In 1998, Forbes magazine declared Doc Scantlin and His Imperial Palms Orchestra the “best band in America.” And that was before they attained a huge following for their entertainment value and focus on music of the 1930’s. Doc Scantlin’s Orchestra’s performance Friday night was likened by many in the audience to going to Birdland or other jazz clubs or cabarets in Manhattan. This magic flowed from the combination of the Orchestra and the setting at Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club.
Friday’s set list of 30 songs was a small sampling of the orchestra’s repertoire. I’ve been a fan of Doc Scantlin’s since he started his gig at the Kennedy-Warren’s ballroom in the mid-1980s and almost all of his songs have become favorites on my playlist. The audience seemed to agree with me. From the opening number, “Old Man Blues” to the closing classic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the packed tables of both dancers and non-dancing listeners were mesmerized. A non-scientific poll of repeat Scantlin fans and newbies, who comprised about one third of the audience, found unanimous intent to continue to follow Doc.
No comments on Doc Scantlin and His Imperial Palms Orchestra would be complete without emphasizing the importance of torch singer Chou Chou (pronounced shoe shoe). With her Barbie doll looks and breathy voice, Chou Chou graced most numbers either from the stage or while favoring older gentlemen in the audience. Her costuming and demeanor were completely true to the era. Her extraordinary vocal abilities were showcased in “J’Attendrai,” the story of a woman in a small village longing for the return of her soldier from World War I.
If forced to pick favorites from Friday’s set list, I would have to go with some of the less well-known music including the original “Happy Feet” from the eponymous 1929 movie, El CHOCLO,, one of the Latin song trio including “Amado Mio” and the always popular “Tequila,” “You Go To My Head” with vocals by Maggie Paxson, and Chou Chou’s “J’Attendrai.”
More well-known favorites included “Sweet Embraceable You,” with a fine trumpet work by Anthony Neenan, the timeless “St. James Infirmary,” “Man from Harlem,” aided by Jonathan Yanik on tenor sax, and “Sing, Sing, Sing” with Kyle Whelan’s outstanding clarinet lead.
The Girls, including Lyndsay (Maxie) Webb, Georgina (Giggi) Wilson, Shannon (Sugar) Vendemmia, and Maggie (Maggie) Paxson, individually and collectively added even more sparkle to the evening. All four are singers at heart but can rustle up the dance steps when needed. They appeared dressed as sophisticated ladies of the era in several numbers, as flappers in “Happy Feet,” and as riotous dancers during “Can Can.”
A review of the evening must include mention of “Creole Love Call.” It showcases the diversity of music of that era. For dancers, one of the pleasures of Doc Scantlin, is the variety of dance steps appropriate to the music. Some songs leant themselves to the ever popular swing, while others were meant for the foxtrot, the waltz or latin steps including tango and rhumba. Many on the dance floor happily ignored the distinctions and moved to the differing styles in the way most pleasant to them.
For fans who have wondered, Chou Chou’s other name is Elizabeth Downs. Doc lifted Chou Chou from a character in the 1932 Cary Grant film This Is the Night.
Why look for an old Victrola and your parents or grandparent’s unscratched sides when you can get the best of the era live from an evening spent with Doc Scantlin, Chou Chou, The Girls, and the 15-member Imperial Palms Orchestra?
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one-20 minute intermission.
Doc Scantlin and His Imperial Palms Orchestra performed on August 8, 2014 at Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club – 7719 Wisconsin Avenue, in Bethesda MD. The schedule and tickets for Doc Scantlin and his orchestra’s upcoming performances can be found here. Upcoming events at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz and Supper Club can be found on their website.