Michael A. Gonzales| Longreads | December 2019 | 31 minutes (6,214 words)
As New York City wallowed in social and economic disarray during the early 1980s, music still ruled supreme. The boom bap of rap bubbled in the outer boroughs, and dance DJs delivered their sonic sermons at clubs like Better Days and Paradise Garage. A cluster of recording studios in Midtown Manhattan became the sound factories of choice for top-tier projects. There was the Power Station, where Chic and Luther Vandross recorded, and Plaza Sound Studios, where Blondie and the Ramones worked. Meanwhile, engineer Bob Blank opened Blank Tape Studios in 1975 at 37 West 20th Street. Catering to recording artists who had less money but still sought quality sound, Blank Tape was housed in a building that was occupied by photographers and fashion manufacturing, but the studio soon became popular among offbeat artists such as Arthur Russell, The B-52s, and Talking Heads.
“Not necessarily because we wanted to be offbeat in the beginning, but because we were so off the beaten track in the New York City studio scene at the time,” Blank said in 2009, “the only people who would walk through our door were the people who couldn’t get uptown into the big studios.” The studio earned a reputation among listeners. In the Village Voice in 2010, writer Andy Beta wrote, “The label credit ‘Recorded at Blank Tapes’ triggers the same reverence that ‘Van Gelder Studio’ inspires in jazz heads or ‘Fame Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals’ suggests to soul aficionados — a sure sign that whoever the artist and whatever the cut, it’s worth a listen.”
I first noticed the Blank Tape name on the first album by Kid Creole and the Coconuts. One of the ’80s bands that changed my life back when I was a Long Island University student playing obscure jams on the Brooklyn campus’s radio station, their music was masterful, precise, and always surprising. Led by a zoot suit–wearing singer August Darnell (born Thomas Darnell Browder), I couldn’t get enough of their funky calypso soul, and I frequented their masterful live shows at the Ritz and Carnegie Hall.
However, it was their third album Wise Guy (aka Tropical Gangsters) that pulled me deeper into the Cult of Creole. The singles included the boastful swagger of “I’m a Wonderful Thing Baby,” the cool outlaw boogie of “Stool Pigeon,” and the bouncy beat laced with shady sentiments of “Annie I’m Not Your Daddy.” More soulful pop than previous efforts, Wise Guy became their most successful record, though Darnell has claimed it was a compromise with his then label Ze Records.
Kid Creole and the Coconuts began as an offshoot of the disco group Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, known primarily for its hit “Cherchez la Femme.” The group was nominated for a Grammy nominated in 1976. With its Jay Gatsby champagne attitude, that single also immortalized the band’s manager Tommy Mottola. “Hearing my name in ‘Cherchez la Femme’ five times a day on the radio was so strange — almost surreal,” Mottola explained in his autobiography Hitmaker. “At that age  and at that time it became very intoxicating, even dangerous, and I was only their manager.” Years before singer Michael Bublé could read Sinatra’s sheet music, Dr. Buzzard’s crew wasn’t simply reinterpreting the Great American Songbook, they were also contributing to the canon by combining disco with a brassy big band sound. The band also consisted of curvy chanteuse Cory Daye and Darnell’s older brother Stony Browder Jr., who was the group’s leader and main songwriter. Darnell played bass and penned the songs’ words. “The lyrics have bite, real wit,” critic Nik Cohn wrote in November 1976. However, three years later, as the group began to falter, various members mutinied and soon became sonic forces on their own musical merits.
Their music was masterful, precise, and always surprising.
In between breaking from Dr. Buzzard and the formation of his next big thing, Darnell honed his production chops on a few projects. “I had no formal training as a producer,” Darnell explained to me recently from Sweden, one of the three places he now lives. “I learned my skills by just watching other producers. Instead of leaving the studio after I had fulfilled my duties on the first Savannah Band album, I would hang around and watch Sandy Linzer do his thing. When my brother produced the subsequent Savannah Band albums, I would linger in the studio to observe and absorb his skills.”
With a production deal from RCA, which was also Dr. Buzzard’s label, Darnell wrote and produced a song for the band Machine that became a disco classic. “There But For the Grace of God Go I” was an infectious jam that provided the soundtrack for hustle competitions for years to come. The edgy track combined rock and disco perfectly, with its relentless beat and frenzied guitars. In 2008 it was included in “The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present.”
“My business manager, Bert Padell, recommended me to the manager of Machine, who was looking for a producer,” Darnell said. “I met the guys. They were young, talented, and crazy. My kind of people. The keyboard player, Kevin Nance, presented me with a mighty track that needed lyric and melody. I loved the groove. Nance and I had no idea that this song would become so iconic.”
Darnell was still working with manager Tommy Mottola, who years later would become chairman and CEO of Sony Music, where he was instrumental in the careers of Gloria Estefan, his future wife Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé, and where he eventually sullied his reputation by emotionally abusing Carey. “What a character,” Darnell said of Mottola. “We clicked immediately. He too was from the Bronx. We had a lot in common. He was a great manager. Stony grew to dislike him for one reason or another; I cannot remember why. But that’s a lot of water under the bridge. Tommy lived music. The passion was evident, that’s why we got along.”
Dr. Buzzard’s drummer Mickey Sevilla introduced Darnell to Bob Blank of Blank Tape Studios. Darnell previously worked on songs in a small demo studio owned by music publisher Warner Chappell, but when they dropped him by 1979, the 24-track Blank Tape Studios became his new home. “The powers that be at Chappell lost faith in me after a year because they could not understand why all my songs had a reggae or calypso groove,” Darnell recalled. “I was told repeatedly, ‘That’s not commercial!’ I admired Bob because he was a brave soul who did not care about sonic rules and regulations. He would give me free time to record during what is called the graveyard shift — late late hours when the studio was not booked by ‘real’ clients. My fondest memory of Bob is when he used to fall asleep behind the console while I spent hour after hour searching for a bass drum sound.”
Darnell was struggling personally, but he refused scale back his musical ambitions. “August was very talented, but he would book all-night sessions, because he had no place to live,” Blank told writer Bill Brewster in 2006. “So he could work all night and then sleep somewhere at somebody’s apartment. I didn’t know that at the time, but found out later.” Recently Blank, who was also a guitarist, producer, and engineer, spoke with me via telephone from his Connecticut home. “The first thing I realized about August in the studio was the guy was a real genius,” he said. “He was smart, played all sorts of instruments and was a wonderful writer.”
The studio owner introduced Darnell to Michael Zilkha, an English businessman and heir of the U.K. retail chain Mothercare who, before cofounding the eclectic and soon-to-be-hot Ze Records with Michel Esteban in 1978, had briefly freelanced for the Village Voice, writing theater criticism. “I was intrigued by August when we first met,” Zilkha said over the phone from his home in Houston, Texas. “I was in the studio working with James Chance, and August was so articulate, funny, and clever. He was an intellectual and we shared the same sense of irony, but he also didn’t take anything too seriously.”
‘I had no formal training as a producer. I learned my skills by just watching other producers.’
Zilkha was in the process of working with Velvet Underground bassist John Cale to produce the dance single “Disco Clone” for his future wife Cristina, but the sessions were going badly. While Cale had produced masterful projects for women including Nico and Patti Smith, he was out of his element with Cristina. “John was pretty cool, but he was not comfortable in that world,” Blank says. “In the end, August played bass on the track and mixed it.” He also produced Cristina’s self-titled album released in 1980. Impressed by Darnell’s musical moxie, Zilkha signed him to Ze Records, hiring him as in-house producer and forming an alliance that would last for the next four years.
“I’m always attracted to bass players, because I think it’s the most important instrument in terms of making records,” Zilkha said. “Bass players always had the best sense of what was happening.” Darnell contributed to Ze’s “mutant disco” sound that combined punk and dance, and that could be heard in the music of James Chance, Aural Exciters, Material featuring Nona Hendryx, Was (Not Was), and the Waitresses. “The Ze Records roster, what a cast,” Darnell said. “We were all members of one super-talented, dysfunctional family.”
One of Darnell’s first projects was remixing James White & The Blacks’ single “Contort Yourself.” “James loved the Machine single,” Zilkha said. “So he was thrilled that August was doing the remix.” In addition, the demos that Warner Chappell Publishing rejected were brought to Blank Tape, where Darnell reworked them into Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ debut Off the Coast of Me.
Inspired by the Elvis flick King Creole, the Kid Creole name was a suave pseudonym within a pseudonym. Darnell’s friend and collaborator Vivien Goldman described him in the Guardian as “an experienced juggler of self-created personas.” The Kid character was a musical trickster who could charm your woman with his poetics and promises while stealing the milk out of your coffee. He was a traveling man looking for fun and adventures before his boat set out to sea. Off the Coast of Me drew heavily on tropical music influences. The album included standout tracks including the erectile dysfunction anthem “Mr. Softee,” the sunny mid-tempoed “Yolanda,” and the title track’s lo-fi jungle jive.
British journalist Paul Lester wrote in the Guardian that “the LP was greeted like the second coming by a U.K. music press weary of dour post-punk.” “It was reviewed like Sgt. Pepper,” Darnell told Lester in 2011. Unfortunately, little of that positive press translated into sales. Still, if nothing else, the album proved to the world that Darnell not only had what it took to do his own thing, but that he was also developing into a hell of a production wiz. “Meeting Michael Zilkha afforded me the opportunity to put this knowledge into action,” Darnell said.
Another key member of Kid Creole was sidekick and arranger Andy Hernandez. Giving himself the stage name Coati Mundi, after a playful Latin American ring-tailed mammal, he was the band’s musical director and comic foil onstage, what Andy Schwartz, the former owner and editor of New York Rocker, called the “group’s secret weapon. You can never discount the influence and excitement generated at a show by a person like that.”
An important but usually unsung element of the group was Darnell’s taskmaster wife Adriana Kaegi, a Swiss-born musician who was in charge of the Coconuts side of things. More than simple background singers, the Coconuts were inspired by ’50s girl groups, but with the attitude of punk women. They not only supplied the oohhs and aahhs, but also served as a blond-haired Greek chorus that had no problem putting macho man Creole in his place. Darnell and Coati held auditions in a rehearsal studio named Daily Planet in Manhattan. “We needed versatile musicians,” Darnell said, “including a horn section, who could play all styles — pop, R&B, funk, jazz, salsa and calypso. It wasn’t easy.” What made it harder was the fact that they were broke, with Coati moving in with his sister.
‘I was told repeatedly, “That’s not commercial!”‘
Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who met Darnell back when they were both rising stars, said, “They were uptown boys with downtown leanings. August was snarky, smart, funny, and weird. I saw them play at the Mudd Club, and later I worked with Coati for a Carlos Santana tribute. The ’80s were a very vibrant time in the life of the city, and in those early years I was playing with avant-funk guys Defunkt. Kid Creole was a part of that scene as well. August’s lyrics always had a tongue in cheek.”
Around that same time, the writer Glenn O’Brien began writing and filming Downtown 81, which starred Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hobbled by financial uncertainties, the film sat in the archives for nearly two decades and was destined for obscurity until Zilkha invested in the flick in the late 1990s, and ultimately released it in 2000 — after all, the score featured a few Ze artists, including Kid Creole and James Chance, along with other scenesters like Fab Five Freddy, Debbie Harry, and Vincent Gallo.
* * *
The majority of Kid Creole’s albums on Ze were connected by a loose fictional narrative about the quest for his lost girlfriend Mimi. Off the Coast of Me laid the foundation for their self-labeled “mulatto music.” In July/August 1980, New York Rocker featured a story written by Peter Holsapple from the band the dB’s. “Afterhours, the dB’s used our offices as rehearsal space,” remembered Rocker editor Andy Schwartz. “So I saw Peter all the time. He was really fired up to write about Kid Creole, and he could write. We put them on the cover [of the July/August 1982 issue], because they were the most happening thing in New York. We didn’t do market research, we just followed the collective buzz of our staff and contributors.”
In 1981, they released their second album, Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, a disc New York Times music critic Robert Palmer defined as a “cultural goulash” in the June 10, 1981, installment of his column “The Pop Life.” In the same piece, Palmer described Fresh Fruit as an “extraordinary album,” but one that Coati Mundi was quoted as saying was “too black and/or Latin for white rock stations, but does not fit into the formats of most black pop and disco stations, either.”
Still, for August Darnell, who had already tasted the luxury life as part of the Savannah Band, failure wasn’t an option. Kid Creole and the Coconuts had a lot to prove, and he held onto the dream of being respected as a genuine artist, composer, and showman. He had come too far to return to the Bronx a broken man.
* * *
“Dream music, that’s what Stony used to call the music Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band did,” said cultural critic Carol Cooper, who wrote extensively about the brothers in the 1980s for the Village Voice. “And that’s how I felt about it. Andy’s vibes and Cory’s vocals took you into another dimension. It was a perfect parallel universe where every man was Duke Ellington, and every woman was Connee Boswell or Valaida Snow.”
Dr. Buzzard’s songs “I’ll Play the Fool,” “Hard Times,” and “Sunshower” were like the Gershwin brothers meet Lennon and McCartney in the age of disco as they created nostalgia for an era that they hadn’t lived through. The album has retained its timeless quality, ensuring a long life that includes Ghostface Killah sampling “Cherchez la Femme” on “Cherchez La Ghost” from Supreme Clientele, while M.I.A. appropriated “Sunshower” on “Sunshowers,” and Queen Latifah covered “Hard Times” on The Dana Owens Album.
Browder and Darnell were two mixed-race Bronx boys who grew up on Bryant Avenue and Bruckner Blvd in the ’50s and ’60s. They came of age during the doo-wop, James Brown, girl groups, and Motown eras. Mixed in an era when being called mulatto was acceptable, they were the sons of a French Canadian mother and a Dominican father living in a racially diverse neighborhood that was a melting pot of cultures. In popular culture, such as Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Imitation of Life, being biracial was usually considered shameful or tragic. However, countering that completely, the Browder boys embraced miscegenation and made it a part of their art.
‘August was very talented, but he would book all-night sessions, because he had no place to live.’
“I spent a whole lot of time in Pelham Bay Park with my brother and our girlfriends,” Darnell explained. “I attended P.S. 66, Junior High 123, and James Monroe High, but I never set foot inside Yankee Stadium,” he said. “The Bronx was a great place to grow up in as a youngster, and a great place to leave as an adult.” The Bronx could be rough, but the brothers’ diamond life imagination of a better tomorrow always soared high above the rooftops of their hood. The first band they were in called themselves the Strangers, a group which Darnell told Glenn O’Brien in 1980 was influenced by the Beatles and Elvis: “Four cats, we used to dress in dark shades.”
After high school, he enrolled at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, on Long Island, where he was initially a drama major, but switched to English in an effort to avoid Vietnam. “A friend suggested that drama majors were not taken seriously by the Draft Board,” he said. Citing Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Richard Wright among his favorite writers, Darnell thought about becoming a playwright, and he later worked with Joseph Papp to develop a few ill-fated projects that would have been staged at New York’s famed Public Theater. However, before all of that, he taught at Hempstead Middle School in Long Island for three years.
Retired teacher Michael Cohen, who also taught at the school, remembers Darnell well. “It was 1972, and he was still going by the name Tom Browder,” Cohen told me. “The same way he dresses as Kid Creole, those were the same kind of clothes he wore to school. He dressed like Cab Calloway every day — the hat, the zoot suit, the two-toned shoes. He was a real character, but the kids loved him. A few years ago I went to see him perform at Westbury Music Fair. I snuck backstage afterwards, and he looked the same. The man is ageless.”
Darnell enjoyed teaching, but when Browder told him that Dr. Buzzard was ready to fly, he quit his job and never looked back. Once the brothers recruited Mundi, the musical clique was complete. A Spanish Harlem native, the five-foot-two Mundi told writer Ruth Jacobs in 2014, “I met one of the original members [of Dr. Buzzard] in the waiting room of a massage parlor located in the former Commodore Hotel in Grand Central area of NYC. We got to talking politics and he invited me to audition for the band providing I pick up his tab. Next thing I knew, I was shaking my knees and wearing old clothes formerly owned by dead people.”
The Browder boys embraced miscegenation and made it a part of their art.
The vintage threads became the group’s sartorial signature. “I blame the cinema for my love of baggy trousers and two-toned shoes and fedoras and box-back jackets,” Darnell said. As a kid, his favorite Bronx movie houses were the Dover Theatre and Loews Paradise. “My idols were the 1940s and 1950s stars of the silver screen: Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, John Garfield, and Edward G. Robinson. I wanted to look like them and dress like them.”
Nevertheless, in the early years when the brothers were on a budget, Darnell and Browder had to improvise. “My brother discovered that the clothes we wore could be found in antique clothing stores in Manhattan,” Darnell said. “Stony and I invaded those stores and bought as much of those second-hand clothes as we could afford. Once the money started rolling in from Savannah Band royalties, I found a tailor who could make me the clothes that I loved. His name was John Reyle. He was a huge part of my life. I love clothes, but I’m not as obsessive these days.”
Dr. Buzzard auditioned for Atlantic and Arista but was dismissed. Supposedly Dr. Buzzard was also rejected by RCA Records, but Mottola used his star act Hall & Oates, who were already on the label, as leverage. “I tend to believe it because after the first album came out, RCA didn’t understand what was on that vinyl,” Darnell told writer Don Shewey in 1980. Their second single, “Cherchez la Femme,” became a smash disco hit that took them from New York City to the California television stages of The Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour and Dinah — hosted by Dinah Shore — where fellow guest Sean Connery held up the album cover and helped introduce the band. Strumming bass while dancing in a leg shaking Cab Calloway style, Darnell’s stage presence was magnetic.
The lifestyle Browder and Varnell once imagined was coming true.” Hoping to make their lives even more cinematic, the band relocated to California to record their ill-fated sophomore album Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Meets King Penett.
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“Punch drunk with success, the Savannah Band lived a life of excess in the Hollywood Hills by day, seeking out the low life by night,” Darnell wrote in 1984. However, all was not perfect in paradise. The brothers’ relationship began to fall apart when Darnell wanted to be more than lyricist and sideman. Fuelled by months of drama, ego clashes, and sibling rivalry, baby bro finally decided it was time to jet from Browder’s set.
“I know now that August left L.A. with several major life changes in mind,” Minsky said. “[He knew] that the time had come for him to channel his musical energy into more than the Savannah Band. He planned to use every contact the Savannah Band had accumulated to further his solo interests.” To make matters worse, after all the time and money, King Penett was a flop that, in Darenll’s words, “didn’t sell light.” RCA eventually dropped them. The Savannah Band was, according to a 1981 Mary Harron article, “branded as extravagant, temperamental, and impossible to manage.”
The following year they recorded their third album, James Monroe High School Presents Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington, for Elektra, but that too went nowhere. Although Dr. Buzzard was innovative, only their debut was able to penetrate the marketplace and the pop culture psyche. Darnell finally stepped away from the sidelines and Kid emerged into the spotlight. According to Carol Cooper, it didn’t help that Browder was also indulging heavily in drugs. “The atmospheric transition from the profligate disco era into the crack era did not do him any good,” Cooper said. “I used to hear stories about Stony in the studio, overspending because he couldn’t get the exact sound he wanted. Then later, as he was working on the last two album projects, his judgment addled to the point where he would tear apart a perfect mix and rebuild a track with none of the charm and coherence of what he’d scrapped. It was tragic. I think August was frugal and sober in the studio largely in reaction to Stony’s problems.”
‘He dressed like Cab Calloway every day — the hat, the zoot suit, the two-toned shoes.’
Darnell couldn’t agree more. “I learned at a very early stage with Dr. Buzzard, that the studio was no place for parties. Studio time was too expensive and guests were too much of a distraction,” he said. “When I think back on those days, I am shocked at how disciplined I actually was during those sessions: no alcohol, no drugs, and no orgies in the back room. What the hell was wrong with me?”
Initially Darnell thought of Kid Creole as a side project that would last as long as need be. “August was the loyal little brother for many years,” Cooper said. “Had Stony not had serious substance abuse issues I think he would have pulled out of his slump.” In August 1980, Darnell joined Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band on stage at the Ritz, in Manhattan, for a rare concert that was, according a Don Shewey review in the SoHo News, a disaster. It started late, the sound was bad, and the “male vocals sounded terrible, off-pitch, badly miked.” In a previous review, Shewey had written, “Darnell told me privately, ‘The Savannah Band has been in the eternal plane crash, and the pieces have been scattered far and wide.’”
Within weeks, the first Kid Creole album was in stores.
* * *
The stain of that bad Dr. Buzzard show must’ve stuck with August Darnell, because in their prime, Kid Creole and the Coconuts became one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. Ironically, it was at the Ritz, the same venue where his brother’s band flopped, where I saw them perform two years later. As can be heard on the recently released Live In Paris 1985, Kid Creole was a rhythmic force onstage that few bands could equal. They were playful but tight with a big sound that had a vibrant blissful circus energy that was hypnotic and additive.
Rehearsals for their tours were intense affairs, with Darnell renting out S.I.R. studios in New York for months at a time. Practice “took place every day from 10 to 10, even on Sunday,” he said. “Rehearsals came in waves: First wave equals the rhythm section; second wave equals add the horns; thirs wave equals Coconuts on their own; fourth wave equals vocals; fifth wave equals all together now.” Darnell had become a terrific bandleader, using all he’d subconsciously acquired from the time he was a teenager listening to the masters.
“My brother was the one who turned me on to Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey,” Darnell said. “I’ve admired them all. The Rat Pack guys, I’ve listened to every song they ever recorded at least 5,000 times. Maybe more. James Brown was my idol. I studied his live shows at the Apollo Theatre the way one would study Shakespeare, with respect, humility, and admiration. The ‘hardest working man in show business’ was a master showman. I learned so many tricks from watching those flawless shows. Every great band needs a great leader who is passionate about the music. The common thread that connects all great bandleaders is passion.”
‘When I think back on those days, I am shocked at how disciplined I actually was during those sessions: no alcohol, no drugs, and no orgies in the back room. What the hell was wrong with me?’
More than a few people in the audience dressed like the revue members they’d come to see and were dancing, singing, and caught up in the excitement of Kid Creole’s live performances. New York Times Lens Blog coeditor David Gonzalez caught their 1981 show quite by accident, but he was converted into a Creole fan from the moment he stepped into the Ritz one night in 1981. “The group released their second album Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places in June of that year” he recalled. “I was hanging out with some friends in Washington Square Park and we decided to walk over to the Ritz. I saw this scene on stage of the group in their bugged costumes playing next to fake palm trees and it just blew my mind. The level of showmanship was out of this world.
“August had stage presence and the lyrical width of Cole Porter,” Gonzalez continued. “Seeing the group onstage, they had obviously done their homework. The next day I bought Fresh Fruit and I was hooked. On a song like ‘In the Jungle’ he talked about issues of race and class [‘I don’t believe in propagation just to achieve café-au-laition / Don’t offer me emasculation I don’t believe in deprivation’] in a way that was totally captivating and true to his vision. He talked about miscegenation, but was also mixing up the music. The albums are great, but, back then the best way to experience Kid Creole was to see him.”
Kid Creole’s urbane sophistication won over audiences in New York City, the U.K., and other parts of Europe, but record sales were still weak. In 1981, Darnell decided that instead of working on a new Kid Creole album, his next project would be a solo album called Wise Guy. Considering that it was to be just him, the sound became less island riddims and more soulful, less cultural/social observer and more intimate. “I had asked August to make some songs that were more personal,” Zilkha said, “and you can hear that in ‘Imitation’ or ‘I’m a Wonderful Thing Baby.’ But I owned a lot of money to [original distributor] Island Records, so I sold the album to our distributor Sire Records as a new Kid Creole and the Coconuts record.”
The final product was called Tropical Gangsters in the U.K. and Canada, and Wise Guy in the United States. Although it would become the group’s biggest album, it also tore them apart. “At that point my biggest solo album was Alan Vega’s first solo album,” said Zikha, “which sold about 40,000, and then the Waitress single ‘I Know What Boys Like.’ August was totally capable of making hit records, he just didn’t want to.” Thinking himself in a desperate situation, Zilkha took two of the album’s best songs, “I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby” and “Stool Pigeon,” and gave them to more popular Chic producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers to mix at Electric Lady Studios. Trouble was, he never got Darnell’s permission and the tracks had already been mixed by the bandleader and Bob Blank.
In the end, Darnell was furious. When I asked Blank why Zilkha would do something so shady, he merely laughed and said, “Welcome to the music industry. Michael was a smart guy, but a victim of the times. Nile wasn’t the guy to do that, and August and Michael fought about it.” (According to Zilkha, “I took it to Nile because my record company was in a precarious situation financially. August spent so much money on Wise Guy, and Seymour [Stein, president of Sire Records, which released the album stateside] wouldn’t accept the album the way it was and withheld our advance, which we needed to pay our bills.”) In reality, that wasn’t Darnell’s only battle regarding Wise Guy. Coati Mundi, who’d been an essential ingredient in the group, was relegated to the sidelines, and he was pissed.
‘Every great band needs a great leader who is passionate about the music. The common thread that connects all great bandleaders is passion.’
“When business decisions came down I was set aside, and that disturbed me a lot,” Mundi told the New Musical Express in 1982 while the band was practicing for an upcoming tour. “Nobody told me until after the fact. Then they came to me and said I could contribute three tunes to the album. I said fine, and then it came down to one tune, and even that one tune that’s on there they felt it wasn’t in the concept of the album so they decided to put it on as an instrumental. And I thought that was a slap in my face, especially when nobody told me about any concepts or anything like that.” Coati continued to perform and record with the group, but the Wise Guy/Tropical Gangsters debacle left a bad taste that lingered for years. Darnell maintains they are still “comrades,” but when I contacted Coati for an interview he politely refused.
Released on May 10, 1982, Tropical Gangsters soared to the top of the charts in England, where the group was competing against Duran Duran, Bananarama, and the Jam. That same month they were featured on the cover of NME, minus Coati. Yet, after blessing Ze Records with their most sales and chart activity ever, the group’s manager worked hard to remove take Kid Creole and the Coconuts from the label. “Tommy Mottola had always wanted to take August away,” said Zilkha. “And him and Allen Grubman were able to get the group more money elsewhere. There was a lot I didn’t know about the business, I was just interested in making good records.”
Zilkha stepped away from the music business in 1984, but he claims he would get back in if he could make one more record with Darnell. “I would love to hear him do a stripped down soul protest album,” Zilkha said. “I talked to him about it, but he has no interest in doing that.” When Zilkha sold his energy business for more than a billion dollars in 1998, he returned the master recordings and publishing rights to all of his artists.
In addition to making a mad dash from the label, Darnell would soon depart from Blank Tape Studios and relocate to Electric Lady several blocks away. A few years prior to this break, in 1982, I once again went to the Ritz to see Kid Creole and the Coconuts perform. Standing a few feet away from the front of the stage, the Creoles jammed for two hours with their 13-piece band. Thirty-seven years later, the musical memories of that show are still intact and the specialness of Kid Creole and the Coconuts remains clear.
While some members of Darnell’s stylish posse began drifting away, the party wasn’t over. The next year they released Doppelganger, which was followed in 1985 by In Praise of Older Women and Other Crimes, featuring the wonderful single “Endicott,” a song about a do-right man who is the complete opposite of the rogue singer. In 1984, Darnell and the band appeared in Taylor Hackford’s neo-noir Against All Odds, where they performed “My Male Curiosity.” That same year, I saw Darnell in the lobby of the Loews State movie theatre on 45th and Broadway during a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s period picture The Cotton Club. “He looks like he just stepped out of the movie,” an usher said as Darnell zoot suit strutted through the lobby.
From the beginning Kid Creole and the Coconuts was a force. In the 1980s, their offbeat pop perfection combined with stylish threads and energetic stage performance would be an inspiration on Brit bands ABC and Duran Duran as well as the Time and Prince, especially in the film Under a Cherry Moon. In 1989 Prince contributed the single “The Sex of It” to the group’s seventh studio album, Private Waters In The Great Divide, which was released the following year. Decades later, we can see a bit of the Kid’s wordplay wit and flair in the works of Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose musicals In the Heights and Hamilton have much in common with Creole’s theatrical vibe. While Darnell never crafted a Broadway production, he did stage the televised musical There’s Something Wrong in Paradise on Granade Television in England in 1984. Written by Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura, the film costarred cult actress Karen Black.
‘August had stage presence and the lyrical width of Cole Porter.’
According to a 2011 Village Voice feature, “the growing interest in New York’s disco history via acts such as LCD Soundsystem, !!!, and Hercules and Love Affair has further prolonged interest” in the music of both Dr. Buzzard and Kid Creole. In fact, Hercules and Love Affair frontman Andy Butler contributed music, lyrics, and production to Darnell’s last studio album, the underrated 2011 disc I Wake Up Screaming. Five years later, in May 2016, Darnell’s musical Cherchez La Femme, written in collaboration with journalist and friend Vivien Goldman, premiered at La MaMa Theatre in New York City. “It’s a double time warp,” New York Times journalist Jon Pareles wrote. “The 2010s looking back on the 1980s looking back on the 1940s.”
Thirty-nine years after the release of their debut, the groundbreaking group are still remembered fondly by critics, with their work documented in Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980–1983, by Tim Lawrence (2016), and Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, by Peter Shapiro (2005). “I made so much dough and wasted so much dough,” Darnell said in 2011. “I bought houses and cars and made investments in clubs. I learned how quickly you can lose one million dollars. Thank God I wrote those songs — I could live off the royalties to Annie alone — because if I didn’t, I’d be in the poor house.” Meanwhile, Darnell is chilling in Sweden and recently launched his own label, 2C2C (Too Cool to Conga), with his frequent songwriting collaborator Peter Schott and wife Eva Tudor-Jones. Their first release was the futuristic sounding “Checkin’ My Colonies,” produced by Darnell’s sons Dario Darnell and Lorne Ashley, which was put out under the Kid Creole and the Coconuts name. None of the group’s original members were included in the project.
Although Kid Creole and the Coconuts were never a household name in America, the release of Live in Paris 1985 and their new single has reminded me of the group’s brilliance, importance, and the dent they made in the musical milieu of 1980s pop culture.
Michael A. Gonzales writes The Blacklist book column for Catapult. He has written for The Paris Review,The Village Voice, Pitchfork, New York magazine, and Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop edited by Vikki Tobak. A former hip-hop journalist, his articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Source, RapPages, Vibe, Ego Trip, XXL, Complex, and Mass Appeal. In addition, he is the co-author of Bring The Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991). Currently he is working on a hip-hop novel.
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