They were a band on the run to nowhere, a bunch of aging good timers who had spent a decade playing in bars and only occasionally some place better. Then “along comes a Hollywood film director who wants to take our music and wrap it around a film,” marvels John Cafferty, 33-year-old lead vocalist and songwriter for the Beaver Brown Band. “In the middle of winter here we were in L.A., driving down Sunset Boulevard in beautiful cars, staying in nice hotels. It was a great experience.”
Trouble was Eddie and the Cruisers looked more like a lemon than a vehicle to stardom when it was released in 1983. Despite its combustive Spring-steenesque music (created and performed by Beaver Brown but lip-synched by actors on the screen), the film about a mythical 1960s New Jersey band disappeared from theaters faster than a late-show crowd at closing time. Cafferty & Co. managed to land a record contract, but Eddie’s box-office flop meant a quick retreat to the East Coast bars whence it had come.
A retreat, perhaps, but not exactly surrender. This summer Eddie and the Cruisers reappeared for a run on cable television, and then a video of one of the film’s songs (this time showing the real musicians) hit MTV. The mass exposure suddenly rekindled sales of the movie’s sound track album, pushing it toward Billboard’s Top 10 while turning the moodily exuberant single, On the Dark Side, into the country’s most-played radio rock tune.
The belated good fortune has unexpectedly given the seashore bar band some smooth sailing. Formed in Narragansett, R.I. back in 1972, the band was the brainchild of Cafferty and his boyhood pal, drummer Kenny Jo Silva. The pair, hoping to blend old-time rhythm-and-blues with early-style rock, recruited longtime friends Bob Cotoia and Pat Lupo for keyboards and bass, then signed up guitarist Gary Gramolini out of the University of Rhode Island. Saxophonist Michael “Tunes” Antunes (a 44-year-old grandfather and the only band member to appear in the Cruisers film) joined five years later.
The group dubbed themselves Beaver Brown after the paint color used to spruce up their rehearsal studio and, after almost a year of rehearsals, began the long grind of one-night stands. Among early fans was a fellow rocker from New Jersey named Bruce Springsteen, who occasionally joined them onstage. “He’s given us a lot of encouragement and advice, and he helped me find some answers to questions I had when I first started writing,” says Cafferty. “It was like getting batting tips from Mickey Mantle.”
Help from the Boss wasn’t entirely beneficial, however, a fact that Cafferty and his cohorts discovered when record companies refused to sign them, claiming that “Springsteen-style groups had never sold well.” Denied a contract, the group kept to a routine of regional club dates, earning $150 weekly per player during most of the ’70s and sharing quarters in Rhode Island beach houses to cut expenses. “There was always music in the house,” Cafferty recalls. “The local bands would come over after they finished working, and we’d play all night.” To keep fit for the long rides to their own gigs, the bandmates took up karate, eventually earning one black belt, two browns and a pair of greens.
Then in 1982 Cafferty got a call from Kenny Vance, the former member of Jay and the Americans who was supervising the music for the Cruisers movie. “I was hired to bring authenticity to the film, so I thought I should go for a band that really played all that stuff instead of getting music-business people to give us what they thought those sounds were about,” says Vance. “While I was reading the screenplay, I kept thinking about this band I had seen in New York two or three years before. I couldn’t even remember the name, but I knew it was the prototype for Eddie and the Cruisers.”
Beaver Brown will release Tough All Over, its first LP under its own name, early next year. Meanwhile, encouraged by the success of the Cruisers sound track, Embassy Pictures is discussing plans to re-release the film in selected cities. For the rockers from Rhode Island, now awaiting their first big royalty checks (they were originally paid “a couple of thousand” each for the movie score), little has changed except that “the clubs we’ve always played at have to turn away as many people as they let in,” reports Cafferty.
This month the band begins a 38-city tour that may broaden its audience even more but will not, Cafferty vows, alter its attitude. “In every success story there seems to be one unusual moment, an event that’s out of the ordinary. And when that event happens, it changes the course of your entire career. The idea is to be as honest as you can, to stay true to where you came from and never forget the people who set you on the road to where you’re going.”