God is in the Details; the independent's guide to pop's fiddly bits
Friday 30 July 1999
Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, 1976
VIEWED IN retrospect, some musical moments seem like signposts to a portentous future, while other moments somehow get lost in history, doomed to become dead-ends or interesting, little-travelled byways that no one bothered to follow up. "", along with everything else recorded by Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band in its brief life between 1976- 79, belongs to the latter camp. At the time of punk's ascendancy, the group's extraordinarily baroque blend of big-band swing, Latin rhythms, jazzy harmonies and literate lyrics proved too frothy a confection and, for a novelty disco act (which is basically what it was), too dangerously avant-garde. Nevertheless, its old tracks continue to sound better, and more contemporary, with every year.
Formed in the Bronx by two brothers, Stoney Browder Jr (who wrote the music) and August Darnell (above, who wrote the lyrics), Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band was a tribute to their father, who came from Savannah and who had taken his sons to see Cab Calloway in the movie Stormy Weather when they were boys. Impressed by the musical's closing number of zoot- suited abandonment, the brothers formed a group in its image, with music that reflected their native borough in its strong Latin inflections.
In 1979, Darnell left the group to form Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Though now they, too, may be remembered as little more than a novelty disco act, at the time Kid Creole was hipper than hip. Sharing a record label (New York's Z Records) with Suicide, James Chance and Lydia Lunch, Darnell's patented blend of mutant disco became a significant trend. I even remember Darnell being interviewed in a TV special in the early Eighties by Factory Records' Anthony Wilson, who asked him in a tone of high seriousness whether he was really responsible for the invention of low-crotch trousers (something to be kept in mind whenever you hear any cultural pronouncements by Wilson in the future).
"", the final track of Dr Buzzard's eponymous debut album, was perhaps the band's greatest moment, however overlooked. The song made a very effective appearance on the soundtrack to John Singleton's movie Boyz N The Hood a few years ago, but now a real homage of sorts has arrived, albeit belatedly. "All That I Can Say", the brilliant new single by Mary J Blige, which is produced, written and arranged by Lauryn Hill, makes a definite nod in the Savannah Band's direction. The summery feel, the off-centre harmonies and the languid air of Latin loucheness are disco- baroque to the core. But it's still not half as good as "".
Children's voices chant seemingly half-heartedly in a language you can't understand, punctuated by a few detuned bongo beats. This is followed by a sound effect of tropical thunder and rain, with a few notes picked on a guitar leading into a slide up the strings that signals the start of the song proper. After a piano riff that strangely seems to prefigure one of the basic building blocks of house music, the chorus enters, followed by the lead vocal of Miss Cory Daye, the group's featured singer. The background vocalists coo and scat, the chorus repeats hypnotically against the beat of a big bass drum (Dr Buzzard's real signature sound), until everything dissolves into more kids' voices and tropical showers. There's a bit of Sergio Mendes in there, a bit of Hollywood-exotica lounge music and the most avant-garde conception of disco ever. In it's prolonged sigh of ecstasy, "" shows that the little-travelled byways often provide the most entrancing destinations.
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