From James Monroe to Tommy Mottola
I’d love it if you would set the scene for how you met Stony.
Stony was a couple of years older than me. He was an alumnus of James Monroe High School. I’d always heard about the Browder Brothers. They had quite the reputation. James Monroe High School had a drama teacher, Mr. Fineman, who did high school plays that were elaborate. He was doing The King and I and he needed children. My brother’s ten years younger than me so you know I scooted him in there. He became one of the children in The King and I. Backstage, I saw Stony across the room. Our eyes met and it was thunder from then on. We were just so attracted to each other. We spoke briefly but we were inseparable after that.
How did the idea of forming a group manifest from that moment?
After meeting Stony at James Monroe, I went to visit him. I was still in high school. He was on the other side of Bruckner Boulevard. We had already moved out of the South Bronx because my father purchased a store and was doing much much better, financially. I would go to Stony’s apartment and he would play on the piano and I would listen. He said, “Why don’t you sing one of these tunes?” I did and from then on I was singing with him all the time.
Then he introduced me to his brother and the rest of the band. They were called the In-Laws at the time. We were doing cover tunes, but Stony always wanted to do something that was more of a jazz feel of what we did with the first Savannah Band album. That was in the back of his mind.
One day, we went downtown to Unique clothing store. It was past Waverly Place and it was this huge huge store. In the back of the store, the clothes were all from the ’30s and the ’40s. I was like a kid in a candy store. All this stuff came rushing back to me from Million Dollar Movie, from all the movie icons that I adored and what they were wearing. I just went hog wild. Then I saw this suit — pleated pants, no split in the jacket in the back. We called them “box back” jackets. I said Stony, “Look at this. Try this on!” It was love, immediately. We bought everything we could find and that’s all we wore, daily.
I knew that women were more glamorous in wearing fancy dresses. The Pointer Sisters had come out looking and dressing the same way, so I adopted a look that was more, “What would the bobbysoxer wear had there been a bobbysoxer in the ’40s?” so I dressed much younger. I had bows in my hair. I wore belts and men’s clothes sometimes. I just wanted a little twist on the ’40s style that we adopted for our image … and then the music came.
That’s when Stony and I went to Tower Records or whatever record shop we could find because there were no flea markets in Manhattan. There was no social media. There was no eBay so we just roached around town looking for all these records that were from the ’30s, the ’20s. The first one we bought was Mae Barnes, then Bessie Smith, and then Billie Holiday. Then we listened to the big band sounds of Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller, and the Dorsey Brothers.
Where would the In-Laws have performed back then?
Oh, honey. It was the college circuit and the Chitlin’ Circuit, but the northeast Chitlin’ Circuit … Rochester, upstate New York somewhere. [laughs] That’s how we started. Back then, you did colleges that had what they called “rathskellers” and they had their auditoriums. That’s pretty much where you did gigs, but we didn’t do the full band. At the time, it was only like a five-piece band with a vocal trio and I usually sang the lower register harmonies and background vocals.
Of course, we know that August is Stony’s brother but when did Mickey Sevilla and Coati Mundi come into the mix?
Mickey Sevilla came into our lives via Buddy Williams. Buddy Williams was a very talented up-and-coming drummer. We wanted to lock him in and he knew his worth. He was starting to do a lot of studio work. He said, “I have my own ideas. I want to have my own band. I want to have my own career.” He brought Mickey in.
We had auditions for an additional keyboard player and when we found out that Coati Mundi could play the vibes, he was hired like that. We’d already been under contract with Tommy Mottola at the time. It was around 1975. We met Mickey in 1972, so there was a big span before we adopted Coati. [laughs]
It’s so interesting to realize how much time passed between Mickey and Coati joining the band. I’ve read different versions of the story behind the name Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, so I would love to know from you, what’s the definitive explanation behind the meaning of that name?
There is no definitive explanation of the name Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, I am so sorry to tell you. Basically, because Stony’s father was from the south, we paid homage to him. Dr. Buzzard was a real person that sold elixirs in the south — the medicine man kind of thing — and Stony was fascinated by that. He felt that because of his father’s influence on his musical talents and the encouragement that he got from his father — his father taught him how to play guitar — that this was his homage to his dad without just calling it “Dr. Carrash” or something. That’s pretty much an idea of where the name of the band came from.
What’s the timeline between settling on the name Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Tommy Mottola becoming your manager?
The name came first, before we met Tommy Mottola. We met him in SIR Studios. We had paid for a sound stage and did a showcase for several music producers and A&R men. At that time, it was A&R people that would come and check you out, but Tommy was working for Chappell Publishing at the time. Susandra Minksy, our interim manager before we met Tommy, was the one who found him. I have no idea how she did it. She did a lot of the leg work in finding all these people. Clive Davis was there. Unfortunately, he walked out, but Tommy stayed.
I think the clincher that Tommy wanted to be our manager was when we did our own rendition of “She’s Gone”. We didn’t know that he was managing Hall & Oates. We had no idea. Tommy loved our version of it. At the time, we were doing R&B and Bill Dorsey was our lead singer. He had a gospel voice. Nobody was belting at that time the way Dorsey did. That’s why Tommy took us to RCA. He had a contract with RCA and he signed us without RCA ever having heard us.
This was Stony’s turning point into wanting to do swing. Stony felt to tie everything up with the sound of Savannah Band, we should have a male vocalist. The reason behind it was that for decades, the gods were male vocalists. From the ’20s, it was Rudy Vallée, then Bing Crosby, then Frank Sinatra, then Elvis, then the Beatles. It goes on and on with male vocalists. That’s what they wanted — a crooner.
Bill Dorsey was laid off prior to going into the recording studio as he wasn’t a good fit for the sound we were developing. We tried to find other male vocalists without any success. Gichy Dan had been in the band before Bill Dorsey. After Bill left, we asked Gichy Dan to come back but he declined. We heard a McDonald’s commercial and found out that it was Luther Vandross but didn’t realize it was Luther Vandross. We were trying to find him and he was like, “Oh hell no!” [laughs]
How, exactly, were you promoted to lead singer?
There was pressure from RCA and Tommy — “You’ve laid down all these tracks and you have no lead vocalist.” We were in the studio. August was there, Stony was there, Sandy Linzer, and the engineer. Stony just looked at me with this kind of attitude, “We’re getting pressure, so I guess we’re stuck with you”. This is why I don’t have an ego because it wasn’t like he said, “You’re a great singer. I know you can do this.” They’d wanted a male vocalist, but they were “stuck” with me. Honey, when I let it out, I was surprised. I had no idea I had it in me because I was stuck with me! [laughs]
“Cherchez La Femme” was the first song that I sang in the studio and it was the first time that I discovered that I could sing leads because I always sang backgrounds.
You have to understand that I was discovering myself, the fact that I can sing a lead vocal, discovering the fact that I had a wider range than I thought I had because I always sang the lower register of all the background vocals, so this was the opportunity for me to deliver anything I wanted and how I wanted.
Philippé Wynne’s staccato style is what I adopted because I wanted to stay comfortable within my vocal range that I knew how to deliver. Besides having a beautiful voice, his phrasing was always against the beat, and within the beat, and around the beat, and through the beat. I had seen him at the Apollo Theater several times. When he delivered a song, he skipped across the stage, always letting loose at the tag. You hear the song, the song is delivered, he elaborates a little after the second verse but then at the end he totally owns it, which is what I tried to deliver at the end of every song on the first album — “You’re a shining star in my galaxy, oh baby” — stuff like that.
As you’re talking about Philippé, I’m thinking of his performance on the Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love”, towards the end of that song.
Oh yeah! [sings] “I’m walking ’round with my heart in my hands, hey-ay-ay.” Yup! That’s my boy. I adored him. I totally adored him.