fact that Donnie Iris lived in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (he still does), and Mark Avsec lived in Cleveland, which meant they spent a lot of time on the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes, going to and from where they were recording tracks for their first album, Jeree’s Recording Studio in New Brighton, Pennsylvania.

Iris thought they should call themselves The Turnpike Cruisers (after the 1958 Mercury car), but he shortened it to the Cruisers, and with Donnie’s name out front, they released their debut album, Back on the Streets, in July of 1980 on Midwest Records.

The album’s cover photo featured five Donnie Iris’s.

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Their first huge success was the single “Ah Leah,” reportedly named for a girlfriend of one of the Jaggerz, although that particular band member disputes their relationship. Ah, well.

“Ah Leah” was released as a single in late 1980, and suddenly there was a bidding war, and the band were picked up for national distribution by MCA Records.

With major label distribution and promotion, the single made it to #29 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, #19 on Billboard‘s Top Tracks chart, and #22 on Cash Box‘s Top 100. It was also a Top Ten hit in Canada and to this day “Ah Leah” is considered Donnie Iris’s signature song, as well as an AOR classic.

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In a review of one of the band’s shows at the El Mocambo in Toronto, Ontario, the critic referred to Iris as the “new king of cool,” which is how they came up with the title for their next album, King of Cool, released in August of ’81.

The album featured a handful of moderately successful hits — “Love Is Like A Rock” (#9 Billboard Top Tracks), “That’s The Way Love Ought To Be,” “My Girl” (#20 Billboard‘s Singles chart), “Sweet Merilee” (#31 Rock Tracks), and the title track, although the album itself only made it to #84 on Billboard‘s album charts.

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By this point, Donnie Iris & the Cruisers were touring endlessly, and they became the go-to opening band in the Midwest, warming up crowds for bigger bands and solo artists like Journey, Loverboy, Bryan Adams, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, the Romantics, Eddie Money, UFO, Nazareth, Ted Nugent, Joan Jett, Hall & Oates, and the Michael Stanley Band, of course.

Night Flight’s full episode from August 17, 1984 — which also features videos and live concert performances by Scandal, Commander Cody and, as we’ve mentioned, the Michael Stanley Band — is now streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.