Music News

Big Night

Hey Mikey--pick up the phone. . . . I guess you're not home. Why don't you come out tonight, baby. We're either going to the Lava Lounge for Sinatra night or the Derby for the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. We might also check out Swing Night at the Viper. So come meet with us. We'll see you there.

--Trent, from Swingers

When Jon Favreau wrote the screenplay for Swingers back in 1995, he had no idea that his story of five friends hanging out amongst L.A.'s lounge and swing scene would become a cult classic. This low-budget phenomenon has been playing for more than a year at Tempe's Valley Art Theatre while simultaneously topping video-rental reserve lists. With its rat-pack dialogue and brassy soundtrack, Swingers has created a new subculture that has extended the longevity of lounge and bolstered the current popularity of swing music.

Because of the benefits of big-screen promotion, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy arguably has become the most visible outfit in today's neo-swing scene. The eight-piece big band's performance is prominently featured in the film's dance scenes, and three of its songs, "Go-Daddy-O," "You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)" and "I Wan'na Be Like You," are included on the soundtrack. As of late, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is most commonly referred to as "that cool band that was in Swingers." All this helped to land it a major-label deal, and its new, self-titled release on Coolsville/Capitol Records was produced by the nostalgic minds behind the popular Ultra Lounge series.

Let's turn the dial back to 1989. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy founder Scotty Morris had grown weary as a disgruntled studio guitarist and formed a three-piece swing combo. As he had originally been a trumpet player, his earlier influences like Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima inspired him to play big-band mambo. Slowly, while playing college bars in the Ventura/Santa Barbara area, Morris added accompanists. A quintet evolved and was named BBVD after Morris saw blues guitarist Albert Collins in concert. An autograph that Collins gave him read: "To the big bad voodoo daddy."

In 1993, when BBVD released its self-titled debut, it seemed refreshingly retro. Morris had written some decent songs, and the disc sold several thousand copies, but as the crowds grew, the band's sound started to seem a bit thin. BBVD thickened the sauce by adding trombonist Jeff Harris, along with alto sax/clarinet player Karl Hunter and jazz pianist Josh Levy. It would later release the Christmas EP Whatchu Want for Christmas. By 1995, the octet had become the house band at The Derby in L.A., headlining every Wednesday night for a solid 18 months. The shows each week became big events, and it was here that BBVD was chosen to be filmed in Favreau's screen cocktail.

The Fox television network was the next to jump on the big-band wagon. BBVD reached millions of households with its appearances on Party of Five and Melrose Place--two shows that monitor and mimic every current trend from coast to coast. As a result, the "cocktail nation" could now consist of youths that don't know the difference between Henry Mancini and Dr. Michael Mancini.

But sure enough, swing-music clubs are everywhere in Southern Cali, and The Derby is now frequented by trendies and tourists. Morris himself has stated, "The scene in California was really retro and underground. Guys didn't just grease their hair and wear suits and fedoras for a show; they dressed like that all the time, to the nines. But when Swingers hit, the crowds became more diverse, and the average everyday person was coming out to see us everywhere from all-ages clubs to the 'meat markets' and full-on disco clubs."

For some reason, when Swingers came to the Valley, it hit particularly hard. Tempe is the only town in the U.S. that has played the film for well more than a year. BBVD has played in the Valley three times in the past year or so, with each show considerably larger than the one before.

One thing is for sure: Morris definitely knows his crowds. A short time ago, BBVD played smaller shows for a specialized crowd, but the diversity he describes was evident when BBVD played Gibson's on March 6. The all-ages show cried "sellout," with at least 100 or so being forced to watch while standing outside in stormy weather.

About 8 p.m., BBVD takes the stage; the horn players step up to their podium/sheet-music stands as Morris straps on a classic f-hole electric. All the members are well-suited, crisp and clean, looking like they have their own dry cleaner on the tour bus. Shining brass and vintage ribbon microphones partially mask the musicians' faces as BBVD swings into upbeat numbers like "The Boogie Bumper," "Jumpin' Jack" and "Mr. Pinstripe Suit." On the floor, those who know the steps claim a little square footage to spin and twirl. On the second floor, two bartenders are exercising some fancy footwork of their own as they assume the impossible task of serving the overcrowded bar.

"Has anyone here seen Swingers?" Morris asks. He's answered with frenzied screams, and someone just has to shout, "You're money, baby!!" It's five songs into the set, and BBVD pulls out "You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight." Morris and bandmates give the already legendary vocal exchanges: "Hey Scotty!"--"Yeah"--"What's it gonna be?"--"Well, gin and tonic sounds mighty mighty good to me!" Great idea, but good luck actually reaching a bartender to order one here.

"Cruel Spell" is up next and slows down the pace just as a cool cat named Oey walks up in a pinstripe suit and comments, "I came to BBVD to just chill, have fun and live life. I've got the CD Hey Nice Shoes and plus there's a lot of women here." The music picks up as the rain comes down, and people on the upstairs balcony dance under sprinkles to the BBVD standard "King of Swing." Right inside the door is another sharply dressed man who introduces himself as Mark Wygle. He reveals that he went and got some vintage clothing and listens to swing music because it reflects back to the '30s and '40s. A song from that era plays right on cue; "13 Women" is being covered as he mentions that he is a drummer, and this type of music makes him feel good.

Louis Prima actually shows up in the form of two classics: "Wan'na Be Just Like You" and "Jump, Jive & Wail." Out in Hayden Square, an entire troupe of damp and drizzled dancers does the rock step. Back inside, two experienced Lindy Hoppers display their dexterity as bassist Dirk Schumaker's fingers do the walking. By now, Fox 10 is on the scene to report on just what these crazy kids in Tempe are up to now.

A little bit of New Orleans-style jazz is heard when BBVD performs "So Long Goodbye," but suddenly the band flexes a sense of humor by grinding out a rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

"We're going to grab the world by the balls!" shouts Morris just before the alto-sax riffs of BBVD's original "Go-Daddy-O" begin. It's as if he announced, "Hey, this one's in the movie, too!" as the crowd goes crazy from top to bottom. The big night is over by about 10 p.m. (if a concert is scheduled on the same night as one of Gibson's weekly profitable nights, they start the show as early as 6 p.m.), and now, a whole heap of people literally is all dressed up with nowhere to go. If this were L.A., there would be more options to consider. All we've got is Swingers playing across the street.

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