Who Deserves the Cult Status of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band
How is that a group of musicians who had a number one hit*, who spawned three albums on two major American labels, are now distinguished as a “cult band”, with all the esoterica and obscurity that implies?
Perhaps this status amounts to Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band being alternately in and out of step with the musical trends of their era (“the disco era”), let alone, whatever precise marketing genre they might have been pegged with.
Wikipedia (our ever-ready source) lists them as beholden to: soul, big band, disco. Beyond the obvious and perhaps egregious overtones of a non-white, primarily black band being slotted into the “soul” category, Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band hardly brings to mind the classic stylings of Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding.
They do, by way of (for one thing) their proto-cosplay double-breasted fashions, put one in mind of the “big band” era, yet they were never (if hardly ever) referenced in the latter-day come-and-go “swing revival” of the late-1980s (which brought on full big band arrangements). Certainly, a glance at Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band leads one to this reductive assessment, and while some of their songs do utilize intros and bridges with big band brass arrangements, many of their songs defy a specific genre marker.
Finally, we land in their era’s premier musical category: disco. It might be hard to imagine Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band’s hybrid stylings arriving at any other moment than the glitzy dress-up-and-go-dancing times of Studio 54, where, rest assured, “Cherchez la Femme” was repeatedly spun. But even that song, perhaps the most well-known of their hits, can be distinguished from most of the four-to-the-floor bass-drum poundings of your average disco hit.
Cult status is gained by the initiate, those who may have had no idea of who or where it came from, but latch on to the product in the most personal of terms. For sure, all three of Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band’s albums bear the kind of upbeat nostalgic testimony that one comes across on (for example) Youtube, which ranges from your mom playing the album while everyone was doing their chores, to spinning a particular song every morning before high school.
It’s the under-recognized perfection of the cult album that pushes it beyond the mere confines of the market, and keeps the music’s sublime and steadfast qualities buzzing among those in the know, even if that same album may see (once the moment has passed) the remaindered product sitting in a neglected bin, a “cut-out”, just as the band itself was dropped by RCA after their second album refused to produce another massive hit.
This type of artifact can also “boomerang”, that is, come back around and be re-appreciated or re-assessed after a number of years. This was the case in my own re-assessment, what in effect led me to write this article. I was the collector of the disco hits, the singles, the 45rpms, as they were picked up on the airwaves and then purchased in your local retail outlets. “Cherchez la Femme”, though it became part of that particular collection, wasn’t particularly favored at the time; compared to other disco hooks, it was oblique. It had its title, which surely became a catch-phrase at the time, but its stylings were idiosyncratic. On the other hand, in terms of the average disco lyric, with their common exhortations to “get down” (and the like), “Cherchez la Femme” told a story (a kind of a story), that cast the happy-go-lucky references of the big band era into an updated disco noir. Tommy Mottola (the actual name of their manager) is “Blowing his mind on cheap grass and wine”, sleeping in the backseat of his Cadillac, “Now he’s alone, he’s got no woman and no home”.
Because I assessed it like that (at the moment of release) I didn’t rush out and buy the album (in point of fact, I hardly ever bought disco albums). It was the flipside of the single, “Sunshower”, which made more of an impression on me, a song, which again, sidesteps a precise pop music category. To my ears, with its call and response introductory chorus, “Sunshower” immediately brought to mind Africa.
If we return to Wikipedia, and its reliance on genre (as far as the sound of Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band) it also includes calypso, rhumba, cha-cha-cha and compas in the mix, genres which might sound familiar to many Americans, but which were most definitely niche, or more precisely, minority categories (with all the U.S.A. implications of that description).
But one day (say 40 years after the fact) my fidelity to keeping that particular disco single collection intact, paid off. I spun “Cherchez la Femme” and finally came to realize its genius. Now I was interested in buying the album; it would take years to find it. Prices on whatever online retailer, including postage seemed, well, indulgent. It was my easy-going trawling in used vinyl record stores that finally paid off, an activity that is tantamount to visiting a museum: I sometime would simply browse. This time (in 2018), in Vinyl Touch in Antwerp, Belgium (which has since gone out of business) in their front-of-the-store discount bins, stocked under the heading of “jazz”, I found, for five euros, a pristine copy of the Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band’s first album.
While “Cherchez la Femme” was the “smash hit”, the album’s touchstone, two other songs from the first album entered the charts: “I’ll Play the Fool” and “Sweet and Sour/Lemon in the Honey”. What makes for a pop hit as opposed to the cult album, which primarily means the whole package reverberates with the aficionado, is that the pop hit’s mass appeal relies on the kind of trope that might put off the aficionado, what might otherwise be called: the all-too-obvious, a catchy chorus (a “hook”), a memorable catch-phrase (“Cherchez la Femme”!). “I’ll Play the Fool” certainly has both of these, while “Sweet and Sour/Lemon in the Honey” is an inexplicable (to these ears, though still tasty) hit bound choice.
The album itself made it to #22 on the charts, but why (again, to these ears) the AM radios of that time, didn’t play the hell out of “Hard Times” or “We Got it Made” is beyond me. “We Got It Made” in particular, contains an extra-catchy chorus, “ . . . we got it made, yeah, yeah . . .”, while “Hard Times” is as sweet, melodic and melancholic as they come. They might have been pegged with the big band, but “Hard Times”, whose lyric concurrently evokes “the great depression” along with the Bronx in 1976, is a truly complex contemporary pop expression.
That level of pop sophistication, the group’s “complex” concepts and song structures (some of whose aspects are touched upon in various extant articles about the group) is perhaps why RCA could only handle Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band’s hit making potential, shoving their complexities into the confines of a disco marketing niche. Their proto-cosplaying image, that saw the band duded out in yesteryear’s fashions, is the kind of marketing ploy record companies love, the kind of pitch easily understood by the average consumer (a kind of take on the rock band Kiss’ brand-making make-up).
But what truly motivated the band, its implicit Afro-centric and specific New Yorker vibe is hardly touched upon in the afore-mentioned extant articles. We are mainly left with the “big band” comprehensions, and though (as previously mentioned) we can hear the big band in Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band, the lyrical content has moved far beyond Cab Calloway (another repeated reference in many articles) to the kind of literary urbanity that has everything to do with the main players being born and raised in New York City. While I have referred to “Cherchez la Femme” as a kind of disco noir, the ever-contentious critical expertise of one Robert Christgau, states (concerning their second album), “The lyrics read like Ismael Reed — — soft Ismael Reed . . .” And though Christgau might qualify the literary reference, he gets to the point; the lyrics contain, at times, a biting tongue-in-cheek take on western racial histories (see, for example, “Soraya/March of the Nignies”, off of the second album).
What was also right in the consumer’s face, though displaced by the benign “big band” allusions, is that the group’s fashions were not just “double-breasted” but “Zoot-suited”, the dress-code of a decidedly non-white, aberrant sub-culture from the late 1940s. The band’s name also plays with an on-the-surface yet-obscured sub-text, as “Dr. Buzzard”, a goofy-sounding, seemingly innocuous moniker, references a legendary, practically mythological African-American “root worker”, the diasporic equivalent to an herbal healer, shaman or “witch doctor”.
But like all things great in racialist/racist/race-mixing America, it’s the hybrid that shines through (shines through all the shit). The previously mentioned song “Soraya/March of the Nignies” touts the mulatto (as members of the band were themselves of mixed-race backgrounds), a song that sees those other supposedly benign tangents of the band go from oblique to raw (to say the least). That’s the amalgam of Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band’s cultural influences, from high to low, from goofy to deadly serious, what led the Browder brothers (Stony and Thomas aka August Darnell), Cory Daye and Andy Hernandez to pull a unique and unprecedented artwork out of the ravaged Bronx, a post-modern work even, in their ironic homage to a poor-ass reliance on the entertainment options of an afternoon TV re-broadcast of an ancient Hollywood musical**.
On the one hand, we can fault RCA for not being the ideal benefactor, for operating like one of the more-than-a-few profit-oriented recording labels that smells the cash before considering the artwork; on top of the usual sudden rush of cash heaped upon the struggling artist in tandem with the management and label inexplicable “add-ons”.
On the other hand, would Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band have approached (as one of the many young American band who desired “success”) a more artist-oriented label like Blue Note Records, who in all likelihood also wouldn’t know what to make of their take on “jazz”? That fantasy nevertheless jibes with the New York City milieu, that which supported many a daring jazz musician, if not exactly on the longest of terms.
Additionally, Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band was disallowed from playing many live shows (the key to pitching a just-released album) due to “operating costs”, the unfeasible budget of touring as a big band, probably what the Browder brothers had in mind. This fidelity to craft, to the sound, is why, even though the label allotted ninety days of studio time, it took nine months to complete the first album (with an additional two-year lull until the second album appeared). Lead singer Cory Daye puts it this way: “He (Stony Browder) basically used the studio as a laboratory. It was a labor of love. RCA and Tommy Mottola had begun to lose faith. They were ready to use the album as a tax write-off.”
That succinctly elucidates the opposing forces of artist vs. corporation, and while artists in the past had contentious relationships with benefactors, the above example lands us squarely in the multi-national mega-corporate era, where the upper management is already strategizing how to finesse a financial loss as opposed to a genuine investment.
Why should the “music biz” plan for an instant “hit” in lieu of a timeless artifact? That type of investor wants it now, wants to milk the cash cow for all its worth, squeezing that udder until it’s just too painful to squeeze. But no one (or hardly anyone) knows, exactly, how to compose a “hit”; it usually just happens. There are an abundance of anecdotes in which (for example) Lieber and Stoller, after tossing out “Yakkety Yak” in a matter of minutes (hitting number one on the Top 100 pop list for one week in 1958), thought that it would always be that easy . . . but then it wasn’t.
I’m sure Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band wanted to hit the big time (and all that entails) but I’m not sure if they wrote songs with a “hit” in mind. I have my own conceptions concerning what hit single might have been culled from their first two albums (selections which may or may not have been promoted as such), but the albums themselves live up to the standards of the “album-oriented” market, that which came to the fore with The Beatles “Sgt. Peppers”. There is no filler on Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band’s first or second album; one can listen all the way through and then flip it over . . . and then flip it over again (and so on).
But the third Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band album, after being dropped by RCA (released on Elektra Records in 1979), is another story. Things are starting to sound different but the same; the band seems to be leaning a little too much on previous accomplishments while reaching for a new something that hasn’t quite coalesced. The third album cover is given the same cartoonish style as the previous two, but ups the pop garishness. It conveys the same “goofiness” but isn’t exactly attractive. But curiously, album two and three (on different labels) were given gatefold covers, complete with printed lyrics, another comparative to “Sgt. Peppers”, and an added expense for the label. That means the band was concerned with you getting the whole idea, and so, the band must have had some kind of clout with their respective labels, a reputation, albeit one saturated with bitterness. As Stony Browder puts it (concerning the song “Once There Was a Colored Girl” on album number three): “It’s about all creative bands who have problems with their record companies . . . It’s aimed at the world’s neo-Nazi bosses.” OK!
The new but uncoalesced sound of the third album (if you can indulge my critical asides, as some fans love “Dr. Buzzards Savannah Band Goes to Washington”) indicates, to these ears, what was coming next: Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Stony Browder died of a stroke in 1991 and his brother, August Darnell, along with percussionist Andy Hernandez (and sometimes guest vocalist Cory Daye), went on to form Kid Creole and the Coconuts, yet another “cult” band, one that like many an African-American band/musician (particularly of the jazz variety) were better received on the other side of the Atlantic.
What distinguishes Kid Creole from Dr. Buzzard, is that the contemporary mode, the so-called 1990s R&B style, is now fully incorporated into the mix, along with the usual Afro-Carib. A song like “Stool Pigeon” is provided a James Brown vamp as well as a rap interlude, but it still sees August strutting his 1940s fashions, all of which seems in step with the post-Hip Hop, New Jack Swing zeitgeist of that era; speaking of which, Prince himself, the high holy gatekeeper of that particular moment in pop history, admired Kid Creole and the Coconuts so much that he tried to do what he did for Sinéad O’Connor, writing a “hit” song (“The Sex of It”) that, well, didn’t hit. See? It’s not so easy.
Suffice to say that August Darnell/Kid Creole did land on his feet, has made his musical way in spite of the corporate creative dis-investment in Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band. How would I, in my idle fantasies as a senior corporate executive (god forbid), have handled the creative excess and unique genius of Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band? Maybe have Dizzy Gillespie do a guest solo, have Anita O’Day trade off vocals, get Gil Evans to do some arrangements and have Lee “Scratch” Perry re-mix the results, putting to rest the tedious refrain that “jazz is dead”. It’s not dead, you just don’t recognize it, in the same way that the corporation tried to shackle, to limit, Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band with a branded marketing category. And how does all that play out? According to Darnell: “They labelled us (Kid Creole) a punk band because I used to come onstage in a nightgown and a robe, as if this whole enactment was my dream. That was punk!”
* Despite a song being a “hit”, its specific spot in “the charts” is notoriously fickle. “Cherchez La Femme” is frequently placed #1 in the “dance” or “disco” music category, while ranking far below the top 10 in pop music charts.
** “Cory Daye, Stereo Review, 1979: “Growing up in the Bronx, where money was tight, you watched television . . . I always leaned toward the musicals.”