NO KIDDING! August Darnell Talks Alter Egos, Cab Calloway, And Hails Kid Creole & The Coconuts' New Album, Live In Paris 1985.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019 08:23 Charles Waring Print

 

        alt"Our music was very difficult to categorise," explains softly-spoken August Darnell, the Bronx-raised creator of the 1940s-era retro hustler, Kid Creole, who together with his band, The Coconuts, brightened up our lives in the 1980s with memorable songs such as 'I'm A Wonderful Thing, Baby,' 'Stool Pigeon,' and 'Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy,' all of which were UK Top 10 hits.  "You could find our albums in Third World music bins in record stores," the singer/songwriter remembers, "only because there were some reggae or calypso in it. It was just bizarre because in my opinion it was just pop music, whether it borrowed from salsa, jazz, R&B and funk."

Darnell, now 68, is as charming and charismatic as ever and though he's  laughing at how his homeland pigeonholed his group's music, he's making a serious point. In Europe, Kid Creole & The Coconuts were huge, but in America it was a different story. Their music appeared to confuse some listeners. That's because in the USA, music was strictly segregated in terms of radio play, marketing and promotion and Kid Creole's fusion of different styles caused a consternation bordering on discombobulation. Musing on his band's failure to be wholeheartedly embraced by America, Darnell says: "I used to blame it on the dichotomy of the radio stations because in America if you didn't fit into a slot comfortably - if it wasn't R&B, if it wasn't jazz, if it wasn't pop, but it was all those things combined - then radio stations didn't know what to do with it. That was my excuse in the old days."  


                         altTime and age, though, have given him a different perspective. "When I reflect on it now at my older age," he laughs, "there are many reasons for it but I have to say it was sheer luck, because we had all the mechanisms going for us in America. We even had Tommy Mottola as a manager, who  had great success with Hall & Oates and Mariah Carey, but we still couldn't get that kind of fame in America. These days I just think it was primarily the fact that we played more in Europe and got adored there and we didn't concentrate on America."

Fittingly, then Kid Creole & The Coconuts' latest release is a live album which captures them on stage in Europe at the apex of their fame. It's called Live In Europe 1985 and was recorded at a venue called Le Zenith in Paris on September 10th of that year. "It brings back good memories," laughs Darnell. "I'm glad that it's coming out because it's actually the first official live album that the band has out there. I have to thank my manager, Ron Rainey, for that as he was the one that decided to release it."

The album, which is available on CD and download, contains sixteen songs, including the aforementioned big hits together with popular band numbers such as 'Dear Addy,' 'Mister Softee,'  'No Fish Today,' The Lifeboat Party,' and 'Endicott.' "It was a great time for me because we were trying to prove how great we were in those days," says Darnell. "These days, you don't have anything to prove, you just want to survive, but in those days you want to be masters of the live scene and it's great to hear the band at that peak of their performance."

After two well-received LPs for the Island-distributed Ze label - 1980's 'Off The Coast Of Me' and '81's 'Fresh Fruit In Foreign Places' - Kid Creole & The Coconuts hit the jackpot with their third LP, 'Tropical Gangsters' (which was released as 'Wise Guy' in the US). It was massive in the UK, where it spent a total of 40 weeks in the nation's albums chart and peaked at No. 3, eventually earning a Gold disc. The group even picked up a prestigious BRIT award in 1983. "We never dreamt that we would reach that kind of fame," reveals Darnell, who says the band's ambitions were modest initially. "We started off in Manhattan in a little dingy rehearsal hall - called Deli Planet, interestingly enough - and we just wanted to conquer New York in the beginning."

                      altDarnell, born Tom Browder, had served his musical apprenticeship during the late '70s in his brother Stony Browder's band, a cult group called Dr Buzzard's Savannah Band (pictured above) who scored a minor disco hit with 'Cherchez La Femme.' "The thing about the Savannah band was that we didn't play that many live gigs, but that was my brother's choice," says Darnell who wanted to focus more on live performance. "With Kid Creole, I wanted to do live shows so we rehearsed a lot of hours on this little dingy Manhattan rehearsal hall. We thought that was it, we'd pick up some gigs around town and we'd get our fame that way, but then along comes Michael Zilco, a British entrepreneur who took an interest in the band, and the rest is history. So when we achieved international success, it came as quite a surprise."

                                   altBut just where did the persona of Kid Creole, Darnell's flamboyant, zoot-suited, fedora-wearing, pencil-moustachioed  alter ego come from?  Was he based on someone real or an imaginary character? "Cab Calloway (pictured above) was one of my biggest idols in terms of the style and Kid Creole was definitely a rip-off of him with the Fedora," admits Darnell. "But I believe Kid Creole was a hybrid because I was so influenced by the cinema as a youngster," says Darnell. "I used to love those gangster films with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Eddie G Robinson. I wanted to look like those guys and I wanted to act and dress like them. I was brought up in the Bronx so it wasn't a big leap of faith to be like those guys." 

Indeed, but Kid Creole - who's brash, extrovert, gregarious and an inveterate womaniser - is, according, to Darnell, a far cry from his own personality. "I created this Kid Creole character as an alter ego because the real me is actually just the opposite of him," explains Darnell. "I'm actually very shy, and very into, shall I say, isolation. I don't like crowds and I don't like to be around a lot of people whereas kid Creole was very, very in your face. I needed to create that alter ego because otherwise I couldn't make it believable. I wanted to play a role."

Role-playing was something that wasn't totally alien to August Darnell, who reveals his studied drama as a young man: "I majored in drama at Hofstra University and later changed my major to English, but I still minored in drama. I tried out for all the plays at University but didn't get any of them, so that also could explain why I created an alter ego as a vehicle for a frustrated actor."

 Darnell says that a sense of theatricality and storytelling has been an essential component of the group and the way it presents itself to the world. "There always has been and that carried through with the show, even though the show is an audio thing, but even in the audio you can still steal the theatricality of it," he states. "I like storytelling within the confines of a three-and-a-half, four-minute song."

                                  altFor Darnell, the 'Tropical Gangsters' album was where Kid Creole & The Coconuts came of age. "That was our pinnacle," he says. "And the way that album was created was because we didn't care about success. Once you got success and you tried to match it, that's when it became a hard job."

On the near-perfect 'Tropical Gangsters,' which, amazingly, is currently out of print, and four of whose eight songs appear on 'Live In Paris 1985,' it seemed as if all the stars and planets came into perfect alignment for  Kid Creole & The Coconuts. Darnell agrees. "I think it was because I was in a happy place," he says.  "I was living in Manhattan and I'm sure that the combination of my living experience there that everything was going swimmingly well. I was married to Adriana Kaegi, a Swiss woman who helped me to create Kid Creole with me, and we had this vision together."

             altDarnell says that just being in Manhattan, then a vibrant cultural hub in the early 1980s, was an important chemical element in the evolution of Kid Creole. "Manhattan at that time was such a fantastic place to be," he reveals. "It will never be like that again as it was in that period because, although it's a cliché, it was a melting pot of many different ethnic groups and many different characters coming together: the wealthy, the poor, the middle class, all hanging out together at these clubs. And there were so many clubs that allowed artists to exhibit their wares, their goods. This helped enormously in creating for me. Going to the recording studio was a blessing, to have this empty canvas I could create in and say this is my art, this was what we were going to create. We were all young, ambitious, and in it together."

                                         altThe sound of Kid Creole & The Coconuts is both tantalisingly allusive and elusive. There are detectable traces of soul, jazz, funk, reggae, and salsa flavours, but all seamlessly marinated together to create an indefinable sound. No wonder some people couldn't figure them out, especially those who were purists and liked their music compartmentalised.  August Darnell discloses that his musical influences were far and wide: "It was definitely James Brown for the funk.  I was the biggest James Brown fan in the universe. I saw all his shows at the Apollo theatre when I was a youngster. And in terms of jazz, it was Miles Davis. And in terms of the calypso music, it was The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener. Salsa music it was Tito Puente and Vera Cruz, all the Cuban musicians and Puerto Rican musicians that were being played in Manhattan all the time."

                                   altTwo other seminal influences which Darnell says probably had the biggest impact on him were Motown and The Beatles. "The British invasion was so important to me. It inspired my brother and I because Lennon and McCartney were writing their own material," admits Darnell. "I think that was a turning point for my brother and I. We didn't have to rely on others to write our material, we could write ourselves, and the ego took over because we were looking at Lennon and McCartney's compositions and we were saying "those are great songs, can we match that? So that was important to me."

It was black American musicians, though, which August Darnell admired for their stagecraft.  "Motown had the best acts as far as we were concerned in terms of presentation and showmanship that was involved in the shows," says Darnell, though it was the dynamism of James Brown whom he truly wanted to emulate. "That's where the live show magic came from, watching James Brown perform. I always said to myself, I want a show that's that electric, that powerful."

Certainly, the frenzied audience reaction on the 'Live In Paris 1985' album sounds that Kid Creole & The Coconuts  had learned well from James Brown. "We had some great audiences," reflects Darnell. "European audiences were the best. And that Paris show captured the spirit of what we were trying to achieve, which did not come easily. We rehearsed a whole lot before we hit the road in those days. And you can really hear it on that recording. It was a very tight band. Once again, I say that we were imitating the folks that we admired, such as James Brown, whose  shows at the Apollo theatre were etched in my mind eternally. We wanted to present something that powerful."

Music, evidently, was in Darnell's blood. "My dad was an amateur musician," he recalls. "He was a huge Frank Sinatra fan so I heard a lot of the Rat Pack growing up. I loved those guys: Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr." But Darnell says that the nature of American radio back then led to his wanting to make a more eclectic kind of music. "In those days in order to hear R&B, you had to listen to one radio station and in order to hear pop music, you had to listen to another radio station," he reveals. "It was that kind of isolation that made us want to combine all the elements into one musical format."

As a result, Kid Creole & The Coconuts created a sound that transcended categories. "We loved the fact that it was a fusion of things and the eclectic aspect of it is what turned me on," Darnell says. "It did not turn me on to just do a pure reggae number, we wanted to combine the reggae number with some pop elements and some jazz elements. Horns were always very important to me because I was a big fan, thanks to my brother, of the big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie and those guys. Horns, still to this day, play an important part in the music."

"That's a difficult question," confesses August Darnell, when I ask him to select the biggest highlight of his career. He says that even though he had a chance to  meet some of his musical heroes - like performing alongside both Cab Calloway ("He loved us but couldn't believe that I was wearing that zoot suit," recalls Darnell) and Sammy Davis Jr, and meeting Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney - the highlight is still being here today.   "I think one of the highlights for me was just surviving and the fact that we're still going after all these years because I've seen so many bands drop-off the stage and drop out of the limelight after great success. And the fact that we're still rolling and still doing shows, still doing festivals here in Europe, and still garnering new audiences -  thanks to YouTube and social media -  I think that's the greatest accomplishment to be honest."

                                    altIt's been eight years since Kid Creole & The Coconuts' last studio album, 2011's 'I Wake Up Screaming' on the UK indie label, Strut, and August Darnell says it might be some time before another LP surfaces. That's because at the moment he's preoccupied with a stage play he's been putting together. "It's called Cherchez La Femme," he tells me, "and so that became my new lifeline, to try to get this play to Broadway or to the West End. So that has occupied my time for the last five years after the last album we put out."

There's some good news, though, for Kid Creole devotees as Darnell says that that particular pet project has been given the green light to get produced in London. "Now we have a chance to bring that show to the West End," he enthuses. "We found a producer just a couple of months ago so we're really excited about that. Once I achieve bringing the show to a London theatre I think then my mind will be ready for another album."

Until that happens, Kid Creole & The Coconuts' fans can console themselves by listening to 'Live In Paris 1985,' which brings back vivid memories of the group's halcyon days at the height of their fame. It's a wonderful thing, baby.

Kid Creole & The Coconuts'  'Live In Paris 1985' is out now.

 

 

 

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 21 March 2019 09:56