Last Saturday, the block outside Webster Hall was filled with tattooed punks smoking cigarettes before a four o’clock matinee. On the corner stood August Darnell, 65 and wearing two-tone dress shoes and high-waisted trousers, a gray fedora skimming over his right ear. In the early Eighties, when the venue was still called the Ritz, he and his band Kid Creole and the Coconuts played here almost monthly, performing an exaggerated Caribbean cabaret that was equal parts Mighty Sparrow and Louis Prima. Now, thirty years later, he just wants to find a coffee shop. “Believe it or not, I don’t like crowds,” he says. “I stay away from crowds. When I’m doing my shows, I get enough of that lifestyle.”
Darnell’s next show opens not at Webster Hall but Off-Broadway, at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, on May 23. Cherchez la Femme is his first musical, named after the sui generis disco oddity he wrote as a member of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. The show brings his pop back home to the theater, using old hits to tell the story of Caufy Keeps, a New York musician who cancels his first big tour to track down a runaway lover. Darnell considers the show a tribute to the city as a hub of glamour and unforeseen cultural fusions, the only place in the world where an artist like Caufy, or an artist like Darnell, could be conceived. The story is not autobiographical, but its combination of romance, self-effacing satire, and jazz, soca, and disco could only come from one man.
Darnell grew up in the Bronx of The Wanderers, but more than the gangs, he remembers the music. “I could walk out of my house and hear Tito Puente playing on one block and Elvis Presley playing on the next block and hear some jazz or Caribbean music on the next,” he says. Some kids became fighters, but Darnell survived through his sense of humor, chasing his love for Broadway and old Hollywood into the drama program at Hofstra University.
When he got a job teaching English in Hempstead, August impressed his parents but disappointed his brother, an aspiring musician named Stony Browder Jr. “He was making fun of me every day, saying, ‘Man, what are you doing?’ “After three years of such ridicule, Darnell quit grading papers to become a full-time member of Stony’s gloriously pretentious, serious yet playful Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. They dressed like James Cagney and Cab Calloway, the classic men they admired. “We lived in this bubble, this dream-world,” Darnell says. “When people saw us coming, they’d always say, ‘Oh, these guys are out of touch with reality.’ And interestingly enough, the music was like that itself.”
Savannah Band singles became disco classics, and their influence stretched decades past their debuts — “Sunshowers” became the foundation for M.I.A.’s 2004 track of the same name, and a slowed-down sample from “Cherchez la Femme” underpins Ghostface Killah’s “Cherchez la Ghost.” But unlike “Le Freak,” “Love Hangover,” and just about every other disco favorite, if these songs came out today, no one would consider them disco. The Savannah Band gave swing a Caribbean beat and brought the Charleston to Studio 54. No group from the era recorded music that was so elusive, that created such a world of its own.
“Disco was strict,” says Darnell, reflecting on the Savannah Band’s achievement. “Record companies told you you had to have that formula in order to have a hit record.” Punk, even for a thirty-year-old swing fan, felt like freedom. Darnell immediate identified with the attitude, if not the music, and though the black-jeans-black-shirt crowd outside Webster Hall might find this hard to believe, his Kid Creole and the Coconuts were briefly assumed to be a punk act. “They labeled us a punk band because I used to come onstage in a nightgown and a robe, as if this whole enactment was my dream. That was punk! And the only reason I changed that is because those venues were so cold I used to catch pneumonia every show in the wintertime.”
The New York Darnell remembers, the one that he glorifies in Cherchez la Femme, is a place where nothing was out of bounds. “The whole feeling of it, the vibe, the electricity, and the whole element of that cross-culturization that Kid Creole and Dr. Buzzard were so proud of is in the musical,” he says. “We didn’t fit in, but New York was the place to not fit in.” The show also doesn’t fit neatly into a musical-theater mold. Set in 1984, Cherchez la Femme references downtown venues like the Mudd Club and features a book co-written by Bob Marley biographer Vivien Goldman, who teaches courses on punk at NYU. Kyndra Reevey, the choreographer for both Pitch Perfect movies, created dance routines that meld club moves and Astaire-and-Rogers pas de deux.
This kind of variety and genre-hopping meant that, although Kid Creole killed at the Ritz, their tongue-in-cheek calypso-pop never caught on in the United States, which didn’t understand their output. (In 1990, Prince gave Darnell his song “The Sex of It” because, says Darnell, “he felt sorry for us not having a hit in America.”) Europe, however, proved more open-minded, and after 1982’s Tropical Gangsters went platinum in the U.K., the guy who once sang “When you leave New York you go nowhere” left for London.
“I’ve told this story so much that I don’t know if it’s true or not,” he says, “but one day I jumped in a taxicab to go ten blocks and it took me an hour. That’s when I cracked.” Darnell now lives in Maui with his wife, Eva, a dancer who recently surpassed Darnell’s ex-wife Adriana as Kid Creole’s longest-tenured Coconut. And though Cherchez la Femme may have started as a way for the Bronx native to pay tribute to his hometown, it has since become an excuse to shack up in the East Village and catch up on what he’s missed.
“It reminds me of the old days down here,” he says. “Everywhere you turn there’s theater, there’s comedy, there’s bands playing. It’s a fantastic energy.”
Cherchez La Femme runs through June 18. Click here for more information and tickets.