Dino Danelli, whose hard-charging, high-energy drumming powered the Rascals to a string of hits in the late 1960s, including the No. 1 records “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’” and “People Got to Be Free,” died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 78.
Joe Russo, a close friend and the band’s historian, confirmed the death, at a rehabilitation center. He said Mr. Danelli had been in declining health for several years.
The Rascals (billed on their first three albums as the Young Rascals) were among the first American bands to emerge in response to the so-called British Invasion of 1964.
Formed in New Jersey in 1965, the quartet — featuring Felix Cavaliere on organ and vocals, Eddie Brigati on vocals, Gene Cornish on guitar and Mr. Danelli on drums — drew on a range of influences, including doo-wop, jazz and soul.
Mr. Danelli, a protégé of the great jazz drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, merged percussive virtuosity with a rock sensibility. Like Ringo Starr of the Beatles, he set the template for the rock drummer archetype: disciplined and precise, but with a flair that drew the crowd’s eye. He would twirl his sticks — a trick he learned from his sister, a cheerleader — and throw them in the air, before catching them without dropping the beat.
Mr. Danelli was responsible for the band’s first big hit. He was a fan of obscure soul records, and one day at a record shop in Harlem, he found a single by the Olympics, “Good Lovin,’” written by Rudy Clark and Arthur Resnick, which reached No. 81 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.
“We said, ‘Let’s try it, let’s put a new version to it,’” he said in a 2008 interview with the drummer Liberty DeVitto. “It was just a lucky find.”
The Rascals played the song during a 1966 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It soon topped the charts and — with its opening shout of “One, two, three!” — became one of the best-known songs of the decade.
Onstage, the band dressed in the sort of foppish outfits favored by several other white acts of the mid-1960s: knee-high socks, short ties, floppy collars. But it was the first white band signed by Atlantic Records, home of Ray Charles, and it was among the few American rock bands to be accepted by Black crowds.
The members included a clause in their contracts stating that they would perform only if a Black act was on the bill with them — a fact that meant large swaths of the South remained off limits.
As the Rascals evolved, their sound mellowed and they turned out summer-vibe classics like “Groovin,’” which hit No. 1 in 1967, and “A Beautiful Morning,” which reached No. 3 in 1968. That same year, shocked by the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, they released “People Got to Be Free,” a paean to racial harmony — written, like the earlier two songs, by Mr. Cavaliere and Mr. Brigati. It also reached No. 1.
The Rascals dissolved in the early 1970s; Mr. Brigati left in 1970 and Mr. Cornish a year later. Mr. Cavaliere and Mr. Danelli stayed for two more albums before the band broke up.
Mr. Danelli played in a series of bands through the 1970s, and in 1980 he joined Steven Van Zandt, the lead guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, in a side project called the Disciples of Soul.
Mr. Van Zandt had grown up as a die-hard Rascals fan. In 1997 he delivered the speech inducting the band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, calling Mr. Danelli “the greatest rock drummer of all time.”
Dino Danelli was born on July 23, 1944, in Jersey City, N.J., the son of Robert Danelli and Teresa Bottinelli.
He is survived by his sister, Diane Severino.
He began playing drums at an early age and, after dropping out of high school, moved to Manhattan, intent on pursuing a music career. He picked up gigs in the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village, finagled a room at the Metropole Hotel in Times Square and met Mr. Rich and Mr. Krupa, who both took him under their wing.
He traveled to California, Las Vegas and New Orleans for work, including a stint with the jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, before returning to New York. He met his future bandmates at a venue in Garfield, N.J., called the Choo Choo Club, and after playing together in another band, they formed the Young Rascals.
The band got back together for a few reunion shows in the 1980s, and then in the 1990s, minus Mr. Brigati, performed under the name the New Rascals. At Mr. Van Zandt’s urging, the four original members played a 2010 charity show together, and in 2012 Mr. Van Zandt wrote and produced a “bioconcert” called “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream” — a multimedia show featuring performances by the band and clips from its 1960s heyday.
It ran for 15 shows on Broadway, then toured the country for several months.