Country singer-songwriter Eddie Rabbitt has survived personal tragedy and a bout of professional obscurity to emerge as one of Nashville’s favorite superstars. The lanky baritone scored a string of crossover hits in the late 1970s with songs such as “I Love a Rainy Night,” “Step by Step,” and “Someone Could Lose a Heart Tonight,” but as the 1980s progressed he all but disappeared from the scene. The “new” Eddie Rabbitt returned to the limelight in 1988, saddened by the death of his oldest son but determined to let music ease his sorrow. His recent work shows the same country-soft rock fusion that proved so popular in his earlier songs.
In the San Jose Mercury News, Harry Sumrall suggested that Rabbitt is “like a hot corn dog: nothing fancy, nothing frilly. You know what you’re getting and you like it.” The critic added: “Never a country purist, Rabbitt nonetheless makes music that is plain and simple, with all of the virtues that make good country good…. [His songs] might be brisk, but they are also warm and familiar, like the breeze that wafts in over the fried artichokes.”
Rabbitt first came to Nashville at a time when the industry was backing away from the traditional country sound in favor of a more pop-oriented product. Much of this crossover material was eminently forgettable, but Rabbitt’s catchy songs were the exception. The artist produced a dozen top-selling albums and placed more than two dozen hits on the country and pop charts, ultimately becoming one of the most successful crossover acts in the country. Sumrall wrote: “Friendly, relaxed, good-natured and real down-home, [Rabbitt] seemed to symbolize all the good feelings that people have about themselves.”
It is not terribly surprising that Rabbitt has never recorded pure country work. He is in fact a native of Brooklyn, New York, who spent most of his childhood in Newark, New Jersey. Rabbitt’s parents were Irish immigrants who came to the United States in 1924. His father worked at an oil refinery by day and played fiddle and accordion in Manhattan dance halls by night, concentrating on traditional Irish music.
Rabbitt was born in 1941 and was christened Edward Thomas. He grew up in a home full of Irish influences and learned to love country music as well. “Country music is Irish music,” Rabbitt told People magazine. “Appalachian music was brought over by the Scotch and Irish. I think the minor chords in my music give it that mystical feel.” Rabbitt was so consumed by music that he had little interest in formal schooling. He dropped out of high school at sixteen and began to perform at clubs in New Jersey and New York.
Born Edward Thomas November 27, 1941, in Brooklyn, N.Y.; son of an oil refinery worker; married, November 27, 1976, wife’s name Janine; children: Dimelza, Timmy (deceased), Tommy. Education: Earned high school equivalency diploma.
Country singer/songwriter, 1970—. Has also worked as a truck driver, fruit picker, and soda jerk. Signed with Elektra Records, c. 1974, and released a number of country-pop singles hits, 1975-79, including “I Love a Rainy Night,” “Drivin’ My Life Away,” “Step by Step,” and “Every Which Way but Loose.”
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Records, 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90028.
Rabbitt told the Akron Beacon Journal: “I remember one night a long time ago—before anybody’s really heard of me—I was playing this Jersey honky-tonk, and when I saw Eddie Rabbitt up there on the marquee, I have to admit that it looked more like the name of a magic act, or maybe a clown, than a singer. So I changed it to Eddie Martin—after the guitar I was using. But that didn’t help. As a matter of fact, as Eddie Martin, I went from near obscurity to oblivion. So I switched back.”
As Eddie Rabbitt the singer found his way to Nashville, where he worked as a truck driver, a fruit picker, and even a soda jerk while trying to peddle his original songs. His first sale was a number entitled “Working My Way up to the Bottom,” which was recorded by Roy Drusky in 1968. Two years later Rabbitt’s fortune was made when Elvis Presley bought one of his songs, “Kentucky Rain,” and made it a million seller. “Kentucky Rain” showed the earmarks of future Rabbitt hits—it had country emotions interwoven with a pop melody—and it suggested the young songwriter might be a candidate for crossover success.
By 1975 Rabbitt had secured a contract with Elektra Records and was turning out solo albums at the rate of almost two per year. His gaunt good looks made him a favorite in live concert, where he drew legions of country and pop fans. Rabbitt’s biggest hits included “Drivin’ My Life Away,” a tune based on his truck-driving experiences, “Step by Step,” an optimistic love song, and the jazzy “I Love a Rainy Night.” Rabbitt also provided the title song for the popular Clint Eastwood movie, Every Which Way but Loose. As the 1970s ended, the songwriter from New Jersey was riding high in Nashville.
Rabbitt describes himself as an old-fashioned Irishman; home and family are very important to him. In 1983 his wife Janine gave birth to the couple’s second child, a boy named Timmy. The child was born with a fatal liver disease that required constant hospitalization, so Rabbitt curtailed his touring and recording so he could visit the boy every day. The Rabbitt family spent long hours with their disabled child and mourned his loss after an unsuccessful liver transplant in 1985. “At that point, I sort of backed out of the business,” Rabbitt told the Wichita Eagle-Beacon. “I put out albums that other people wrote, and I just kinda backed out…. It was a time to be with people I love—my wife and little girl. I didn’t want to be out of the music business, but where I was was more important.”
A year or so after Timmy’s death Rabbitt resumed his career, finding solace in the music he performed. Since then he has had a number of country hits? most notably a remake of Dion’s “The Wanderer” and an upbeat number, “I Wanna Dance with You.” Rabbitt told People that his experience with his son’s death has affected his songwriting, making him more sensitive to pain and suffering. Rather than write sad songs, though, he tends to view music as a comfort, a restorative when times get tough. “I don’t like to write heavy downers,” he told the Wichita Eagle-Beacon. “There are enough heavy downers in the world; you can turn on the news for them. I think music should sooth the wild beast in us. It should take people away from the hard stuff in life—the hard jobs, the bad times.”
Rabbitt has returned to a full schedule, recording his albums with Capitol Records in Nashville. When not on the road he lives quietly with his wife, daughter Dimelza, and son Tommy, born in 1986. A new awareness of home and hearth informs Rabbitt’s recent work—he has become a wholesome performer without sacrificing his popular offbeat sexiness. “I don’t ever get down and dirty,” he said. “I think the stage is no place for that. I think you have to be very careful as an entertainer about what you bring to the stage because some people try to think of you as more than human. I figure if we’re going to be role models for people, we should at least try to be good role models.”
Rabbitt is grateful that his fans still come to see him after so many years. He told the Akron Beacon Journal that he figures he is still successful because he enjoys his work so much. The singer concluded: “I absolutely love music and I don’t know anything else I’d ever do.”
Eddie Rabbitt, Elektra.
Rocky Mountain Music, Elektra.
I Wanna Dance with You, RCA.
Rabbitt Trax, RCA.
Best of Eddie Rabbitt, Warner Bros.
Best of Eddie Rabbitt, Volume 2, Warner Bros.
Greatest Hits of Eddie Rabbitt, RCA.
Greatest Hits of Eddie Rabbitt, Volume 2, Warner Bros.
#1’s, Warner Bros.
Jersey Boy, Capitol.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Akron Beacon Journal, June 28, 1985; August 19, 1988.
People, April 17, 1989.
San Jose Mercury News, August 11, 1986.
Wichita Eagle-Beacon, March 27, 1987; February 19, 1988.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Singer/songwriter Eddie Rabbitt, a New Jersey boy with a soft heart, smooth voice, and the talent to create uplifting melodies, pioneered the expansion of country music onto the pop charts. Both country and pop music fans loved Rabbitt’s no nonsense style of song writing and made Rabbitt a superstar with 26 number one country hits and eight Top 40 pop hits. This crossover success was unheard of in 1980, but with such hits as “I Love A Rainy Night,” “Drivin’My Life Away,” “I Just Want to Love You,” and “Step by Step,” Rabbit became a crossover country/pop music pioneer.
Eddie Rabbitt was born Edward Thomas on November 27, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Irish immigrants, soon moved to Orange County, New Jersey where Rabbitt’s father worked days as a refrigeration engineer in an oil refinery, and played fiddle and accordion nights at New York City dance halls. Rabbitt followed in his father’s musical footsteps and learned to play the guitar at 12. He also quit school at 16—later passing an equivalency exam. His mother Mae told People that Eddie, “was never one for school. His head was too full of music.” In the late 1950s, Rabbitt, like his father, picked up a day job as a mental hospital attendant before landing a nightly singing gig at the Six Steps Down club in East Orange, New Jersey. In 1964, Rabbitt signed his first recording contract with 20th Century Records and released his first single, “Next to the Note” backed with “Six Nights & Seven Days”. However, for the next four years, fame and fortune alluded Rabbitt.
In 1968, Rabbitt, as noted in his online biography, hopped a bus to Nashville, Tennessee with “$1,000 in his pocket and no music business contacts.” He told People’s Tim Allis that he soon realized “[that] singers were a dime a dozen [in Nashville]. But there weren’t a lot of good songs.” Hoping to fill that void, Rabbitt began writing his own songs, and on his first night in Nashville penned “Working My Way Up to the Bottom.” Grand Ole Opry artist, Roy Drusky, recorded the song in 1968. Success would not be overnight, and Rabbitt was forced to work a variety of odd jobs including truck driver, soda jerk, and fruit picker to survive. Yet, Rabbitt continued writing and knocking on record and publishing company doors. A door finally opened for Rabbitt at the Hill & Range Publishing Company where he was hired as a staff writer with a weekly salary of $37.50.
With a little help from the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, Rabbitt finally hit it big in 1970. Presley recorded Rabbitt’s song, “Kentucky Rain,” which became his fiftieth gold record. For Rabbitt, this song, as
For the Record…
Born Edward Thomas on November 27, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York; died May 7, 1998; son of an oil refinery refrigeration engineer; married Janine, November 27, 1976; children: Dimelza, Timmy (died, 1985), Tommy.
Signed first recording contract with 20th Century Records, 1964 and released first single, “Next to the Note;” moved to Nashville, TN, 1968; wrote “Working My Way Up to the Bottom” recorded by Grand Ole Opry artist, Roy Drusky; hired as staff writer for Hill & Range Publishing Company; wrote Elvis Presley hit, “Kentucky Rain,” 1970; signed recording contract with Elektra Records, 1974; wrote number one single, “Pure Love” for Ronnie Milsap; first number one hit as singer and songwriter with “Drinkin’ My Baby (Off My Mind),” 1975; recorded 17 albums, producing 26 number one country hits, eight Top 40 hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s including: “Drivin’ My Life Away,” “I Love A Rainy Night,” “Every Which Way But Loose,” “You & I” (duet with Crystal Gayle), “Step by Step,”; semiretired in 1983 to take care of son, Timmy; returned in 1989 with Wanna Dance with You; released two albums, Jersey Boy and Ten Rounds which included the hit, “American Boy” in the early 1990s; signed with Intersound Records in 1997 and released Beatin’ the Odds and Welcome to Rabbittland.
Awards: Academy of Country Music Top New Male Vocalist, 1977; Music City News Country Songwriter of the Year, 1979; BMI Song of the Year for “Suspicions,” 1980; BMI Two Million-Air Award for “Kentucky Rain,” 1994; BMI Three Million-Air Award for “I Love A Rainy Night,” 1996;
Addresses: Record Company —Intersound Records, Inc., P.O. Box 1724, Roswell, GA 30077. Fan Club— -P.O. Box 35286, Cleveland, OH 44135.
noted in Contemporary Musicians, Volume 5, “showed the earmarks of future Rabbitt hits—it had country emotions interwoven with a pop melody—and it suggested the young songwriter might be a candidate for crossover success.” Yet, Rabbitt told People that he credited his Irish roots for his emotion and inspiration, “Country music is Irish music. Appalachian music was brought over by the Scotch and Irish. I think the minor chords in my music give it that mystical feel.” Rabbitt later shared this mystical feel with the world by recording “Song of Ireland”—an Irish jig-like tune with lyrics reflecting Rabbitt’s love of the Emerald Isle with its “shamrock hills and 40 shades of green.”
In 1974, Rabbitt wrote another hit, “Pure Love,” this time for country star Ronnie Milsap. The song was Milsap’s first number one single, and Elektra Records, seeing Rabbitt’s potential for hit-making records, signed him to a recording contract. In 1976, Rabbitt not only scored a number one single, “Drinkin’ My Baby (Off My Mind), but he also married, as he told People, “a little thing about 5 foot tall, with long, black beautiful hair, and real pretty face. She looked like an angel to me.”
In the late 1970s, Rabbitt became a top ten single writing and recording machine with a string of number one hits including, “Rocky Mountain Music,” “Two Dollars in the Jukebox,” “Drivin’ My Life Away,” and “I Just Want to Love You”. In 1977, the Academy of Country Music named Rabbitt the Top Male Vocalist of the Year. In 1979, Rabbitt hopped over to the pop music charts with the theme to Clint Eastwood’s movie, Every Which Way But Loose. Yet Rabbitt kept a foot in country music and was named Music City News Country Songwriter of the Year. Rabbitt’s popularity in both country and pop music not only grew, as noted by Alanna Nash in Entertainment Weekly, but “his blend of feel-good melodies, jangly rhythms, and tight vocal harmonies [also] helped usher in the urban cowboy era of the ‘80s.”
In 1980, BMI named Rabbitt’s song, “Suspicions” as their Song of the Year, and Rabbitt amazingly topped both the pop and country charts with his smash hit, “I Love A Rainy Night.” Yet Rabbitt, as quoted by Tony Russel in The Guardian, never thought about crossing over, “I came to Nashville with nothing in mind about pop music. I was country and it just so happened that the kind of music I was making crossed over to the pop charts.” In 1982, Rabbitt crossed over again with “You & I,” a duet with Crystal Gayle, and after signing with RCA, scored another number one country hit duet, “Both to Each Other,” with Juice Newton. However, one year later Rabbitt disappeared.
In 1983, with the birth of his second child, Timmy, Rabbitt stepped out of the country and pop music spotlight. Rabbitt backed out because Timmy was born with biliary atresia, a disease that attacks the liver. Timmy’s only chance of survival was a liver transplant. So Rabbitt, “against the advice of his manager, moth-balled his career to stay near his son,” wrote Allis. Rabbitt felt he had “to be there if I’m any kind of man.” Sadly, in 1985, after an unsuccessful liver transplant, Timmy died. Rabbitt told Allis that Timmy’s death took “the cockiness out of [my] walk.”
In 1989, Rabbitt released the album Wanna Dance With You. In the early 1990s, after short recording contracts with Universal and Capitol, Rabbitt released two albums: Jersey Boy and Ten Rounds. However, Rabbitt left Capitol in 1992 to focus on touring with his band, Hare Trigger. Rabbitt, as stated in Contemporary Musicians, Volume 5, had “become a wholesome performer without sacrificing his popular offbeat sexiness.” Rabbit himself commented, “I don’t ever get down and dirty. I think the stage is no place for that. I think you have to be very careful as an entertainer about what you bring to the stage because some people try to think of you as more than human. I figure if we’re going to be role models for people, we should at least try to be good role models.”
In the late 1990s, Rabbitt became a role model off stage by becoming a spokesperson for many charities including Special Olympics, Easter Seals, and the American Council on Transplantation. In 1996, Rabbitt was once again noted for his musical contributions when BMI honored Rabbitt with their Three Million-Air award for “I Love A Rainy Night” and Two Million I ion-Air award for “Kentucky Rain”. Moreover, Presidential candidate Bob Dole adopted Rabbitt’s song, “American Boy” for his campaign song. But it was the release of Welcome to Rabbittland, Rabbitt’s first children’s album that was his dream come true.
January of 1997 brought both good and bad news to Rabbitt. He signed a new recording contract with Intersound Records, but soon after that he was diagnosed with lung cancer. After completing his first round of chemotherapy and just four days before surgery to remove part of his left lung, Rabbitt released a new album, Beatin’ the Odds. While recuperating, Rabbitt began working on his second children’s album, Songs from Rabbitt Land. Rabbitt described the album to Diane Samms Rush of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as “17 songs, jokes, and stories I wrote for my kids as they were growing up…. Who knows? The rest of my career I might be known as Mister Wabbitt!”
Rabbitt once stated, “We all have to dance with our devils, but I lead.” Rabbitt, however, could not beat the odds against one of life’s cruelest devils, succumbing to cancer on May 7, 1998 at the age of 56. Yet, Rabbitt not only danced with many devils—the rough road to success, the sad death of his son, the hard struggle for a musical comeback, and cancer—he also lead country music to its now common, crossover pop chart success.
Eddie Rabbitt, Elektra.
Rocky Mountain Music, Electra.
I Wanna Dance With You, RCA, 1989.
Greatest Hits of Eddie Rabbitt, RCA.
Jersey Boy, Capitol.
Welcome to Rabbittland, Intersound, 1997.
Beatin’the Odds, Intersound, 1997.
LaBlanc, Michael, ed., Contemporary Musicians, Volume 5, Gale Research, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, June 22, 1998.
The Guardian, May 22, 1998, p. 22.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 10, 1997, p. 7; May 9, 1998, p. 6.
People, April 17, 1989; May 25, 1998.
—Ann M. Schwalboski