The Genres: Sean Daly on Neo-Swing
Forget about those Squirrel Nut Zippers: You wanna know who’s really responsible for the rebirth of swing? Heather Graham. That’s right: sweet, sexy, saucer-eyed actress Heather Graham.
You don’t believe me? Listen up: The year was 1996, the movie was Swingers, and the blond beauty (still a year away from strapping on the skates as Rollergirl in Boogie Nights) didn’t show up in the hip indie hit until the final act. But when she did—catching the eye of sad-sack Jon Favreau, pulling his pudgy bum onto the dance floor, twirling her curves to the bouncing beat of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy—well, Heather Graham single-handedly made it acceptable for otherwise oblivious club kids to lace up the two-toned spectator shoes and button down the smart suits.
Just like that, a revolution commenced: Friendly neighborhood brew pubs from Harrisburg, Pa., to Bodega Bay, Calif., started hosting swing lessons taught by oily, outcast hipsters who were suddenly oh-so-in. The high-school heroes and the high-school hopeless—not to mention the tight-ass yuppies and the lazy-ass slackers—finally found something to bond over. Cherry Poppin’ Daddies nestled next to Pearl Jam at the top of the modern-music charts with the raucous “Zoot Suit Riot.” Brian Setzer, who gave modern rockabilly cred with the Stray Cats in the ’80s, morphed into a Benny Goodman with tasteless tattoos and a bad-boy sneer and toured the world behind a best-selling album of old and new swing tunes. Not surprisingly, even more swing-influenced flicks showed up on the silver screen, including Brendan Fraser’s unfortunate bomb Blast From the Past.
And maybe, most importantly, there was finally something for the family to talk about at the dinner table: “If you think Royal Crown Revue is phat, Junior, you should check out Artie Shaw!”
Swing’s elder statesmen might not have been too keen on the noisy new fad—original swing was significantly statelier and slower than the new sound, which flirts with elements of jump blues and rock ’n’ roll as well—but thanks to the fresh crop of buzz-generating bands, record companies cracked the vaults and reissued hundreds of digitally remastered recordings from the ’30’s and ’40s.
Swing fever has mellowed some in the new millennium, but don’t hold that Brown Derby funeral just yet: With the men counting their money in the back bar, there’s a bevy of lovely ladies—most notably San Francisco phenom Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, and Ingrid Lucia and the Flying Neutrinos—hovering just under the pop-culture radar who mix pure sex, pure talent and pure showmanship in a positively irresistible cocktail. That Bettie Page lookalike with the thigh-high black stockings and the Billie Holiday hush—she’s your Next Big Thing right there.
So there you go: Some 60 years after Count Basie and Chick Webb stomped at the Savoy in a battle of the bands—Basie being the sweat-soaked winner in a 12-round knockdown—swing is, sort of, once again the thing. And no matter what the difference in sound and attitude, the song gleefully remains the same: Cut loose. Dance fast. Have fun.
And don’t forget that you heard it here first: The swing shift was all started by a beautiful blond woman, and chunky-but-funky man, and a randy match of eyeball tennis across a crowded bar. Thank you, Heather. Thanks for everything.
Originally published in September 2000