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Trip to Rochester will allow Gene Cornish to celebrate two passions – music & baseball

Trip to Rochester will allow Gene Cornish to celebrate two passions – music & baseball

He grew up a block from old Red Wing Stadium on Norton Street in the 1950s and early ’60s. And all these years later, Gene Cornish can still hear the public address announcements and the roar of the crowd; still visualize the bright lights that lit up his entire neighborhood; still smell the aroma of hotdogs and hamburgers wafting from the ballpark’s grills. “It was a pretty alluring place for a young boy,’’ the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer recalled recently by phone from his New Jersey home. “I think I was about seven or eight when I went to my first game, and I was hooked.”

Before long, he was playing Little League Baseball on Avenue D playgrounds and softball on Kodak Park Athletic Association diamonds. “I wanted to become a professional ball player for the Rochester Red Wings,’’ he said. “They were the center of my baseball universe.”

It didn’t hurt that several Wings players lived in his neighborhood. Occasionally, he and his buddies would run into them at the corner diner where Cornish would go to listen to Elvis and Chuck Berry on the juke box. “One day, we were in there and I asked one of the players what happened to this young pitcher I had been following, and he told me that the guy had suffered an arm injury and his career was over. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, the guy’s only 21 or 22 years old, and his career’s done. That stinks.’ That’s when I decided I’d better stick with music.”

By concentrating on his six-string rather than his Louisville Slugger, Cornish would wind up producing memorable hits of a different sort. And he ultimately wound up in two halls of fame – albeit in Cleveland and Rochester, rather than Cooperstown.

As a founder and lead guitarist of The Young Rascals (later renamed The Rascals), Cornish teamed with keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, vocalist Eddie Brigati, and drummer Dino Danelli to form a powerhouse rock and soul group that would dominate the Billboard charts in the late 1960s. Three of their songs — “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’,” and “People Got to Be Free” — would become chart-toppers, and seven other songs they created would crack the Top 40. The Rascals became so popular they were invited to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966, just two years after the Beatles invaded our shores and captivated America on that same New York City television stage.

In 1997, Cornish reached the peak of his profession when he and his bandmates were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. And 15 years later, he became a charter member of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. The hometown honor meant the world to him because he appreciated the fact the Flower City’s music tradition was as deep and expansive as the Pacific Ocean – definitely major league. “And to think there was a time in my life when it was between baseball and Elvis,’’ he chuckled. “I think I made the right choice.”

I’ll say.

Like many musicians from his era, Cornish was profoundly impacted by the flamboyant, hip-swiveling singer with the long sideburns and soulful voice from Tupelo, Miss. One day, in the mid-1950s, Cornish was playing checkers with his grandfather when Elvis Presley bounded onto the screen of their tiny black-and-white television set and performed “Heartbreak Hotel.”

“From that moment on, I wanted to be like Elvis,’’ he said. “I had the hair and the looks, but I didn’t have his voice. Who did? But I could play guitar, so I figured if I couldn’t sing like Elvis, I could become like Scotty Moore, his guitar player.”

When the young Cornish wasn’t playing ball, you could find him playing in garage bands. His earliest gigs as a young teenager included some primitive performances at the Avenue D playgrounds – gigs that paid him and his band mates a whopping 50 cents apiece. Cornish was a natural from the start and was destined to go far after catching a few breaks.

Although he stopped playing baseball, he never stopped loving it. And this weekend, thanks to the generosity of former Rochester automobile dealer and current popular podcaster Dom Genova, Cornish is going to participate in his two favorite Flower City pastimes: He’ll be at Innovative Field Saturday for the Red Wings game, then will attend the annual Rochester Music Hall of Fame gala the next evening.

The 78-year-old is looking forward to returning to the ballpark. He was there last year and was presented with a Wings jersey with his name on the back by team President/CEO/COO Naomi Silver. While at Innovative, he’s going to spend some time in the booth with longtime Wings organist Fred Costello, who is one of this year’s Music Hall of Fame inductees. The two  played together a few times at House of Guitars benefit concerts to gather food and clothing donations for Rochester families in need.

Cornish also plans to reconnect with the Proietti family. He graduated with Tom Proietti from Franklin High School in 1963. And Tom’s older brother, Pat, played saxophone in Cornish’s first band, The Satellites. While here, Cornish will visit the iconic House of Guitars, his all-time favorite music store.

“It’s always good to get back to my hometown,’’ said Cornish, who was born in Ontario, Canada, but moved to Rochester when he was four. “I’m going to see a bunch of people, like Dom, and Pat, and Fred and Naomi. I’m sure it’s going to re-kindle some fond memories.”

Cornish is grateful he’s been given a chance to make more memories. Five years ago, he collapsed during a concert in Billings, Mont., after suffering heart arrhythmia, but has bounced back nicely, and continues to tour with his longtime friend and bandmate, Cavaliere. “I was pronounced dead on stage, but they revived me,’’ he said. “So, I say, ‘God bless Billings, and God bless those first responders.’ ’’

These days, he’s a huge New York Yankees fan, but continues to pledge allegiance to the hometown team that first captured his heart. In fact, if you check out Cornish’s Wikipedia page, the first photo you notice shows him wearing a cap Rochester players donned when he was a kid. Its logo features a baseball in the middle of two sets of wings. His choice of headgear is a reminder that although his old ballpark is long gone, the memories endure.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.