They Call Him the Rapper…
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.
“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. It was ‘Goodfellas.’ Maybe it was ‘The Godfather.’ Yeah, that was it. Half the guys at the wedding were named Petey.”
Both cousin Peteys are really his cousins Jimmy and Stevie, who want to know why the hell there are bottles of orange Gatorade, Pepsi and water in the room, but 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—that he’s been storing for safe keeping in Ziploc 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 Donnie’s concert, which sold out weeks ago.
People are also coming and going in Donnie’s dressing room. Smiling, laughing, joking, remembering that one time…
While Butchie, Andy, 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 fine with Donnie.
“They’re fun, but usually really disorganized,” he says as Steve Rohan walks in and hands him 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 an iPhone 4. Still gets up at 4:00 a.m. every morning as he has done for the past 17 years to do the morning drive on 96.9 BOB FM. And no, he’s still not used to it.
“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.”
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. Soon, his single, “Ah! Leah!” hit the airwaves on rock stations in Boston, Dallas, St. Louis. Not pop stations. 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. Then came the music video, featuring a hot blonde, Donnie and his banana yellow suit, and 40 years later, over 8 million views on YouTube.
He finishes his drink just as one of The Cruisers walks in and starts unbuttoning his shirt, paying no attention to the three mirrors that are propped up against the wall.
“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.”