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By Brian Palmer
Last summer, blues guitarist Jono Manson passed through Tempe on a national tour. He was booked into Gibson's, but arrived to find his gig had been bumped to Balboa Cafe, a much smaller venue on the other side of Hayden Square.
Between sets, Manson stepped outside for a smoke and saw a line circling around Gibson's. A funky bass line thumped inside the crowded club. The guitarist asked who was playing there, and a Balboa doorman told him it was the Boogie Knights, a retro-disco group that always packs the place. A bewildered look of recognition crossed Manson's face.
"The Boogie Knights?" he remarked. "I wonder if they're the same Boogie Knights that always play in Colorado."
As it turns out, they were. And they weren't.
The band Manson referred to plays in Colorado and several other states under the name Boogie Knights, but performs in the Valley as the Polyester Pimps (if you caught the Pimps at Martini Ranch on a Wednesday night, you may have noticed the four skinny white guys onstage were a lousy match for the studly Afro-Americans pictured in their ad). The Boogie Knights on tap at Gibson's that night were the original retro foursome from L.A., who have kept the disco inferno flame flickering in Tempe since 1993 with their regular "'70s Disco Explosion" Sunday-night spot at the Tempe club. Some Sundays at Gibson's, though, you'll see a third band billed as the Boogie Knights that usually performs as Disco Inferno.
Confused? Welcome to Boogie Wonder-land!
Here's your map: Four years ago, there was an L.A. dance-rock band called Roxanne that had one album on Epic Records. "Roxanne had better audience reaction than industry reaction," says Jamie Brown, former lead singer with Roxanne and the Boogie Knights. "They couldn't understand why longhaired white guys wanted to play dance music. And remember, this is before Red Hot Chili Peppers made it to the mainstream."
Roxanne played mostly original material, with a few choice dance covers. Then one year, for a Halloween prank, the band donned elastic stretch Afro wigs, platform shoes and polyester pants, dubbed itself the Boogie Knights, and played nothing but KC and the Sunshine Band hits. The disco minstrel show was an instant hit, and the prank quickly turned into serious business. Brown soon took himself off active performing duty because his managerial pressures became too strenuous. "The phone was ringing off the hook all day long," he says, "and then I'd come home from gigs at four in the morning and have to deal with it all."
Within a year, Brown says, the Boogie Knights were so overwhelmed with gig offers that to meet demand he set up an entertainment franchise called Perfect World, which manages the Knights and a stable of look-alike/sound-alike disco tribute acts.
"It became apparent, from all the offers we were getting, that we oughta clone ourselves before somebody else did," says Brown.
Perfect World currently sponsors a dozen Boogie Knights clones, who hit every major market from New York to Chicago to Las Vegas, kicking booty in a total of 17 states.
Brown carefully brushes off specific questions about the logistics of Perfect World's enterprise, but Preston Durrell Shaw, drummer for the Polyester Pimps, says that about 60 interchangeable musicians are employed by Perfect World. They play under a variety of names, he says, and are usually dispatched in groups of four, armed with sampled keyboards on floppy disks and a list of stores that sell Afro wigs in cities across America. Perfect World players are invariably skilled on several instruments, and they are invariably Caucasian. Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" is the franchise's unofficial recruiting theme song.
Although band members will neither confirm nor deny it, the prevailing word among music business insiders is that the original Boogie Knights each pull in about 150 grand a year now, and have already mapped their retirement plans. Every musician working for Perfect World is enrolled in a company profit-sharing plan, and the acts command appearance fees from $500 to $3,000 a show, depending on the region and venue. Each band commands its own select circuit. The Groove Line, for instance, rules the San Francisco area, while Disco Inferno, the Afro-Disiacs and the Polyester Pimps cover the rest of California. The Boogie Knights still have the lucrative Phoenix, Las Vegas and Tucson circuit--their original stomping grounds, which became ground zero for the disco revival scene.
For anyone who saw Roxanne in its waning days, the jump to Boogie Knighthood doesn't seem far-fetched. The band had already introduced choreographed steps and a disco medley, along with a jokey cover of New Kids on the Block's "The Right Stuff." In May of 1993, not long after Roxanne broke up and re-formed as the BKs, the band played one of its first Valley shows at the Mason Jar. That night, Gibson's co-owner Matt Engstrom and a pre-Refreshments Brian Blush were on the prowl for talent to book into the soon-to-be-opened Gibson's. Both men were floored by the band's humor and considerable chops.
"At that time, the BKs were doing good business in L.A. at Pelicans, which is sort of a Mason Jar-type feel--no lights at all, small PA," says Engstrom. "I wanted to do a regular night with them at Gibson's--a '70s disco time machine that people would come back to week after week." Engstrom put the band on a big stage with a first-rate sound system, gave it a juicy light show, and the Sunday-night disco feature took off, making Tempe the first city where the retro disco-tribute band first broke big. The next, of course, was Las Vegas. "The Rio Hotel and Casino took them to the show level, the 'Boogie Knights '70s Revue,'" Engstrom continues. "It's one of their marquee shows, like Siegfried and Roy. The Boogie Knights have got their own billboard now, 40 feet high or something."