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Kid Creole to play Newcastle bowling club as part of this year's ¡Vamos! Festival

Headliners at this year's Vamos festival are a band which offered upbeat music - and Coconuts - to 80s audiences

Andy Thornley Kid Creole performing in London in 2012
Kid Creole performing in London in 2012

From the big stage to a bowling club... the journey goes on for Kid Creole and the Coconuts. DAVID WHETSTONE talks to one of music’s most colourful stars ahead of this year’s ¡Vamos! festival

If there’s a sunnier, more life-enhancing sound than that of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, then it doesn’t spring easily to mind.

Although, to be honest, I had to reacquaint myself with the sound of Kid Creole and the Coconuts via YouTube ahead of an appointed telephone interview.

There, in colours muted over time, was a reminder that back in the early 1980s, a time of inner city riots, industrial strife and the still tangible glower of punk, there was a snappy dresser with a funny name, a big band and a blonde backing trio who made thousands smile.

Footage of one London gig, when the camera pans round, reveals an audience of thousands, up on its feet as a man in a zoot suit and pencil ’tache intones against an upbeat wall of sound:

“Doris, you can take my Shrimp Fried Rice,

Doris you can take my Italian Ice,

Doris, you can take my Chocolate Mousse,

Doris, you can take my Cous-Cous...

“But Don’t don’t don’t, Don’t take my Coconuts...”

Kid Creole, or rather “Mr Darnell” as he is described by the lady who answers his phone in Sweden, says: “I think that must have been the Hammersmith Odeon.”

August Darnell, to give the Kid his proper name, is booked to play a very different venue at the ¡Vamos! festival, which celebrates Latin American culture and is marking its 10th anniversary.

The Summerhill Bowling Club, a quaint and peaceful oasis behind the motorbike shops up Westgate Road, may never have seen or heard the like.

The man seems undaunted. “We’re very happy doing any show,” he says with laughter in his voice.

“We have played the smallest venues in the universe and some of the bigger ones so we’re not fazed by anything.

“But if it’s really small, they’d better be ready for it.”

Yes, better make sure the roof’s firmly attached because this is a band that has raised a few of them.

Thomas August Darnell Browder, to give him his proper proper name, was born in the Bronx in 1950. He will be 65 in August but when I suggest that his feet don’t seem to touch the ground very often, he laughs and says: “That is one hundred per cent correct.

“I have a recording studio in Sweden but I actually live in Hawaii these days. I spend a lot of time in Europe. That is the secret of my energy – to keep moving. It’s hard to hit a moving target.”

Kid Creole and the Coconuts, he says, is still “a three-ring circus”. He’s the ringmaster, behind him is the big band, to one side is his “right-hand man” and to the other are his Coconuts, a matching trio of gyrating female backing singers with blonde hair.

The line-up may change – the original right-hand man was Coati Mundi, aka Andy Hernandez, who created the comic template of funny faces and silly walks – but the sound remains the same.

And, presumably, the style?

“One hundred per cent. I still have the zoot suit, the two-toned shoes and the fedora. That is not an act. It is a mode of attire I adopted years ago when I went to the cinema with my dad.

“I used to see Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson and I wanted to look like them. When I earned enough money from my first band, I wanted to dress up like my heroes. It is not a gimmick.

“Except, right now, I’m in my pyjamas.”

Must be early in Sweden? Or late?

“It is not pyjama time,” chortles the man on the end of the line.

The music of Kid Creole and the Coconuts seems pretty timeless. It doesn’t adhere to a decade, like prog rock and punk to the 1970s and electronica to the 1980s.

“It’s great that it is timeless because if it wasn’t timeless we wouldn’t be in the business now,” declares Mr Darnell, aka Kid.

“The music business changes so rapidly. We would have been out of the game a long time ago if it wasn’t for the fact that people always said our sound was ahead of its time. Perhaps that time has finally come up to us.

“But in the early days it was strange to blend musical genres in the way that we did – to take from rock ’n’ roll and mix it with pop and reggae and calypso and jazz. But now we find a lot of people accept that.”

The man who became Kid Creole says it was his brother, Stony Browder Jr, who got him into music. “He was older and he was living music, day in and day out.

“The love of music came from him but I also blame my parents. They had a fantastic viewpoint where they never considered one form of music superior to any other form of music. They appreciated all different sounds.

“My dad was an amateur musician. He’d play guitar around the house and he was a big fan of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rat pack guys.

“We’d hear a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney and Sarah Vaughan so we had that knowledge. But then we grew to love rock ’n’ roll which was very much represented by Elvis Presley. We were Elvis fans and we also learned to love Motown.

“I was a huge James Brown fan when I was growing up.”

More laughter: “I stole a lot from James Brown.

“I remember seeing one of his shows and thinking: that’s got to be the best show in the universe. I want my shows to be like that.”

But as a young man August Darnell seemed destined for a career as an English teacher. He got a degree in English and chalk and a blackboard could have been the next step, in which case coconuts would have remained hairy nuts on trees and never become “dazzling damsels of divine dimension” (as the Cocounts are described on the band’s website).

But music exerted its pull, as did the brother who said he needed a bass accompaniment to one of his songs.

They set up Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band which became big and lucrative before the brothers fell out and Kid left. “It was primarily because I was growing too quickly as an artist.

“He wanted to pigeonhole me as a lyricist but I wanted to write the music as well. He was very dictatorial. Nobody was going to restrict me in that way.”

Reflecting on the early days, though, he recalls how the pair of them would “beg, steal and borrow” to get recordings made.

“We’d get the night shift, when no-one else was recording, and say to the recording engineer that we’d get them tickets or a mention on the disc or whatever. We’d record from 1am to 5am and then take the recording along to an A&R man at a label.

“It was much easier to get an appointment then but they’d listen to the recording while you were sitting in the room. It was the most embarrassing experience.

“I’ve listened to the early demos and they were pretty bad although the songs were great. We were lucky because we had a great singer called Cory Daye and she was a real stylist. She was influenced by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.”

Before the split they turned out three albums and a number one dance hit with Cherchez La Femme.

“I must be honest,” confesses the man in the pyjamas, “when I first jumped ship I said, ‘What the hell have I done?’ Suddenly I was the one who had to make all the major decisions.”

One of them was naming his new band Kid Creole and the Coconuts – a nod to Elvis, who was in a film called King Creole.

But what of the Cocounts?“It started as a gimmick. I was married briefly to a girl from Switzerland (Adriana Kaegi) who wanted to be part of the band. I said she could form a backing unit of three girls who all looked the same, same height and same blonde hair.

“It was the greatest decision of my life. People would come to the shows just to see the girls.”

But a Kid Creole and the Cocounts show was nothing if not a spectacle. There was always Kid, modelling himself a little on American band leader Cab Calloway, who had a theatrical presence and anticipated Michael Jackson’s ‘moonwalk’ with his back-stepping dance move, and there was the right-hand man, pulling faces and engaging with the crowd.

While the Coconuts appealed with their uniformity, the band was a melting pot of exciting sounds – big band meeting disco and more. It became one of the more unconventional sounds of the 1980s and it resurfaced in the musical Oh! What a Night which took Kid on a tour of the UK in 2008.

Nowadays, says Kid, the band performs by invitation. “We don’t do the work we used to do. We played Paris two days ago and the next show isn’t for a week and a half. We’re very happy to perform but that’s the kind of schedule we try to stick to. It works for me. I have to look after my voice.”

The last studio album, I Wake Up Screaming, came out in 2011. Kid says he has been working on a musical, to be called Cherchez La Femme, for the past seven years.

On his visit to Tyneside – honestly, he says he can’t remember if he’s performed here before – he will be accompanied by his latest line-up of Coconuts, including the one he calls Mama Coconut.

“She’s been with us for 17 years. I don’t know how she does it.”

This is Eva Tudor-Jones, the special lady in the life of Kid Creole. “We’re not married,” he laughs. “But who knows? Maybe one day.”

Their next important date is Saturday, June 13 when Kid Creole and the Coconuts headline at the ¡Vamos! summer evening party (Summerhill Bowling Club, Winchester Terrace, Newcastle NE4 6EH) to celebrate 10 years of the festival. Should be quite a night. Tickets from www.seetickets.com/Tour/vamos

The ¡Vamos! festival, which celebrates Latin American culture, runs from June 4-14. There’s a free launch on Thursday, June 4 (8-11pm) at the new ¡Vamos! base, in the old Venue nightclub, Bamburgh House, Market Street, Newcastle. On Saturday, June 6 (12 noon to 1pm) there will be a festival Mardi Gras starting outside Fenwick on Northumberland Street. Music, art, film, Mexican wrestling and much more feature in this year’s festival. Find full details on www.vamosfestival.com


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer