Keeping that Big Band Sound Swinging in the 21st Century
Doc Scantlin and His Imperial Palms Orchestra tour the world, but he and his wife Chou Chou call Chesapeake Country home
by Jennifer Moreland
Dressed in black from his spats to his tails, the bandleader playfully taps his baton in the air as he weaves behind the microphone, part maestro, part entertainer. Doc spins to address the audience with full grin and eyes lit. The 13-piece orchestra behind him belts the Louis Prima classic, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” made famous by Benny Goodman, as Doc waves his magic baton, enticing the audience to step up to the wooden platform and dance. Inhibitions are cast aside, all in favor of fun and romance.
Sing, sing, sing, sing. Everybody’s got to sing. Stick with us; we’ll have a ball.
When the song ends, the lights fade as a spotlight highlights a platinum beauty gliding on stage. Cabaret singer Chou Chou pauses before the audience to embrace them with an inviting gesture and a glance that meets every gaze. As the piano plays the intro to “La Vie En Rose,” her theme song, her scarlet lips lift a breathy whisper to a crescendo of the story she tells with voice, eyes and body. The audience stares breathless, lost in her reverie of love and longing.
Darkness lifts and the band pipes in again only to settle down to the soft sounds of piano with the Cole Porter classic, “Love for Sale.” Three vampy chorus girls slink on stage wearing not much more than lingerie, striking the opening chorus in full harmony. Their bodies shift as they sway their arms and thrust their legs in perfect time with one another, sirens calling you to their pleasures.
Swept up in the Big Band Current
For some inexplicable reason, I am drawn to the music and culture of the 1920s through the World War II era. It just seems the way music should be. There is so much joy in being able to perform this music but even greater joy in seeing the audiences’ enjoyment of it.
In the 1920s, jazz reigned in America and abroad, and the big band’s swinging leaders Duke Ellington and Paul Whiteman set the nation dancing to a frenzy that remains unmatched. Supper clubs, cafes and dance halls filled with these glorious sounds while couples moved in sync.
Big-band music and dancing were a great escape during three tumultuous decades in world history. The music from this period is comparable to the music of the 1960s, another turbulent decade, in its power to stir listeners. The electric guitars and subversive lyrics of the 1960s era unleashed rebellious roars of wild applause and dancing. The bright and booming sound of a big band orchestra swirled listeners into its current.
“Dancing was how you met people,” Scantlin explains.
Big bands spent much of their time on the road, playing all over the country in every kind of venue, with their popularity based on grass-roots support. Exhilarated by these live performances, people went out to buy the band’s recordings and created all sorts of dances to accompany the songs. Before television, dancing was one of America’s favorite pastimes, a rite of passage in young adulthood and a way to discover romance on a safe level. With the loosening social code, dancing has become more self-exhibition.
Audience participation is central to the spirit of big band music. Dancing couples step and sway in time with one another, arms embracing and eyes gazing.
Times and musical tastes have changed, but they haven’t swept away the force and beauty of the big-band orchestra.
Doc Scantlin Swizzles Still
We love to perform this music, but it’s more than just notes on paper. It’s trying to recreate the period with costumes and arrangements to make a show that encompasses all the styles of the era: the romantic, the sophisticated, the energized and the bizarre.
In the 21st century, Doc Scantlin and His Imperial Palms Orchestra preserve the big band essence. Playing in and around Washington for more than a decade with performances at supper clubs, society balls and weddings, they’ve won the Washington Area Music Association’s Best Big Band award three times and have been praised by Forbes magazine writer Jeff Turrentine as the Best Band in the Country.
Together, band, bandleader and singer stage a show that is unforgettable from its flawless renditions of big band classics to the performers’ vintage costuming. In recent years, the band’s popularity has carried them to the famed Rainbow Room in New York City and to Hong Kong. The list of weddings the band has performed reads like the pages of Vogue magazine, with Princess Marie Chantel, Alexander Von Furstenburg and Estee Lauder’s granddaughters all making the cover.
The band’s new gig, Swizzle, summons a 1930s-era supper club right in the heart of Washington at the Reagan building and International Trade Center off Pennsylvania Avenue. Swizzle offers dinner and a show with a twist: guests sit down with strangers at a 10-person table. According to Doc, guests overcome any initial discomfort and walk away with a renewed sense of community and possibly with new friends.
Despite the prestige and glamour of the band’s high-profile events, the home-town stage is where Doc says the band has the most fun. “Folks are not there to impress everybody with their jewels, but to have a good time,” says Doc of his Chesapeake Country audience.
At Home with the Scantlins
Today’s music is either syrupy or anxiety ridden, 180 degrees from the romance and fun of songs like “Cheek to Cheek.”
While a high schooler in the mid 1990s, I became an old-movie buff hooked on Turner Classic Movies and a devoted fan of singers like Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. Spurning most music of my time, I found an after-school job with Doc and Chou Chou Scantlin. For two years, the nostalgia and glamour of the golden era they embody enchanted my life.
From the moment I stepped into their cozy cottage along the Chesapeake, I knew I had stepped into the world of my dreams. Original 1930s’ sheet music graced the piano; sheer, polka dot curtains lined the windows of the dining room; hand-painted cherries bordered the kitchen walls; every piece of furniture, including the kitchen appliances, was vintage.
I never caught Doc or Chou Chou wearing sweatshirts or jeans. Doc sported overalls and puffed a cigar while working on his ’37 Buick; Chou Chou fussed about the kitchen in house dress, high heels and apron. On one occasion, a sales clerk at a local department store checked out her getup and asked, “Who you supposed to be? Madonna?”
Much of their clothing comes from vintage stores around the metropolitan area. “The antique clothing stores in Richmond are the prime sources for our costuming. We are lucky that the southern aristocracy is dying off, so our wardrobe can expand at a reasonable cost,” says Doc about their second-hand finery. Chou Chou is also a skilled and imaginative seamstress.
They practice old-fashioned mannerisms and morality as well. Chou Chou’s cleaning, cooking and doting would make Donna Reed proud. And Doc’s good nature is straight out of Mayberry. He admires the ethic of the depression-era Midwest. “My grandparents used to tell me that they would walk a mile in the dark if someone turned their light on in the middle of the night,” says Doc, “just to see if they were okay.”
Doc and Chou Chou are unique characters, never bending to society’s expectations. They aren’t concerned with being hip, just pleasing themselves. As an adolescent surrounded by pressure and the desire for approval, I found my retreats to their house liberating.
As Doc’s assistant, occasionally I worked an event as stagehand. Once, when the band performed at the Ritz, I unloaded heavy speakers through the hot, sticky summer air, all to catch a glimpse of a Carmen Miranda look-alike leading a swerving congo line or giddy grown men blowing bubbles at Chou Chou, while she winked and smiled her way through “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” That night, world-famous tango dancers took to the floor, stalking back and forth with verve. My muscles ached from the lifting, but my heart soared.
I relished Doc and Chou Chou’s stage performances with their caricatures in full swing, Doc resembling an animated Cab Calloway and Chou Chou transformed into a sultry screen goddess. I loved it that even at home the couple never fell out of character, so integrated was it with their own personalities.
I think it is part of our fundamental nature to desire contact with others. I enjoy talking with people tremendously, and my performing is about making people happy.
Born and raised in Michigan, Doc began playing a coronet in the high school band, later forming the Dixie Land Diamonds with his brother Stanley. He preferred mostly folk and country in his early 20s, playing banjo in a string of wild jug bands. His first major success was an old-time country band started in Nashville called the Red Hot Peppers. Doc’s taste moved to big band because it roused the audience more. In the early 1980s, Doc Scantlin formed the Imperial Palms Orchestra as a haven for Washington-area musicians and vocalists with the knack and personality for big band music.
“Novelty is a big factor in the success of the band. People don’t want to watch their neighbor drinking Coors Light on their deck. They want to see something out of the ordinary. To perform a novel act, you have to have talent, shtick or both,” Doc explains.
With raw musical talent and a shtick inspired by old movies, Doc composed his caricature big band leader. Some years later, Doc discovered Chou Chou performing cabaret style, lounging on top of a pink piano in Richmond. He didn’t skip a beat, inviting her to join his act, the Gracie Allen to his George Burns. Not long after, the two married.
The couple are remarkably comfortable together, sharing mutual admiration for each other’s eccentricities. Onstage, the two cuddle and coo while blending their voices in “Shuffle off to Buffalo.” Offstage, Doc marvels at Chou Chou’s artistry, whether culinary, interior decorating or costume design. Chou Chou admires his other-worldliness, appreciating him as a time traveler who’s found his way back to an era where he belongs.
The Creation of Chou Chou
Even though the band could never do without her, Chou Chou alsways laughs and says, ‘I’m not a singer — just an actress pretending to be.
There is no mistaking that some of the most famous 20th century vocalists — Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, Bette Midler — had less than perfect vocal quality. But each mastered the art of capturing their audience so well that the vocal perfection fell to the wayside. With a glance, Chou Chou can pull your heart strings, and with a swing of the hips, she pulls all eyes to her. While singing, she has no qualms about pulling a gent from the audience and, in Jessica Rabbit fashion, nuzzling him with her boa until he is dizzy with adoration.
Chou Chou grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, but her life was far from small-town normal. Her mother had been an actress in Hollywood during the 1930s and ’40s, appearing in a string of B movies, including the Janie series. Throughout her young life, Chou Chou thrived on drama and music. She performed with the National Shakespeare Company in her 20s, then modeled swimsuits and worked as a cocktail waitress to make ends meet. Further down the road, her career as a cabaret singer took off as she developed a repertoire of romantic ballads and curve-fitting costumes.
When Chou Chou joined Doc’s band, she altered her stage image to include only period clothing and makeup, dying her brunette locks platinum blond and personalizing her wardrobe with big-band era precision. She also took over the responsibility of costuming the chorus girls. She adorned the “bandanna babies” with Minnie Mouse dresses and frilly bows for their dancing numbers and has since outfitted many new acts. Over the years Chou Chou’s feminine touches have heightened the drama and glamour of the show.
Playing for the Home Crowd
“I feel like we’re coming out,” Chou Chou said after she and Doc accepted an invitation to perform in Calvert County, their home and hideaway. After years of puzzled looks in grocery stores and parking lots, the odd couple had grown comfortable with their standing as local mysteries.
“Usually,” Doc says, “we are recluses while we’re home because we’re so busy dealing with everything we can’t get to on the road.”
On the night of March 19 the Chesapeake Ballroom of the Holiday Inn Select in Solomons transforms into a lavish 1920s’ Parisian nightclub for Doc and the band. Scenery and setting are art deco, with martini and wine bars, cigarette girls selling raffle tickets and guests dressed in period costume. As Doc says, “it’ll be a show.”
6:30-11pm Saturday, March 19 at Holiday Inn Select, Solomon. RSVP; $65: 410-257-7005.
About the Author
Calvert native Jennifer Moreland learned about the wider world as a teenage assistant to the Scantlins. This is her first story for Bay Weekly.