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Issue Date: April 2007 Issue


Fresh Raspberries
The original Raspberries lineup included Eric Carmen, Wally Bryson, Dave Smalley and Jim Bonfanti.
One of rock 'n' roll's most influential power-pop acts puts its legendary disputes aside for the encore no one ever thought would happen — even them. 
Lynne Thompson
editorial@clevelandmagazine.com
This is my second attempt at writing this story.
The first ended six summers ago in Wally Bryson's kitchen when the Raspberries guitarist told me his band's much-anticipated reunion had withered on the vine. Rumors had started flying a year earlier that the influential power-pop quartet was getting back together after three of the band's four original members performed together at a birthday party for Plain Dealer rock writer Jane Scott. Billboard magazine later confirmed a Raspberries revival.

But by the time I sat down with Bryson for an interview at his Lake County home in June 2000, the talk had quite obviously turned sour.

"It was like the old days, with all the fights and hassle," grumbled the gentlemanly yet outspoken rebel of a man, who still sported a mane of blond hair. Before leaving, I asked him about the future. Could he envision a time when the band would be able to put its differences aside and perform together again? His reply was candidly pessimistic: "When hell freezes over."

Seeing the band in the same room together six and a half years later is quite surprising. But a lot has changed. It is almost two years to the day since the original Raspberries lineup of Bryson, singer Eric Carmen, drummer Jim Bonfanti and bassist Dave Smalley performed together for the first time in 31 years as part of House of Blues Cleveland's Nov. 26, 2004, grand opening. A New Year's Eve show followed. Then there was a well-received 10-show tour of the United States that not only thrilled fans (Jon Bon Jovi and E Street Band members Steven Van Zandt and Max Weinberg attended shows), but critics as well (The New York Daily News included the band's Big Apple performance in its list of the 10 best concerts of 2005). The fact that they're here, today, two years later, is proof those concerts have grown into something more that the Raspberries' reunion was not just a quick attempt to relive their heyday and cash in on fans' memories.

Bonfanti, Bryson and Carmen are in high spirits as they file into a small office inside the House of Blues the Saturday after Thanksgiving. (Smalley is in Arizona, unable to fly in for the Raspberries' stint as grand marshals of the city's Christmas parade because of a middle-ear infection.) Carmen, sporting a full head of graying hair and a fashionable stubble of beard, is ebulliently self-confident after the reception the Raspberries received on Public Square, declaring the band's music has "stood the test of time."

Taking a few minutes to chat before heading into a VIP party held at the House of Blues Foundation Room, where they'll pose for pictures and sign autographs, the trio is upbeat, talking about how the fans brought them together and their upcoming CD, tentatively titled "Live on Sunset Strip," recorded at the band's 2005 Los Angeles show and set to be released by Rykodisc June 26. \

What nobody in the room says is the Raspberries' working relationship is still very fragile. "We're like a gas can and a match," Bonfanti later quips during a phone conversation. In fact, there are repeated warnings from all four members during one-on-one interviews that digging too much into the band's past could kill any hope for its future one that may even see the band recording new studio material, thanks to an option in its Rykodisc contract. 

"The more you dredge up the stuff, the more it could fall apart like a house of cards," Bryson's wife, Kay, cautions.

Though he speaks in a joking tone, Carmen is a bit more direct. "You don't want to be the one who broke up the new Raspberries, do you?" 

The members of the Raspberries can individually rattle off a laundry list of reasons why they broke up in the first place: The well-worn "creative differences"; frustration over bad management and poor record-label marketing; stress over constant touring and recording under less-than-ideal circumstances; the strength of progressive rock and FM radio that relegated pop music to screaming teeny boppers; the ignorance, selfishness and passion of youth.

"When you're 20, 21, 22, you think you're so grown up," says Bryson, who today works as a job coach for the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. "You realize, in retrospect, how little you knew, how ungrown-up you were, how emotional some of your decisions and even the arguments were."

Carmen and Bonfanti, who were already known around Cleveland for their respective tenures in local groups Cyrus Erie and The Choir, formed the Raspberries in 1970 as a pop alternative to the progressive rock overtaking radio airwaves and club stages.

"I had always liked Jim's drumming," recalls Carmen. "[Cyrus Erie and The Choir] used to trade band members back and forth. But the two of us had never played together."The pair's first recruit was Choir and Cyrus Erie veteran Bryson. "Wally had a difficult personality in those days," Carmen says. "But that difficult personality also translated into fire as a guitar player."

Bryson says he "liked Carmen's musicality, how he played keyboards," as well as Jim's drumming. The addition of former Choir bassist Dave Smalley, after his 1971 return from a tour of duty in Vietnam, rounded out the lineup.

A year later, Capitol Records released the band's first album, "Raspberries," which produced the hit single "Go All The Way," which rose to No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart. Their follow-up effort, "Fresh," yielded the hits "I Wanna Be With You" and "Let's Pretend." But tensions were beginning to mount by the time the band's third LP, "Side 3," was released in 1973. Even though the band headlined a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall that year, its future was in jeopardy. According to Bonfanti, many squabbles were over issues as trivial as one member not liking the shirt or shoes another wore onstage.

By the end of 1973, Smalley and Bonfanti had left the band ("Dave and I had been and still are the best of friends," Bonfanti says) and were replaced by bassist Scott McCarl and Cyrus Erie drummer Michael McBride. The Raspberries broke up after their ironically titled 1974 final album "Starting Over," which produced an aptly titled popular single "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)."

During our 2000 interview, Bryson pointed to the fact that Carmen didn't give him a songwriting credit for his involvement in writing the now-famous guitar riff intro to the band's hit "Go All the Way" as a point of tension. Carmen concedes the dispute has been a sore spot between he and Bryson over the years, but has always maintained he wrote that song the same way he wrote "Tonight," "Ecstasy," "I'm a Rocker" and everything else that bears his name alone at a piano. 

Indeed, "the major discord in the band always seemed to be between Wally and Eric," remembers Kevin Dugan, who was and still is a member of the band's road crew. He says he believes that before there was collaboration in the Raspberries, there was competition.

"Eric Carmen wanted to be a rock star, and Wally Bryson already was a rock star around Cleveland," Dugan says. He compares the problems that subsequently developed between the two men to the well-documented difficulties between famous rock songwriting duos such as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards or John Lennon and Paul McCartney. 

"At first, there's this give-and-take, this creativity," Dugan says. "And then there's the inevitable butting of heads."

He adds that Carmen attracted more press as the lead singer and was treated better by management, who saw a lucrative career for him as a solo artist after the band folded. As a result, the other members, particularly Bryson, felt their contributions were largely overlooked. The result spelled disaster for the Raspberries.

"There were times, way in the past, when I didn't think we'd ever be in the same room [again]," Bryson says during a December interview at his home.

Or, as Carmen simply puts it: "The band imploded." 

During the 30-year span between the Raspberries' dissolution and their 2004 comeback concert, the four original members managed to collaborate on music, just never all at the same time. 

In July 1995, Bryson and Bonfanti performed with legendary rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, R&B artist Bobby Womack, James Gang bassist Dale Peters and Michael Stanley at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's "topping off" ceremony, a construction-site tradition that celebrates the placement of the last steel beam.

Carmen had spent his post-Raspberries years as a successful solo musician, which yielded hits such as 1975's "All By Myself" (also featured in a 2007 Super Bowl advertisement), "Hungry Eyes" from the 1987 "Dirty Dancing" movie sound track and 1988's "Make Me Lose Control." Relations even warmed between Bryson and Carmen after Eric asked his former bandmate to play on his 1998 solo album, "Winter Dreams."

But it wasn't until Bonfanti, Bryson and Smalley agreed to back replacement Raspberry McCarl, who had just released a solo CD, for a 1998 show at the former Odeon Concert Club that the seeds of a full-blown Raspberries reunion were sown.

Although the show was not billed as a Raspberries reunion, "we filled the place up pretty easily," Bonfanti says. "We played pretty good, and we had fun."

Shortly thereafter, while he was visiting Carmen, Bonfanti said, "You know, I think we could put this band back together." Carmen expressed interest, and Bonfanti contacted David Spero, who then managed former Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. Spero offered to put out some feelers and gauge the interest among promoters.

Bonfanti and Bryson say the response was huge. There was even talk of a 30-date tour. But the money that promoters finally offered wasn't anywhere near what was originally discussed a result of the number of solid classic-rock bands on tour that weren't drawing as well as expected.

All four Raspberries agree it was a lack of financial incentive that silenced the talk of touring. But Carmen says there was also a perception at the time that the reunion was shelved so he could tour in 2000 with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. Carmen calls the idea "absolute and utter nonsense."

"The Ringo thing came up well after the Raspberries thing had completely fallen apart," he says. "I wouldn't have done Ringo Starr and blown off the band!"

The situation was exacerbated by the negotiation of songwriting royalties for four original demos all of which were co-written or written by Bryson to be included in a planned greatest-hits collection by the band's old label, Capitol Records. Bryson and his wife, Kay, had spent years trying to recoup such royalties generated by songs Bryson wrote or co-wrote for the group's four original albums and wanted to avoid a similar situation. They met with Capitol executives and insisted that the royalty issue surrounding the greatest-hits CD be resolved before its release.

The Brysons were also upset by Carmen's reluctance to share information compiled in his own legal fight to settle the royalty problem regarding the band's original releases. Carmen admits he wasn't in a generous mood at the time.

"The tone and tenor of most everything I'd heard Kay Bryson or Wally Bryson saying about me didn't exactly make we want to just turn over hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of legal stuff I had paid for," Carmen says. "We weren't on great terms right then."

Smalley summed up the tenor of the time during a phone interview in mid-2000, after he'd recorded a CD of new songs with Bryson and McCarl called "The Raspberries Refreshed.""There's just too much baggage, too many issues, too much mistrust amongst everyone for there to ever truly be a tour," he declared. "Trust me, this is a group of people who can't let the past go."

In this atmosphere of lingering discord, Bonfanti received a call from the House of Blues in June 2004 asking whether the Raspberries would be interested in getting back together and playing at the Cleveland location's grand opening.

"When I came home that night, I told my wife, 'I should be excited, but I'm actually depressed,' " remembers the drummer, who has gracefully aged from rock star to owner of a Mentor auto brokerage. 

Aside from interpersonal issues, there were practical challenges to consider, mainly that any attempt at scheduling rehearsals would be complicated by Smalley's residence in Arizona and Bonfanti's, Bryson's and Smalley's day jobs. Still, Bonfanti went ahead and contacted them. Carmen was enthusiastic, not only because he knew from touring with Starr that House of Blues live venues were excellent, but also because he missed the camaraderie of being in a band.

"I never wanted to be a solo artist," he says. "I basically became a solo artist by default."

Bonfanti was sold on the idea once he checked out the House of Blues Chicago. Bryson was cautious but agreed because "it feels a lot better as a guitarist, as a musician, to be in an actual working, existing act." In the end, however, they decided to attempt another reunion for one shared reason: a growing awareness of their own mortality.

"You have to look at a lot of things in your life, put them in some kind of a priority or come to some kind of a peace with them," says Smalley, now a respiratory therapist who was recovering from open-heart surgery at press time. "The Raspberries were one of those things, even before the heart problem happened, that I decided it was time to do that with."

But before Bryson would participate, he issued a few stipulations. The first was all four band members would receive an equal cut of proceeds from the show instead of being paid according to a sliding scale Spero proposed during their 2000 reunion attempt. He also insisted Carmen help him resolve his songwriting royalty dispute a condition Bonfanti satisfied by simply driving over to Carmen's house, picking up copies of the papers necessary to further the Brysons' efforts, and dropping them off at the couple's home.

According to Dugan and Bryson, Carmen made another concession as well: None of the songs from his successful solo career would be included in the band's setlist. "Eric put all that aside," Dugan recalls. "He said, 'It's about the band and not about me.' "

Bryson, Bonfanti, Carmen and a trio of sidemen started to rehearse at the former Utopia nightclub in Willoughby the following September, with Smalley joining them in early October."We started out with two or three guys, then we'd add a couple, then we'd do a couple more rehearsals," Carmen recalls. "I don't think any of us were sure what we were going to sound like. But it fell together surprisingly quickly."

Bryson goes so far as to call the sessions "amazing." After the first Cleveland show sold out in minutes and a second show was added, offers from other House of Blues locations started coming in. The band taped a combination interview and performance, "Hangin' With the Raspberries," for VH1 Classic. Then, Grammy-nominated producer Mark Linnett contacted Carmen through a mutual acquaintance and offered to record the band's 2005 Los Angeles performance. It was Linnett, Bryson says, who got the band a record deal with Rykodisc.

Smalley describes the tour as "a lot of fun for the band." But Bonfanti openly admits the group struggled with some of the same problems and "self-policing" disagreements in the absence of a strong, respected manager to help resolve them.

"How do you tell somebody who's on your same level he's wrong and you're right?" he asks rhetorically. "But we're all trying to work at it. Before, it was like, 'Aw, screw you!' "Smalley says they've actually discussed their difficulties, something they had never done in the past. During those conversations, he realized he'd harbored misperceptions about some things in the band's past, though he doesn't care to say what they are.

"When you part badly in any kind of a situation, it's very easy to come to a wrong opinion about how something happened or somebody else's part in it," he says.

Even Bryson, the most outspoken of the four, believes he's more patient and diplomatic than he was as "a hotheaded 22-year-old."

"I've been a very good boy, I'm proud to say," he boasts. "I've tried to go right along with the flow, even when I had to bite my tongue." He also acknowledges that he hasn't been the savviest businessman when it comes to legal and financial issues and now realizes that conflict is pretty much a given in the band relationship.

Bryson cites the inability of some people to work with his equally outspoken wife of 30 years, who now handles his business, as "the only big iceberg looming in front of the Raspberries' Titanic."

"They hurt her, they hurt me," he says, declining to single anyone out by name. "Other people have no problem with Kay running my business. I can trust her, and I know that she's got everyone's interests at heart."

Back at our post-Christmas parade meeting at the House of Blues, the conversation turns to the future no one ever thought was possible. The one thing all four members say would keep them together, perhaps unsurprisingly, is strong sales of "Live on Sunset Strip." According to Bryson, the group could be back on the road doing weekend shows by summer if the release's performance warrants it. It could also make Carmen less hesitant about going into the studio. On this day, Carmen says the answer is a solid "we don't know."

He points out that he and his bandmates, now all in their late 50s, have busy lives of their own. He says he also wonders how fans would respond to new material. "Recording is not an easy process," he says. "There's no point in putting yourself through all that if there's no one to listen."

But for now, the Raspberries are together, a prospect for which all four original members seem thankful.  

"We would be fools not to try to pursue this a little further because we now have some of the pieces in place we didn't have before," Bonfanti says, referring to producer Linnett; the band's New York attorney, Jeff Greenberg; and its publicist and management consultant, Al Kaston. But even if there is no album of fresh tracks and no tour cropping out of the release of "Live on Sunset Strip," Bonfanti says Cleveland fans will get to see the band again. He envisions a final show or two here, where it all started no matter what.

 "That would be the finale," he insists. "After that, we're done."


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