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The Urban Cowboy

Remembering Eddie Rabbitt -- the musician passed away May 7

Remembering Eddie Rabbitt

In the early 1980s, after he'd racked up three top five pop hits — ''Drivin' My Life Away,'' ''I Love a Rainy Night,'' and ''Step by Step'' — Eddie Rabbitt was offered his own TV variety series. He turned it down, along with countless acting roles. ''Just because I have a successful dog act doesn't mean I can walk up to the lion cage and do as well,'' he said in a 1984 interview. ''It's not worth the gamble.''

Rabbitt, who died May 7 of lung cancer at age 56, conducted his career on his own terms. But his refusal to play all angles of the show-business game often left him empty-handed at awards time and helped brand him a lightweight, even though his country chart successes — 34 top 10 singles, with 17 No. 1 hits — spoke otherwise.

The son of Irish immigrants, Rabbitt grew up in East Orange, N.J. His father's bleak job as a refrigeration engineer at a Newark oil refinery prodded him to seek a better life. So he began a music career in Jersey clubs and, in the late '60s, moved to Nashville to become a songwriter. ''Kentucky Rain,'' a soulful early effort, became Elvis Presley's 50th gold record in 1970.

While his first hits (such as ''Drinkin' My Baby Off My Mind'') were solidly traditional, Rabbitt found larger success with a fusion of country, pop, and rock. His blend of feel-good melodies, jangly rhythms, and tight vocal harmonies helped usher in the Urban Cowboy era of the '80s, and his 1982 duet with Crystal Gayle, ''You and I,'' laid the foundation for country's love of middle-of-the-road ballads. Although he continued to have No. 1 hits through the '80s, he cut back on his touring when his son Timothy became ill and died at 23 months from a liver defect in 1985. ''He was one of the guys who opened the door for Garth Brooks,'' says country deejay Skip Mahaffey, of Columbus, Ohio's WCOL.

Rabbitt — survived by his wife, Janine, and his children Demelza, 16, and Tommy, 11 — was upbeat after lung surgery last year and accordingly named his final album Beatin' the Odds (released last fall). ''We all have to dance with our devils,'' he once said. ''But I lead.''

Originally posted May 22, 1998 Published in issue #433 May 22, 1998 Order article reprints
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