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For Royal Revue, Jump-Jive Is the Crowning Glory

August 08, 1996|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vocalist Eddie Nichols used to wonder whether the audience for his band, the Royal Crown Revue, would end up consisting of a few "blue-haired grannies." That was a legitimate concern for the young Los Angeles group when it formed in 1989, during a period when the ballistic sounds of gangsta rap and Guns N' Roses were all the rage, and there wasn't a particularly significant demand for '40s-style swing bands.

But the seven-member Royal Crown Revue, which appears at the Galaxy Theatre on Friday night, appears to have safely avoided that fate for the moment.

The band's Louis Jordan-influenced, jump-jive music has found a devoted though relatively small following in a handful of cities such as San Francisco, L.A. and Tucson. And powerhouse Warner Bros. Records thought enough of the group's market potential to ink a recording contract. "Mugzy's Move," the band's big-label debut, was recently released.

Particularly noteworthy is that the Royal Crown Revue's largest contingent of fans is twentysomething hipsters who love not only the horn-accented music but also the fashion and slang associated with the swing era.

"Back in '89, when we first started playing, there were only three or four kids . . . who were into the old [classic] cars and wearing the suits," said Nichols, 30, in a phone interview last week. "Now [in some places] there's an entire scene for [this type of music]. There were, like, thousands of kids in zoot suits at our show in San Francisco. And all the girls were done up. It looks great. I kind of created a monster in some ways."

The "Mugzy's Move" album cover offers solid evidence of the cultural and musical personality of the band. Done in the style of a '40s film noir poster, the cover illustration features a dapper, fedora-topped man on the run from a couple of thugs lurking in the shadows. But instead of wielding a weapon, our hero totes a saxophone. Meanwhile, the text promises "Mystery, Thrills and Hard-Boiled Swing!"

Nichols said he picked up the language and feel of the swing era (the disc's lyrics include plenty of references to "mugs," "kittens" and "getting iced") by watching old movies and reading vintage crime novels by writers such as Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson.

But there is also a danger of leaning too heavily on sounds and images from a bygone era, admitted the Manhattan-raised singer, who speaks with an appropriately streetwise New York accent. For Royal Crown Revue the goal has always been to walk the narrow line between kitschy revivalism and something more immediate and original. Nichols thinks the group, which includes a three-piece horn section, has been able to accomplish this tricky feat. It has helped significantly that the group writes most of its own material.

"I think Royal Crown will always be rooted in vintage American music," he said. "But we really try to stretch out. We include different flavors--rhythm and blues and bebop. 'Honey Child' is a much later sound than [the swing-era music the group is known for]."

One of Royal Crown Revue's main objectives is to appeal to audiences outside the hard-core swing scene. The band has performed with an array of musical acts, including heavy-metal bands and roots rockers.

"We get punk rockers who bring their parents [to the shows]," Nichols said. "When we play in Tahoe, we get punks and snowboarders, and they stage-dive when we're playing. It's great, because even though it's old music, we'll give it that energy."

Royal Crown Revue did release an independent-label album in 1992. But Nichols regards the new disc as a better product, in large part because of numerous personnel changes made about three years ago.

"The only people I retained were the guitarist [James Achor] and tenor sax player [Mando Dorame]," he says. "It's really a totally different band. The new rhythm section [bass player Veikko Lepisto and drummer-percussionist Daniel Glass], they drive the show and that's what you need." Rounding out the current septet are Bill Ungerman on baritone sax and Scott Steen on trumpet.

The group's fortunes were also aided by an appearance in "The Mask" in 1994. Royal Crown Revue can be seen and heard playing its snazzy and jazzy "Hey Pachuco!" as Jim Carrey's rubber-faced character dances up a storm with actress Cameron Diaz. The band is recording a swing standard for another feature film.

Nichols says one of the highlights of making "Mugzy's Move" was recording the old ballad "Beyond the Sea." The strings and horns were arranged and conducted by Artie Baker, who played piano on the original Bobby Darin recording. Baker also solicited the services of some veteran horn players known for their work with old-time pop crooners such as Darin and Frank Sinatra.

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