Want a crash course in everything that makes the music of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy such grand, unspoiled fun? Then give a look and listen to the video for Why Me?, a vigorous original tune from the band’s newest album, Rattle Them Bones.
The song is steeped in the revivalist swing sound that has long been the bread-and-butter of this Southern California troupe. But the clip also warps the retro approach by shifting gears into what can best be described as garageland vaudeville. You witness singer Scotty Morris crooning with a live chicken on his shoulder, a fake mustache on his lip and a comedic gleam in his eyes that makes him look like a stunt double for Will Ferrell.
“That video encompasses pretty much what we are,” said Morris, who leads Big Bad Voodoo Daddy back to Lexington tonight for the 700th broadcast of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour .
“We shot it in Andy (Rowley, the band’s baritone sax player)’s garage. In the middle of filming, our manager came in said, ‘You guys going to have any chicks in this video?’ It was joke, a complete joke and we all started laughing. Then Andy, being Andy, grabbed one of his chickens and put it on my shoulder. I didn’t even hesitate. I did not question his judgment at all. I just went for it. For me, it just ended up being one of the best shots.”
For over two decades, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has relished in the swing sounds of the ‘40s and ‘50s. That might come as a surprise to those who thought the band was solely a product of a swing revival that made rapid rounds on the pop charts in the mid ‘90s. The lasting popularity stems from an ability to both embrace and deviate from its swing era smarts.
But before Rattle Them Bones, the ensemble decided to refresh its own scholarly swing with the 2009 album How Big Can You Get?, a tribute to the ‘30s and ‘40s music of bandleader, singer and swing stylist Cab Calloway.
“I had a handful of things ready for our next record when then the Cab Calloway project came up,” Morris said. “And I’ve been wanting to do a Cab Calloway album since 1998. So when we got the green light for that, me and Josh (Levy), our pianist and arranger, jumped in full force.
“The Cab record was such a high learning experience for both of us, and for the whole band. It just opened the doors to I was tapping into, the ‘20s and ‘30s inspirations coming from New York, Harlem and Kansas City. And it all opened up on Rattle Them Bones.”
That may explain why Big Bad Voodoo Daddy peels back the years to 1928 by kicking off Rattle Them Bones with one of the cornerstone tunes of the Prohibition Era, Diga Diga Do. I had been having a hard time figuring out where Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was at the time, so what better way to find out than with a song from that era. Everybody and his brother has covered Diga Diga Do. So I thought, ‘Why not take one of the most popular songs from that era and do it our way?’ I’m not daring anyone, but I am saying, ‘Judge it. See what you think. Play it against any other version out there and see how ours holds up.”
Rattle Them Bones later plunges forward some 50 years for Randy Newman’s wickedly ironic portrait of stardom, It’s Lonely at the Top and an arrangement that sounds more like back alley ragtime than swing.
“I think if people didn’t know it was a Randy Newman song, they wouldn’t question it being on the record,” Morris said. “Randy Newman is one of my favorite American composers, and I don’t mean just for what he’s done in the movies and what he’s done with his pop success. I just mean, in terms of songwriting, he’s an absolute monster.
“He wrote Lonely at the Top for Sinatra. And Sinatra thought it was too egotistical and denied it, which I think is hysterical because the irony is in how egotistical the song really is. The way Randy does it takes a really bitter view. His version is kind of scolding and mad. So I thought it would be really great for me to see if I could tackle it.
“Mostly, I wanted to put that song on the record just because there are no rules, you know?”
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performs at 7 tonight at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 252-8888, (859) 280-2218.