Has ever a troubled band been the recipient of more public good will than Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band? The legendary five-member outfit won thousands and thousands of hearts and minds with it debut album in 1976, which featured the dance-floor smash “Cherchez La Femme,” and the group has sustained a passionately devoted following in the four years since then, despite the fact that it has released only two erratic and commercially insignificant albums and never mounted a major concert tour. In fact, the Savannah Band stopped performing live several months before recording its first album, and after the record’s success did only one live gig – and that was under specially funded private auspices in Florida (or was it Bermuda, or the Bahamas?), where they flew down with the Widespread Depression orchestra in tow to try to duplicate the aural spectacle that had been created in the studio.
This reclusiveness could be attributed to the perfectionism of the Savannah Band’s mastermind, Stony Browder, Jr., who wanted to hold out for a stage show as lavish as the sound of the group’s records. Other members were less willing to wait for the ideal circumstances and took on solo projects. Lead singer Cory Daye recorded her own album for RCA; vibes play “Sugar-Coated” Andy Hernandez produced a hit disco album by Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band (“Deputy of Love”); and bassist-lyricist August Darnell did a whole slew of productions (most notably, Gichy Dan’s Beechwood No. 9 and Machine, of “There But for the Grace of God Go I” fame) and this year formed his own performing unit, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, whose long-awaited album Off the Coast of me (Antilles) is finally in the stores. When Kid Creole did a showcase at the Upper East Side nitery the 80s in March, all the members of the Savannah Band were in attendance. But they did not perform together, and Darnell told me privately, “The Savannah Band has been in the eternal plane crash, and the pieces have been scattered far and wide.” (Soho News, April 2).
That’s why last Wednesday, August 13, was a historic occasion. A Ritz-ful of people turned out to see what was, essentially, the first New York appearance of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Bands we know it. To say that the concert was problematical, however, is an understatement.
First of all, it started hours late. The announced opening act, Gichy Dan, never materialized. In its place, an unknown street band played an initially promising but soon stultifying fusion of Latin, soul and rock; its seemingly interminable three-song set climaxed with a number sung by the bandleader’s six-year-old daughter called “Mommy and Daddy, I love You” The Ritz’s sound system was atrocious. And the Savannah Band didn’t go on until almost 2 o’clock. They opened with “I’ll Play the Fool,” followed by “The Gigolo and I,” “Didn’t I Love You, Girl,” “New York at Dawn,” “Sour and Sweet,” “Seven Year Itch,” “Italiano,” and an encore of “Cherchez La Femme,” all taken at a too-fast clip and crudely sung and arranged.
Stony Browder, duded up in military tans, seemed constantly unhappy with the seven-piece horn section (also clad in Air Force regalia) hired especially for the occasion, and kept leaping up to give them instructions. Darnell, a sensational singer and charismatic showman when he’s out front, receded behind his bass, and all the male vocals sounded terrible, off-pitch, badly miked. And then there was Cory Daye. She looked like a beautiful mulatto Madonna in her flower-patterned dress and upswept coiffure, but she acted – let’s face it – like a pig, a loud, potty-mouth vulgarian intent on living up to her reputation as one of New York’s biggest fag hags. “Ya like that shit?” she brayed after the second number, leering out at the audience. During “New York at Dawn,” as Darnell paid tribute to the various borough of our fair city, Daye stood to one said, hand on hip hubba-hubba style, shrieking, “What about Queens? What about Queens?” I can appreciate trashy camp as well as any cardcarrying member of FAFH, but Cory was just out of control, and her brassy singing was at times painfully undisciplined – such a shock because on record she has one of the sweetest voices this side of heaven. Epic Records’ Eliot Hubbard wondered aloud whether Cory Daye’s dulcet tones were achieved in the studio by means of hypnosis.
But hey, so the performance had problems! This is a band that hadn’t played in public for years, and you’d have t be crazy to expect a skin-tight show. It would take a Broadway budget, a firm director, a musical conductor, and a well-rehearsed orchestra to do it right. The Savannah Band of myth is an elegant recreation of the 1940s, an attempt to bring back the sophisticated five-part harmonies of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey and the smoky romanticism of Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca in a contemporary form, adding a pounding beat and superimposing syncopation to make it danceable for today’s kids, as big-band swing was danceable for the youth of the ‘40s. The Savannah Band of reality is a group of struggling musicians, ambitious artistes with beautiful dreams bigger than their abilities to realize them. And I guess it’s good to know that.
Soho News, August 20, 1980