The Very Best Of – Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (RCA 1996)
And now it is time to reveal the runner-up on my alphabetical list of 100 Essential CD’s and it is one that would register blank looks from most readers. It is, however, a combination of two albums released in 1976 and 1978 which are two of the most creative, original and exciting albums of the Disco Era. It managed to effectively combine the sounds of the 30’s and 40’s- the Cotton Club and the Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical with a street-wise New York in the 70’s sound. At the time it wasn’t as successful as it should have been. The Disco Sound was not at its peak of commercial success of the “Saturday Night Fever” years where everyone from Rod Stewart to Ethel Merman were producing disco tracks. In the UK the chart success of a track was still largely dependent on its inclusion on a Radio 1 playlist and I never heard this group upon the radio. It did have influence, however, as artists such as Donna Summer, Odyssey and Manhattan Transfer had hits built upon this sound and it also has lasting influence which I will come back to.
In 1976 I read a review of a new album “Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band” in “Blues And Soul” magazine. It was probably the first time that I ever wanted something based on reading a review (an everyday occurrence now) so I saved up my pocket money, had to order it from my local record shop who did not have it in stock and this album has given me so much pleasure throughout the years. Although my vinyl collection was disposed of over the years I have held on to my vinyl copy of this album. Everything about it is so right –the concept, the packaging, the artwork, the music. I remember at the time it causing quite a furore in “Blues And Soul” with soul purists writing in to complain that this music which was upbeat, technically polished as well as looking back to a different era was not Soul Music and it certainly wasn’t Soul Music as it was known then. However, in the 2000 publication of “Soul- 100 Essential CDs – The Rough Guide by Peter Shapiro (Penguin) there amongst its pages, alongside Aretha, Stevie, James Brown et al is this debut album from this Bronx, New York outfit.
It was the brain-child of two half-brothers Stony and Thomas Browder. Thomas at the time was known as August Darnell and later metamorphosised with greater lasting commercial success into Kid Creole who with his Coconuts are still recording and headlining performances forty years later with a similar, if slightly diluted sound but what made this album stand out for the crowd was not just its concepts, its in-jokes, its whole creation of a whole other world, which makes the casual listener wonder if they have strayed into some kind of parallel universe but it’s because of the voice of the lead vocalist- one of the most under-rated female singers of all time- Cory Daye. This debut reached 22 in the US Charts and a single taken from it reached 27. The buzz was great and there was critical acclaim. In those days you had to be pretty nifty with the follow-up and unfortunately there were a couple of years before the next album “Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Meets King Penett”.
This album did not sound as fresh and there was a further retreat into their own world. It did give them another US Top 40 album success (number 36) but the writing was already on the wall and the Band set to implode. This 1996 compilation has the two albums in their entirety but the order of the tracks is mixed up which makes it a slightly patchier music experience. If I had the first album on CD it would probably be the number 1 essential CD, but it took a while to appear on its own and for the same price you can pick up this compilation which has all the tracks from both albums and so this purchase would seem to be the no-brainer. Of the seven tracks upon the first album at least three would be amongst my most favourite tracks of all time. Excellent versions of these exist by Gloria Estefan and Queen Latifah but you certainly cannot beat the original interpretations by Cory Daye and the boys. In case you think I’m still going out on a limb here check the recommendation for this CD from the “All Music Guide To Soul” (Backbeat 2003)
“All of the group’s hits ….are included on the collection as well as a number of first-rate album tracks, making it not only the perfect place to start, but also the only Dr Buzzard album any fan needs to own”. (5* with another 5* rating for the first album)
From the aforementioned Rough Guide publication
“August Darnell and Stony Browder Jnr construct a fantasy world in which show tunes swing, the ghetto is filled with golden age Hollywood glamour, and heartbreak can be exorcised with a witty turn of phrase. Granted on paper it sounds like the most retrograde, revisionist kind of record, but on the turntable it’s one of the most fully realised, dazzling artefacts from the black bohemian intelligentsia and the first great single-artist disco (album)”
Now who could resist a sound like that?
Let’s begin with a consideration of the star track, the US hit single from the album, a track which occasionally surfaces on superior disco compilations and for a while was a staple track at Studio 54. “Cherchez La Femme” or to give its full title “Whispering/Cherchez La Femme/Se Si Bon” features snatches of two old songs between the main song. “Whispering” is featured in the introduction and “Se Si Bon” in a chant towards the end. This, in a way, is an example of early sampling. The lengthy introduction with shimmering bells and lovely brass moves into a complex, almost uncommercial song which plays around with being in key. It tells the story of Tommy Mottola, then a record executive who championed the band in record label negotiations and who became a very powerful figure in music indeed and was once married to Mariah Carey. Here with tongue firmly in cheek, he’s been dumped by his lady and is living in the back of “his big grey Cadillac/Blowing his mind on cheap grass and wine”. Cory’s vocal turns the whole thing into a musical extravaganza. There is sheer scorned-man bitterness in the lyrics;
“They’ll tell you a lie with a Colgate Smile
Love you one second and hate you the next one
All I can say
Of one thing I am certain
They’re all the same
All the sluts and the saints.”
Misogynistic? But how about if those words are delivered by a woman, in a voice which gives the purity and honesty of the vocals of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald a run for their money. Welcome to the world of Dr Buzzard and “for misery my friend, Cherchez La Femme”, sung with a smile and an arch campness. This is the track that Gloria Estefan chose to cover on her excellent 1994 “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me”. In the cover notes she states “I got a real kick out of singing this one”. Cory’s voice, one moment coquettish and innocent, the next knowing and embittered makes the original the superior version.
The kitsch ration is upped even more for “Sour And Sweet”, the album’s second out and out gem with its “Doo-Wa-Doo” introduction and great interplay between Cory and the male voices. There is such huge charm in this track and amazingly for a charming track it never cloys. It sounds simple and singalong, and is perhaps the most danceable track on the album, but is actually really quite a complex little number with different rhythm patterns and exemplary vocals and should things seem like they’re getting too commercial it becomes distinctly funky for a “there’s lemon in the honey” chant and the 40’s big band sound is supplemented with sweeping synthesizers for a sublime fade-out.
The third gem has one of the most beautiful introductions on record and is a shuffling, downtempo affair. “Hard Times” is an out and out love song when the odds are stacked against the love.
“Now sun must rise/With her bags of tricks and cheats and dirty lies/nobody smiles and nobody cries/ and no-one seems to care/if they live or die”
Cory delivers a beautiful, floaty vocal in a song which stops, starts, regroups and is just magnificent. Queen Latifah also obviously thinks so as she covered this track on her 2004 “Dana Owens Album “ and does a good job without eclipsing the original. It’s also a song that ends too soon with everyone just upping a gear before the fade.
So those are the three outstanding tracks but there is so much more besides. Any tracks which reference Disney’s “Old Yeller” in a rain storm before easing into a Hawaiian style track with a real feel of the glamour of Dorothy Lamour and a child’s chorus singing what over what is apparently a Nigerian juju track into a joyful handclapping finale requires serious attention (“Sunshower”). Also consider a finger-snapping love duet between Cory and August “You’ve Got Something” where the pair trade compliments,
“You’re making my world so sweet/Miss Honeycomb just can’t compete”
“You’re making my world so bright/I’m wearing sunglasses nowadays and nights”
Sickly? But we must doubt August’s intentions here- he’s merely after some “fleebo, mama” and it’s the male voices who state “Hold it baby, that’s my danger zone!” It all ends up in a funky chant, playful vocals before veering off in another completely different direction. This cramming so many ideas into a song becomes more prevalent in the tracks from the second album. “The Gigolo And I” is largely sung in French and veers off into an “Oh that crazy Indian” chant following a spoken tour-guide interlude describing the development of Manhattan Island, “The Organ Grinder’s Tale” has a German oom-pah feel and lyrics which purposely struggle to fit in with the music but it all has a certain charm. The most bizarre of all is “Soraya/March Of The Nignies” but actually perhaps most clearly demonstrates the direction August would take as Kid Creole with its reference to “mulattoes” and “tropical gangsters” and a Caribbean feel later utilised in his big hits such as “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy”. A theme which often runs through the Coconuts work is that “There’s Something Wrong In Paradise” and this is certainly the case here in the mutli-cultural world of the Buzzards as Cory takes on the role of a jungle big game hunter on the look out for fraternising between the races. The whole thing is rhythmically peculiar, but it does manage to sneak into the subconscious, with a mix of upbeat cheerful sounds and obscure and dark lyrics and moves into a bizarre march with a combination of whistles, percussion and African-sounding chants. Lyrically, just what is going on here? It must be one of the few disco-influenced songs to address racism in such chilling terms;
“Soraya, bring big gun/ We’ll deal with them one by one/Soraya, shoot shoot run (Shoo shoo, voodoo)/ Soraya, bring big gun/and let’s have some bloody fun/ nignats do the rats in”
Your guess is as good as mine- but it works. Once the band went its separate ways after another very hard to find album, August became Kid Creole joined by band member Andy Hernandez who became Coati Mundi and Cory recorded a very strong solo album which had limited success. Also from the ashes of Dr Buzzard sprang forth bands such as Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band, who had a couple of very good singles including a version of the Irving Berlin song “I’m An Indian Too” (the native American theme also explored by Cory on her club hit single “Pow Wow”), Machine, Elbow Bones & The Racketeers (who has a 1984 Top 40 UK hit with “A Night In New York”, as well as a lot of the output from the Ze Record label who released a lot of underground cult dance tracks in the 1980’s (check out “Blame It On Disco” by Cristina, the cautionary tale of a woman dumped by her lover’s obsessive love for disco as the music turns him into a “hedonistic son of a gun”) . But back to Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and for a while they were the finest disco outfit there was who crammed about ten albums worth of ideas into two vinyl releases. And unusually, I’m giving the last word to Rough Guide writer Peter Shapiro;
“What matters most is that these fashion-mag wannabes have created a record that is as moving and as smart as any other album in the history of soul.”
Video footage of this band is rare and doesn’t really show off the glamour of the whole enterprise on low-budget television shows but here is the band performing “Cherchez La Femme”
Any thoughts, recollections, observations or links on the hugely under-rated Dr Buzzard gang and their music would be much appreciated. Please leave as a comment. I think there could even be a book lurking here………
At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £11.57 new and used from £2.91. It can be downloaded for £6.99. American listeners can buy new from $4.99 and used from $3.50 and as a download for $8.99. In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.