Songwriter Interviews

Donnie Iris (Ah! Leah!, The Rapper)

by Carl Wiser

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When you're in a band, you get a stage-view opportunity to see guys in nightclubs run their game. This gave Donnie Iris fodder for "The Rapper," which was a huge hit for his band The Jaggerz. Donnie went on to solo success in the '80s, where he had an enduring hit with "Ah! Leah!"
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I played "Ah! Leah!" a lot when I was a DJ at WHCN in Hartford.

Donnie Iris: You know, when that song came out, I had a map in my house of the United States. That song just started to get added on all these radio stations across the country. We were going crazy. We couldn't believe it was happening. I still remember putting little flags in the map on all the cities that were playing the song. I also wrote down all the call letters of those radio stations. I probably still have that map at home. That thing was covered in flags all up along the East Coast. It was great.

Songfacts: "Ah, Leah" still gets some airplay. It shows up in recurrents which is when they'll give the song a rest for about six months, and then bring it back so people will get all excited about listening to it again.

Iris: Is that what they do? I see. That's interesting.

Songfacts: Yeah. I guess it just keeps people from getting sick of it.

Iris: Oh yeah, I can understand that. So I guess that's why you'll hear a certain Van Halen tune for six months, and you won't for a while. They'll bring something else into the recurrents.

Songfacts: It's also why, all of a sudden, Creed drops off the face of the earth, and then a few years later you'll start hearing them again, bit by bit.

Iris: Unbelievable. I definitely learned something today.

Songfacts: Well, I'm going to learn something today too. Do you mind if we start with your Jaggerz song "The Rapper?"

Iris: Sure. We recorded "The Rapper" around the summer of '69. It came out in late '69 and hit the top of the charts by 1970. The song itself was just something I wrote watching people in nightclubs and all the bars we were playing in. I'd see these dudes go over and start rapping to all the chicks. In those days, we used to call trying to pick up chicks "rappin'." What they were doing though was basically just hitting on them. That's how the song came about. Just watching these guys and all their moves.

Songfacts: So you could see all this from the stage?

Iris: Yeah. We would do our shows in these nightclubs and the shows would be about two or three sets. When we would be sitting around, taking a break between sets, I could just watch all these guys doing their thing. That's how I wrote that tune.

Songfacts: So even around 1970, during the disco era, guys would still have to do their whole pick-up routines in nightclubs.

Iris: That's right. And now they call it hitting on somebody. Back then though, if you were talking to somebody you would say "Yeah, I was rappin' to this chick." That's what we called it.

Songfacts: So the term "rap" even had a meaning back then.

Iris: Right. It was actually a hip way of saying, "talking." "I was talking to this chick," or "I was talking to that dude." Back then it was, "Yeah, we were rappin' the other night."

Songfacts: So, how did that song become such a huge hit?

Iris: Who the hell knows? Those things just happen. Probably 8 or 10 different record companies had turned us down before Neil Bogart at Buddha gave us a shot. So, I don't know if anybody else really heard a hit in it, but I guess he did. He thought it had a good shot at doing something. And he was right. I mean, it took off like crazy.

Songfacts: So what happens when you go from playing these little bars to all of the sudden having a huge hit?

Iris: It's very strange. There were some shows I remember doing that we would never have gotten without a hit record. One in particular was in Pittsburg at Three River Stadium when that was up. I remember the Beach Boys were there, the Supremes, and, if I'm not mistaken, maybe even Chicago was there.

But when "The Rapper" came out we started doing shows like that. But it wasn't like a tour. A show would just pop up here and there. It wasn't like when we had "Leah." With those kinds of songs we would go out on either a club tour of our own, or maybe a 6-week tour opening for this band or that band, like Hall and Oates, or whoever it might be. But that didn't happen back when "The Rapper" was popular.

Songfacts: So what's the evolution? Do The Jaggerz disband?

Iris: Actually, two or three of the guys are still together, and they still do a few local shows here and there. I still keep in contact with one of the guys, Jimmy Ross, who's a good friend of mine.

Songfacts: And then you moved on to do solo stuff?

Iris: I did a few things in between. Notably, Wild Cherry. I was with those guys for a couple of years.

Songfacts: Were you in it during the "Play That Funky Music, White Boy era?

Iris: I was in Wild Cherry after that song became a hit. That song was obviously a huge hit, and, I don't know what happened in that band, but a couple of the guys from it had left, and they asked me to join. That's how I met Mark Avsec, my keyboard player. He was in that band.

Songfacts: What's the story behind "Ah! Leah!"

Iris: When Mark and I wrote that together in my basement, around the piano, Mark originally had the idea of an anti-war song. And in the background, we wanted to have a hook, or a chorus, or a tune, that sounded almost like a Gregorian chant. And somehow, Mark came up with "ah, Leah" as just a chant. It wasn't a chick's name, or a certain person or individual in particular. I said, "You know what, Mark? That's a chick's name." So that's how we named it "Ah, Leah."

It just so happens that there was a girl by the name of Leah who had dated one of the guys in The Jaggerz years ago. She was a very pretty girl, and I had always loved her name. So, instead of an anti-war tune, which we messed around with but couldn't find anything in, it just turned into a love song. Isn't that weird?

Songfacts: Yeah, that's quite the change of direction.

Iris: It was a total change of direction. That happened with several of our songs. We were coming up with stuff, and sometimes you just do something and in the end you hate it. That's what happened. We hated the way it was coming out as an anti-war song, but when we finally figured out it was a nice way to do a love song, we were happy with it.

Songfacts: The lyrics seem delightfully cheesy to me. Was that intentional?

Iris: When we were finished with it, it all sounded okay to me. When you talk about not being able to be with a chick, and every time you see her you go nuts, and how wrong that feels, we thought that was kind of a passionate tune. But if you think it's cheesy, that's fine too. Cheesy's cool.

Songfacts: Well, it's very relatable. I just always thought it was so funny how you could rhyme some of those words.

Iris: A lot of times we will do that deliberately. Like on "Agnes." When we wrote that, we figured out that a lot of words rhymed with "Agnes." It was such a weird name for a chick at that time that it just fell into place.

Songfacts: Your song "Love Is Like A Rock." Can you tell me a little about that?

Iris: Yeah. That song was a jam. The group went into the studio and Marty Lee, our guitar player, came up with that riff. We just kind of built around that riff, put the instrumentals down, and that's all we had. We just had what we thought was a good track – guitar, bass, drums. Then Mark and I were in the studio and we listened to the song and wrote the lyrics around the track.

That's basically what we do with most of the stuff we've been writing nowadays. We just go with a nice rhythm track of guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, whatever. Come up with what we think is a nice piece of music. Then, Mark will take the tune home and write a lyric for it. Together, we'll work on the harmonies and background vocals and the melodies and things like that. But for "Love is Like a Rock," he and I sat in the studio listening to that rhythm track. I think it was Mark's idea to come up with "love is like a rock," and then, together, we just wrote lines that rhymed.

Songfacts: It almost sounds like one of those titles that has existed before.

Iris: Oh, it might have. It might be somewhere.

Songfacts: I'm not sure. I think you guys were the first to use it, but it's just one of those song titles that just sounds like it should be a song title.

Iris: Yeah, it should be. And I'm surprised there aren't more of those somewhere throughout rock and roll. You've never come across that title before?

Songfacts: I haven't. There is "Solid As A Rock" though.

Iris: That's surprising. I mean, the fact that you can't really copyright a title. It surprises me that somewhere along the way, that title didn't get used.

Songfacts: What's the story of "Agnes"?

Iris: That one just fell into place, because everything seemed to rhyme so easily with "Agnes" that the whole thing just came together. Sometimes those songs will just happen, because some words just rhyme really well.

Songfacts: But there was no real Agnes?

Iris: No, no. Absolutely not.

Songfacts: What have you and your band been up to these days?

Iris: We're still playing. We're still doing gigs in and around Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Youngstown. Pretty much like this area that I'm from. We do maybe a dozen shows a year. Different venues, some clubs, some outdoor things. But I think the nicest thing we've done gig-wise over the last four or five years has been the Chevy Amphitheatre in Pittsburgh.

We do that once a year, and we also do Tower City in Cleveland. The last couple of years we've done that, which are both about 2,000-4,000 seat venues. Outdoors is more the summertime. Very nice shows. Then we're still doing the clubs. We're still out there, man. We're still pounding away, hoping that anything can happen in this business. We know it as well as anybody else.

September 10, 2006
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Comments: 7

  • Meghan from Rainsville Alabama Cool that you asked the questions and got answers that seemed real, no bs behind it. Ah Leah was a favorite and i still listen to it often thanks to YouTube.
  • Cindy from Kansas CityI'd love to see a concert - he still has so much energy and passion. Ah Leah takes me back to the days of record stores, MTV and blasting this on the radio while cruising around. Rock on King Cool.
  • Xxzeon from Buffalo, NyIris is definitely a class act. I had the privilege of seeing him in 1982 @ Summers on the Beach in Ft Lauderdale, Fl. He and his band blew me away.Over 20 yrs later, in 2004, I saw him in a small club in Pittsburgh. He was amazing. He could still wail those long "high" notes. Best of all, however was the man himself. He actually took the time to sit at our table after the show and rap" for 10mins or so. Excellent dude!!!!
  • Greg from Pennsylvania"Ah! Leah!" is a great song that I will remember long into my nursing home years. That one and "Love Is Like A Rock" still hold a lot of memories for me from the early 80's. Great to hear Donnie and the band are still rocking !
  • Shawnerz from Any, MdI love "Ah! Leah!" For me, the lines about "...lookin' better than a body has a right to" and "...we know we ain't never gonna make it" are great and really spoke to me. I was in high school when the song came out, so it really rang true.
    Hey Donnie, if you ever read this, I grew up on the West coast. You might have to add KOME (San Jose), KSJO and KRQR (San Fran) to your map! :)
  • Tr from Anniston, AlCool interview, but 1970 "the disco era"??
  • AnonymousGreat interview. Iris is a class act, great voice and a very tight show. his newest cd "ellwood city" rocks. especially the single "little black dress"
see more comments

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