Raspberries Starting Over

Raspberries—Starting Over

Amid guitars, keyboards and an array of other music equipment, the drum kit says it all. Emblazoned with the logo of Cleveland's long-lost Raspberries, it's a sight to warm the heart of any fan. All the same, the band's rehearsal space is downright chilly on a recent afternoon.

Wally Bryson is first on the scene. He tries to fire up the heat in the building.

"Our fans wouldn't let us die," the guitarist says. "They wouldn't give up, even when we told them point-blank: We're never going to reunite. Forget it. We hate each other."

The Raspberries headline a sold-out concert tonight at the House of Blues. It marks the first time these power-pop legends have performed in public since a 1973 appearance on The Mike Douglas Show.

Drummer Jim Bonfanti and bassist Dave Smalley are next to arrive at the secret location in suburban Cleveland where the Raspberries have been practicing since mid-September.

An unshaven Eric Carmen breezes in last, exuding bonhomie.

"Hey, buddy, how's it going?" he asks Bryson.

The reunion show sold out in a flash, with more than 1,000 tickets snatched up in less than 15 minutes.

"Most of our friends couldn't get tickets," says Carmen, the quartet's singer-guitarist-keyboardist. He and Bonfanti started the band in 1970. They do most of the talking during the interview. House of Blues has booked another Raspberries concert for New Year's Eve. Tickets go on sale Saturday, Dec. 4; showtime and ticket prices had not been announced at press time.

Raspberries devotees are coming from as far away as Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, England and Canada to catch tonight's gig, Carmen says. No pressure or anything.

Carmen chuckles. "When we put this together, my goal was not to embarrass ourselves," he says. "I never dreamed it would sound as good as it does."

"Really—it's better than it ever was," Bryson says. "The four of us are much more powerful together than we are separate."

In practice sessions, they've dusted off about 30 songs, drawn from the group's four albums for Capitol Records: Raspberries (1972), Fresh (1972), Side 3 (1973) and Starting Over (1974).

The other night at the end of rehearsal, the band jammed through the Who's "I Can't Explain."

"On the record, Roger Daltrey does two little ad-libs—a low one and a high one—going into a guitar solo," Carmen says. "Instinctively, Wally sang the low one and I sang the high one…We know each other's moves."

Or as Bryson puts it: "We're talking the same language."

The seed for the reunion was planted in June when Bonfanti got a phone call from House of Blues talent buyer Anthony Nicolaidis, who wanted to book the Raspberries as part of the club's grand opening.

"My initial thought," Bonfanti says, "was…" Carmen finishes the sentence: "Good luck!"

In the background, a guitar blasts the opening riff of the group's Top 5 smash "Go All the Way."

Specializing in ultracatchy pop-rock with a hard-hitting edge, the band also cracked the Top 40 in the early 1970s to the tune of "I Wanna Be With You," "Let's Pretend" and "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)."

A trio christened the Overdubs—Jennifer Lee, Paul Sidoti and Billy Sullivan—has been put together to provide backing vocals and additional accompaniment on guitars, keyboards and percussion for the reborn Raspberries.

"After I hung up the phone, I thought I should be excited," Bonfanti says. "But I was bummed out. Because as much as I wanted it to happen, as much as I thought it should happen, I just didn't think it would."

Artistic differences hastened the departure of Bonfanti and Smalley from the band in November 1973. By 1975, the Raspberries had called it quits, but not before Carmen and Bryson came to blows after a concert in Indiana.

"The last time we all played together, we were 23-year-old hotheads," Carmen says.

The others laugh.

"Whatever happened at the time was an outgrowth of our frustration," Carmen says. "We weren't making any money. We were beating our brains out on the road. And we weren't getting any help. We've all had 30-plus years to sit and think about some of the good stuff, too, as opposed to just the bad stuff."

After the Raspberries soured, Carmen embarked on a successful solo career, scoring major hits with "All by Myself," "Hungry Eyes" and "Make Me Lose Control."

Bonfanti plays in the local band Boxer.

Bryson has done stints with Tattoo and Fotomaker, among other groups. Last year, he and his son Jesse (a member of roots-rock band Rosavelt) collaborated on a CD, Dry, credited to the Bryson Group.

Smalley recently put out a solo album, Internal Monologue.

"Music is still a big part of my life, but I haven't been a performing musician for quite a while," Smalley says. He now makes his home in Tempe, Ariz., where he works as a respiratory therapist.

The other Raspberries still live in the Cleveland area. Carmen remains a professional musician, Bonfanti is an automobile broker, and Bryson is an employment specialist with the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

Bonfanti first broached the House of Blues gig with Carmen, who was open to the possibility.

"I told Jim—because he's really the glue in this band—when he talked to Wally and to Dave to tell them, 'All we want is for everybody to get up there and to have fun,'" Carmen says.

Bryson and Smalley turned out to be up for it, too.

"I had a lot of trepidation, because there are lots of painful memories," Bryson says. "But now it feels good. Maybe at this age, we realize you don't sweat the small stuff—and most of it is small stuff."

The band members are 55, to a man.

"As you get older, you start to realize you only have so much time," Bonfanti says. "We're all healthy…"

On cue, Smalley coughs loudly.

"…and we're physically able to do this," Bonfanti says.

"Besides, in five years, we'll all be 60," Carmen says.

At least they'll always be younger than the Rolling Stones.

"Right!" Carmen says. "Sixty is the new 40."

Carmen, Bryson and Bonfanti performed a medley of Beatles oldies in 1999 at a birthday party for Jane Scott, The Plain Dealer's longtime rock writer. Back then, a full-blown Raspberries reunion tour was in the works. It failed to come to fruition because promoters slashed their initial offers for the band, in light of lackluster ticket sales for other retro-rock acts on tour, Carmen says.

He went on to release a solo CD, I Was Born to Love You, and hit the road with Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band.

Bryson and Smalley regrouped under the Raspberries name, issuing an EP titled Refreshed in 2000 with Scott McCarl, who had replaced Smalley in the original lineup. Carmen and Bonfanti did not take part in the project.

"It wasn't a big sore spot for anybody," Carmen says.

"We could talk about it, but we haven't," Smalley says. "We can talk about anything now. In the past, maybe we couldn't."

If all goes well tonight and New Year's Eve, the Raspberries might do a tour of other House of Blues clubs next year.

"For me, one of the best things is these four old dear friends who have this incredible history together finally get to play together again," Carmen says.

"I came to see their band when I was 17," he says, nodding toward the others. "They were the best band I'd ever seen."

Before joining the Raspberries, Bonfanti, Bryson and Smalley were in the Choir, the Cleveland group best known for "It's Cold Outside." Carmen was in another local band, Cyrus Erie.

Tonight's show will be recorded, with an eye toward possibly releasing a live album. There also is talk of a televised concert special and a tour of Japan.

While they're at it, how about a new Raspberries studio album?

"We haven't thought that far ahead," Carmen says. "For now, we just want to play these two shows. Then we can relax and say, 'So there—we did it.'"

—Cleveland Plain Dealer