Cory Daaye
Photo: Courtesy of Sekou Luke Studio and Rebel Media

‘Cherchez La Femme’ at 45: An Interview with GRAMMY-nominated Vocalist Cory Daye

In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, co-founder and lead vocalist of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Cory Daye, celebrates the 45th anniversary of the group’s classic self-titled debut.

During the summer of 1976, Cory Daye‘s voice wafted through the bamboo forests of New York’s Fire Island like an intoxicating fragrance. As the lead vocalist and co-founder of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, she beckoned the island’s dwellers to untold pleasures while the group’s self-titled debut stirred dancers into sweaty, salty abandon. Boardwalks seldom pulsed with such a bewitching beat.

Fire Island was worlds away from the South Bronx where Daye first met composer/arranger Stony Browder, Jr. (guitar/piano) and his brother, lyricist August Darnell (bass). Drummer Mickey Sevilla and vibe master “Sugar Coated” Andy Hernandez (aka Coati Mundi) helped crystallize the group’s musical aesthetic, which had morphed from R&B into a blend of big band, soul, Latin, jazz, dance, and pop. Produced by Four Seasons tunesmith Sandy Linzer, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (1976) brought the grandeur of swing-era bandstands to the discotheque, melding wry social commentary with classic Hollywood romanticism. 

“Everybody’s favorite album is Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band on RCA,” critic Vince Aletti wrote in his “Disco File” column for Record World. “It’s this summer’s major surprise hit not only because three cuts are eminently danceable (‘Sour and Sweet’, ‘Cherchez La Femme’, and ‘I’ll Play the Fool’), but because the group’s fabulously eclectic sound — drawing on several decades of American pop music from big band jazz to doo-wop soul to sophisticated disco, full of sly musical quotes — is so fresh and appealing” (7 August 1976).

Aletti would later declare Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band the “Most Essential Disco Album of 1976”, while the Los Angeles Times named Savannah Band “the hottest disco act in the country” (26 November 1976). Even Aletti’s peers in the rock press cheered the group’s arrival. “It’s a pleasure to admit that their music is a fresh pop hybrid with its own rhythmic integrity, and that its sophistication is a lot brighter and more lively than most of the organic bullshit making it to the rock stage in the mid-’70s,” Robert Christgau noted in the Village Voice.

Rolling Stone published its own rave review of Savannah Band’s debut. “The highest moments introduce a genuinely surrealistic disco whose adventurous use of bitonality and electronic sound effects stands in absolute contrast to the recent disco market’s cynical prefabrication of oldies,” wrote Stephen Holden. “‘I’ll Play the Fool’, ‘Cherchez La Femme’, and especially ‘Sour and Sweet’, are group originals that literally explode the genre with their brittle scintillating audacity” (23 September 1976).

With a sound that signaled disco’s penchant for innovation, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band supplanted the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” from number one on Billboard‘s “National Disco Action Top 30” in October 1976. A month later, “Cherchez La Femme” debuted on the Hot 100 where it would peak at #27 and introduce one of the era’s most indelible opening lines — “Tommy Mottola lives on the road” — to the airwaves. The album itself was certified gold and earned the group a GRAMMY nomination for “Best New Artist”.

However, the heart of Savannah Band was Cory Daye, who embroidered her vocal performances with a combination of soul, sweetness, and nonchalance. Remarkably, she became lead singer only because the band hadn’t found a male vocalist to complete their original concept of a velvety voiced crooner at the microphone. “It turned out that it was to the advantage of Savannah Band to have me do the vocals, although that wasn’t the intention at the time we were in the studio,” she says. “It’s purely coincidental that during the timeframe that our album came out, and choosing ‘Cherchez La Femme’ as the dance release to be played in the clubs, female vocalists dominated dance music anyway. Yes, there were male bands at the time doing disco songs but they were not Donna Summer, Vicki Sue Robinson, and singers like Linda Clifford, who I love.”

As Savannah Band’s fusion of sounds introduced new elements to dance music, Daye emerged as a unique force in the constellation of disco goddesses. She even served as composer/producer Sandy Linzer’s muse for another club classic, “Native New Yorker” by Odyssey. Following Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Meets King Penett (1978), Daye departed the group and teamed with Linzer for her solo debut Cory and Me (1979). Released on Tommy Mottola’s New York International label, the album featured hard-driving cuts tailored for the clubs, especially “Green Light” and “Pow Wow”, while also incorporating familiar Savannah Band flourishes on “Rainy Day Boy” and “Single Again/What Time Does the Balloon Go Up”.

“When Daye makes her entrance in any song, it’s like the sun breaking through a bank of dark clouds,” wrote Don Shewey in Rolling Stone, joining the cadre of critics who applauded Daye’s first solo effort. Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington (1979) marked the original group’s swan song, as August Darnell and Coati Mundi joined forces in Kid Creole & the Coconuts and Daye teamed with frequent Kid Creole collaborator Ron Rogers on her second solo release In the Middle of the Night (1987). In between, Daye reunited with Browder and Sevilla for one final Savannah Band effort, Calling All Beatniks! (1984). 

Though Daye stepped back from recording and performing full-time in the ’90s, artists began paying homage to her signature sound, including Gloria Estefan’s cover of “Cherchez La Femme” and Queen Latifah’s rendition of “Hard Times”, while A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul plumbed Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band for samples. The album’s remained a durable source for contemporary hooks, from M.I.A.’s ode to the balmy and buoyant “Sunshower” to Ghostface Killah’s adaptation of “Cherchez La Femme” and “Sunshower” on “Cherchez La Ghost” and “Ghost Showers”, respectively.

Whenever Daye sings “Cherchez La Femme”, whether during her induction to the “Legends of Vinyl” Hall of Fame (2016) or as a special guest with Kid Creole & the Coconuts, she evokes a vividly drawn world of glamour and sophistication for the audience. “I’m one of many and that’s how I see myself,” she says. “I don’t single myself out as special or different. I’m just like anybody else and if I’m getting humor and entertainment out of what I’m delivering, I know that you’re getting that out of me too. I’m not giving it to you. We’re sharing it.”

Cory Daye is as vivacious in person as she is onstage, with spontaneous combustions of laughter and glee punctuating her stories. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Daye celebrates the 45th anniversary of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and recalls how the group’s “melting pot of sound and diverse cultural backgrounds boldly reflected the true DNA of American popular music. Indeed, the lady who brought “Cherchez La Femme” to life has some stories of her own to share …

Take me back to Longwood Avenue in the South Bronx. How did the movies you saw on The Late Show, The Late Late Show, and Million Dollar Movie influence Savannah Band’s music? What fascinated you about those films?

Growing up in the South Bronx, we didn’t have much money. We did have a television set, though. It was the ’50s and television was very new to the public, so programming was limited. They licensed older movies, gangster movies and musicals, predominantly. I was fascinated with both.

The gangsters were very butch men who were attractive and well-dressed, which wasn’t so great because it led me to liking bad boys when I grew up. [laughs] The musicals always attracted me. I wanted to sing and dance ever since I saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Stormy Weather, and all of those big musicals. Busby Berkeley films were always elaborate. There was a lot of tap dancing and singing and happy endings, so it was a really big form of escape and transport to another world.

Because we were poor and in a lower income neighborhood, there was no place to go for tap lessons, or any kind of dance lessons or vocal lessons. We couldn’t afford them anyway. I would stomp away in the apartment and make believe I was a tap dancer. By the time I was around twelve, my mom took me to see My Fair Lady and that was my “ah ha!” moment of wanting this fame and fortune that I’d been seeing on TV as a child … more fame than anything else because I wanted the public to see that I had a talent. In grade school, I used to raise my hand to sing a solo during music class. I was in the church choir. It was something that I really really wanted at a very early age. 

Million Dollar Movie, by the way, probably paid the companies a lot of money to get a license to show the movie on TV, so they played the same movie every day, twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday. I was riveted whenever they featured musicals — I watched every time. So that was my exposure to song and dance … and bad boys! [laughs]

I know you named yourself after Billie Holiday. What was it about her voice that resonated with you? 

I had already known Ella Fitzgerald and always loved her creamy voice and her scat singing, but the struggle of achieving success made me identify with Billie Holiday. The fact that we had no money, holes in my shoes, I’m sure a lot of musicians and singers relate to what I’m saying about this sort of thing, the struggle. Billie Holiday was glamorous but extremely melancholy. I loved her intonation, and the way she delivered songs. She could take a happy song and make you cry, okay? That’s what attracted me to Billie.

Ella Fitzgerald was always my hero because she was light and airy. To me, it was a form of escapism, the humor and the happy in the vocals. Her rhythm was amazing, how she could vocally mimic every instrument in God’s creation. I found out a few years ago that she and I share the same birthday, and I was just so elated. 

I did name myself “Daye” after Billie Holiday. I just recently found out that Andra Day did as well, so we have a kindred spirit going on over Billie. Billie will always be in my heart. I still play her constantly. She and Ella always bring back a lot of memories both good and bad. 

In a New York Times review of Savannah Band’s appearance at the Ritz, the critic Robert Palmer wrote that “your sound and intonation are as exceptional as your improvising and feeling for nuance”. When did you discover your singing voice?

I discovered that I had a talent at a very early age, from mimicking the old movies as a child. It was always a dream but it became a goal in my late-teens, early-twenties when I collaborated with Stony Browder. There were a few turning points in terms of me discovering my voice, but I remember the most concrete one was with Stony in his apartment in the little bedroom with the tack piano, playing music.