Once upon a time--well, actually, it was 15 years ago--a bunch of Los Angeles punk rockers put on zoot suits and fedoras and started playing a revved-up version of swing music that also drew from doo-wop, R&B and rockabilly.
We're talking about Royal Crown Revue, one of the first and perhaps the best of the swing revival bands.
Maybe circumstances weren't that simple, but that's the Reader's Digest version of the birth of a flash-in-the-pan musical movement known as neo-swing, which spent much of the 1990s reviving the mainstream audience's tastes in cool threads, acrobatic swing dancing and archaic hipster lingo.
We haven't heard music from the big, bad, cherry-poppin', squirrel-nut, blue-plate zipper daddies contingent in recent years. But Royal Crown Revue has survived and, indeed, has transcended the trend--the band is still going strong with tours of Japan, Australia, Europe and other exotic locales.
This includes Tucson, to which Royal Crown Revue will return for a gig Friday night, Jan. 23, at the Club Congress.
The concert will kick off Dillinger Days, a weekend of activities commemorating the 70th anniversary of the fire at the Hotel Congress that led to the eventual capture of Depression-era criminal John Dillinger and his gang.
"We love playing that old hotel," said drummer Daniel Glass, last week over the phone from his Los Angeles digs. "Is this Dillinger Days thing a really big event?"
He doesn't know the half of it.
Dillinger Days: The Tucson Capture will include lectures and displays at the main branch of the Tucson-Pima Public Library and the Arizona Historical Society; courtroom tours at the Pima County Courthouse; a book signing at Biblio Bookstore; Depression-era music on community radio-station KXCI-FM (91.3); screenings of the movies Public Enemy and The Petrified Forest at The Loft theater; and theatrical re-enactments in the Hotel Congress of Dillinger's capture, as well as a display of the gang's cache of guns.
The festivities will conclude with The Dillinger Ball, a formal affair featuring Tucson swing act Kings of Pleasure on Saturday night, also at Club Congress. Proceeds from the $50-per-head bash will benefit the Tucson Police Foundation.
But none of it happens until Royal Crown Revue takes the stage.
"Well, I'm excited about coming out to Tucson, because I don't think we've played the Club Congress since 1996," says Glass. "But I was just out there in November. I played with Devil Doll, and I did a drum clinic at Rainbow Guitars."
Like the other members of Royal Crown Revue, Glass keeps a few other irons in the fire. Among other pursuits, he leads the jazz combo Daniel Glass Trio and is writing a book about the history of jazz drumming.
Some music industry insiders, by the way, may know that the regular Royal Crown horn section is on the road with Bette Midler. They are providing a kick in the brass for her Kiss My Brass concert tour until the end of March, Glass confirmed.
"We did recordings with her in 1998 and played with her at the Billboard Music Awards," he says. "She's a fan of the band. So she took our horn section, which is a bad thing in a certain respect, but it has been working out to be a good thing, too, because we have had the opportunity to play with a lot of very heavy players."
"The guys who are playing with us now, and who will play with us in Tucson, have a lot of credibility and experience and history in the L.A. music scene. It's going to blow doors."
Among the ringers in Royal Crown's temporary horn section, according to Glass, "this guy who was Brian Setzer's musical director, and another guy who played with the Buddy Rich Orchestra back in the 1970s, when he was 16. They have all played in one capacity or another in the swing scene."
The moonlighting horn section hasn't slowed Royal Crown Revue's activity, Glass said.
"While they're gone, we're not stopping working. We are going to be in Vail, Colorado; Ohio; Vegas; the East Coast; central Michigan, playing a lot of different kinds of gigs. We do everything--high school jazz band camps, big concerts, nightclub gigs, private things, the festival stuff."
The latest addition to the band's credentials is a new album, Hollywood Tales, slated for release on the band's RCR Records in a month or so.
"It's a 10-year compilation with all previously unreleased material," Glass said. "Half is a record from 1994, which we only sold at shows. We sold maybe about 1,000 copies at shows, then we got signed at Warner Bros, and it just (went) into the vault for years.
"It's also going to have some live things and studio things recorded this past summer, some new things that that we're currently doing in the live show. So it's going to cover 1994 to 2004. It's all the stuff that people have not heard before, so it is not really a greatest hits record," he said.
"And it's gonna have really great packaging, too--the CD booklet is actually going to be a fold-out into a poster with pictures of memorabilia from all throughout our entire career, and that's a lot of stuff, because it has been 15 years."
Glass hasn't been with the band for its entire existence, but with 10 years under his belt, he's a veteran.
He came aboard during a period of transition 10 years ago. The early version of Royal Crown Revue included the three Stern brothers--drummer and bassist Mark and Adam (of the punk band Youth Brigade) and their little brother Jamie on sax. The first Royal Crown record, Kings of Gangster Bop, was released on the Stern's BYO Records.
"Then in the early to mid '90s, things kind of ended for that lineup. There was a parting of ways with the Sterns," Glass said, politely. He exercised a sense of diplomacy that the BYO Records Web site does not, which claims Kings of Gangster Bop was made "before the band became lame."
The word lame probably would be better directed at the myriad bands that jumped on the "neo-swing" bandwagon half a decade ago and promptly leaped off when it ran out of commercial steam.
"There was moment in time and space when swing was that mainstream thing, but it's always been an underground thing, so you have be really certain about the music when you go about promoting--you have to believe in it," Glass says.
"It's like anything else, really," he adds. "If you are about the music and you take the music seriously and you love to delve into the history and study, you learn about that stuff, and what you are doing is for real."
The members of Royal Crown Revue definitely have identified their priorities, Glass said.
"For us it's really about making a living and playing the music we love as much as possible. We're journeyman musicians and it's not at all about rock star attitude. We're always working, which I am grateful for.
"Over the years we've just been learning how to work our own way, until now it has become a very workable formula."