Longform

A Man Out of Time

Page 5 of 9

The show would become the immensely popular and widely syndicated ¨Que Pasa, U.S.A.? In addition to formulating the original concept for the show, Britt came up with the title and the theme song, for which he was paid just enough money to purchase a Fender Rhodes piano. Britt was hired on as part of the show's staff but quit after the first episode as a result of -- you guessed it -- creative differences. Britt thought the show should aim for Norman Lear-style humor with some sociopolitical impact; his superiors opted instead for simpler yuks and lots of slapstick.

A spate of jobs at Channel 23 and Channel 51, another Spanish-language station, ensued. Britt provided voice-overs, ran cameras and sound equipment, and even found himself anchoring the news in Spanish. After Britt produced seventeen episodes of a musical-variety show featuring Willy Chirino (and probably partially because of his exposure to Chirino), the music bug bit Dennis again. He chucked TV for the second time, packed up his Fender Rhodes, and moved to Philadelphia.

Ensconced in a garage recording studio in the City of Brotherly Love, Britt honed his chops, practicing religiously and recording anybody who could play, regardless of their ability to pay. "We ran into some brothers downtown, they were the shit," Britt recollects. "We recorded everything -- punk, jazz, reggae. It was a real community recording studio. Guys would walk in, no equipment. There was this little kid, he was stuttering. Little brother didn't know from theory. Every instrument he picked up -- you'd give him a Casio or a guitar -- he was incredible. Or you'd see some of the brothers slappin' that bass, you would never forget it."

Through the studio Britt met jazz flutist-saxophonist Marc Berner, and keyboardist Michael Richards, who, along with Britt's percussionist brother-in-law, Tavo Muller, formed the band that eventually would become Watchdog. "The band name was Raza Mundo. World Race," Britt elaborates. "We had Muslims, Rastas, Jewish cats, Italian guys, two Cubans, and an African-American guy who claimed to be a Native American tribesman.

"When things are supposed to happen, boom! They happen," Britt asserts. "We had gotten some money together to record, and I came down to Miami to check out a few studios. There was this place in the Grove, they practically laughed us out. We didn't see anything we liked or could afford, so we decided to stay in Philly for the time being. A year later I get this call from a lawyer friend of mine in the Grove. He heard I might be looking for a recording studio and he knows of this place that's up for sale because the owners got busted for drugs. He wants to know if I'd be interested in renting the place if he buys it. He takes me over to look at the studio and I can't believe my eyes. It's the same one they laughed us out of a year before. Fate! The place is empty except for the equipment -- grand piano, eight-track, two-track -- plus central a/c, house in front. I say, 'What's the deal?' He says, '$1000 a month.' It was practically handed to us."

So Watchdog relocated to Miami, enjoying almost unprecedented local popularity in the mid-Eighties. "I thought they were gonna make it big," recalls Patrick Gleber, owner-manager of Tobacco Road, where Watchdog first began attracting crowds in 1984. Then as now the Road was a two-story cabaret. Watchdog played its "troparock" upstairs, Iko-Iko belted out the blues downstairs. "That was the heyday for Tobacco Road as far as live music was concerned," Gleber adds. "[They] were great. I remember conga lines, lots of dancing. They had fun. Good-looking guys doing good music and attracting a good-looking crowd. Kind of like Nil Lara today."

"We ruled," Britt flatly states of Watchdog's initial six-month tenure at the Road. "I never use that word, but we ruled there. [Owners] Pat [Gleber] and Kevin [Rusk] gave us the room for as long as we wanted. I think that's the only time in my career when I had lines of people outside the door. We were a party band. We could give you a calypso, a reggae, a pop rocker, a ska. People were dancing everywhere."

But their newfound popularity went to their heads. "We got snotty, man," Britt admits. "When they showed us around Coco Loco's [a Mexican restaurant adjacent to the Coconut Grove Playhouse], the place was huge. We thought we could bring the whole crowd from Tobacco Road. Boy, did we learn a lesson. First of all, at the Road you also had Iko-Iko downstairs, and man, they could bite your head off. They were great back then. But we also discovered that not only do people come to see the band, they come to be in an environment. It takes two to tango. Put a great band in a place with the wrong atmosphere, fans wonder what's going on. Your partner, the room, stinks. Too much light, too many mirrors, bad sight lines, not cozy. We played there [Coco Loco's] a year and a half. Eventually we got it packed. But it was never Tobacco Road."

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony