Reunited with swag: The Swagger Kings
The swing music revival of the 1990s was an alternative genre that brought the younger generation together with their parents and grandparents.
The rockabilly and ska overtones made the genre groundbreaking enough for college and alternative radio and even had some top 40 success. Its big band vibe made it nostalgic the for the grandparents who grew up with the original incarnation.
Cleveland’s The Swagger Kings were regional champions of the swing music revival and played Cedars Lounge in downtown Youngstown regularly in the mid- and late ’90s. Vocalist Amy Young said the late Tommy Simon, owner of Cedars, was a fan of the band.
“Years later, when I was playing with the Guilty Pleasures, probably around 2010, Tommy Simon was at Cedars one rare night,” she said. “He couldn’t see very well but his hearing was spot on. After hearing me sing a song, he asked his daughter, Mara, if I was the girl who used to sing in the swing band. I couldn’t believe that he could pick me out and remember me just from my voice.”
Cedars has a long tradition of hosting band reunions over the holidays, and Young will be back with the band — Jeffrey Wright, drums; Eric Eber, guitar; Pat “Gumby” Faith, saxophone / vocals; Jonathan Burton, bass; Rob Newman, trumpet and trombone; and Rob Love, saxophone — for the first time in nearly 20 years for a concert Saturday at Cedars West End.
The group started in Young’s basement in Cleveland in 1996, the brainchild of Faith and Tony Primiano, who was her husband at the time.
“They had a shared appreciation of the style and decided to form a band, right before the neo-swing revival hit big in the late ’90s,” she said. “They asked me to join not long after.”
The Swagger Kings only had one set of covers of jazz / blues standards when it started, but the repertoire expanded to include originals along with those classics. In the ’90s, the band opened for such acts as Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Indigo Swing, Royal Crown Revue, Thornetta Davis, Atomic Fireballs and Wayne Hancock.
Young said she loves the smoothness and class of Ella Fitzgerald and the fire and grit of Etta James, and those influences can be heard in the Kings’ sound.
“I think we blend the two styles, even though we don’t really do songs from either artist,” she said. “That’s how I look at the band’s sound. Sometimes it’s smooth and pretty, sometimes hard and gritty. My influences are varied and run all over the place from jazz, classic country, blues and punk.”
Youngstown and Cedars Lounge were frequent stops when the band was together.
“Since I had been going to Cedars since my teens to see bands, it was the natural choice and the only place we played in Youngstown,” Young said. “It got so that we built a pretty strong following and before long, we were packing the place about once a month. Tommy Simon loved us. He’d pull out his datebook after every show and book the next couple of months. It was like a second home to us.”
Young left the band in 1998 for personal reasons and the Swagger Kings continued for a while with other lead singers. Talk of a reunion started started earlier this year among the former bandmates on Facebook after Eber’s current band, Stunt Cycle, announced a Youngstown gig.
“I hadn’t seen Eric in more than 20 years, so I went out to see the band and catch up with an old friend,” Young said. “(We) started talking about doing some reunion shows or at least trying to rehearse or get together to reminisce.”
Most of the first rehearsal was spent trading stories of their time together and going through Faith’s scrapbook of old articles, clippings and photos.
“The stories! The time we moved all the motel furniture in our room outside in Toledo, the time we put all the pool furniture in the pool at 3 a.m., those nights we slept eight (or more) people in one motel room or drove all the way to New York City in a Ryder moving van with no seats. The memories made me laugh so hard my sides hurt for two days,” Young said.
They’ve been rehearsing monthly in preparation for Saturday’s concert, which is the only reunion show currently planned.
“We have some new songs and some of our originals. I wouldn’t say we’re at our ‘fighting weight’ of where we used to be when we played out every weekend, but it feels good to be playing music with these guys again.”