On His 80th Birthday, Reflecting on the Career of Eddie Rabbitt

It was late 1980, or early 1981, and I wasn’t even five years old yet. But man, I had me a record player, and a mean record collection. Any Disney-on-record story ever published I had a copy of, bequeathed down from brothers, sisters, and cousins who’d outgrown them. I would sit and listen to them on my small suitcase style 45 record player that had little lights in the front of it that would pulsate with the words and music. I didn’t care much for the stories. I’d find where the songs were on the record, and drop the needle there.

But then everything changed when my older brother handed me a 45 of adult music, and the silver dollar-sized plug I had to put on the center of the turntable to play it. Reverberating finger snaps and hand claps immediate awakened something carnal in my tiny brain, and my ears perked up. An electric guitar was strumming on a single chord. And then I heard him for the first time. “I love a rainy night, I love a rainy night, I love to hear the thunder, watch the lightning, as it lights up the sky…”

It was Eddie Rabbitt, and country music. My entire universe changed.

Eddie Rabbitt would have turned 80 years old today, November 27th, but he died in Nashville on May 7th, 1998 from lung Cancer at the age of 56. Eddie had been a heavy smoker for many years, and it finally caught up to him. But nobody reported on the passing of Eddie Rabbitt when it happened at the behest of his family. It wasn’t until after the burial that the word got out. Not even his agent knew, nor anyone else beyond his family that after being diagnosed with Cancer and receiving radiation treatment and having part of his lung removed, Rabbitt was diagnosed as terminal. He just went on like everything was normal, until he was gone.

This is one of the many reasons the legacy of Eddie Rabbitt seems scandalously lost to country music. Aside from maybe Gary Stewart, the case could be made that Eddie Rabbitt is the most wrongfully overlooked star in country music history. Gary only had one #1 song in his career though. Eddie Rabbitt had 20 of them, and 34 total Top 10 hits, most of which he wrote himself. And all 34 of Rabbitt’s Top 10 hits came in a row, one after another, between 1976’s “Drinkin’ My Baby (Off My Mind)” and 1990 “Runnin’ With The Wind.”

Eddie Rabbitt’s career wasn’t just accomplished, it was downright Hall of Fame worthy. But do you every hear Eddie Rabbitt’s name brought up in that context of the Hall of Fame? Of course not. Hell, you barely ever hear his name at all.

Born Edward Thomas Rabbitt (yes, it was his real name), Eddie had an unlikely origin story for a country singer. Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in New Jersey, this was the entirely wrong part of the world to be from to pursue country music as a career. But Eddie’s dad was a proficient fiddle and accordion player who had immigrated from Ireland, and would play in dance halls in New York after getting off work at the oil refinery. His mom was a singer as well. “A lot of that country music got into me through my dad’s playing, and my mom’s signing of the Irish songs,” Rabbitt said in a 1990 interview.

By the age of 12, Rabbitt was playing guitar, and listening to country music on the radio. He fell in love with the music so much, he became an encyclopedia of country music according to people who knew him at the time.

“I’m a guy who sat in East Orange, New Jersey, listening to a radio, sitting on the edge of a bed, with my guitar, listening to country music coming out of that radio and loving it, and learning it, and remembering it, who dreamed about being a country star,” Eddie says. “I later took a Greyhound bus to Nashville with $1,000 bucks in my pocket, and started knocking on doors, and slowly little pieces of the dream started coming true. I feel very fortunate that coming from where I come from, having the dream that I had which would be quite unusual anyone would think for a guy living in East Orange dreaming about being a country star. But it worked.”

After moving to Nashville and working as a truck driver and a fruit picker among other odd jobs, Eddie Rabbitt finally enjoyed his big break when none other than Elvis Presley recorded the Eddie Rabbitt original “Kentucky Rain.” In fact The King fell in love with Eddie’s writing style, and also recorded a song called “Patch It Up,” and later “Inherit The Wind” by Rabbitt. When Ronnie Milsap had a #1 with the Eddie Rabbitt-penned “Pure Love” in 1974, this is what opened up Eddie to the opportunity to sign with Elektra Records, and become a performer in his own right.

Some purists scoff at Eddie Rabbitt as one of the first pop country crossover country stars. But if you listen to some of Eddie Rabbitt’s early hits like “Drinkin’ My Baby (Off My Mind)” and “Two Dollars In The Jukebox” from the mid 70’s, this is pure traditional country music gold. Sure, as his career stretched into 1979, and specifically the song “Suspicions,” Eddie started infusing more pop sounds into his music, and when that song became a Top 15 hit in pop along with #1 in country, Rabbitt was given that “crossover” distinction dreaded by some.

But when Eddie released his signature album Horizon in 1980, it couldn’t be helped if the singles were being played on the pop dial too. They were just too damn good for anyone to ignore. “Drivin’ My Life Away” hit #5 in pop—his biggest crossover hit up to that point. But listen to the song, and try to convince someone it ain’t country.

“Hey waitress, pour me, another cup of coffee,
Pop it down, jack me up, shoot me out, flyin’ down the highway,
Lookin’ for the moooornin’…”

It’s a truck driving song for crying out loud, co-written by Eddie Rabbitt who did is own time driving big rigs when he first moved to Nashville, and actually put together an entire catalog of truck driving songs throughout his career.

Then came “I Love A Rainy Night,” which became a #1 song in country and pop. For sure, purists at this point were rolling their eyes as this pretty boy singing pop with a popped shirt collar who hailed from New Jersey, trying to play himself off as country. But listen to the arrangements of these landmark Eddie Rabbitt songs. Almost from the beginning, the songs sprung from the rhythm of the acoustic guitar strum, and featured sparse, smart arrangements that brought the soul out of the music. This was the heart of the Eddie Rabbit sound, crafted in part by producer David Malloy.

David Malloy and Eddie Rabbitt carried this magic into his next studio record Step By Step, with the title track becoming another signature hit. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, nobody was a bigger hit machine than Eddie Rabbitt, and he continued to land hits throughout the 80’s and all the way to 1990. That was the year he released an album called Jersey Boy, embracing his personal history as opposed to trying to run from it. It started with a bluegrass song, went straight into a traditional country tearjerker “On Second Thought” that became his final #1, and then into a trucker tune, “Runnin’ With The Wind,” which was also a hit. The album embraced the wide panorama of Eddie Rabbitt’s influences.

But the Class of ’89 was now in charge, and Eddie Rabbitt along with many others were soon put out to pasture. He was immediately dropped from his major label despite his continued success, and unlike many others, Eddie Rabbit never was really acknowledged by his peers in the country music industry, so his slide into obscurity was more pronounced.

Whether he was seen as too pop by some, or too much of an outsider as a Jersey boy, Rabbitt just never quite fit in perfectly. Twenty #1 hits and millions of records sold, and Eddie Rabbitt never saw even one CMA Award. He did win the Top New Male Vocalist from the ACM Awards in 1977. But after that, he was completely shut out.

The lack of reporting on Eddie Rabbitt’s death and the fact that he died so young, the fact that he wasn’t from the South but (gulp) New Jersey, the fact that he found some of his success with songs that crossed over to pop, and the fact that awards and many of his peers failed to recognize Eddie Rabbitt’s greatness is one of the reasons this legendary artist of country music history has gone so criminally forgotten in time.

Just go and listen to his songs, from the hits to the unknowns. There’s nary a bad song in the bunch, and the good ones are downright legendary. But isn’t that the way in country music, that if nobody is screaming your name to the rafters, it just sort of fades away.

Well it’s about time that Eddie Rabbitt’s legacy received a reconsideration, and a rehabilitation if necessary. So here on his 80th birthday, the least that that little boy sitting in front of his record player losing his mind to “I Love A Rainy Night” can do to return the favor of introducing me to country music is use the platform he created many years later to tell everyone about the incredible career of Eddie Rabbitt.

© 2023 Saving Country Music