It's always tough being ahead of your time, even if you get there by reaching into the past and pulling your shtick from the archives. The swing movement jitterbugging across the country (and only recently embraced by the media) may be seen by many as a retro fad, but to the members of Royal Crown Revue, undisputed pioneers of the revival, the retro tag is an undeserved slam, and the music is no fad.
Though still largely unknown to the multitudes, this Los Angeles-based group has been together for nine years and has just released its fourth album, The Contender. Furthermore, Royal Crown's seven members, often referred to as the Johnny Appleseeds of this again-hip genre, began playing their horn-heavy tunes when Axl Rose (remember him?) was still king of radio. They didn't take that route imagining it would give them a shot at a record deal. In fact they would have been laughed out of nearly every major-label office on the planet. They did it because, nearly ten years before the rest of America caught wind of this thing called swing, they were already deeply in love with the music.
Sure the band learned its chops from the legendary likes of Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, and Louis Jordan (whom many credit as the true progenitors of rock and roll), but as far as guitarist James Achor is concerned, Royal Crown Revue is its own animal. "We're not a nostalgia act," he emphasizes. "We're just trying to be who we are. We didn't live in the Forties, so we can't try to re-create them. We don't know what it was like. We can only make our screwed-up hybrid of it, based on the fact that we've lived through 50 years of other music since Louis Jordan. We don't deny that. We're not looking to be some link to the past. We don't swing like Duke Ellington; we're just Royal Crown Revue."
The Royal Crown Revue heard on The Contender is, in fact, one punchy bunch of musical hooligans, perfectly willing to stretch the boundaries of the style Prima helped define in 1956 with "Jump, Jive, an' Wail." The album's title track, featuring Achor's reverb-drenched guitar, sounds more Sixties surf than Forties big band. Meanwhile the horn section snorts and snarls, throws in a bridge reminiscent of some long-forgotten spaghetti Western, and emphasizes the bad-boy boasts of lead vocalist Eddie Nichols as he sneeringly rants about his pugilistic abilities.
"Walkin' Like Brando" begins with a musical feint: An unhurried intro that sounds like a French pop ballad abruptly gives way to an up-tempo celebration of Hollywood toughs. Continuing the back-alley-brawl imagery, "Zip Gun Bop (Reloaded)," has Nichols warning some mug that he's about to contract a "bad case of lead poisoning." The "Reloaded" version of "Zip Gun Bop" revives one of Royal Crown Revue's signature tunes, which the band has chosen for some reason to record on three of its four albums.
Perhaps that's because the song so neatly captures the group's gangster sensibilities. While radio faves Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Coca-Cola spokesmen Big Bad Voodoo Daddy may lyrically expound the joys of drinking and dancing, and while Squirrel Nut Zippers may tilt toward jocund New Orleans Dixieland, and while ex-Stray Cat Brian Setzer leads his seventeen-piece orchestra through mostly love-struck musical terrain, Royal Crown Revue typically depicts life as seen from a somewhat dangerous street corner.
Characters in the musical vignettes include all manner of scoundrels, flimflam artists, and heat-packin' lowlifes. Figures such as Mugsy, Bennie the Shoe, and "a Cuban cat named Geronimo" populate Nichols's songs, along with quaint idioms such as "peepers," "dough," and "knucklehead." He affects a vocal crustiness that suggests he's about to unleash a couple of left jabs and a right hook at any moment. Even the horns sound pissed off.
"Zip Gun Bop" should probably be a hit, but big-city radio programmers have not seen fit to add it to their playlists. Consequently the band principally responsible for a musical tidal wave (Royal Crown has been touring since the early Nineties) has yet to receive the public acclaim that some of their imitators have. Achor accepts the ignominy of that oversight with only a trace of bitterness.
"The scene and a lot of the bands that are becoming successful are very Johnny-come-lately," he says. "And right now there's more Johnny-come-latelies than ever, which is good, because all the bands are pretty damn good. And it's good for the sake of preserving the only true American art form [jazz, on which most swing is based]. But it's a strange place for us to stand after spearheading it for so long. And there are people out there who have whatever swing record but don't know who the hell we are. Or there are the people who have suddenly become complete authorities on swing in the past year. It's kind of a funny thing."
Not so funny to Achor is the way the music industry -- the entire pop culture machine, for that matter -- will ignore a style for years, then suddenly reverse course and saturate the market with it, even if the innovators are somehow overlooked.
"It's sort of strange to see how things blow up overnight," Achor observes. "The hardest thing for us, and for the public too, is that they're only hearing two singles on the radio [Cherry Poppin' Daddies' "Zoot Suit Riot" and the Brian Setzer Orchestra's version of Prima's "Jump, Jive an' Wail"], so they have this very limited view of what's going on. Both of those singles are fine, but they don't have anything to say about what I do, except that I'm being lumped into this pile. It's kind of weird the way this thing is going. If the people who have the power aren't careful, they're going to sell all the credibility out of it and screw themselves in the long run."
Also damaging to the music's integrity, according to Achor, is the media's emphasis on the clothing associated with swing instead of on the music itself. He admits that at one time several years ago he was too infatuated with the allure of the zoot suit, the oversize, double-breasted ensemble favored by many in the scene. Along with a collection of vintage hollow-body guitars, Achor spent plenty on vintage clothing, but he's mostly over that now.
"For each person it's a different thing," he says. "There are people who dress to the hilt and want to learn all the dance steps, and then there are people who just enjoy it on the level of the music. I guess the biggest drag for me in the popularity of it is that they're trying too hard to represent it with the style of the clothing and not the music. For me as a lover of music and a musician, music comes above all of that. It shouldn't matter what we wear."
Part of the reason the band stood out and eventually scored a record deal with Warner Bros., however, was the fact that they not only sounded but looked so different from their contemporaries. But they didn't plan that in some career strategy session. The elegant manner of dress, like their involvement with the music, evolved naturally.
Achor met vocalist Nichols in Los Angeles in the late Eighties. Back then they dressed appropriately for their rockabilly gigs as the Rockamatics. The two met tenor saxman Mando Dorame through tattoo artist Mark Mahoney (who has provided voice-overs on several Royal Crown tracks and appears in the video for "Barflies at the Beach"). Dorame led Achor and Nichols into the horn-laden world of early R&B; eventually their combined musical interests pointed toward swing.
By 1991 Royal Crown Revue had added Mark Stern on drums, Jamie Stern on alto sax, Bill Ungerman on baritone sax, and Stan Watkins on trumpet, and had released Kings of Gangster Bop on the Better Youth Organization label. The band continued a steady performance schedule around L.A. and began to take their show on the road, including frequent trips to San Francisco.
In 1993 they caught the ear of a Hollywood director who wrote them into the script of Jim Carrey's The Mask. During the filming of that comic thriller, the band took on a weekly gig at the Derby, a Los Angeles nightspot they helped transform from a quiet corner bar into a popular swing club. Royal Crown shows soon became a hot ticket, attracting the attention of producer Ted Templeman, who took the band to Warner Bros. Templeman produced the group's 1995 major-label debut, Mugsy's Move (Scott Steen, Daniel Glass, and Veikko Lepisto had taken over trumpet, drums, and bass, respectively) and this year's The Contender. In 1997 the band issued a self-produced live album, Caught in the Act.
Royal Crown Revue was unique when it first began to tour. "We spent a lot of years laying the groundwork for this thing before we ever even ran across another band that did anything similar," Achor recalls. And largely owing to their hard work, today they have plenty of company on the road.
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Still, competition from up-and-comers doesn't much worry Achor. Neither does the thought that his band may never have a hit single. And he isn't too concerned about career longevity. He never figured the genre would have received so much attention, but he is unhappy about misguided industry meddling into what might otherwise have been a natural phenomenon.
"I think the scene is not drawing some of the cooler kids any more because they think it's square," he muses. "That's the way it's being portrayed in the media. Anything that gets this big becomes very superficial, though. So what are you going to do?"
Royal Crown Revue performs Sunday, November 8, at the Carefree Theatre, 2000 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach; 561-833-7305. Doors open at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $23.75.