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A Week With: “Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.”

When I was in my twenties, a curious urge to swing-dance swept through my generation.

It was all the rage for six to eight months, fueled by national clothing advertisements and … well, actually, I’m not sure what else explained or powered the trend.

It wasn’t any innovation or distinction in the music. The swing dancers of the ’90s either listened to new bands that slavishly copied old sounds, or went back to the original source material. (That one Louis Prima compilation CD was as everpresent in postgrad music collections as Nevermind had been in undergrad days.)

Eventually the whole thing went away, as these things do, leaving bemusement and occasional open contempt in its wake.

(A few years ago I read an interview with a guy who owned a number of Boston’s popular nightspots. Larry something. I knew his name then. Anyway, the interviewer asked Larry which nightclubbing trend struck him as most curious or hardest to explain. “That swing-dancing shit,” he replied.)

Perhaps America’s short-lived fling with swing dancing would have lasted longer if the movement had had a house band the likes of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, whose self-titled 1976 debut album is the subject of this week’s A Week With post.

The tootling clarinets, cup-muted horns and hotcha vocal stunting scattered throughout the record make the group’s big-band influences impossible to miss.

But it’s just as clear in the grooves — if harder to quantify in words — that these guys had Studio 54 in their minds, not the Cotton Club.

They were making disco records. Not the same kinds of disco records other people made, but still, records that were new and current at heart. That sets them apart from mere imitators, and lends the album a charm and freshness it has not lost almost 40 years later.

The one song casual listeners are likely to know, “Whispering/Cherchez La Femme/Se Si Bon,” is something of an outlier on the record. It was the band’s only Top 40 hit, shoving the mighty Bee Gees aside to claim No. 1 on the disco chart around this time of year in ’76. It also possessed a certain pessimism and darkness of attitude not seen elsewhere on the album.

(Has any other hit song ever classified women as “sluts” in its lyrics, even in jest, or described a woman as “playing whore”? Even Robert Plant, in his early women-are-devilspawn stage, never went there. I think the bounce of the beat, and the horns crowding Cory Daye’s vocal, might have glossed over some of the lyrical message.)

The rest of the songs are either upbeat celebrations of besotted love, or recognitions that love will carry one through times of challenge. They work, and at their best even pass for droll. (“I’ll play the fool for you, oh girl / Buy you things that I cannot afford.“)

The grooves, meanwhile, are touched by a variety of Latino, tropical and big-band influences — no two quite the same, and no one seeming deliberately imitative of anyone or anything in particular. “Sunshower,” which practically throbs, is probably the best.

(A related style note regarding “Sunshower.” Solo vocals by children on pop records are mawkish. Large-scale children’s choruses on pop records are either mawkish or creepy. But two kids singing at once is just fun, especially when there’s an adult in the room. I can’t explain this. It simply is.)

Jazzy, fizzy and pleasant, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band served as a solid first step for a distinctive band.

It didn’t make them megastars; that was probably too much to expect. But it holds up today, more so than the conventional high-hat-and-wah-wah disco-by-numbers records that other artists churned out.

And, yeah, you could probably swing-dance to it, if you got the notion and remembered the moves.

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One response »

  1. Wikipedia confirms my vague notion that the swing dancing craze had something to do with the ska revival that occurred during that time, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies being an example of the intersection of the two trends.

    Reply

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