Donnie Iris, “Ah! Leah!” (1981): Almost Hits

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Here’s one you might remember: “Ah! Leah!” by Donnie Iris, his only really big hit, which peaked at No. 29 in the Billboard charts on February 7th, 1981. That intro is a bit tongue in cheek, actually: After spending the last couple of weeks asking people of similar age to myself what they thought about the song, I realized that most people (around here anyway) just plain ol’ didn’t remember it.

Donnie Iris had his first taste of fame as the singer in a group called the Jaggerz, a group that truly could be called a one hit wonder. Their big song, “The Rapper” went to No. 2 in February 1970, and though they made a couple of more albums, they never had another big hit, finally calling it a day by 1976. Iris then spent some time in the group Wild Cherry (of “Play That Funky Music” fame) before he finally embarked on his solo career, releasing his debut album Back on the Streets in 1980.

“Ah! Leah!” was the lead-off single. On the surface, it encapsulated all that was good about the then fashionable “new wave” (or “power pop”) music which was sweeping the continent, and in particular it was very radio friendly. As well, it had some of those sonic “ear candies,” like that weird “Ah ah -ah” vocal bridge before the guitar solo to keep the listeners’ interest. He had a good band, with a decent rhythm section — what else could anyone want in a song?

Well … in the first place, as tight as the rhythm section was, they were more of a pretty straight-ahead rock band playing what is essentially an often used four-chord riff. After repeated listening, one comes to the conclusion that they sound less like a new wave band and more like old school rockers — which makes sense considering Iris’ work with the Jaggerz over a decade before.

Second, the lyrics here turn out to be of the “boy meets (hot) girl” vintage, and Donnie was already in his late 30s — which makes one wonder how long you can sing that stuff and not be embarrassed.

Finally, there’s nothing in the front half of “Ah! Leah!” that sounds as passionate as the wild virtuoso screaming/singing that Donnie Iris nails near the end. One has to put up with a couple of minutes of “OK” before getting to the “Right on!” part. It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog.

The YouTube clip of the official video has Donnie dressed in his yellow suit and Elvis Costello glasses from the album cover, looking very much the new wave geek boy. However, he’s also looking a little old to be convincing as the suitor to the young blonde female object of his affection he’s courting. There are other videos that are more recent, suggesting that he still plays a few live shows here and there. “Ah! Leah!” is often performed with an extended intro, so the buildup really gives a lot of momentum going to that final section. And yes, as far I as can tell, he’s in his mid-to-late 60s and still seems to find the voice to pull off that finale. He actually looks more comfortable performing this song live that he did lip-synching in the original video over 30 years ago.

Perhaps it was a case of too much power pop to interest rockers, and too much old school dinosaur thump for new wave fans. So, Donnie Iris’ “Ah! Leah!” will likely be entered into the historical record as “peaked at 29 – forgotten by many.” That’s a better fate than most songs by most other artists, who should all be so lucky to have even one “almost hit.”

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at
JC Mosquito
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  • Roman

    Great tune, one of my faves from the 80s!

    The vocals remind me of classic Uriah Heep, the guitars and rhythm section aren’t watered down, and hold up even today.

    3+ minutes of 80s ROCK-pop perfection.

  • windk

    Well, it is 2014 now and I just heard this great song on a classic rock station. Its staying power now has nothing to do with its performance on the pop charts in 1981. When I looked up the song on YouTube, I was surprised to the endless positive comments about it. “peaked at 29 – forgotten by many” – only the numerical part of that statement is true. That “often used four-chord riff” sounds so good here. Those 80’s power chords – distorted guitars have never sounded better.

    • captain_quirk

      Absolutely right, windk. I don’t know why the little Mosquito is dissing such a great rock anthem. “Ah! Leah!” is a staple of the classic rock era. It isn’t, nor was it ever supposed to be, a “new wave” song. It’s a hard rock / arena rock song. That it even made it to #29 on the pop charts is remarkable, since it’s NOT a pop song, and many popular hard rock songs like this never made it to the Top 40 at all. Led Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll” peaked at #47. “Ah! Leah!” hasn’t been forgotten by anyone who was around in 1980-81 and appreciates rock music.

      • JC Mosquito

        Too bad you thought I was dissing it – I really like the song, and have no problem with “tail wagging the dog” arrangements, especially when the tail wags with such force. I’ was simply trying to think of reasons why the song never got higher than it did in the charts, hence it appearance in the “Almost Hits” series.

        • captain_quirk

          –“I was simply trying to think of reasons why the song never got higher than it did in the charts….”

          Ahhh, I see. Okay, I didn’t get that. 🙂

          When it comes to album-oriented rock music (as opposed to pop), there’s no need to try to figure out why many good rock songs don’t make it to the upper echelons of the pop charts. Rock music isn’t pop music (although occasionally there’s some crossover). And most pop music is crap, anyway.

          • captain_quirk

            I just re-read my reply. Perhaps I shoulda started by saying “Ah! I See-ah!”

  • Rob Leder

    I like this song a lot, though I don’t think I ever heard it until at least 20 years after it was on the charts. I first got into rock music around my 11th birthday in late ’81, and I don’t think “Ah! Leah!” was getting much airplay at all by that point. It first entered my consciousness maybe ten years ago, when I noticed a station I sometimes played in the car seemed to have added it to their regular rotation, along with another classic rock song I couldn’t quite place. That one turned out to be a 1974 track called “Never Been Any Reason” by the band Head East. In fact, I sort-of conflated those two songs for a while – both very ’70s-sounding mid-tempo rockers with crunchy guitar and impassioned vocals that seemed to be about star-crossed lovers. Though I do now hear a slight “new wave” aspect to “Ah! Leah!” as well, in the sense that it fits in well with other “power pop” tracks from it’s era, like The Knack’s “My Sharona” or Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny”. And Donnie certainly looks a lot more like a new-waver than a long-haired arena rocker.

    I never knew what the song was or who it was by until finally I googled some of the lyrics I caught (“you’re looking better than a body has a right to”, “I see your lips and I wonder who’s been kissing them”). It wasn’t at all obvious to me that the chorus went “ahhh…Leeee-ahh-ahh”, I could never really make out what they were singing. The one part of the song I don’t like that much is the riff that’s used in the intro and also under the guitar solo, it’s very generic-sounding AOR filler material to my ears, not really worthy of a standout track like this one. But the rest – the verse, chorus, and neat little “ah-ah-ah” bridge – is really good stuff, and a stellar example of how good rhythms and some great melodies can turn a few basic overused major chords into something that sounds fresh and inspired, and even make some rather cliched and pedestrian rhymes (“Don’t you know we’re playing with the fire / But we can’t stop this burning desire”) sound almost credible.

    Maybe not quite an all-time classic, but certainly a catchy and underappreciated little gem from a great era in music, and the kind of track that definitely perks up my ears when it shows up on the radio between the more well-known old warhorses of the classic rock canon.