August Darnell was born in New York’s Bronx on 12 August 1950. For years the background he invented for his Kid Creole alter-ego had him born in Canada. “I had Kid Creole having his own history. I told one journalist that I was a white Aborigine!”
His father Stony, from Savannah, Georgia, was a bricklayer while American Indian-descended mother was a nurse. They aspired to a now-defunct Bronx middle-class. “I don’t remember ever going without as a child,” he recalls. “My parents were always working. The thing that mom and dad concentrated on more than anything else was education.” This work ethic would stick for the rest of his life.
Darnell credits the multi-racial Bronx for his attitude to life, people and career. “I couldn’t imagine being what I am today without having been brought up in the Bronx. It was a true melting pot, Irish, Jewish, Nubians, Puerto Ricans and Italians, all cramped into this small area. As a child I never saw any conflict between races or religions. For me the Bronx was a fantastic place to grow up, realising that the world was comprised of different colours, shapes and ideologies without leaving your borough. That’s the greatest lesson life can give.”
After attending James Monroe High School with brother Stony, who was two years older, Darnell entered university with a scholarship, gaining degrees in drama then English, which kept him exempt from the draft due to a city shortage of English teachers.
Stony avoided Vietnam by faking insanity while working on building a dream group based on his love of big bands like Glen Miller and Count Basie. The two brothers were dramatically different in outlook and personality although both loved movies, particularly Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart.
On leaving university Darnell became an English teacher in Long Island. “It was my way of surviving at that time because music was still just a hobby. My brother led a very Bohemian lifestyle whereas I was a bookworm, a worker. You can’t imagine two people that different!”
Inspired by his father, Stony named his project Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, playing guitar while teaching August to play bass in the hope he would join.
“I was envious of his bohemian lifestyle when I was going to college, working my ass off trying to get good grades then going from college into teaching. I was living in Manhattan and working in Long Island, nine to four, driving, marking papers. By the time I got home my brother still hadn’t got out of bed. He was just making music! He kept bugging me about joining because he wanted bass accompaniment. I crumbled and thought maybe this is the right direction.
“All of it was his prodding and inspiration. If I didn’t have an older brother I probably would never have made it beyond school teacher. He educated me, like my private tutor.”
In 1976, Darnell joined The Savannah Band playing bass and writing sophisticated lyrics. Stony described the Savannah Band’s big band disco hybrid as ‘zoot suit city music’, the group sporting elegant 40s lounge outfits. Darnell’s first sweetheart Susandra Minsky, aka Sue Who, whose best friend Cory Daye joined on vocals, helped get a deal with RCA.
Darnell clicked with fellow group member ‘Sugar Coated’ Andy Hernandez, a multi-talented vibes-player, arranger, MC, percussionist and larger-than-life personality renowned in Manhattan as life and soul of any party.
He brought in his neighbour from Spanish Harlem’s notorious Wagner projects, Sonny Bonilla. Renamed Don Armando, he was the oldest member, becoming Darnell’s style and street suss mentor; a role model for Kid Creole.
“What Stony was doing was amazing because he was combining old 1940s horn arrangements, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, all to a disco beat,” recounts Darnell.
“He was wearing the zoot suits and box-back jackets, two-tone shoes, hats, and passed it on to me. I learned everything from Stony and Cory Daye. The Savannah band was a blueprint for Kid Creole. I was his young brother learning in the studio, watching him produce and Cory do her incredible lead vocals. That became my school because everything I learned there I applied when I jumped ship in 1979 and started Kid Creole. I would not have known what I was doing if I had not spent hour after hour in that studio learning that craft.”
The Savannah Band first became darlings of the gay scene before scoring a hit with Cherchez La Femme and enjoying success with their self-titled first album. Stony still prohibited his younger brother from doing anything other than writing lyrics and playing bass, sparking bitter sibling rivalry.
As an outlet for “the songs of frustration that would have been for Kid Creole if there was a Kid Creole then”, Darnell took his newly-acquired studio knowledge and, with Hernandez as his right-hand man, produced one-off albums for Savannah Band refugees Dr Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band and Gichy Dan.
Armando Bonilla’s streetwise personality inspired Darnell’s nascent Kid Creole persona while Darnell describes silken-voiced crooner Frank Passalaqua, aka Gichy Dan, as, “the precursor to Kid Creole & The Coconuts”, his Beachwood Number Nine album relocating urban realism to the Caribbean with soca, calypso and doo-wop sneaking into the disco for a taste of the Creolism to come.
Most recording took place at Blank Tapes studio, engineered by Bob Blank, one of the unsung heroes of New York disco, post-punk and house music. In 1978 Blank introduced Darnell to Mothercare heir and theatre critic Michael Zilkha, who had set up ZE Records with French t-shirt designer Michael Esteban as an outlet for his girlfriend Cristina Monet’s detached disco creations.
Thinking that Darnell produced The Savannah Band, Zilkha asked if he’d produce Cristina. Seizing the opportunity, Darnell went along with the misconception, ending up ZE’s in-house producer. “The marriage between Zilkha and I was magic,” he smiles. “He was of that world and a great innovator. Through him I discovered a lot of things that I never would have discovered on my own.”
Darnell’s growing production skills, which were now released on ZE, were put to spectacular use, inspired by New York’s vibrant club scene, a magical time which saw disco’s relentless party spirit mating with post-punk’s thirst for new aural possibilities.
Kid Creole and the Coconuts erupted from this volcanic melting-pot, Darnell’s natural assimilation of disparate musical styles and growing tropical paradise fixation now blessed with multi-raced characters who could bring his vision to life.
“We never got into a room and said, ‘You’re different’. It was a given,” he recalls. “It was, ‘We’re gonna make music together, travel together, have a great time together and if the gods are on our side get wealthy together’. We were lucky to find people who were on our same wavelength and believed in the same things.”
By 1979, Darnell was also writing songs for the Chappell Music publishing company whose Caribbean flavour fitted his new project as relationships deteriorated in the Savannah Band.
Stony wouldn’t tolerate his younger brother starting his own group. The Savannah Band recorded 1979’sD.B.O.S.B. Meets King Pennett in California amidst much excessive drug use, although Darnell and Hernandez remained resolutely teetotal.
The wasted, drawn-out sessions ran up a huge bill as all lived the high life. The situation flared and, now out of the band, Darnell and Hernandez drove across country back to New York, planning their new adventure.
“This was the turning point in my life,” says Darnell, who took his new alter-ego’s name from the Elvis Presley movie.
“The Kid Creole fantasy was manufactured by me to thumb my nose at my older brother. Pure sibling rivalry created Kid Creole. I wanted more. Big brother wouldn’t give it to me so I went out on a very thin limb and got it for myself. I jumped ship with Coati Mundi, put a little more accent on the tropical flavourings of salsa, reggae and calypso and created a band where I could be the boss. It was the proverbial story of the younger brother wanting to prove to the older brother that he can do it on his own.
“I created and casted Kid Creole, gave him the lines and created this character onstage. I was fronting it as an actor. A lot of people to this day think that August Darnell was Kid Creole, but it’s not. Sure there are some manifestations of Kid Creole in August Darnell but the character I created was macho, egotistical and well dressed. I presented this in ‘I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby’. It’s tongue in cheek!”
Darnell was seeing Swiss dance student Adriana Kaegi, who he would marry so she could stay in the country, becoming lead Coconut.
At first the female backing singers included locals Lori Eastside and Sue Who plus future disco divas Taana Gardner and Fonda Rae. Adriana planned visuals, choreography, eventually settling on singers Cheryl Poirier and Taryn Hagey, who sported grass skirts, coconut bras or little outfits modelled on Fay Wray in King Kong.
“It was Adriana’s job to find the girls,” recalls Darnell. “She was blonde, five foot seven, curvaceous; we had this concept that the girls would be cloned and look like her. Coati Mundi brought this manic comic foil character. Both of them would cut this Kid Creole guy down to size. If you presented Kid Creole without the Coconuts or Coati Mundi it would be too obnoxious, just an egotistical front man dressed in a zoot suit fronting a big band. What made that band exciting in the early days was the Coconuts cutting him down to size while Coati Mundi was just ridiculous. People loved that three-ring circus concept. Theatre was what it was all about.”
The formidable live band included former Archie Shepp and Eric Gale pianist Peter Schott, bass acolyte Carol Colman, guitarist Marc Mazur and legendary reggae drummer Winston Grennan, who’d invented the one drop beat and played with everyone from Marley to the Skatalites.
An incendiary combination all round. This mixed-race celebration was controversial in early 80s America, especially down South. “We’ve been accused so many times in America, asked why the Coconuts are white, all this crap,” groans Darnell. “Never ever has it been questioned in Europe. In America, they’re so hung up on colour even to this day.”
The final piece fell into place when Zilkha signed the group and impressed Chris Blackwell enough to secure Island Records’ European backing for ZE. “Michael can recognise and seek out talent that others don’t see,” says Blackwell in the notes to Going Places. “You grasp at the opportunity of bringing a person like that into your company in some way. And Kid Creole I understood very well; I knew Cab Calloway’s music, his inspiration, but August gave it that tropical spin. I loved Kid Creole.”
Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ debut album Off The Coast Of Me, appeared in August 1980 with the languorous island swoon of Maladie D’Amour as first single. On Darrio, the Coconuts try to get into Studio 54 but the Kid suggests they check out The B-52’s instead, telling the world that the new group wasn’t getting backed into a disco corner.
Darnell stresses that humour was a vital factor, like the male-ridiculing impotence panto of Mr Softee. “It’s self-parody. I always said he was this macho character but he couldn’t be taken seriously because that wasn’t what I was trying to achieve.”
Coati Mundi, named after a species of raccoon, was first of the crew to hit the UK charts with the infectious salsa hybrid of Me Mo Pop I. “I cannot give enough gratitude to Coati Mundi,” beams Darnell. “In those days it was something new and exciting to infuse salsa and Latino. After we started a thousand and one people jumped on the bandwagon. Now it’s accepted that you hear an exciting salsa riff in contemporary music.”
Darnell wrote the story for the next album, Fresh Fruit From Foreign Places, on a cruise liner, telling this writer in 1981 that he set about writing, “a modern day odyssey… Jason and the Argonauts as a musical.”
The quest’s inspiration was Darnell’s former girlfriend Mimi, who was his muse before suddenly disappearing. His frantic searching of New York’s streets inspired the story-line. “Then it became about my own journey of self-discovery, the story of Kid Creole looking for Mimi, a lost woman in the tropics.”
With theatrically inclined talents like Kevin Rowland, Martin Fry and Adam Ant in the ascendant, Darnell found a ready audience in Britain. The 1982 album Tropical Gangsters (alternative title: Wise Guy) was the album “with the least creative input I ever made” according to Darnell, but I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby, Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy and Stool Pigeon made Kid Creole and his Coconuts briefly ubiquitous in the UK.
While the label sought a commercial follow-up, Darnell was unravelling fast. He was a regular on the London and New York club circuits, and working as Ze’s in-house producer when not on continent-hopping concert tours.
The title of 1983’s Doppelganger was wishful thinking by a drastically overstretched writer. Darnell sought to reinstate the exploration of Fresh Fruit in this schizoid scenario, but the material simply wasn’t strong enough.