A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.
Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Meets King Penett
So here’s the thing about the “Disco Sucks” backlash: Those jerks were right…to a certain point. Most disco music did suck. But then so does most of any kind of music. Seriously, the first wave of punk yielded scarcely enough records to fill two hands with let alone a cascade of classic works. How many records from the “Woodstock Generation” do you really like? Hell, how many Beatles songs do you really like?
What made disco seem so much worse was the way record labels and commercial concerns got so excited at the idea of making music without actual personalities [eg: artists you might have to pay one day] – let’s call it the “Galactic Funk/Fifth of Beethoven Theory” – anonymous studio players + cheap rights/public domain material + clever group name + glossy promo photo + shameless promotion = high profit margin and no pesky advances or royalties. Also, the very nature of how disco was consumed – it wasn’t listened to, it was danced to – made it easy for the suits to get in and fuck it all up. But like any other dance music, disco had a power to bring people of disparate backgrounds, races, genders, sexualities together in a way that nobody had seen since the swing era. Damn right those classic rock geeks were mad about it.
In the midst of all the suits chasing dollars, a handful of artists were actually pursuing craft. The Chic braintrust of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards [rapidly becoming the unintended heroes of this series] were creating great and transcendent records for themselves and other, while Giorgio Moroder would transform Donna Summer into a vehicle to birth the second wave of electronica, causing sonic and creative ripples that are still felt daily. The Bee Gees would take a beach-centric southeastern club sound, staple TSOP falsetto singing to it and sell more records than anyone since Edison. Most improbably, a pair of bi-racial half-brothers in the Bronx would cobble together some neighborhood friends, one brother’s champagne voiced girlfriend, an ambitious record promoter and a bodega full of ideas and come up with Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Criminally lost to history, DBSOB [often brilliantly] used dance music as a base to combine elements of WWII swing culture, writing in the tradition of the Great American Songbook, wry racial and political commentary and Busby Berkeley style showmanship into an improbable whole. While all but unsung, they laid the superstructure that would support both the “Swing” revival of the early 00s as well as the Electro Swing sound that keep threatening to invade the US from the Continent. All three of their studio albums contain treats and rewards, but their most striking [and artful] album is their second, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Meets King Pennett.
Despite my claims that DBSOB is unsung, they actually did have a hit record on and off the dancefloor. “Cherchez La Femme” a witty, uptempo romp that nicks the melody of “Whispering” for it’s opening [with credit actually] and tells the offhand tale of band supporter/plugger Tommy Mottola [yeah, that one] and his chaotic homelife. It was so infectious and melodic the first place I ever heard it was on the most straitlaced AM-radio morning show in town. The single gave the first album enough heat that Browder and Darnell probably felt secure in upping the ante on their follow up LP. They were wrong, but gloriously so. Meets King Pennett is an intentional work of art from start to finish, with Browder’s tunes shrugging off any trace of the pop/R&B that made the first album marketable while Darnell gives free reign to his imagination and his Masters in English. There are moments on Meets King Pennett that are so complex and erudite the album should come with Monarch Notes instead of a lyric sheet. “Mr. Love” opens the record on a swirling, delirious note as Daye spins across the dancefloor from Beau to Beau, her voice soaring with fun and desire. When she finally finds her Mr. Love, he’d better have his dancing shoes on.
“Nocturnal Interludes” feels like the early morning after the thrill flickers out. Mr. Love has disappeared, taking the joy with him, leaving Daye to ponder if it was worth it, or did she give too much? Browder lets the music wander aimlessly and Darnell’s lyric paints the seagull-strewn pre-dawn sky with that after hours cocktail of regret and yearning to do it all again. It always seems the most thrilling moments happen when we cross the line, dancing between joy and regret. Somewhere, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn are smiling.
“The Gigolo and I” and “I’ll Always Have A Smile For You” cloak their true intentions in romance, with Darnell, playing with us as he talks about the realities of being biracial in a country that likes to pretend racism is all in the minds of it’s victims. It’s a method that Darnell would carry with him in his post DBSOB work as well, dressing up real-time social comment in the clothes of camp escapism. “An Organ Grinder’s Tale” is all candied abstraction at first, with swaying horns tumbling into a mock-polka/swing waltz that Glenn Miller would have loved. The lyrics with their tale of an Elf-King making off with a “maiden” feel like Hans-Christian Anderson’s take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” And you can still dance to it, although groove-shaking probably wouldn’t be the order.
Darnell doesn’t bother to hide his hand in “Soraya” and “Auf Wiedersehen, Darrio.” both commentaries on race and racial identity and the effect of flag-wrapped colonialism that would always be a part of his work. “Soraya” hits hardest, with it’s giddy show-tune feel masking some complicated lyrics about race and revolution. The sumptuous groove and Daye’s bright and bubbly voice try to sneak the real story past us, but anyone who stopped dancing long enough to listen couldn’t have missed it. Here’s all the symbolism and conceptualism your 10th grade English teacher kept telling you about, right there on the dancefloor with you. Hell of a trick for a disco record to play on you.
RCA, ever out of step, had no idea how to market an album of socio-political art song disguised as dance floor escapism and Meets King Pennett had no chance to find an audience in the anti-disco climate. Even critics, usually attuned to the brand of conceptualist art the record deals in were flummoxed, expecting “Cherchez La Femme” 2.0 and not this hazy, fantasy where old colonial wrongs are forgotten on the dancefloor. Critics tend to be put off when people of color make art that isn’t upfront and obvious in its political aims [that’s why rap succeeded where disco didn’t]. We prefer the disenfranchised to make noises of confrontation because it’s easier to understand someone bracing for a fight rather than yearning for escape [which is just as political]. When someone dreams of escape, often we’re part of what they long to escape from, and that’s hard to hear. This is why, [usually without critical consent], black dance music has united more people of more minorities for more causes than rock’n’roll ever has or ever could. Think about it: What were they playing at the last rally of any sort you went to? “Revolution #9”? “London Calling?” “Police and Theives”? Hell no…They played “We Are Family,” “I Will Survive,” “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and “I’m Coming Out,” just like always..which is why those classic rock guys hated disco so much, and the punks only hated it on reflex until they realized how much power making people dance could give you. At end of the day, what’s more revolutionary than dancing with the one you love? Slave owners denied black people drums for a reason, and DBSOB still remember what the reason is. Now the secret’s out.
NEXT: Halloween Havoc!