By Dolly Carlisle
July 14, 1980 12:00 PM

No less a tastemaker than Dolly Parton once introduced him onstage and cooed, “Ain’t he purty?” A Cincinnati barmaid politely asked for his autograph—across her bared backside. And two sorority pledges fulfilled an initiation assignment by sneaking onto his tour bus to watch him change clothes before showtime. His latest No. 1 country hit, (We’ve) Gone Too Far, was clearly not meant to chastise his legions of lady fans, but singer Eddie Rabbitt is trading on more than his sex appeal.

He wrote or co-wrote 11 of his chart-topping hits since 1976, including Hearts on Fire, Suspicions and Two Dollars in the Jukebox. He has also turned out tunes (generally with guitarist collaborator Even Stevens) for Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap and Roy Clark. In addition, Rabbitt sang Every Which Way but Loose for Clint Eastwood’s film, but wasn’t seen in it. Similarly, he cranked out in two hours Drivin’ My Life Away. It has become the theme of the new Roadie, which is making movie stars of Meat Loaf and Blondie’s Deborah Harry. Come July 10, Eddie Rabbitt finally goes national himself. That’s the date he’s scheduled to graduate from talk shows and Nashville syndications to host of his first TV special on NBC. “I’ve done fairly well,” he understates.

Fairly well indeed, considering his un-country roots. The son of Irish immigrants, Eddie, 38, was born in Brooklyn and raised in East Orange, N.J., beyond the range of WSM’s Opry transmitter. His original vocation was “giving or taking bloody noses. There were a lot of jokes about my name, and I might have taken them too much to heart,” Rabbitt explains. His fiddle-playing father, an oil refinery worker, kindled another interest—as did 21 aunts and uncles who were “all musical.” Eddie learned guitar and got hooked on rockabilly and a local C&W station. He quit school at 15 for blue-collar jobs, but was then busted for driving without a license. “I had my taste of losers,” he recalls of four days in the slammer. “From then on, I wanted to be somebody.”

Eddie finished high school, then spent three years on Jersey’s humbling honky-tonk circuit. That led to a desperation gamble on a Greyhound ticket to Nashville in 1968. One new friend was another struggling artist named Kris Kristofferson. Then Rabbitt’s Workin’ My Way Up from the Bottom was recorded by Roy Drusky that year. After Kentucky Rain turned into Elvis Presley’s 50th gold single, Eddie’s writing name was established; his recording and touring career took off in 1976 with Drinkin’ My Baby (off My Mind).

Rabbitt and his wife of nearly four years, Janine Girardi, a former medical researcher he met at a party, live near Nashville and are planning to build a futuristic “dream home” on 80 Tennessee acres. “It’ll be like a flying saucer on the outside and Colonial inside,” he says. Eddie’s home 200 days a year is his six-bunk bus. (Janine rarely goes along.) Rabbitt dismisses his sex symbol image as merely “PR hype” and spends free road time reading sci-fi and maintaining his 6’3″ 195-pound frame with jogging and jump rope in hotel rooms. “I love what I do on the road,” he says, but aside from diet pills, he resists the harder temptations. “The flesh is weak,” Eddie knows, “and I could get into a whole lot of stuff.” What stops him? “My dream has always come before the dope,” he says. “I’ve put too much hard work into this thing—and I feel real lucky.”