In the late 1980s studio guitarist Scotty Morris decided he was unhappy as a studio guitarist, and that it was high time he did something about it. With a couple of fellow musicians he formed his own band playing a mix of jazz, blues and swing. Watch out, Southern California, here comes Big Bad Voodoo Daddy!
Swing was quite popular in the 1930s and 40s, heard in dance halls across the US. Also known as 'big band', swing's major defining characteristic is horns, specifically trumpets, trombones and saxophones. A swing band or big band would include several horns, as well as a rhythm section including some combination of guitar, drums, upright bass and piano.
Many people consider Louis Armstrong to be the first swing musician, defining the beginning of an era when he joined Benny Goodman's Orchestra in 1935. Other major swing artists include Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
Retro swing began gathering a following in the early 1990s, mostly in the Los Angeles area. Two major events helped bring the music to the attention of the rest of the country. The first was when Brian Setzer, who had enjoyed a nice run of fame as the front man for the Stray Cats during the 1980s, went on to front his own big band, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, after the Stray Cats disbanded. The other event was the 1996 independent film Swingers which featured a short set by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, thrusting them and their music in the national spotlight.
King of Swing
Back to Scotty Morris, who, in his disenchanted state, began forming what would become one of the best bands of retro swing. First to join the roster was drummer Kurt Sondergren, and the rest of the regular line up would eventually include Andy Rowley and Karl Hunter on saxophones, Glen 'the Kid' Marhevka on trumpet, Joshua Levy on piano and Dirk Shumaker on upright bass.
Scotty is, of course, the band leader and obviously plays guitar, but he also provides most of the band's vocals and does virtually all of the songwriting.
Early on, before swing had really made a comeback, the band would get gigs by being somewhat vague about what they played. Club owners couldn't deny the appeal they held, and their following quickly grew. In 1994 they released their first self-titled album on an independent label. It was a major success in its local market, selling well enough to draw the attention of major label Capitol, who signed them in 1998.
Capitol almost immediately released their first album for national distribution, also self-titled but not the same as their first release. For the next several years they toured almost constantly. In 2001 they started touring Europe as well, and beyond. They became one of the most successful bands of the swing revival.
Given the volume of classic swing material that would be ripe for a fresh 90s twist, much of the retro swing genre features original music. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is no exception, and Scotty Morris has penned a number of hits and fan favourites.
Their first independent release featured 'King of Swing' which is light on vocals and heavy on sax. The song was one of three that was also featured on their first release for Capitol, which also included 'Go Daddy-O', another sax special, and a worthy cover of Cab Calloway's 'Minnie the Moocher'. Their third album This Beautiful Life was released in 1999 and was notable for 'Big Time Operator' and a lively version of 'I Wanna Be Like You' from Walt Disney's The Jungle Book.
It was four years before their next release, Save My Soul, came out in 2003. This album was inspired by, was written in and is heavily reminiscent of New Orleans. Standouts from this album include the title track, 'You Know You Wrong' and 'Zig Zaggety Woop Woop'.
In 2004 a live album was finally released, which included a DVD for the benefit of those fans who hadn't made it to a show yet, or for the delight of those who had. A few months later the band also released a Christmas album, Everything You Want For Christmas, very nearly delivering on the title. Along with some jazzy standards like 'Jingle Bells' and 'Blue Christmas' are the originals 'Rockabilly Christmas' and 'Christmastime in Tinsel Town', among others. There is also a right snazzy version of 'Mr Heatmiser', which many Americans might recall from the Christmas television special The Year Without Santa Claus1.
Mr Pinstripe Suit
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy not only sounds like swing, but they look the part, too. Zoot suits, pinstripes, fedoras, wide ties and spectator shoes2, they have the look. And the look doesn't stop there, oftentimes it keeps on going right out into the audience, many of whom dress for the show. Should you have the privilege to attend, don't feel obligated to follow this - there are plenty of plain Janes around as well.
The band continues to tour year-round, in their own words '...it's a big world out there and we try to cover as much of it, as often as we can!' A live show is like being invited to the best party in town. There's a lot of energy on stage, and the band has as much fun as the audience, whose ages range from young children all the way up to octogenarians.
There are usually a few extra musicians with the band on tour, perhaps a trombonist and an extra trumpeter. The band has a lot of fun on stage and it's evident that they still enjoy what they do. At most shows they try to come out for a meet-and-greet with the audience after the show, so stick around, buy a CD and get an autograph.
Hey there now friends, it's time to go
But we'll return and do another show
When we come back, drop in and say 'hi'
So long, farewell, baby bye bye
-The Goodbye Song from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
and the end of each show.