Shake, trip, shimmy
And we'd do the bump
To the Brown Derby Jump
Entrance of Brown Derby on Wilshire, c 1956
Entertainment, like every other industry, experiences peaks and valleys – fads, trends, and crazes – that come and go in the blink of an eye. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, perhaps the most energetic of these fads emerged and disappeared again before any of us could really get used to enjoying it. The neo-swing movement – or swing revival – went out with a whimper, but with the success of Doug Lymon’s and Jon Favreau’s 1996 independent film Swingers
, it came in with a BANG!
Swing and jump blues music, popularized in the '30s and '40s by acts like Louis Prima, was usually played by small groups as opposed to "big bands" featuring horns and very up-tempo dance rhythms. The revival, however, often mixed contemporary rock, ska, punk, and rockabilly and hit mainstream success by the holy swing trinity: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer Orchestra (former front-man of the '80s' Stray Cats), and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.
Cherry Poppin’ Daddies weren’t a swing band at all as compared with the other two. They were predominately a ska/punk band. Their manager insisted on creating the compilation of their most swing-like tunes after being asked which album had the most amount of swing following every live performance on their '96-'97 tour. Truthfully, they only had a handful, so the band’s founder and lead singer, Steve Perry (not to be confused with the Journey lead singer), agreed to head into the studio, record four new tracks, and release 1997's "Zoot Suit Riot" which went on to reach double platinum by the end of the decade.
Shakespeare Bridge in Franklin Hills, Los Feliz district of Los Angeles (thanks, Daniel Romero)
Track 7 of that compilation is titled "Brown Derby Jump," paying homage to the West Coast dance clubs in which the neo-swing revival was born. The song tells the story of a man living life in the fast lane. The first two verses chronicle his fame and fortune as well as the dark side that goes with it, while the third verse reflects back on the aftermath of those bygone days. But what was
the Brown Derby Jump? The answer lies in the city of angels.
Los Angeles, California has – for decades – been known as an energetic city full of glitz, glamour, and grotesque nightlife. From Sunset Strip hot spots like Whiskey-a-Go-Go, the Viper Room, and the Roxy to the Hyatt (Riot) House, the city’s reputation precedes itself. One chain of restaurants, which also consisted of tiny dance floors and often featured live music, was the Brown Derbies. The first, located on Wilshire Boulevard, opened in 1926 and remains the most distinctive due to its shape: a big, round, brown dome – like the hat style made popular in the Roaring Twenties.
Hollywood Brown Derby (c 1952)
Other locations sprang up around the city between 1929 and 1931 in Hollywood and Los Feliz, respectively. While the original Brown Derby remained more of a restaurant, the Los Feliz location – purchased by filmmaker Cecil B De Mille – was made famous as being a hot nightclub and dancehall. It was the last remaining branch and operated continuously until 2009, when the owner refused to renew the lease following a shooting inside the club. More importantly, it was still in operation for the swing revival in the '90s/2000s, helping to launch the careers of the aforementioned bands.
The neo-swing movement didn’t last anywhere near as long as this writer would’ve liked it too. I can remember spending 3 nights a week in my two-tone wingtips, twirling and whirling across freshly waxed dance floors to both live and recorded music. Swing is a genre and a dance style that can be enjoyed by all age groups, and in the late '90s college students sure enjoyed feeling like fashionistas
from the '40s as we cut a rug all night long. At any rate, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a neo-neo
-swing revival soon.
~ Justin Novelli