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Following the paths of big band leaders like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s brassy, upbeat sound has been embraced both by older fans nostalgic for the music of their youth and by legions of younger fans enamored of the elegance and sophistication of the Big Band era. They have performed at the Billboard Music Awards, the White House and at the halftimes of both the Super Bowl and the Orange Bowl. The band’s videos are regularly featured on MTV and VH1 and they have performed on numerous television shows such as “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Live with Regis” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
“I’ve never thought of our music as retro,” says singer-songwriter-guitarist Scotty Morris, leader of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the neo-swing little Big Band that helped define the lounge scene as it was featured in the hit film Swingers. “We’re an alternative to retro. We’re high-octane nitro jive – loud, wild, total edge. Back in the Forties, swing was punk rock, the black juke joint music white guys heard and said, ‘This is swingin’.” What we do is wild and swingin’, Forties music with a Nineties twist. We’re as influenced by Black Flag as Count Basie.”
In 1995 Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, decked out in pinstriped suits, fedora hats and spectator shoes, was already a staple on the underground Hollywood club scene when actor friend Jon Favreau, who hung out at the band’s Wednesday night appearances at the Derby, told Morris, “I wrote a movie. Are you interested in being in it?” Morris read the script, which, as he puts it, “was very much the sort of life we were all living. So we figured let’s just do this cool movie with our friends. We had no idea it would do what it did.”
A year later, after the band had also appeared on the Fox television series Party of Five (and its Music From Party Of Five soundtrack album), Swingers was released. Thanks to its scene-stealing performance and the showcasing of three songs on the soundtrack album, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was tagged as one of the hottest, hippest, coolest bands around. Says Morris: “Good music is not a novelty. Yes, the swing scene is a scene, but great bands can emerge from scenes. This scene may come and go but this band has come to stay.”
The first release for the Coolsville label, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, was the band’s long-awaited major label album debut. Eleven of the twelve tracks are originals, including two songs (“You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight” and “Go Daddy-O”) heard on the Swingers soundtrack album. The sole outside composition is of the Cab Calloway classic “Minnie the Moocher.” Produced by Brad Benedict and Michael Frondelli, and Morris, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was recorded at the Capitol Records Tower in legendary studio B, where greats such as Louis Prima and Nat “King” Cole once toiled. Their major label debut has sold an astounding 1.2 million copies to date and tracks from the record have been used in countless television programs and feature films. The band’s second major label release, Big and Bad features 10 more original tracks to go along with their cool cover of the Jungle Book Theme “I Wanna Be Like You” and their rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Old McDonald.”
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was one of the pioneers of the swing revival but Swingers, says Morris, indeed changed everything. In the almost two years prior to the film’s premiere, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy would play the Derby on Wednesday then hit the road Thursday through Monday. “The scene was really retro and underground. Guys didn’t just grease their hair and wear suits and fedoras for the show; they dressed like that all the time, to the nines. But when Swingers hit, the crowds became more diverse and the average everyday person was coming out to see us everywhere from all-ages clubs to the ‘meat markets’ and full-on disco clubs.”
Morris couldn’t have imagined such widespread acceptance when, dissatisfied and jaded by life as a young Los Angeles studio guitarist, he decided to launch a three-piece swing combo in 1989. “I was a hired gun playing anything and everything, from punk to country. I was disenchanted and wanted to do what I felt in my soul. I had started out playing trumpet and loved Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, the wild guys, the early primitive stuff, that Big Band mambo I heard while growing up, when people first started dancing in the aisles, before Big Band became polished and clean and tame. I just wanted to play and have fun and bring something different.”
The trio, including drummer Kurt Sodergren, performed everywhere from college clubs to cheap dives in the Ventura-Santa Barbara area. Soon after, Morris tapped Dirk Shumaker on string bass and a couple of surf buddies, including Andy Rowley on saxophone, to add horns. The audience response? “At the time, there was nothing like this going on at all. I mean, we used to open with the theme from ‘Get Smart’ and see their mouths drop open. I was amazed people were digging what we wanted to play.”
By 1992, the band was officially dubbed Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. “I went to an Albert Collins concert and he so blew me away that I had to ask him for his autograph. He signed my ticket: ‘To the big bad voodoo daddy.’ I thought that was the coolest thing ever, and the coolest name.” It was also the title of the group’s first album, self-produced and distributed via indie distributor Hep Cat in 1993. “Immediately, we knew something was up. We printed 2,000 copies and they sold out in a week, just in our home area. The next week we printed another 1,000, and they sold out in a week too. So we took our show on the road, from San Diego to San Francisco. It was only then that we saw anyone swing dancing to this music and found out there even was a ‘scene’.”
Before Big Bad Voodoo Daddy took up residence at the Derby for 18 months beginning in 1995, Morris knew it was time for a bigger-sounding band. Glen “The Kid” Marhevka replaced the former trumpet player and Karl Hunter came aboard on saxophone and clarinet. Also joining was pianist Josh Levy, who had played in a jazz band, which recently won the John Coltrane Trio competition. All of the bandmasters are between the ages of 25 and 33. A second self-produced album, “Whatchu’ Want For Christmas,” was released later in 1995.
Since Swingers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has performed more than 450 concerts on stages across North America. As testament to its cutting edge attitude, as well as its class and stylishness, the band has also been called upon to perform at some of the major entertainment event behind-the-scenes parties, from Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s New Year’s Eve party to the Billboard Awards to the premieres for The Godfather, Titanic, and As Good as It Gets, from the opening of the art world’s Getty Center to halftime at the 1999 Super Bowl and Orange Bowl and the 2000 Playboy Jazz Festival. Additionally, the band performed 4 songs in an episode of Ally McBeal in 1999 and was the house band for the ESPN Espy Awards in 1999 and 2000.
“For me, music is music,” says Morris. “I just happen to be writing in the style of Forties swing. There aren’t any rules and I never questioned what my instincts told me. We just went for it, and it’s felt right from day one. Everyone digs this music. This music is timeless.”
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy isn’t yesterday; it’s both today and tomorrow.