The first time I spoke to August Darnell on the phone, I casually inquired, “What are you up to?” His reply was equally casual: “Oh, doin’ what I always do – tryin’ to do the next thing before someone else does it.” Bassist, lyricist, and co-founder of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Darnell has been one step ahead of everyone else for the last couple of years. Beginning with his production and co-authorship of Machine’s controversial hit, “There But for the Grace of God Go I,” he has been the creative center of a flurry of activity that has involved Gichy Dan’s Beechwood #9, James White and the Blacks, Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band, Cristina, and, most recently, his own Savannah Band spin-off, Kid Creole and the Coconuts.
These various ventures have in common a dense, intelligent, irresistibly ebullient sound that takes contemporary dance music several levels beyond “Get down/Boogie oogie oogie.” Quirky, sophisticated, and intriguing in their own right, these projects also feed into the mystique of the Savannah Band as a pop-R&B version of George Clinton’s P-Funk Mothership captained by reclusive geniuses. For although their three brilliant albums have earned them an adoring cult, the Savannah Band – lifelong friends Darnell and Stony Broader Jr., lead vocalist Cory Daye, “Sugar Coated” Andy Hernandez, and Mickey Sevilla – have yet to mount a major concert tour.
Last March, a New York club called the ‘80s hosed “The August Darnell Revue” with special guests Gichy Dan and Cristina (the chanteuse was sick, but her chorus of boy-mimes, the Capezio Brothers, went on anyway). Darnell and Hernandez performed as co-founders of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Daye sang a few songs, and Browder acted as MC. This was the closest the Savannah Band had come to playing together live in New York since they went into the studio to make their now-classic debut LP.
When I spoke to Darnell at the Ze Records offices, next door to Carnegie Hall, he took phone calls and dispensed roadies with the lordliness of a Mafia don, but the diminutive and utterly suave band leader seemed perfectly happy to tell the group’s whole story. Starting from the beginning, he spun out a wonderful mixture of poetic eloquence, teasing reticence, and deadpan humor.
Born in Montreal to a Haitian father and French-Canadian mother, Darnell grew up in the Bronx. “As a child, I went back and forth between folks,” he explained. “Then I hooked up with Stony’s people. We call ourselves half-brothers because his parents brought me up in the Bronx. My folks weren’t getting along, so it became what they call a ‘deleterious environment for a child.’ So I was with Stony’s people, which wasn’t much more healthy, but it was in one place. Thank God! Because Stony was the one who originally turned me on to music. He’s three years older; I’m 28, he’s 31. We were eight or nine, running the streets together. I heard a lot of Harry Belafonte and Haitian voodoo ritual music around the house as a child, and I was into what everybody was into who grew up in the Bronx – rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley, the Motown era, and especially the Beatles. But I was into academics, whereas Stony was into the artistic world, so the balance was nice. I went off to college, SUNY at Stonybrook, and then over to Hofstra. He dropped out of Manhattan School of Music in his third year and got involved in the music scene.”
Initially a drama major, Darnell switched to an education program to avoid being drafted and after graduation taught English for three years in Hampstead, Long Island. “During this time, Stony was pursuing his dream, which was music,” he said. “He played backup for a number of groups, including that obnoxious female singer who’s always using four-letter words in her songs – yeah, Millie Jackson. He played for her and so many others. Then he was unhappy with that because at every gig they would try to get him into a uniform. He was into Jimi Hendrix and dressed real weird, and the so-called conventional black groups couldn’t understand that. They’d ask him to put on a yellow jumpsuit, one of those tacky numbers, and he’d scoff at them and quit. That’s when he started working on something he called a resurrection of the 1940s.”
The ‘40s sensibility that underlies the Savannah Band’s music stems, according to Darnell, from Browder’s childhood fascination with the movie idols of that era. “He used to sit up night after night watching those movies, not only for the cinematic lessons they taught, but for the music. He would tape the musical scores, the nightclub scenes that used these strange five-part harmonies, the orchestras, the songs from Casablanca and all, and he’d go to record shops and say, ‘How can I get a hold of this?’ They’d say, ‘Oh, well, that kind of music is Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.’ So he’d go collecting every record he could get his hands on, and he’d study and them and study them. Then it was this brilliant idea of his to bring that back in a contemporary form, to make it as danceable for today’s kids as that music was danceable for the youth of that time. He put that straight four-beat underneath and superimposed syncopation and what today’s public would call ‘weird’ harmonies, but it worked brilliantly.
“He’s always admired my poetry and my screenplays – that was my first love, writing plays – so he asked me to come along and write lyrics for him,” said Darnell. “As he explained it, he wanted ‘picturesque lyrics with lots of imagery.’ I was going to school so I put him off long enough to finish my studies and start teaching. Then that cryptic phone call came that I shall never forget, where he said, ‘Let’s do it, this is the time, it’s now or never.’ He asked me to quit my job at the Hampstead High School. I thought about it; I had been there too long already, three years, and the kids were driving me crazy. So I quit and became a member of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.” (A few years later, this call to arms would be immortalized in “Auf Wiedersehn, Darrio” on the second Savannah Band album; “Darrio” is one of several nicknames for Darnell.)
The next step was to compile a band, and one method used to weed out candidates was a questionnaire of Browder’s invention. “People took it as humorous,” said Darnell, “but he really wanted to know whether you were Republican or Democrat, where your parents were from, if you knew what a mulatto was. I remember him reading one questionnaire where this drummer we were auditioning had answered ‘mulatto’ as being ‘America’s greatest error’ or something, that no person is really a mulatto, and that black people shouldn’t say they’re mulattos because it divides the ethnic group. I remember Stony reading the questionnaire and tearing it up, saying, ‘That’s the end of him.’ Stony’s very bigoted in his way; he wouldn’t let any so-called dark-shaded people be in the group. He wanted a group of mulattos and mulatas. Everyone in the group is of mixed breed, consequently. Even when we did live TV shows and went to the union to get musicians, he always requested mulattos or fair-skinned people. If that ever got out, of course, Stony would be picketed. But that’s one of his idiosyncrasies.”
The mulatto motif figured prominently in the Savannah Band’s early publicity. “It’s one of Stony’s credos that the mulatto is a symbol of American injustice,” Darnell explained, “in that it is a result of American miscegenation, and therefore it proves American hypocrisy inasmuch as two disparate ethnic groups coming together and producing an offspring is regarded by the public as a sin. It’s taboo. But according to Stony, it was ‘the color of the future.’ He said the mulatto would be the first real person to live in outer space because he’d be a result of different nations showing the world that they can get along. The greatest symbol of unity among different peoples is an offspring, a child that flourishes and grows up to become something. Stony was so much into this for a while that people took it the wrong way and got very turned off to it. I’ve dropped it personally, because I’ve gotten so much flak from record and radio people about it. However, on the American census, I still fill out ‘mulatto.’”
One of the most distinctive touches in the band’s music is the technique of quoting from other songs – from the “Ce’st Si Bon” coda on “Cherchez La Femme” to the strain of “Some Enchanted Evening” that winds through the second album, this practice has escalated in Darnell’s productions. For instance, the melody to Gichy Dan’s “Laissez Faire” (which Darnell originally wrote for Savannah Band lead singer Cory Daye) contains built-in references to “Volare,” Harry Belafonte’s “Matilda,” and the Andrews Sisters’ “Hold Tight.” This aesthetic would seem to lend itself to the studio perfectly and it has, in fact, produced some beautiful specimens, but the Savannah Band’s recording career has been embattled from the start. Childhood friend and unofficial manager Susandra Minsky hooked the band up with Tommy Mottola, Daryl Hall and John Oates’s manager, who arranged a showcase and invited all the record labels. “Everybody thought it was ludicrous except RCA, who had some interest, but not enough to sign us,” Darnell recounted. “Then – this is the story that came down to me after many years, I don’t know if it’s true or not – Tommy Mottola coerced RCA into signing us by threatening to take Hall and Oates elsewhere if they didn’t take us on. I tend to believe it because after the first album came out, RCA didn’t understand what was on that vinyl.”
Commercially, though, the debut turned out to be a fluke. “We went out to California to do our second album,” said Darnell, “and we had developed swollen heads because we had this gold album, and to us it was an effortless gold album. We didn’t even work hard for it, we just went in the studio and did what we were already doing all our lives. So when we got rewarded for it with a gold record and a Grammy nomination, obviously this will go to your head, if you’re a kid. So we went crazy with good living in California and took forever doing the second album, a year and three-quarters. RCA thought it was too obscure and non-commercial for them to promote. Consequently, they did not promote it. Consequently, it did not sell.”
The Savannah Band then signed with Elektra Records for a package deal of three or four albums in five years, but relations with that label soured, too, when the band spent $375,000 producing an album budgeted at $100,000. Because of excessive production costs, Elektra declined to offer the band tour support or even to promote the album, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington. The company didn’t even send out promotional copies to reviewers, with the result that the album remains one of the least-heard delights put out in the last year. Why was the album released so quietly? “To be honest with you, I think they got pissed off that it went so much over budget.”
When the halting progress of the Savannah Band’s career began to look like a chronic condition, Darnell started looking for other outlets for his talents, the most productive of which has been his relationship with Michael Zilkha, head of the spunky, independent Ze Records. “I was fed up with the big companies,” he said, “primarily because Warren Schatz, who was the head of RCA at that time, had raped my Gichy Dan album by mixing it himself, which was a very painful experience. Then here came this independent guy who was talking about opening his own record company, and at last I seemed to find someone who was human and had feelings for producers and songwriters and knew they wanted certain liberties when working. We became partners in an endeavor we call Puddle Productions, which was designed to release cheap disco records. That’s how it started; Don Armando’s ‘Deputy of Love’ was our first record. Since then, it has branched into something larger, obviously. We’re into cheap art records.”
Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ Off the Coast of Me is foremost among Ze’s artistic output, but it has had its hassles, too. Originally begun as a series of demos for Chappell Music but then made into a full-scale production by June of 1979, the album’s release was delayed for several months when Arista Records severed its distribution deal with Ze. The album, finally released this fall on Ze/Antilles, is a sumptuous party record, more sparsely produced than the Savannah Band’s and with a heavier emphasis on reggae and calypso, in keeping with Kid Creole’s conception as an “island” group.
“Four years ago, I married a Haitian girl,” explained Darnell, “and that brought back the island influence because I started hearing the music again and something awakened in me – a ‘rude’ awakening, you might call it. I started digging out the old records and became fascinated with that tropical motif again.” The Kid Creole and the Coconuts live show, however, was born only in February of this year. “The event at the ‘80s, if nothing else, cleared up a lot of confusion as to Savannah Band vs. Kid Creole. For the longest time around town, we were having an in-house joke by saying that Kid Creole was a discovery of August Darnell. At one gig, I called up August Darnell to the stage, and the audience parted in great waves for August to come up, but he never made it.”
He laughed, clearly relishing the successful efforts by him and Browder to weave a cloak of mystery around the Savannah Band. They’re not just playing a game, they’re building a legend. “The truth is,” he confided, “my first allegiance is to the Savannah Band, always will be, always has been. The Savannah Band has been trapped by misfortune and mishandling of funds, which is Stony’s greatest vice, and therefore unable to blossom and take fruition like it should have. Until it does, I will continue to produce acts that I believe in. The only difference is that as a performer, I’ve got to be out there performing live as well. Consequently, we have Kid Creole and the Coconuts, a live show as well as an album. It will be regarded as my solo album, once Savannah Band gets back on its feet, of course, and we entertain visions of Kid Creole opening the show for Savannah Band, with me serving a split persona.”
The way August Darnell spends more time in conversation talking about Stony Browder than himself suggests that it’s the two of them who make the two halves of one persona. But Darnell is careful to distinguish himself from Browder, quick to correct the impression that he is the mastermind of the Savannah Band. “I’m in no way the mastermind of the Savannah Band. That’s obviously Stony Browder. If anything, I’m the co-conspirator, his right-hand man; but the source of inspiration is Stony. I’m just more active, and you see me in the limelight more.”
Boston Phoenix, October 28, 1980