Black Mambo Jambo

Royal Crown Revue may be the don of gangster bop, but Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is starting to muscle in on its turf

His suit is pinstriped and loud. His tie is high, wide and noisy. His shoes are gaudy, two-toned wing tips and his fedora is the size of a full-grown, fur-bearing mammal. His name is Scotty Morris, and he's the front man for the exceedingly hip West Coast swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

He's also a punker. At least, he used to be.
"I played in a punk band called False Confession," Morris says from his home in Ventura, California. The zoot-suited singer/guitarist says he was deep into the central California punk scene of the mid-'80s. "It was so much fun. We were just 16-, 17-year-old kids. We'd get into a van and tour America just to get out there and do it."

Morris describes his punk days as more a diversion than a passion, and says he grew up loving big-band dance music. He took up trumpet as a kid because he idolized Louis Armstrong, and learned the vagaries of rhythmic swing from his parents' old Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan records. The jump and jive of the '30s and '40s were always close to his heart.

"Growing up in the '70s and '80s was the time of the full rock-god dinosaur, and it was so unrelatable. I'd always dug the whole vibe of early New Orleans music. There was so much energy with Louis and Jelly and those cats. So when punk rock came around, it felt like it was a whole new energy. It was ours, we were able to grab and do, and there were no rules. With Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, we sort of took those ethics and brought 'em into what we do now."

What Morris and BBVD do now is play a kinetic, good-natured hybrid of jump blues, rockabilly, mambo, ska and, yes, even a little punk. Morris started the band five years ago, after quitting music and starting up a surf shop with his brother in Port Hueneme. He quickly grew restless renting boogie boards to sun-fried tourists, and got a group of retro-minded musicians together. Two weeks later, BBVD played its first show. Six months after that, a self-released debut hit the album bins.

"It all happened so fast," Morris says. "I was just doing music I wanted to do. Next thing we know, we've got legions of fans all over the tri-counties and a record out." The surf shop was a casualty. "My brother sold it off. I couldn't help run it anymore. The band just got to be too much."

Speaking of "too much," the voodudes perform with all the subtlety of a Guys and Dolls road show. The band's seven members all take the stage decked out in '40s-style clothes and, when introduced, sport hip nicknames to help spiff up the scene. There's drummer Kurt "Nature Adams" Sodergren, so named because he's a vegetarian; baritone-sax player Andy "Lucius B.B." Rowley; and quiet, no bullshit bassist Jeff "The Bossman" Harris. Piano player Karl Hunter, the most recent addition to the band, doesn't have a nickname yet, but trumpet player and youngest member Glen Marhevk is known as "The Kid," Morris goes by "Ace," and string bassist Dirk Shumaker is occasionally referred to as "Derek Steele," because of his luck with the ladies.

If it all sounds a little goofy and good-natured, it should. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy plays show music. The band's set list is made up of originals, written mostly by Morris, and various covers like Louis Prima's "Sing Sing Sing" and Disney's "I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)" from The Jungle Book.

It all adds up to a voodoo the Daddies do well, and in the past six months they've become Cocktail Nation celebrities. That was BBVD playing a couple of tunes at the end of a Party of Five episode last year. Most notably, though, BBVD was featured in Swingers, the critically lauded cult film about lovelorn L.A. scenesters. Several pivotal scenes were shot at the Derby, a tres-hip Los Feliz nightclub that helped break retro-swing a few years back by showcasing Royal Crown Revue, the self-proclaimed "Kings of Gangster Bop," on Wednesday nights. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy succeeded RCR at the Derby, where the Daddies have been the midweek house band for two years and counting.

"Swingers was the make or break for us," Morris says. "Jon Savreau, the guy who starred and wrote the film, used to come to the Derby on Wednesday nights, and we all became very good friends. He said he was making a small independent film about this and that and asked if we wanted to be in it. We took a look at the script and said we'd be honored to do it."

Actually, the film's producers had originally wanted the better-known Royal Crown Revue. But RCR's recent signing to Warner Bros. made the band too expensive for the low-budget production. Some members of the Revue wound up doing songs on the movie's soundtrack; BBVD wound up doing its psycho-swing thing in front of the cameras.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Royal Crown Revue share more than film offers and doing it up at the Derby. Both are West Coast bands, both feature a seven-piece lineup highlighted by a prominent horn section, and both mix bebop and blues with a dose of country twang. RCR started years before BBVD and hit the big time sooner, but if Morris holds any jealousy, he hides it well.

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