Advertisement

That Swing Thing

Pamela Kramer is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

Editor’s note: Pop culture is difficult to grasp. Finding the source of a craze and tracing its arc through the masses is a bit like discovering the origins of the universe. The revival of swing dancing and music is an exception. Perhaps because the form itself sprouted seven decades ago, a reporter with enough curiosity and energy can document its 1980s rebirth and rise to the phenomenal popularity it enjoys today. Here follows the neo-swing big bang:

*

Early to mid-1980s--Gumshoe dancers from the United States and abroad track down original dancers from 1930s and ‘40s movies to learn and preserve their authentic swing steps. The groups will launch annual dance camps, which plant the seeds for swing dance communities in countries including Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Canada, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan.

*

Advertisement

1986--The Pasadena Ballroom Dance Assn. “finds” Frankie Manning, an original member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dance troupe, working in a New York post office. He now teaches dance around the world and is something of a demigod in the swing dance scene.

*

1989--L.A.'s Royal Crown Revue launches its neo-swing sound.

*

Advertisement

June 1989--Club Deluxe opens its Art Deco doors and becomes San Francisco’s first nightly swing venue. The Deluxe and Bimbo’s 365 Club, a San Francsico institution, and, later, the Hi-Ball Lounge and the Cafe Du Nord, provide an environment in which the neo-swing bands--and audiences--can grow.

*

December 1992--Brian Setzer, who enjoys a large rockabilly following, brings out the Brian Setzer Orchestra and a new swing-style sound. “Setzer had a big impact because he played to such huge audiences,” says V. Vale, author of “Swing! The New Retro Renaissance.”

*

April 1993--The Derby opens in Los Feliz, becoming the first L.A. club to offer live swing music and dancing nightly. It will spawn the likes of RCR and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, provide inspiration for the milestone 1996 movie “Swingers” and set the stage for more venues offering swing nights.

*

1993--The film “Swing Kids” opens and, while not a smash at the box office, develops a cult following among people fascinated with its wild jitterbug scenes.

*

Advertisement

March 1994--The Flyin’ Lindy Hoppers descend on Ventura, and their wild aerials ascend from the dance floor of Nicholby’s Upstairs to the sound of the relatively unknown Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. “Nobody was dancing to this phenomenal music,” says Flyin’ Lindy Hopper Terri Moore. “We just started dancing, and flipping in the air. The band hadn’t seen it before, and the audience hadn’t seen it before.”

*

1994--"The Mask,” a Jim Carrey movie in which RCR performs, offers an exaggerated look at swing dancing and an insight into its appeal for young men who, a few years earlier, wouldn’t have been caught dead partner dancing. Asked whether Carrey’s character is “pretty weird lookin’,” the leading woman responds: “Yeah, but you oughta see him dance.”

*

Summer 1996--Royal Crown Revue’s “Mugzy’s Move” becomes the first neo-swing album released on a major label, Warner Bros.

*

Fall 1996--"Swingers,” a low-budget movie featuring Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in dance scenes set at The Derby, sends the neo-swing scene into a major mainstream aerial.

*

Advertisement

*Spring 1997--As colleges and universities around the country pick up on the movement, USC has its first major swing dance in recent history. That first event drew 600 dancers; the most recent one, April 30, drew more than 1,200.

*

July 1997--Disneyland, which has held big band swing nights on Saturdays since the mid-'50s, smells a trend and begins summertime Friday night “Jump, Jive, Boogie, Swing” parties. Between 300 and 500 dancers and spectators attend each night.

*

Late Summer 1997--RCR wins MTV’s “12 Angry Viewers” contest. “It was the first time MTV started to pay attention to this thriving music culture,” says Michael Moss of the San Francisco-based Swing Time Magazine. Also, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Hell” CD goes platinum.

January 1998--Merv Griffin, whose own show-biz roots go back to singing swing, begins offering swing dance Friday and Saturday nights in his upscale Coconut Club at the Beverly Hilton.

*

April 1998--A TV ad for Gap khaki pants features the original Louis Prima version of “Jump, Jive, an’ Wail,” with dancers being hurled through the air in a series of aerial moves. The ad is phenomenally successful, bringing swing dancing to the teen and preteen crowd.

*

April 1998--Santa Barbara schools offer dance classes in elementary, middle and high schools. Santa Barbara also is home to the Savoir Faire Pistol Pocket Dance Band, with members ranging in age from 14 to 20.

*

Mid-1998--Memories, an Anaheim supper club, gradually shifts the focus of its 1,400-square-foot dance floor to swing to meet growing demand. One group of dancers travels weekly from Santa Barbara to dance at Memories from 11 p.m. ‘til 3 a.m., breakfasts at Denny’s, then drives back home.

*

Summer 1998--"They called it the ‘Summer of Swing,’ ” says Brad Benedict, co-producer for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. BBVD, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and the Brian Setzer Orchestra all make the Top 50 in the charts.

*

November 1998--The Satin Ballroom takes up residence at the Veterans Memorial Building in Culver City for monthly dances that draw about 1,000 swingers. All ages are welcome, although those younger than 16 are asked to be accompanied by an adult.

*

Early January 1999--The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s “The Dirty Boogie” becomes the first neo-swing album nominated for the Best Pop Album Grammy. Madonna will win, but BSO will win for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. BSO also goes on tour with . . . Bob Dylan.

*

January 1999--Commercialization of swing moves from the young set to the yupsters-plus, as Pottery Barn releases its own swing compilation CD with a mix of legendary and newer performers.

*

Late January 1999--Hundreds of millions of television viewers get a taste of neo-swing when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy provides entertainment at the Super Bowl halftime show.

*

May 1999--Big Bad Voodoo Daddy receives the key to the city of Ventura, its hometown, in honor of its achievements (which include performances earlier in the year for former President George Bush and President Bill Clinton--who did not join the band on sax).

*

June 19, 1999--The Satin Ballroom’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of what purportedly was the largest jitterbug contest ever--1,000 participants and 26,000 people in the audience at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum --attracts 100 competitors and 1,200 people.

*

July 3, 1999--"The Battle of the Bands” --Los Angeles’ Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra versus New York’s George Gee & His Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra--draws 1,150 people at the Hollywood Palladium.

THE DERBY

If there is a geographical ground zero for popularizing the swing renaissance, it’s The Derby in Los Feliz. Originally a restaurant built by Cecil B. DeMille in the 1920s, The Derby opened in 1993 with its Art Deco glamour restored, providing L.A.'s first nightly venue for swing dancing and key neo-swing bands. “We must have struck a chord, because by the third month we had lines around the block,” says co-owner Tammi Gower. Some San Francisco clubs already were nurturing the neo-swing scene. But The Derby’s hook with Hollywood magnified its impact: It became a tourist attraction, with many patrons showing passports at the door as IDs. It’s really interesting “how much new Hollywood loves old Hollywood,” Gower says. The club often hosts parties for hot TV shows, and routinely is asked to send its best dancers to appear in films, TV shows and advertisements. Also interesting is The Derby’s success balancing patrons interested in the music and the martinis with those who don’t drink and who want danceable tunes. “It’s like the little fish that swim next to the shark--they don’t bother each other,” says dancer Michael Muller. Among the regulars early on were Jon Favreau and Doug Liman, who used The Derby as a setting in “Swingers,” their 1996 low-budget, independent hit. Says director Liman: “The Derby was the genesis of the whole film. If the swing scene hadn’t been so much fun, ‘Swingers’ never would have happened.”

ROYAL CROWN REVUE

When L.A.'s Royal Crown Revue released its “Kings of Gangster Bop” CD in 1991, record stores didn’t know where to put the new sound. It “went into the rap section because it said ‘gangster,’ ” says Eddie Nichols, an RCR founder and lead singer. “Didn’t say ‘gangsta’ with an ‘A.’ It said ‘gangster,’ like in the ‘40s.” The band’s “neo-swing” sound--Nichols calls it “traditional American music,” a hybrid of jump blues, swing, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz heavily influenced by Louis Prima and Louis Jordan--is widely credited with launching a swing renaissance that now permeates pop culture. Emerging from an amorphous retro scene in L.A. and San Francisco, RCR offered a refreshing alternative to punk’s violence and grunge’s mess. “I’m going to sound like a square, but [it’s] going back to a little bit of civility,” says Nichols. Moving from a regular gig at The Derby to national tours and an appearance in Jim Carrey’s 1994 film, “The Mask,” made RCR “like the Johnny Appleseeds of swing,” says V. Vale, author of “Swing! The New Retro Renaissance.” Nichols says he never envisioned the new music would become so mainstream. “I thought we’d be playing for a few hipsters and blue-haired ladies.”

THE DANCER

For 30 years Frankie Manning worked at a New York post office, generations removed from his days as a top performer of the Lindy Hop--a swing-style dance born in 1920s Harlem and named after headlines screaming that Charles Lindbergh had “hopped” the Atlantic. Then, in 1986, he was “discovered” by Erin Stevens, co-founder of the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Assn., and dance partner Steven Mitchell. Like a handful of others around the world, they shared a mission to save a dance style they feared was dying with its original dancers. Manning, now 85, lays claim to performing the first “aerial,” the act of hurling your partner over your back or into the air. As the swing revival caught on, he became something of an idol for modern-day lindy hoppers, teaching at dance events around the world. Picking up where his film career left off decades earlier, he also choreographs productions for stage and film. “The enthusiasm isn’t any different,” he says, comparing today’s dancers to those in the ‘30s at Harlem’s legendary Savoy Ballroom. And, as in the past, he said before a class at the Pasadena group’s recent swing dance camp on Catalina Island, “people want to be connected. This is a very happy dance.”


Advertisement