Kid Creole and the Coconuts: how we made I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby

Had it not been for my brother, Stony, I would have remained a school teacher. He made fun of my job to such an extent that eventually I decided to join his group, Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, as the bass player.

Our first album went gold, and we went to California to record the follow-up but it all imploded: madness, egos, and drugs for some band members. When I told the vocalist, Cory Daye, that I was forming my own band and would be the lead singer, she laughed right in my face. I had a lot to prove.

I drove all the way from California to New York, and on that journey, envisaged Kid Creole and the Coconuts, a band that didn’t do drugs or have lunacy in the studio. In the Savannah Band I’d modelled my style on 1930s/40s jazz singer and showman Cab Calloway, and I created Kid Creole as an extreme version of that, a sort of lounge lizard/bon vivant or what an ex-girlfriend called a “lovable rogue”. I’d always wanted to be an actor, and played Kid Creole so well that I began to like him more than August Darnell.

Growing up in the Bronx, I’d been surrounded by ethnic diversity, so envisaged the Coconuts as a multiracial, mixed-gender band. Coati Mundi, on vibraphone and vocals, had been in the Savannah Band as Sugarcoated Andy but changed his name to avoid the association. Female bass players were uncommon then, but we hired Carol Colman because she was such a badass player. My then wife, Adriana Kaegi, who was a dancer and backing vocalist, led, recruited and choreographed the Coconuts. She wanted a sophisticated group of girls who looked liked her.

I listened to country, jazz and Caribbean music and our music was the same melting pot as the people. We were on ZE Records, but co-founder Michael Zilkha wanted bigger things for us and sent us to audition for Sire/Warner. The vice-president, Seymour Stein, fell asleep during the audition but woke up and said: “Yeah yeah, I’ll sign them.”

We broke in clubs and discos, then went from the hipster scene to the mainstream with I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby. The label hated the title because they thought people would go: “Who does this guy think he is?!” But I refused to change it. I’d married a beautiful woman, had success with the Savannah Band and thought I was the business. I got away with it because of the clothes – zoot suits, baggy trousers and a fedora – and a knowingly raised eyebrow. I knew the song would become my calling card – even today at my ripe, old age, people come up to me and go: “I’m a wonderful thing, baby.”

I’d just come out of music school with a degree in classical music and had studied jazz composition with the drummer and composer Max Roach. A friend who ran a vintage clothes shop introduced me to August. I was so eager to get into the music business that none of the things I’d heard about him being crazy and a Studio 54 in-crowder put me off. The end of disco and the beginning of the new wave in the early 80s was a very exciting time in New York – fashion, supermodels. We rehearsed solidly but it was always fun.

The drummer, Winston Grennan, had been in Bob Marley and the Wailers. I’d studied Beethoven but was surrounded by all these funkmeisters, and was thinking: “What am I doing here?” I’d never written pop music but gave August a tape containing a groove with some instrumental melodies that were the start of I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby.

I hadn’t done any orchestration, so we were busy humming melodies for Charlie Lagond, who played sax and clarinet. I had a vocal melody but the only lyric was “It’s a wonderful thing, baby.” My idea was that love was a wonderful thing, but August [who wrote the rest of the lyrics], being as egotistical as he was, insisted on changing “It’s” to “I’m” and, obviously, he was right.

August had come from a humble upbringing and wanted to create this larger-than-life persona who was different to who he was. We were strict about rehearsing but it was a wild time. On tour, we never knew what would happen next. One night there was this enormous explosion, and everyone on stage thought it was a bomb. I said to the tour manager: “I’m only the piano player, but you might have told us you were going to use pyrotechnics.”

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