Swinging World Music Superstar, August Darnell, Looks Back on 1985
August Darnell got his first taste of fame as the bass player and harmony vocalist in Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. The group was big in the disco era of the ‘70s, pioneering a unique mix of swing, disco and Caribbean influences. After two hit albums – their self-titled debut in 1976 and Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Meets King Penett in 1978 – Darnell left to form Kid Creole and the Coconuts. He took along vibe player and percussionist Andy Hernandez, better known as Coati Mundi.
Darnell fronted the band in a zoot suit, modeled on swing band leader Cab Calloway’s outfit. The Coconuts sported a first rate horn section, three female back-up singers – the eponymous Coconuts – a solid rhythm section and Hernandez on vibes. He was also the band’s musical director, arranger and comedian, playing off Darnell’s sophisticated straight man. The band was an immediate sensation, expanding Dr. Buzzard’s world music vision to include rock, R&B, calypso, ska and other styles. While albums like Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (1981) and Tropical Gangsters (1982) were well received in the US, they topped the charts in England. Their dazzling stage show made them stars, first at home and then in Europe, where they sold out major concert halls. You can see the band at their best on Kid Creole and the Coconuts – Live in Paris 1985, a DVD that was released in 2001. Curiously, the CD of the performance was not released until this year. Darnell answered a few questions about the CD, and his long career, from his home in Sweden.
When did you find out this album was going to be issued on CD?
I thought it would be released in CD form in 1986. I forgot all about it until my manager, Ron Rainey, came up with the idea in 2018. Life in the fast lane ain’t no joke.
Since it came out as a DVD in 2001, do you know why it took so long for the CD to be released?
When the DVD came out in 2001, I figured there was no need for a CD. I surmised that true fans would buy the DVD and play it extra loud. Fast forward to 2019 – people still buy CD’s?
Are there any performances that stand out, as you listen to them today?
What I remember the most, when I listen to this concert: all the arguments we used to have about TEMPO. The Coconuts would always complain whenever the tempos were too fast, or too slow. The poor drummer (Dave Span) used to get an earful of grief every night! I am particularly fond of this concert because I had the A-Team with me. You know, sometimes, you do a concert, but your favorite sax player or keyboard player is not available, but the show must go on. You listen to the recording and you sort of say, “Yeah, that was good, but I wish so-and-so was on the keys.” There are no regrets when I listen to this show. My favorite performances on this CD are “Mr. Softee” and “Caroline Was a Drop-Out”, but all of the songs make me smile. I was lucky to have those musicians and those Nuts creating the magic with me.
Do you have any memories of the night the show was recorded?
Paris, 1985. Are you kidding? I cannot begin to tell you the memories I have. After every show we did in Paris, we’d always wind up at a nightspot called Les Bains-Douches. Hedonistic revelry, to be sure. Nowadays, when I finish a concert, I can’t wait to get back to my hotel room! Oh, the power of unbridled youth!
How did you choose your lyrical approach to the songs you wrote for Kid Creole? They tend to be sexual, sending up male pride and sexist attitudes, without going into explicit details. A nice feat, especially for the time they were written.
Creating an alter ego allowed me to be outrageous without consequence. Kid Creole is the one with the giant ego, not August Darnell. Kid Creole is the womanizer, not August Darnell. Once I created this alter ego, it was easy to write lyrics that would either exploit his conquests (‘I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby’) or ridicule his tools of the trade (‘Mr. Softee’).
You also had a multi-cultural, racially and sexually integrated band, without making a big deal about it. You were sexy and implicitly feminist at the same time. Do you have any thoughts about that?
My only thought about this: it was not intentional. The band was comprised of those folks who passed the arduous audition process, regardless of their religion, or color, or gender, or sexual orientation. I should add that in my personal life, then and now, I was always surrounded by diversity. And interestingly enough, my closest friends have always been females. I wonder why?
Can you briefly talk about “Mr. Softee”? I can’t think of anyone else who ever wrote a song about that subject. It might be your most revolutionary song.
Ha! ‘Mr. Softee’ is semi-autobiographical. I was dating a lovely lady in Manhattan, back in the late 70’s (at the height of my handsome and charming stage). One night, I refused to engage in nocturnal interludes with her, because I needed my rest for a very important meeting with a record executive the following morning. This particular lady was so fine that she had never in life encountered such a sexual rebuff. She dubbed me Mr. Softee. After the record company meeting, I wrote the song. A bit of trivia: she still calls me that to this day. And I never had the opportunity to roll in the hay with her ever again. C’est la vie.
You were playing what came to known as world music, before that term was invented. How did you evolve the swing/funk/Latin/ Caribbean hybrid? To my ears, it was something you started with Dr. Buzzard taken a step further. Is that correct?
That is correct. My biggest influence as a songwriter was my brother, Stony. Stony was the master of mixing genres. I loved his notion of musical potpourri. When I jumped ship and created my own band, I wanted to continue exploring this hybrid concept. The major difference: more accents on the Caribbean. My partner in crime, Coati Mundi, was also a lover of the sublime co-existence of disparate musical strains.
There were ten years between your albums Too Cool to Conga and I Wake Up Screaming. What were you working on in the interim? Is a new album in the future?
The interim – I starred in a musical entitled Oh! What A Night. I did over 1,000 performances in the United Kingdom and in Europe. This was very rewarding, because I actually majored in Drama at Hofstra University. My original dream was to become a famous actor. I settled for becoming a famous singer/producer/songwriter/bandleader/musician instead! But acting and singing in a successful stage musical helped to fulfill my childhood fantasy.
The interim – The band continued to play concerts (mostly in Europe). The New York based KCC band was replaced by a European based band (Danish, Dutch, British musicians) and the Swiss-Swedish-American Coconuts were replaced by British-Dutch-Danish Nuts.
The interim – Most importantly, I started working on stage plays and screenplays. I released three singles on my own label, 2c2c Music.
The Future – A new album will be unleashed before the end of the 2019. The working title is Port D’arnelle.
Where are you living these days? The NY Times said you were splitting time between Sweden and Maui. That would be quite a commute.
When Old Man Winter arrives in Europe, I live in Maui. When the temperature soars beyond 87 degrees, I live in Sweden. When the gigs pay large dollars, I live on the road.
Where did the idea for Kid Creole originate? Did you ever meet Cab Calloway?
The Kid Creole idea came about primarily because I grew tired of being constrained and constricted in Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. My brother, Stony Browder Jr., was the leader in the Savannah Band. He assigned me the roles of bass player and lyricist and background vocalist. I wanted more. Big brother said, “No way, little brother, be happy with what you already have.” I wanted to write the melodies and the lyrics. I wanted to sing the lead, not just the backup. I got what I wanted by jumping ship and forming Kid Creole and the Coconuts with my Swiss Miss, Adriana, and another Buzzard alumnus, Coati Mundi. I never looked back. I never regretted my decision. Stony called it MUTINY. I called it AMBITION.
Cab Calloway – my idol. One of the greatest moments in my career was not only meeting Cab, but performing with him on stage. I also met Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. in that same year. My heroes! Satisfaction guaranteed.
Do you still write songs and perform? Is touring easier or more difficult than in your heyday?
I still write. I still tour. It’s a lot easier now, because I have nothing to prove to anyone.
Do you write music first, words first or some combination? Do you work from an idea? Where do you find inspiration?
Life itself is my greatest inspiration. I am fortunate enough to have a life that is filled with crazy characters, kooky offspring, dangerously alluring femme fatales and amazing adventures in splendid locations. I am also a movie buff. My father instilled in me, at a very early age, a genuine love of the cinema. I passed along that same admiration of films to my children. A classic movie always inspires me to write a song. Example – one of my all time favorites, Casablanca, is directly responsible for at least six of my compositions! And the Brando version of Mutiny On The Bounty led directly to my love affair with the North and South Pacific Islands, which ushered in a whole collection of tropical flavored songs. The film Black Orpheus inspired a whole album – Gichy Dan’s Beachwood Number 9.
Do arrangements occur to you when writing? How do you work them out now and how did you work them out when you were starting out?
There is no formula. Each song requires a different path to freedom. Some songs start with a drum machine. Others start with a melody. Many start with a bass line. Sometimes the arrangement is part and parcel of the song. Sometimes it is the last thing I think about.
You’ve had a stage production of Fresh Fruit at the New York Public Theater, an Off Broadway show – In a Pig’s Valise – and Oh! What A Night, a show that ran in London. The NY Times said you were mounting a production of your musical Cherchez La Femme in New York. Did Cherchez ever make it to the stage? Do you have any new theater plans?
Yes indeed. Another dream come true. Cherchez la Femme was presented at the LaMama Theatre in Manhattan in 2017, for a limited run. It was a remarkable experience for me. Vivien Goldman and I wrote the book. And I wrote the music. There is talk right now of bringing that masterpiece to London’s West End this year! We have the producer. Now all we need is the theatre. And a damn fine cast, of course. Hallelujah.
In addition to this project, I have also written two screenplays this year. I feel a Netflix connection coming soon into my illustrious resume. As Mr. Brown would say, “I feel good.”