A band formed during a "hiatus" occasioned by the meteoric rise and fall of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band -- Stony Browder and Cory Daye took the blueprint in one direction, straight R&B, featuring nouveau diva Daye. Not a success. Thomas August Darnell Browder and "Sugar Coated" Andy Hernandez formed Kid Creole and the Coconuts, a downtown NYC rock band with the OSB's multi-media ambitions, an encyclopedic grasp of urban(e)mudpeoplepartymusik, past and present, and a backlog of songs. "Kid Creole" was Darnell's onstage alter-ego, a skinny wiseass Cab Callowayish rake with a name swiped from one of those cheesy Elvis flicks (King Creole; The Kid would, years later, crown himself King as well, but it was too late to change the band's name). The Coconuts were, originally, two chick singers dressed in fake-leopardskin loincloths; when the budget permitted, there were three Coconuts. Hernandez became "Coati Mundi", The Kid's wacky sidekick.
They signed with Ze Records (where Darnell was then working, and which would have been the grimy, genre-smashing, multiculti NYC equivalent of 4AD, had they lived long enough to prosper) and debuted with Off the Coast of Me (1980), followed the next year by Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, the first installment of a Caribbean rock opera, of sorts, "The Saga of Mimi"; just as in Savannah Band days, the lyrical content steered clear of R&B generica, in favor of an imaginary B-movie musical (Darrio / can you get me into Studio / 54? -- a bridge and tunnel Judy Holliday singing and chewing gum at the same time). They peaked, perhaps, with Tropical Gangsters (1982), gaining enough UK success to put the band on the biz map even to this day, but were, as much as with the previous LPs, pretty much ignored in the US -- I can recall seeing them on SNL back around 1980 (doing "Mister Softee" or "Darrio" and maybe a soca cover of a Darnell hit from his days as a disco producer, "There But for the Grace of God Go I"; my memory's fuzzy), but you have to remember that those were the days that Mr. Michaels would have bands on that the NBC suits (and their damn kids, for that matter) had never heard of (Ahhh.. those were the days...)
The deals with Island Records, and later Sony, took the edge off the concept and music, but the craftmanship is, still, always there (Darnell has always been too proud a man to take the money and run). It's a little odd, seeing them in recent years, on The Tonight Show, mainstream enough now to be invited onto the famed stage of dull old Mr. Leno to run through their paces, but it's always nice to see Darnell et cie doin' their thang. But I'm nagged (OK, only a little) that Darnell could have been the Duke Ellington of his era but will now probably end up a huffing-and-puffing case of Fat Elvis Syndrome, like septugenarian James Brown, though a less cringe-inducing one, since a cult figure like Darnell has less need of maintaining the illusion of legendhood.
The original band lasted until around 1985, returning full-time in 1990; they've always been Darnell's little repertory company, with Daye and Browder joining the group on occasion over the years; the late reggae master-drummer Winston Grennan was a member, as was singer Fonda Rae, probably better known for "Over Like a Fat Rat" and Don Armando's Second Avenue Rhumba Band's "Deputy of Love" (a Darnell project as he was transitioning from flaky disco producer into The Kid), and Adriana Kaegi (the former Mrs. Creole) as one of the Coconuts, who spun off their own solo LPs (and had appeared on U2's War), as did Coati Mundi (The Former Twelve-Year-Old Genius, with the (uhhh...) hit "Me No Pop I") before splitting semi-permanently from the group. One of his more recent projects was helping compile the period soundtrack for 54, the Studio 54 film. (Gee, I wonder how the OSB's "Cherchez La Femme" got included?)
Last year saw the release of Too Cool to Conga! (approximately the 20th Kid Creole disque) which was my first occasion to really cringe, as I collapsed into visions of Mr. Sony, chomping a cigar, ordering The Kid to come up with "one of those swing rekkids that the kids like to dance to these days" -- you, dear listener, are better off with the fonky original version of "Endicott" (from In Praise of Older Women / Other Crimes) than the I-missed-the-damn-party rendition on the new CD. Swing? That's sooooo 1990-something, isn't it?
Mine own subjective fave moments: I think even before Tropical Gangsters was released in the States (as Wise Guy), I was sitting, stoned, in my sister's house in Dutchess County, New York, and WBLS plays this new song with a gently loping dance beat. (It turned out to be "I'm a Wonderful Thing"). I spontaneously begin to get up off the couch and unselfconsciously waggle my little tush to the music (I had the house to myself). Then I recognize Darnell's voice, and my buzz is heightened, because -- if only for this one time -- he and the band are getting airplay on a mainstream US radio station, and the biggest R&B station in the country, to boot. I lift an imaginary champagne glass to salute him as the song starts to fade, and there's this passage in the horn section with (IIRC) a piccolo and baritone saxophone crisply playing the same line, in their respective ranges, grabbing my attention, and I marvel and think, "where else are you going to hear something like that on the radio?"
A couple of years ago, I was listening to a Leicester City football match on the RealPlayer, and the BBC station, having no commercials to fill up the halftime, plays, out of nowhere, an extended mix of "Stool Pigeon" (from the aforementioned Tropical Gangsters); my till-then lethargic mood (for only the truly hardcore can get worked up over a radio broadcast of Leicester City playing an equally-dull opponent) switched immediately to jubilation as I Callowayed around my cramped quarters, hot-cha-cha-cha.
(Uhhh... you had to be there).