August Darnell personified ’80s pop culture, as larger-than-life Calypso bon vivant “Kid Creole,” leader of the band Kid Creole & The Coconuts. The 1980s were so grand, colorful, and over-the-top they were dubbed “The Big ’80s.” Now that era is set to return in the musical Cherchez La Femme at the iconic La Mama Theater in East Greenwich Village.
For August, it’s quite a homecoming celebration on many levels, both personally and professionally.
Editor’s note: Entertainment journalist Mark Bego first interviewed August Darnell 40 years ago when Darnell was part of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band in 1976. Here the pair of old friends discuss Darnell’s new theatrical offering, like the time has never passed.
The Music Behind August Darnell’s
Cherchez la Femme
When he first burst onto the music scene in 1976, Darnell was one-fifth of the legendary disco group, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Their retro ’40s big band meets disco debut album took the dance scene by storm and created the huge chart hit “Cherchez La Femme.”
August, brother Stony Browder, brassy lead singer Cory Daye, percussionist Andy Hernandez, and Micky Sevilla were nominated for a Grammy Award as Best New Artist.
Although they did not win, they captured the the hearts of fans around the world.
By the 1980s disco had faded from the charts, and music lovers were looking for something new. When Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band’s second and third albums failed to match their debut album’s appeal, August left and created a new band along with Andy Hernandez.
Kid Creole & The Coconuts was born, blending disco excitement with Calypso rhythms and instantly became a huge sensation on the New York City club scene.
An exciting string of albums, hit singles and a solid following came together quickly. The band’s hit songs including “Annie I’m Not Your Daddy,” “Stool Pigeon,” “Endicott” and the ever-modest “I’m a Wonderful Thing Baby.”
Since those days, Kid Creole & The Coconuts has morphed and changed bandmembers. August moved to Europe and now divides his time between Sweden and Hawaii. While kicking around ideas with a writer friend, Vivien Goldman, August hit upon the idea of turning his music into a full-blown theater piece.
The Improper caught up with August and he explained his “lifelong dream” of writing and staging his own musical in a wide-ranging Q&A.
The inspiration came from Darnell’s long-running fascination with Hollywood movie musicals.
TheImproper: You divide your time between Sweden and Hawaii and now your hometown of New York City. Talk about all over the map!
AUGUST: “I know! We call that ‘extremism.’ But New York City’s got me back now for at least three months, because I am putting this musical together. ‘My lifelong dream!’”
IM: This is fabulous! So this has been a lifelong dream of yours, to do a play—a musical?
AUGUST: “Oh man, yeah! I’ve been talking about this for so long. I had a good relationship with Joseph Papp [1921-1991] before he passed away. He had offered me a spot at his theater—The Public Theater—for a musical. But in those days, I was so caught up with the Kid Creole touring thing, I passed up on it, and we just kept touring and making records. But, it’s been a dream for a long time, man.”
IM: So, how did this come about that now is the time you have chosen to do this? Were you watching Sting [The Last Ship], and Elton John [The Lion King / Aida], and ABBA [Mama Mia], and all these people having musicals on Broadway? Was that an inspiration?”
AUGUST: “Yeah! Watching them and getting pissed off! So basically I just got burnt out doing the road tours for Kid Creole & The Coconuts, the plane rides and the hotels, and the bad food and all the shitty sound checks. I just got burned out on it. I am still doing the shows, but I am not liking it as much as I used to. So I figured that I had to make this trip across the bridge from pop music into the theater while I still had my wits about me.
So I figured the time was ‘now or never.’ And then I got very lucky because I met a gentleman, Julius Hollingsworth, who said he had a great relationship with the La Mama Theater. So he brought me down there, and the rest is history. You know how difficult it is to get a space in New York? So, I got very lucky with that, that this gentleman brought me into La Mama. Then we did a ‘staged reading’ of it last year and La Mama liked it, and that’s why we are now where we are.”
IM: Now, you wrote this with a collaborator: Vivian Goldman?
AUGUST: “Yes, Vivian Goldman, who is famous for writing those biographies of Bob Marley, of course [“Bob Marley: Soul Rebel-Natural Mystic,” 1981]. She did an interview with me; we are talking about 100 years ago. She interviewed me for a British magazine called NME [New Musical Express], and we became good friends. Ooooh my, this was the beginning of the Kid Creole years, back in 1982 she interviewed me.
And we stayed in touch all the while, and then we just had this lark four years ago; we said, ‘Hey why don’t we write a musical?’ That’s how long it’s been, four years ago. We started writing a musical in my home in Sweden, and it was called at that time, I’m a Wonderful Thing Baby. We changed it recently to Cherchez La Femme. Vivian and I have been friends for so long, and she’s a great writer.”
IM: So I see the music is by you and Stony. Is it mainly music from the Dr. Buzzard days?
AUGUST: “Yeah, a lot of it is from the Dr. Buzzard days. You know my brother, [Stony Browder] passed away [in 2001], so this is another tribute to him; a way of paying tribute to his music which has always meant so much to me. Without Stony, I wouldn’t have even been in the music business. This is my nod to him. A lot of the music is from the Dr. Buzzard era, but a lot of them are Kid Creole classics also. We have ‘Stool Pigeon’ of course, and ‘Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy,’ and all those perennials. But some of the songs the fans are going to love, because they have never heard before. I wrote new music for the musical also.”
IM: “Can you give me some sort of a synopsis of the musical? When does it take place? Where is it set?”
AUGUST: “It is set in New York City, and in Haiti, in the Caribbean and New York. It is set in 1984, and there are flashbacks that go to 1982. But it pokes fun at the lifestyle in New York in the 1980s, and we have fun with the Mudd Club references, and Glenn O’Brien references and Anita Sarko references, and Arthur Weinstein references, and all of these 1984 references are in there.”
It is about a band leader whose name is Caufy Keeps, based roughly on a guy named August Darnell. And Caufy Keeps has this band, and they have just gotten their first record, and instead of him going on the tour that they are booked on, he decides to fly off to Haiti. He is having a rift with his girlfriend, so he goes off to Haiti to find his girl and he pisses off his band members, he pisses off his background singers, he pisses off his best buddy, because they’ve all failed this tour just because of his romantic escapades. That is basically the story in a nutshell.”
“It’s great fun, and it’s got great choreography as well because of the young lady who did all of the choreography for Pitch Perfect. She’s fantastic, and her name is Kyndra Reevy. And she happens to be the daughter of my percussion player, Bongo Eddie, who was with me for 25 years on the road, and he sadly passed away in January. So, his daughter’s done the choreography. And that’s another tribute to someone who’s really, really, really a part of my life.”
IM: That is great that it’s got new elements and old elements and pays tribute to so many people you’ve worked with, I think that’s excellent.
AUGUST: “And, you know my love of musicals goes back to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, all the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, and Guys & Dolls, and all that stuff; I grew up loving that stuff!”
IM: A lot of that was kind of an influence for Kid Creole & Coconuts wasn’t it? Those kind of Flying Down to Rio sort of things?”
AUGUST: “Yes, a hundred percent, a hundred percent! I always was a frustrated actor, because I majored in drama at Hofstra University, so I was always frustrated actor. So when I created ‘Kid Creole’ it was merely to create a vehicle, an alter ego so that I could act on stage. But, I loved all those musicals, so finally I have the chance to give many nods to those musicals in this piece also, with a little nod and wink to Esther Williams movies, and to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stuff, and all of that great stuff that I grew up watching.”
IM: “You must be very excited about watching this come together, knowing you’ve got like a month now, or a month and a half until it opens. A countdown!”
AUGUST: “The countdown is definitely on! For the last seven or eight days, we’ve been holding auditions, and I feel like I am in ‘X-Factor,’ sitting behind a table, watching all these talented people come in, singing their hearts out, dancing for us. We’ve got such a great cast together. It’s going to be amazing!”
IM: I read on the internet, that you run a martini bar in Maui? I love that!
AUGUST: My wife and I bought this bar in Maui called Ambrosia and it is fantastic. It is a small little intimate joint, and we have so much fun there. Sometimes I actually am the D.J. in this place, and I play all of my favorite songs. And people love it! They come in there, we got a great following.”
Cherchez La Femme is set to open on May 23 at the iconic La Mama Theater in East Greenwich Village. Check out the theater here at La Mama online.
(Editor’s note: Entertainment journalist Mark Bego first interviewed August Darnell 40 years ago when Darnell was part of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band in 1976. Here the pair of old friends discuss Darnell’s new theatrical offering, like the time has never passed.)