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Rock legend Donnie Iris marks 75th birthday with Palace shows

January 31, 2018 GMT

Mark Avsec thinks he may have the best view in the house at any Donnie Iris concert.

“I have a special vantage point during our set and looking out at the crowd,” says the co-founder, producer, songwriter and keyboardist of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers. “I watch the smiles on everyone’s faces, fixed on Donnie, reaching out for him with their hands and arms, and he for them. There is a love energy moving both ways.”

That energy is about to electrify the Palace Theatre in Greensburg as Iris performs not one, but three concerts — Feb. 3 and 10 and March 10 — to celebrate his 75th birthday.

Age is just a number

On a good night, when all the stars align, Iris is as happy as a human being can be, says Avsec, who has been with his friend since the beginning.

“It doesn’t hurt that he sings and screams as well as he ever has,” he says, “and the older he gets, the cooler it seems to be.

“Imagine your father, grandfather or great-grandfather doing what he does, then think about the fact that Donnie is probably older than them, and way cooler.”

Iris smiles at the thought.

“I had no idea I’d still be doing this at my age. I remember seeing Chuck Berry on TV at age 60 and thinking, ‘no way,’ ” he says from his Beaver Falls home. “I hope to continue doing what I’m doing. I’m healthy, I feel strong, I can still sing the songs in the original keys, and I don’t plan on any changes on that. I’m going to keep going as long as I feel good and the fans keep coming. They truly motivate me.”

He honestly feels that age is just a number.

“I’m still enjoying performing even more now than ever before,” he says.

The Ellwood City native, who turns 75 on Feb. 28, is the only person to be inducted twice into the Pittsburgh Rock’N Roll Legends, once for his time in the Jaggerz and once for his solo career.

“The first couple of albums he produced with Mark Avsec are absolute vocal masterpieces,” says Steven Hansen, who runs the annual Legends awards. “Donnie’s legacy is simply this: He’s the King.”

“Who would believe at 75 years old he is selling out music venues throughout the year,” says promoter Rich Engler. “I believe Donnie will continue to rock and roll at least until he is 80 and everybody will think he looks like he is 50.”

He is very proud of his longevity. He started playing professionally about 1964, after he quit college to pursue his love of music.

“I guess what happens is the fans get older right along with the artists,” Iris says, “and the younger fans pick right up on it. Rock and roll is endless, brother!”

One of his favorite memories is when Journey’s Steve Perry came into his dressing room drinking a cup of coffee and telling him how much he loved Iris’ hit song, “Ah! Leah!”

He also recalls the extended tours he did with Nazareth, Loverboy and Hall and Oates, as well as sporadic gigs with Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, the Romantics and others.

‘The warm glow’

Avsec says he is always in a better mood when he hangs out with Iris.

“And I believe the fans pick up on Donnie’s authenticity from the stage,” he says. “This is why Donnie is an icon now. It’s his personality. He’s not perfect. He’s real. It’s the songs, but it’s mostly the love. As our biographer D.X. Ferris says, ‘It’s the warm glow of Donnie.’ ”

Iris says he does not take his fans for granted.

“I try to treat each and every (fan) with love and respect,” Iris says. “They mean the world to me. For whatever reason, our music touches people. They relate to me. They are just like me, just good old Pittsburgh yinzers looking for me to rock their (butts) off once in a while. I freakin’ love them!”

The fact that the Palace Theatre shows have sold so quickly is “a crazy surprise” to him.

A native son

“He’s a native son who hit the big time but never really left his hometown. I think a lot of people love him for that,” says Bob Corbin, 68, formerly of the Corbin-Hanner Band, now retired and living in Ecuador.

“He’s one of those guys you’re just glad to be around. I don’t know what it is about him but he makes me smile, and he and his band always made me want to try a whole lot harder to make our music be that good,” he says.

Music is what has been his most effective way of communicating with people, Iris says.

“I love the way certain chords sound, or the way a certain groove moves me,” he says, “but the real meaning of music to me is that it’s the best way I know how to love people. I hope that the music will stand the test of time, and continue to touch people long after I’m gone.”

Get behind the scenes

Iris has been embraced so enthusiastically, says Dave D.X. Ferris, author of “The Story of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers” ($39.99, Primary Records Group) because he embodies some of Pittsburgh’s most cherished values.

“He has always remained humble,” Ferris says.

The book, with forward by for Pittsburgh DJs Jim Krenn and Scott Paulsen, will be available at the Palace Theatre shows and on amazon.com after March 2.

“The Cruisers channel their own energy through five decades of Donnie’s goodwill,” he says. “Donnie hits the stage, works hard, gives it his all and it’s still something to behold.”

A special black-and-gold edition will be available at concerts only.

Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Donnie on the charts

Donnie Iris & the Cruisers scored seven Hot 100 singles, including three Top 40 songs, between 1980 and 1985:

• “My Girl” peaked at No. 25, May 1982

• “Ah! Leah!” peaked at No. 29, February 1981

• “Love Is Like a Rock,” No. 37, February 1982

• “Tough World,” No. 57, November 1982

• “Do You Compute,” No. 64, July 1983

• “Sweet Merilee,” No. 80, November 1981

• “Injured in the Game of Love,” No. 91, March 1985

Iris and the Jaggerz had a No. 2 hit in March 1970 with “The Rapper.”