Donnie Iris is sitting in what’s supposed to be his dressing room on the second floor of the Rivers Casino. Down the hall from the Grand View Buffet and a line of people waiting behind velvet ropes for the $14.99 crab legs. There are three full length mirrors pushed up against the wall and no one in the room seems to be interested in them.
“This is my cousin Petey… and my other cousin Petey,” he says, pointing to a handful of guys sitting around the rectangular conference table. “Remember, from My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Wait. No. Goodfellas. Maybe the Godfather. Yeah, at the wedding. Half the guys at the wedding were named Petey.”
Both cousin Petey’s are really his cousins Jimmy and Stevie and one of them wants to know why the hell there are bottles of orange Gatorade and Pepsi and a Blizzard Spring Water Cooler in the room and no booze.
“What? They think we’re gonna pass out?’
“I coulda brought my own!”
“Is this a meeting of the minds?” a voice booms. It’s Donnie's friend, Butchie. Pink button-down shirt. Straw fedora. Many silver chains around his neck. Back from Florida and bearing gifts.
“It’s a Megalodon tooth. You’ll find them all over the beach. I take them to the jeweler in Morgantown,” he explains, handing Donnie a few other souvenirs—cigars and a white golf shirt—he’s storing in Ziplock bags.
“Hey Donnie. Did you get that eggplant and tomatoes and peppers I sent?” asks Andy.
Andy is Butchie’s brother. He was going to bring the vegetables with him to the Casino.
“I told him, ‘What are you doing to do? Carry a box full of vegetables through the Casino?'” laughs Butchie.
Outside, the amphitheater is starting to get crowded. Really crowded. People sitting in the metal bleachers, people waiting in line to buy a beer, everyone ready for a concert that sold out weeks ago.
People are also coming and going in Donnie's dressing room. Smiling, laughing, joking, remembering that one time...
While Butchie and Andy and Stevie and Jimmy are all whooping it up with Louis Lipps and his wife, Leah, who just toasted their 11th wedding anniversary, Donnie’s waiting for someone at some point to grab him for the Meet-n-Greet, which is supposed to begin in like, five minutes. Until someone from the Casino lets Donnie know that the Meet-n-Greet is off, which is cool.
“They’re fun, but usually really disorganized,” he says as Steve Rohan walks in and hands Donnie a glass filled with something straight up and brown.
“A little nip,” Andy says.
“Probably Crown,” Donnie guesses.
Steve wants a photo. He’s still using the iPhone 4. Still gets up at four a.m. every morning, too, as he has done for the past seventeen years, to do the morning drive on the radio. And no, he’s still not used to it.
Hey Steve! People always ask, so super glad they're not the ones getting up at 3 a.m.. How you feelin’ right now?
Fuck you! Steve always replies.
“I want to anoint you the Pope of Pittsburgh,” he tells Donnie. “Get you a golf cart with one of those plastic bubbles on top. Pope Iris or something like that. The Cruisers can be the cardinals.”
The first time Donnie Iris heard his song on the radio was… amazing. It was 1970. The song was “The Rapper” from the album We Went to Different Schools Together when he was Dominic Ierace of The Jaggerz.
He heard it driving in the car, all those riffs beaming out from 89 WLS’s 50,000 watts in Chicago. “At night, that signal would come all the way through to Pittsburgh,” he says. He heard the song on WABC in New York, too. Then, again when he was in Detroit.
Pretty soon, everyone was hearing it. It landed at No. 2 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, got certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in 1970 for selling over a million copies, and pretty much launched his career.
“Everyone had turned us down before that,” he says. “We struggled for years.”
In 1964, the Jaggerz had hooked up with manager Joe Rock, who everyone worshipped. Joe was the guy who managed the Skyliners back in the 50s and he had three words for his new clients: “Hit the road.”
So, they did. Played clubs all over the mid-west. Six, seven nights a week. They recorded an album in ’68 and two years later hit gold thanks to the main guy at Buddah records, who put their album on the turntable, said, “Yeah, why not?” and gave them a break.
After the Jaggerz there was Wild Cherry and the whole “Play that Funky Music” thing and by 1979, Dominic Ierace was now Donnie Iris, solo and cutting tracks at Jerre Records in New Brighton while looking for a band to play with.
Guys like Marty, who Donnie heard wailing on a guitar at Morry’s Speakeasy, down the street from Jerre’s.
Hey, he said. We’re doin’ a record… you wanna do this?
Yeah, Marty replied skeptically. Sure, buddy.
But they exchanged numbers and when the last track was recorded, their label started sending out the album and everyone they sent it to put the first single, “Ah! Leah!,” on the airwaves. Stations in Boston. Dallas. St. Louis. Rock stations. Not pop. Rock.
“Everywhere but Buffalo,” Donnie says. “And my frickin’ cousins lived up there. I was pissed!”
Eventually, Buffalo came around. And Donnie started pinning a huge map he had hanging on the wall of his house to mark every station across the United States that was playing “Ah! Leah!” “I used up a lot of pins,” he says.
“Ah! Leah!” was just different. It just caught you. Kinda like what Greta Van Fleet is doing now. Like when they were on Jimmy Fallon the other night?
“Amazing.” Donnie says.
“Dropped my glass.” Marty adds.
“Freaking Americans, man. Fuck, this is great!” Donnie laughs. He saw Greta Van Fleet play at Stage AE. Couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“They’re bringing back rock music to kids,” he says. “They’re not doing shit with buttons or turntables. They’re shredding their instruments apart. I love it. I love it so much."
He finishes his drink just as one of The Cruisers walks in and starts unbuttoning his shirt.
"Okay, I have to kick you out now," Donnie says to the room as he gets up from the table. "It’s time to get ready for my show.”
The "Our Stories" series is an ongoing non-fiction writing project by Kate Benz.
Capturing a moment in time in our everyday lives.
Raw. Real. Honest.