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."
The number and nature of postshow groupies in the Gibson's dressing room make it look like some mad scientist ran amok with a Jennifer Aniston DNA kit. Just outside the door, two blondes are fighting--evidently one spoke to current BK lead singer Jeff Soto when the other was about to. A catfight in Funkytown--rrrrreearrrrwwww!
The thrift-shop duds the Boogie Knights sported through three sets of disco redux this Sunday eve are a little worse for the wear. The wigs are especially ghastly under the harsh fluorescent lighting. Drummer Robbie Schweitzer (dba Vinnie Guisseppi Tortelli)'s Travolta locks look like a cafeteria lunch lady's tightly pulled hairnet.
Even with fake hair in hand, the guys drift back and forth in between their true selves and their disco personas so often that asking a Boogie Knight his name is like taking a multiple-choice quiz.
Roxanne guitarist turned Boogie Knights chord jester John Butler ("J.J." Vernon Woods) doffs his Afro wig and fluffs out his hair while a female plops in and out of his lap. Butler remembers starting the Boogie Knights because "we wanted to annoy as many people as possible."
"All [Perfect World] bands are trying to be individuals, but they base it on us," Butler explains. "We created our own characters over a period of weeks. We needed a Travolta/Italian Stallion character, a jive-ass Afro-American, a Leif Garrett/Andy Gibb white boy--what are we missing?"
"A Puerto Rican," Soto answers back.
"Yeah, that's right. And now everybody rips off J.J. I wish I'd patented him," says Butler, who might have a hard time patenting a character he describes as "25 percent Gene Simmons, 25 percent Michael Jordan when he sinks a basket and 50 percent my woman."
Disco was probably the least star-driven pop genre ever. A club show in the '70s by a disco artist like Vickie Sue Robinson, for example, would see Vickie Sue safely get her one hit out of the way, then turn into cellophane. The Boogie Knights have reversed that equation with intricate choreography, flashy costumes and lighting effects. The Boogie Knights at work is a spectacle of KISS Alive proportions.
If the Boogie Knights are the KISS of disco, however, then Ron Benewetch of Ron Benewetch Presents, based in Phoenix, is the Phantom of the Park. A local talent hustler, Benewetch has already fashioned his own line of bogus Boogie Knights--the Polyester Platforms, the Disco Pimps, the Disco Divas (an all-female ensemble, natch) and Disco Fever--not to be confused with the Deney Terrio show Dance Fever. (By the way, Benewetch claims he's lined up the former Merv Griffin protege, plus a cluster of disco stars like Donna Summer, for a "Legends of Disco" tour this summer.)
Watching his Disco Pimps kung fu kick their way through Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby" on a recent Tuesday night at the upscale Scottsdale nightspot Jetz, Benewetch seems to preface every sentence with, "Let me stress that I have the utmost respect for the Boogie Knights; they are a great, successful band." Even when he admits, "I told my guys to copy the Boogie Knights 100 percent," he quickly adds, "because they are a great, successful band."
Following the James cover, the Disco Pimps work through a litany of disco standards that are de rigueur for any Perfect World or Benewetch Presents band: "YMCA"--check. "Celebration"--check. The ultimate disco victim song "I Will Survive"--a groaning check.
Benewetch scans the Jetz set, which looks like a Carnival Cruise ship crowd, as opposed to the frat-house beer blasters at Gibson's two nights before. "These people wouldn't go see the Boogie Knights," he says. "They're Scottsdale. I hate to say the word 'yuppies,' but they're Scottsdale young professionals. When we play colleges, though, the crowd's just like the Boogie Knights'."
As with a bad high school dance, everyone at Jetz seems to be waiting for a dozen other bodies to brave the dance floor before they'll deign to shake their groove thang. Disco Pimps lead singer Eric Storch, a.k.a. Alonzo Starr, tries his best Wolfman Jack imitation to break the ice. "I'm getting ready for Thanksgiving--gonna get some turkey in my belly. I love the day."
"The Boogie Knights are a lot funnier," Benewetch admits, "but we're just as good musically." Like one of those mothers whose daughter gets passed over for head cheerleader, Benewetch can't help but compare his enterprise with the front-runner.
"They have name recognition and we don't. They could have a whole line of Boogie Knights clothing, but Jamie [Brown] does nothing. If I had that band, I would merchandise. I created a disco mirror ball that Tommy wears around his neck. See that?"
Whenever Jamie Brown's name comes up, the smile leaves Benewetch's face. "I went to Jamie and said 'let's work together and combine our stable' and he turned me down flat. He was way against it. He said my bands suck."
Benewetch shakes his head. "We paid homage to the Boogie Knights at every show for the first year. When our idols don't respect us, we finally had to put a stop to that.
"Jamie's threatened to stop me from using the name Disco Inferno. What's that? He has a style permit on the Afros and the platform shoes? Anyway, the Trammps had that name 'Disco Inferno' first."
Brown, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge Benewetch's existence. "I've never even met the guy."
In February of '95, Benewetch says, he scoured the local Phoenix rock clubs looking for talent he could mold into identikit disco idols. "I originally approached Tea and Sympathy, but they never returned my calls. Then I approached Lord Zen, which later became Liquid Zen."
Unlike musicians who hop on the lucrative disco express and never look back, Liquid Zen used its sudden infusion of dance tribute dollars to finance its CD of original music. Even so, the dual identity didn't last long, and Zen went on hiatus.
"We got fed up. Trying to get someone to see an original band at the Mason Jar was like pulling teeth," says Eric Storch, who along with his two bandmates is eyeing an original project somewhere in their future. "Doing six nights a week has made pros out of us. It's like our Olympic training. A 45-minute set will be a snap after this."
"We ain't been here in full force," J.J. tells the crowd during the Boogie Knights' January 5 set at Gibson's, "and we ain't gonna let that happen again." The guitarist's pseudo-apology is lost on most of the crowd, who seem unaware that a different set of Perfect World merchants played as the Boogie Knights on the same stage a week prior, filling in for the real Boogie Knights, who were in Vegas.
"I can tell the difference," insists Melissa, 23, who's in no condition to operate farm machinery anytime soon. Swishing her gin and tonic, she explodes, "The hair is definitely different. Their hair is definitely poufier!"
Another giveaway is that the original Knights, while occasionally bawdy, rely far less on smutty innuendo between songs than other boogie bands. As Engstrom notes, "Quite frankly, girls don't like hearing about some guy's dick."
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Also, since the natural-born Boogies still set the pace, you'll hear more advanced song selections at their gigs. Lately, they've unleashed slamming versions of off-the-beaten tracks like Parliament's "Flashlight," and the impromptu treat of drummer Vinnie Guisseppi Tortelli stepping out from behind the drum kit, drink in hand, to deliver a thoroughly unsentimental stab at KISS' mushy ballad "Beth."
Funny as it is, Evening Star couldn't be happy to see J.J. bump and grind like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys atop the baby grand piano they paid for for Todd Rundgren to play on the night before. That's show biz.
Hoping to cash in on--or manufacture--the next retro revue craze, Brown recently fashioned Metal Shop, a spandex-and-leather look back at a genre that may still be too freshly buried to, er, warrant exhuming.
During a Thanksgiving BK show in Vegas, Perfect World previewed its latest retro creation, hoping to reprise the Knights' original Halloween coup. So, how was the reaction to Metal Shop from the disco crowd? "Good," says Brown. "About 20 percent understood that we were being Spinal Tappish about it. The rest thought we were totally serious.