The 1976 debut record by Dr. Buzzard's Orginal Savannah Band created quite a stir because it restored some of the glamor to urban living for the minority groups who had to live there. Composer Stony Browder and lyricist August Darnell hit on an ingenious strategy: They reached back to the '40s and picked up the continuity of urban glamor where it had broken off. Thus their songs are filled with big-hand swing textures and lyrical evocations of MGM musicals. The songs were greatly helped by vocalist Cory Daye, who mixed Billie Holiday's sauciness with Marlene Dietrich's sultriness.
The glimmering evocation of the past was firmly anchored to the urgencies of the present. Underneath Browder's gorgeous swing charts, Darnell played the dirty bass of modern funk. Drummer Mickey Sevilla and vibist Andy Hernandez added Latin rhythms and accents. And Darnell's lyrics were a beguiling mix of neon nightclub glamor and bare-bulb apartment realism.
Dr. Buzzard had an immediate hit with "Cherchez la Femme" and were the darlings of the industry. Their 1977 follow-up album, "Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band Meets King Penett," was even more subtle and adventurous. Unfortunately, the songs were to subtle and adventurous for the disco merchandisers of black dance music. The record died.
This past winter Dr. Buzzard resurfaced on a new label with a new record, "James Monroe H.S. Presents Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington" (Elektra 6E-218). In addition, Cory Daye has released her first solo album, "Cory and Me" (New York International BXL 1-3408), and Agust Darnell wrote and produced Cristina Monet's debut album, "Christina" (ZE ZEA 3307).
The five members of Dr. Buzzard have been together since they met at James Monroe High School in the Bronx. On their new record they still obviously relish the city life. "New York at Dawn" is about the city parties that go on till morning. The reeds sway dreamily while the horns punch expectantly. Darnell captures the romance of the hour as "cigarettes and cool coquettes/And disconnected phones." Daye swoons on the chorus and hums with thorough statisfaction between verses.
Stony Browder captures the cosmopolitan richness of a big city on the record as he mixes black, white and Latin musics from the '40s, '60s and '70s. "Call Me" makes the unlikely ingredients of Beach Boys harmonies, Latin rhumba, synthesizer effects and dixieland clarinet blend seamlessly. Browder composes so imaginatively that the "chinka-chinka" beat that underlies almost every cut is relegated to the subconscious. One can dance to these songs with the brain going numb.
Darnell is writing with more economy and irony than ever. Lines like "You powder up my nose" can be taken several different ways. His story for "The Seven Year Itch" is a compressed screenplay fitted to Browder's compressed soundtrack. Couplets like "I held the rain and kept you dry/Bought you haberdash to keep you lookin' fine" are the kind of romantic poetry that rarely makes it into dance songs.
Darnell displays similar wit in writing both the music and words for five of the six songs on "Cristina." Cristina Monet is apparently a rich dilettante who has dabbled in writing, theater and music, much to the amusement of Manhattan's bohemian crowd. Monet herself is no more than a breathy chanteuse in the tradition of Nico. Darnell supplies the musical context for Monet's mystic posturings much as the Velvet Underground once did for Nico.
Darnell attempts a strange hybrid of disco and new wave -- or funk and punk -- and fares much better than the acclaimed James Chance. The arrangements by Dr. Buzzard's Andy Hernandez avoid the repetitive superficiality of most disco. Instead he goes for the aggressive punch of punk and the thick horn and vocal layers of funk. Monet makes very bizarre party music when she icily delivers Darnell lines like: "Everytime I want to kiss/You put a scissor between your lips."
Cory Daye's solo record, by contrast, tilts heavily toward the disco beat.None of her Buzzard Band Colleagues are invvolved at all on "Cory and Me." Instead the album's nine cuts are all produced and co-written by Sandy Linzer, who produced the first Buzzard album. The drastic simplification of the music and lyrics is immediately obvious. Nonetheless, "Cory and Me" is still intoxicating dance music.
Considerable bitterness about their mishandled career comes through on the new Dr. Buzzard record. "Once There Was a Colored Girl" is a sweet ditty with an acidic message, sort of a Kurt Weill melody with Bertholt Brecht lyrics. "It's about all creative bands who have problems with their record companies," Browder has said. "It's aimed at the world's neo-Nazi bosses."
On "Italiano," the album-closer, Dr. Buzzard casts itself as an Italian movie star who went from nowhere to the top and back to nowhere. It's a modern urban parable, full of very real injustice and very energetic hope. "How was I to know," Daye croons, "I'd get out of hand/So long, castles and limousines/Big shots say I'm no good no more, dummies/Understand: I'm better than before, honeys." Dr. Buzzard is better than ever.