By: Vivien Goldman
(horns come in here)
Turn down the lights, settle back in your seats or put on your dancing shoes, and let them entertain you. Press the button and rewind the decades back to when all New York was dancing -- and that means uptown in salsa joints in Spanish Harlem, elsewhere uptown in the Bronx where hiphop was learning to (be) fly, and downtown where the punky no-wave fringe was beginning to shake it like crazy in dives like Hurrah's, the Roxy, Area and the Mudd Club. The shiny silver Disco monster was a freaky release, a blessing that would soon seem a curse for many live musicians.
What a different New York it was then. "At nightclubs, there was no $1000.00 for a table or you don't get in," says Adriana. "In those days you got in if you were cool. Everyone cared about being creative and supported each other's showcases."
Artists could always find crash pads within walking distance of the night spots that were crucibles for the new mixed-up aesthetic. Conga players jammed on stoops and sidewalks. Kids in Kangols would chuck some lino on the ground and break-dance in Union Square. Strolling home through the Lower East Side at dawn from a rooftop party, you'd hear roosters crow in the squatted gardens that were once burned-out buildings. In after-hours clubs, teens would graffiti the loft walls while the DJ played. Every corner, every night, suggested adventure, as you can hear in this music.
"Believe me, when you leave New York you go nowhere," as August Darnell sings on the early Kid Creole and the Coconuts track, "Goin' Places." In tune with the the times, that nugget of wisdom was imparted to Darnell by hiphop supermother, Sylvia Robinson of prototypical rap label Sugar Hill Records, whose players were part of that cookin' Savannah Band/Kid Creole brew.
"'Goin' Places' was an important song for us," Darnell remembers. "It was one of those great sessions where we did 623 takes and then picked the first one. It wasn't about making money, it was about experimentation. Loved those days."
And rightly so, because on this CD, you can hear the emancipation of August Darnell and his transition from sideman to band leader, from kid brother to godfather. On the journey, he and his truly motley crew experimented with way-out sounds culled from the palette of movie soundtracks, musicals, Westerns, Caribbean grooves, disco and funk and their own fevered imaginations.
Freeze frame on that moment -- 1979 - 81 to be precise -- and then set that stomping history to slo-mo so we can really scrutinize the brothers and sisters who populate these (mostly) long-lost tracks, gathered together (kudos Carol Colman!) and re-conjured from casually hoarded cassettes, or dusty masters that needed to be baked.
Meet Stony Browder, the warped, autocratic musical mastermind behind Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, whose triumphant "Cherchez La Femme" stopped hearts and launched several careers. Long and lean, he looks like a matinée idol in his butcher boy cap. His is the vision and his the whim that decrees whether the artists gathered on this compilation are in or out of the Savannah Band.
Our other leading man is a wiry, stylish young lyricist, bass player and roué called August Darnell. His position in the Savannah Band is ambiguous, colored by the fact that he's Stony's Browder's kid brother.
The Savannah Band open the curtains onto a decadent yet innocent alternate universe. Sirens in 1930s tea gowns entrance you with languorous, voluptuous rhythms adorned with risqué lyrics, and where big band and little island motifs mingle to the swish of tropical rain.
Together, the Browder boys defy convention and pillage their passions to invent a new breed. Of convoluted and deliberately obfuscated racial heritage, the brothers decide to promote their pan-genetic Creole Creed: a better, brighter reality that ignores gender and colour restrictions.
Unfortunately, claiming their mixed heritage with pride was largely perceived by "radical" American youth as almost heinously passing for white; both Savannah Band and later, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, always fared better in Europe than at home.
Balancing the Browder Brothers' tussling testosterone are the women -- creative, earthy, sensual. Love and music intermingle in all their multi-level scenarios. Dangerous dames like Adriana Kaegi aka Mama Coconut, a blonde Swiss bombshell who hit Manhattan as a dance student. Soon she becomes August's muse and co-conspirator as he splits from his brother. It is at a dinner for her 21st birthday that she, August and Mundi will grab a napkin and scribble the plan for the Kid Creole extravaganza, with its dancing girls a sexy send-up of the Southern states' worst fear -- a gaggle of blond beauties utterly controlled by a mulatto in expensive clothing.
Early Kid Creole is a diva's delight. There's kooky, zany bigmouth Lori Eastside, who aways scores A for Attitude, known for her elastic physical flexibility and edgy stage presence as much as for her voice. Creator of the dance system, Rockercise, Eastside is both band front woman and Mundi's passion when the Kid Creole combo is very young. You can hear her being a snotty, endearing Lower East Side brat on the Coconuts' girl group song, 'He's Not Such A Bad Guy After All' -- a direct quote from Addy's defence of her bad boy hubby that he turned into a song. "She'd always stand up for her man," August remembers fondly, "and this song was a tongue in cheek way of taking it further out."
When August pisses Lori off, she leaves the band but shows up at a gig specially to jeer and pelt her former boss with rotten fruit. Eastside grows up to be a top casting director in the movies.
Earnest, passionate Carol Colman, August's loyal lieutenant, is the sorcerer's apprentice. One of the exceedingly few female bass players out there, Colman's propulsive style made August declare her his bass soulmate on first hearing. Captured from the session and r'n'b circuit, Colman gets to work for the Creole cause, inspired by her devotion to the genius of August Darnell. Her man back then was drummer Yogi Horton, known as Luther Vandross's drummer, who is also key at Sugar Hill. Yogi is part Cuban and he completely changes the sound of r'n'b drumming with his Latin inflections. He throws himself from a window and dies in 1987; some people say lack of recognition fed his depression.
Together Colman and Horton were a human rhythm machine, and they truly turn out many of these tracks. At sessions like Don Armando's 'I'm An Indian Too' they don't even know which singer will grace these tracks -- but any vocalist's lucky to ride one of these beat babies.
Curvy Gauguin-esque beauty Fonda Rae is soon to find her own success with the juicy disco smash "Over Like A Fat Rat" but at the moment captured here, singing "Goin' To A Showdown," she tells friends she's worried that her velvety, church-based singing doesn't mesh with the Coconuts' brittle sopranoes. Fonda Rae never commits fully to the Kid Creole crowd -- although she looks dynamite in the Coconuts' coconut bras and grass hula skirts that Addy makes for early downtown gigs at the Ritz, where Bob Marley comes to see them play.
Sue Who is really sassy little Susandra Minsky, a minx from the Bronx who kvetches on 'Paradise.' She is August's original gal running buddy, who steals first his heart, then Bob Blank's, whose Blank Tape studio is where much of this exclusive material was recorded. Back in the day, pre-Zilkha, Susandra really does a lot for the band, working in Ninth Avenue bars to help keep the whole crowd afloat.
Stony Browder's extravagant fancies set the tone for much of the madness to come. The singer with a voice like a butterly kiss, Cory Daye, who Adriana always says is her favourite singer ever, is abruptly promoted from backing singer to lead when the brothers fail to find their "hearthrob male crooner." "You're gonna have to do it, then," Stony instructs Daye. "August was shocked," Daye now recalls mischievously. But not as amazed as the Savannah Band's producer Sandy Linzner, when at the last minute Stony summarily whips off 'Sunshower's full orchestration, stripping the track back to African head drum, triangle, bass and guitar. "It sent Sandy into a tizzy -- he thought we were insane," chuckles Daye.
In fact, 'Sunshower' becomes a club classic and the sessions demonstrate the fantastic capacity of the extended Darnell family. Among Darnell's closest men in the team are Andy Hernandez, the Savannah Band vibes player, who's an arranger, orchestrator, percussionist, MC and dancer, soon to be known as Coati Mundi; and Savannah Band singer, Don Armando aka Sonny Bonnilla, who's Hernandez' neighbour in the Wagner Projects in Spanish Harlem.
"He was the oldest of all of us, including Stony. Sonny was an infamous hero, a free spirit," says Mundi. It is Don Armando's idea to use children's voices on the Savannah Band's "Sunshower," rounding up the producer's kids and their pals to pipe through a familiar Latin chorus, "Come here and taste my flavour (INSERT SPANISH PLEASE!) But it is Mundi's idea, decades before laptops and Garage Band, to create a loop of those sparse instruments that Stony had approved for 'Sunshower.' Their primitive but effective method involves recording a live beat onto 1/4" tape, cutting it up and physically making an actual loop of tape.
But outside of that happy synergy, there is fraternal friction in the Savannah Band camp. Living up to his name, Stony decrees that August must remain a bass player and lyricist only; but August's creative urges will not be denied. In an epic sibling power struggle, August fights with his capricious yet brilliant brother for his own artistic identity.
His primary musical partner in the breakout is the compact, dynamic Hernandez. Long a regular at Latino sessions all over Manhattan, Hernandez is beloved as a party-starter for every situation, a formidably skilled musician and a goofy, deft physical and verbal comic. When the Savannah Band's success make the whole team bankable, Hernandez runs his own sessions while August puts together bands to produce. They become regulars in the recording studios of Chappell Music and Mundi is the point person for all August's productions, responsible for booking session musicians like Colman and Horton.
Surfing the wave of all the hot sounds pumping through the Manhattan streets, producer/engineer Bob Blank is the bridge and catalyst. He introduces beaming, curly-haired Michael Zilkha, a fledgling musical entrepreneur, to August Darnell, suggesting him as a possible producer for Zilkha's girlfriend Cristina.
"He was suave, clever, urbane, ironic," recalls Zilkha. "He really cared about lyrics which I did, too."
Their professional association is to define one of popular music's most original, thrilling eras with Zilkha's Ze label. The men will help fulfill one another's dreams.
And making possible the whole Ze extravaganza is a maverick who'd first shaken the music industry in the 1960s, Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, who recognised some sort of kindred spirit in both men. "Michael can recognise and seek out talent that others don't see. You grasp at the opportunity of bringing a person like that into your company in some way. And Kid Creole I understood very well; I knew Cab Calloway's music, his inspiration, but August gave it that tropical spin. I loved Kid Creole."
So with the full backing of their label/s, the games begin. Many of our protagonists are flawed, imperfect heroes. Men like Gichy Dan and Don Armando are colorful characters who seem to rule the streets and the studios -- but ultimately can't control either. Silken-voiced Staten Island crooner Gichy Dan, or Frank Passalacqua, took his name from Beechwood # 9, an old rock'n'roll number from the 1950s. "We would concoct this romance thing, then make up some profound story," as Mundi says. Gichy Dan was baby-faced, sweetly dispositioned and everyone adored him. Adriana says, "Gichy Dan would have been a new Johnny Mathis, if he hadn't died of AIDS in XXXX." For August, "Gichy Dan was the precursor to Kid Creole and the Coconuts; had I known it, he would have been Kid Creole. I knew he could handle the material."
Don Armando, on the other hand, was a player, a persuasive ladykiller of lethal charm, a King of Cool who really became August's role model. Stony succumbed to his passion for sultry, smoky-voiced chanteuse Cory Daye, "his femme fatale," as August observes, and kicked both Gichy Dan and Don Armando out of the Savannah Band right before the release of the album; but August continued to frequent them both.
After the Savannah Band were a hit and August was bankable, he naturally turned to his old mentor to add some brio to the un-named, non-specific combo originally funded by RCA, which became Don Armando's Second Avenue Rhumba Band; Don Armando had moved from Spanish Harlem to the 2nd Avenue Projects. His "Showdown" dated back to the Chappell Studios sessions with Colman and Horton, long before the Don Armando project was even thought of. Now it is adroitly re-purposed into what Mundi calls "a disco Western album with elements of salsa."
The sub text of its pulp fiction sleeve -- Fonda Rae dressed as an Indian squaw tied to a tree while Don Armando in a tuxedo holds a horse next to her as if to -- what? rescue her? canter off into the sunset, solo? -- is great material for a thesis. However the screwball vibe was very personal. The musical-loving crew re-invent Irving Berlin's lyrics and score from 'Annie Get Your Gun,' for Don Armando's first single, 'I'm An Indian Too.'
"We were all into those John Huston and John Wayne movies as children. Besides, me and Stony have Indian blood on our mother's side, and we had a running joke - 'That's the Indian in us!'" August says. "And of course we always felt like the Indian, the outsider."
"We all thought 'I'm An Indian Too' was the hit record," recalls Michael Zilkha bemusedly, "but of course we had it completely wrong. It was the B-side, 'Deputy of Love,' which was actually a demo by Ronnie Rogers, that became huge. That's emblematic of Ze's history, I suppose," he self-deprecates sweetly.
Bob Blank and August Darnell's other house band, effectively, was The Aural Exciters. Their name came from a piece of outboard gear that Blank rented by the day, "designed to add oomph to the sound," Mundi remembers. "Instead of just making an anonymous compilation for all the talented Ze Records, people like Ronnie Rogers, we thought of a name to give it some personality." Thus the Aural Exciters became a talent grab bag for this overacheiving artistic community. "It could be anyone who walked in," August recalls enthusiastically. "I'd have a few chords, but there were no parts. We'd just gather round the piano and start up, people would create parts and a song would evolve." Sometimes jams like 'Double On Back,' studio noodles that had become transitional links between songs onstage, grew to be songs themselves. On August and Addy's first date, he took her to an Aural Exciters session at Blank Tape. "I wound up in the sound booth blowing bubbles!" Adriana remembers with amusement. "Those were the sort of sound effects Bob Blank invented."
"We were into the energy of punk and new wave," says Mundi. "We were just goofing off, having fun. A regular adult label wouldn't have accepted us. Michael Zilkha was very important. He created a label that allowed us to express our creativity and enthusiasm for craziness."
Indeed, these tracks were cut in a frenzied circus of creativity with August and Michael Zilkha as ringmasters. Zilkha explains, "I always thought of it in theatrical terms as a repertory company. I liked the fact that August was very cinematic and told stories." Their tracks sparked off what was around them, like the out of it girl who hit on August at a club and offered him "Emile, you fool!" when the non-doper August confessed ignorance of the amyl nitrate "poppers" on offer. Sung by Christine Wiltshire, the result was 'Emile (Night Rate)' -- geddit?
According to Blank, August was on the outs with his girlfriend of the time and chose to book his sessions from midnight on, thus ensuring he'd have somewhere to be overnight. Colman clearly recalls one night when August sent her out repeatedly to scavenge in the local garbage for milk bottles to smash in the sound booth. Getting the right smash took all night.
"I remember us as being very perfectionist. A lot of time was spent on these tracks, they were very rigorously made. They weren't spontaneous explosions, like the Troggs." Michael Zilkha corrects himself. "Actually, the Aural Exciters were spontaneous. The whole world would kind of accumulate in the studio. And Cristina's lyrics for "Is This All There Is" just came out, like that, in one take with minimal vocal overdubs. That was spontaneous!"
The immediate project when Darnell met Zilkha was Cristina, who was taking time off from her history studies at Harvard. She impressed Bob Blank by swanning into his comparatively grotty downtown studio with her mother, both wearing identical mink coats.
So transgressive in every way was Cristina's lurid, delirious evocation of anything goes nightlife that it prompted a threatened lawsuit from legendary songwriters Leiber and Stoller who had originally crafted the song for Peggy Lee. "Yeah, Cristina was out for about a minute and then it was pulled," August recalls laconically.
Yet relish Cristina's dramatic declamation and wish you were there, raving, raging and yes, maybe even retching, beside her. "We didn't really look at her as talent, she was just the boss's girlfriend who we were working with, and why not," confesses Mundi, "but in retrospect, Christina was pretty awesome. Michael Zilkha decided he was going to give his girfriend the best session ever and it was magical."
"Cristina was a very bright, witty, complex super fragile Upper East Side Girl, very nervous. She got people talking because she showed her pubic hair on her album sleeve," remembers Adriana. "She shot it in the perfect boutique hotel in Paris -- right place, right photographer..."
Unbeknownst to some of the loose collective, while the multi-artist Darnell production machine is gaining speed, the Kid Creole and the Coconuts band are about to hit the road, wheels smoking, and swiftly pull out ahead.
As session bassplayer and lynchpin of the Aural Exciters, along with Horton, Carol Colman is amazed to discover when she turns up one day that her usual session and studio cohorts are now Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and that Andy Hernandez has suddenly mutated into this berserker Coati Mundi person. Hernandez was always a firecracker, and as Coati Mundi he explodes round the stage, simultaneously rapping, pounding percussion and reeling on those rubber legs; an earthy, slapstick foil to August's polished, high-class insouciance. Fully channeling the suave heartbreaker, Kid Creole, Darnell is even more dashing than before. "I liked to throw in really crazy things to totally undermine August's sophisticated lyrics," reminisces Mundi.
Therapeutically speaking some analysts might construe Darnell's entire career as an extended primal scream of fury at being suppressed and controlled by Big Brother. If so, August channeled his rage compassionately. On tracks like 'Double On Back,' a tribute to Stony whose brilliance was never in doubt, one hears a very different August Darnell from the slick wordsmith and constructed characters of his narrative songs as Kid Creole. Over a funky pumping jam that recalls Fela Kuti's Afrobeat and James Brown or prime Marvin Gaye vamps, Darnell blurts out his feelings with colloquial emotion. "I wanted Stony to come back to how he was before before he went out there and got so paranoid, to come back to the guy he used to be," Darnell confides.
Along with James White and the Blacks and Was (Not Was), Ze's greatest legacy is Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the band August, Addy and Coati Mundi formed when August quit his brother Stony's Savannah Band. Their original singers included Fonda Rae, very briefly even Cory Daye, and Sue-Sandra Minsky before the format settled down to the Kid bouncing off Mundi and the three Coconuts, all clones of Adriana herself. 'Goin'Places' and 'I Am' were both from the band's second album, 'Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places.' Album one, 'Off The Coast Of Me'had been largely re-vamped from the clan's Chappell demoes while they were still with Savannah Band and RCA; 'Fresh Fruit' was really intended as August's solo album.
But contractual obligations and a pressing financial squeeze prompted Zilkha to submit it to Sire Records' supremo Seymour Stein as the second Kid Creole album. As forceful an identity statement as anything from the Savannah Band's Creole Creed, 'I Am' challenges the radio programmers who all concerned could already see would be a problem, as the eclectic Creole mix was regarded as TOO mixed and therefore unprogrammeable. Its hook, "Music belongs to the people" is so perky it sounds tongue in cheek -- but it isn't, really.
Mundi looks back fondly on their partnership, despite its own sibling-esque tensions that ultimately led to his departure from the band. But he always knew himself as a solo performer, too, and when Kid Creole was riding high he got to make his own solo album on Virgin in 1983, on which 'Pharaoh' appears. August had nothing to do with it, really. Mundi wrote it long before Kid Creole, or even Savannah Band, absorbed in the ideas of Muhammed Ali and the Black Panthers, enraged by the Vietnam War and fired up by tales of Hannibal and Cleopatra. "I wanted to write a social message song about greed, something revolutionary that would hit home," says Mundi. "To show that greed is not just in The Man but in your neighbours round the way."
By then, Kid Creole and the Coconuts had graduated from being an underground entity itching to bust out and were pop chart fixtures in Europe. The change came with their third album, 1982's 'Tropical Gangsters', from which hits like 'Annie I'm Not Your Daddy' 'Stool Pigeon' and 'It's A Wonderful Thing, Baby,' dropped like ripe mangoes from an abundant tree.
But this CD leaves the Kid Creole crew about to set sail on their great adventure, which would see them play for royalty and rogues in every land where drums make people dance. And that's everywhere.
The final Kid Creole track here, "Off The Coast of Me," was cut at Chappell Music; Zilkha came to the session but they hadn't signed yet. August's most intimate offering -- a lyrical, lilting, non-ironic hula swoon -- it's also a homage to his bond with his impossible but wonderful big brother Stony, who died in 2002. Clearly, it's a kissing cousin to our opening Savannah Band track, 'Sunshower,' on which, years before, Stony had so suddenly and savagely stripped away every embellishment to reveal a tune that whispers its way into your soul for always. For August, the song says everything about the endurance of the Browder Brothers' joint Utopia.
"'Off The Coast of Me' is our icon, the Kid Creole masterpiece. It's poetic and the tropical island imagery haunts me. For life."
(Bring in the strings -- glissando.)