All The Kings Men
For many musicians, having fans hear their decades-old music is as scary as having a potential partner view long-out-of-fashion high school photos: There are some things that are best left buried in the past. But for Chris Daniels and the Kings, looking back on past endeavors has never been so rewarding. Daniels and his royal cohorts are currently celebrating the reissue of the band's entire catalogue , a record-release marathon that begins with this week's unearthing of an eighteen-song career retrospective.
"I listen to some of our '80s stuff, and I can hear the hairdos in those songs," Daniels says, laughing. That's not the only retro kick he's getting out of his act's upcoming release. The Kings' latest platter is being released by K-tel, the company most of us associate with compilations of vintage disco, glam rock and Freddy Fender, all pitched to weary late-night TV watchers. Will Denverites be seeing Daniels and his mates between pre-dawn infomercials? "I sure hope so," Daniels chuckles, "but I don't think you're going to see my ugly puss up there with Slim Whitman or anything."
Folks around the nation, however, will soon be getting crowned with a serious dose of the Kings. Following the release of their new compilation, Choice Cuts -- The Best of Chris Daniels & the Kings...So Far, K-tel will reprint the Kings' first seven recordings; next spring the company will release a disc of their new material. All jokes about the somewhat strange label choice aside, Daniels couldn't be happier about this development. "Our goal with K-tel," Daniels says, "wasn't so much to get the old records out, but to get the money to do new records. The thing I'm most excited about is the distribution. We're going to be in the Virgins and the Borders and the Tower Records all over the country."
K-tel's distribution power stems from the company's deep-seated marketing roots. Philip Kives, a Canadian entrepreneur, founded the company in 1962 and was a pioneer of television marketing in the '60s and '70s. He had previously carved a marketing niche by selling household products and convenience gadgets on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. After accelerating his campaign and taking his pitches to after-hours TV audiences, Kives ventured into music licensing and began trading in music compilations and reissues, and K-tel was born. In the '80s, says K-tel spokesman Bill Hallquist, the company drifted from the public eye -- and its TV sets -- when failed K-tel side ventures drove the company into bankruptcy. Hallquist says the company is now returning to its former music-reissue roots, though in a more measured fashion. "It's really hard to put together good compilations nowadays," Hallquist says, "because the people with the huge tracks, they control their material and put out their own compilations." (See the entire K-tel catalogue at ktel.com. )
Hallquist says K-tel's current plan is to enter into agreements with smaller artists who have extensive, but more affordable, catalogues. Daniels fit that bill nicely, and he'll be among other recent K-tel signees, including such notables as Johnny Rivers, Tony DiFranco, Eric Leeds (a former Prince sideman), Jimmy Spheris and Doug Kershaw. Daniels came to the attention of K-tel through David Beisell, a Minneapolis music marketer with Tunesmith Productions. K-tel's new president, Ken Onstad, liked what he heard and agreed to acquire Daniels's back catalogue.
However, Hallquist notes, the band's K-tel output will actually appear on Nouveau Records, a K-tel subsidiary. "K-tel has an image of cheesiness," Hallquist says, "and a lot of that is deserved. We're aware of our past, and in fact, we look back at it quite fondly. There is a kitschiness about K-tel that we all know and love." But that affection may not help sell new music, he says, hence the Nouveau moniker. What makes a successful K-tel/Chris Daniels record? "I think if we sell 15,000 to 20,000 units of a Chris Daniels record, we'll be okay," he says, "though we certainly hope to sell many more than that."
Daniels shouldn't have too much trouble moving those kinds of units. He estimates he's sold close to 100,000 units over the course of his career. He got his start in Massachusetts after dropping out of school at seventeen to play music full-time. At age eighteen he spent six months playing rhythm guitar for David Johansen, who would go on to front the New York Dolls before morphing into his loungeman alter ego, Buster Poindexter. ("David's funny," Daniels notes. "He says, 'I made my first hits by wearing my mom's clothes and my second hits by wearing my dad's.'") Daniels moved to Colorado in 1971 and played in various local bands, including Boulder's Magic Music. ("We were Leftover Salmon before there was a Leftover Salmon," Daniels says.) After leaving the area to earn a music degree, he returned to the local band circuit in the early '80s and later served a two-year stint as a multi-instrumentalist with the Amazing Rhythm Aces and their leader, Russell Smith. When Smith decided to take time off from touring, Daniels and his bandmates learned a set of R&B tunes and Little Feat covers and played a show at Boulder's Blue Note in March 1984,and the Kings were born.
After building a following on the local circuit, the Kings hit the road and had a hit with "When You're Cool the Sun Shines All the Time" in 1987. The video for the tune, Daniels says, gained a significant amount of play on VH1 and reached number one on many of the alternative stations around the United States. Other Kings songs -- including "Is My Love Enough," "An American Tragedy" and "Black Cat" -- had chart success in the latter part of the decade, both here and in Europe. (The Kings continue to sell records and tour for lengthy stretches in Europe each summer.)
These tunes appear on Choice Cuts,along with selected cuts from the band's more recent platters, including 1998's Louie Louie, the group's wonderful collection of jump blues and swing done in tribute to Louis Jordan and Louis Armstrong. The newer cuts show the band at its peak, with smart, tradition-honoring arrangements that bristle with incendiary chops from Daniels's bandmates. (The current Kings are: guitarist Colin Jones, drummer Randy Ahmen, bassist Kevin Lege, keyboardist Dean Ledoux, trumpeter Darryl Armstrong and saxman Bryan Burton.) As you might expect from any act's Reagan-era catalogue , the band's older tunes don't hold up quite so well. "Depot Street," with its synthy drums and poppy feel, calls to mind Men at Work fronting the News, with a few Boomtown Rats touches thrown in for extra flavor. "Gloria (Come Back to the Record Store)" is Me Generation dance-club soul that tastes of Meat Loaf. And though these types of dated stylings can mar retrospectives, Daniels isn't bothered by them.
"I have to put them in context," he says. "And what goes through my mind is that they're good songs. Yeah, maybe we did sound a little like Huey Lewis, but it stands right up there with anything they did."
Choice Cuts also sports a dose of fresh songs that shows the band in their modern, more flattering form. "It Could Have Been Worse" is bluesy barroom rock, complete with rich Blood, Sweat & Tears-style horns, head-cutting guitar solos and Daniels's white-soul shouting. It's solid bar-band stuff that fans of Delbert McClinton's roadhouse rock will find user-friendly. "That song is the closest to the newer stuff we're doing," Daniels notes, "and the new record is probably going to be pretty punchy. We've always been blues-based," he adds, "and we kind of follow that wherever it goes. And that means out into funk and back into swing. One of the reasons we did Louie Louie was that we don't play blues with the traditional three chords."
That bending of the shapes has been one reason the Kings have survived decades of changing fashions. "We're always doing new music," Daniels says. "We've always been trying to come up with ways to screw around with the forms. You take a Zydeco, second-line drum beat and then on top of that you put a horn section that works like an Irish jig. And into that you do a song with lyrics about the old underground railroad."
The band's other secret to longevity, Daniels says, "is that I'm playing with the best musicians in the world and we get off on how we all play. On any given evening, one of our soloists will just explode, and the whole band starts following them. That's the stuff we thrive on, and I think that's why people keep coming to see us. There's almost a direct line that goes from Louis Armstrong to somebody like Jerry Garcia," he adds. "Louie was the guy who sort of invented the long solo and the idea of taking it to a whole new ground. Well, we've got a lot of that."
For example, Daniels sites a recent show in which saxman Burton planted the lick from an old Alka-Seltzer jingle into his solo. "He worked that 'plop-plop, fizz-fizz, oh what a relief it is' melody into the middle of this outside solo," he recalls. "I was like, 'Where did that melody come from?' He said, 'I had heartburn, man.'"
Until this past January, Daniels was splitting his musician time with his role as the executive director for the Swallow Hill Music Association, a position he held for more than four years. "He was the best leader we've ever had and the biggest cheerleader we've ever had," says Meredith Carson, Swallow Hill's concert director. "He worked harder than anybody I've ever seen." Carson says Daniels's skills stretched from scrubbing floors to separating corporate donors from much-needed funding for Swallow Hill. "He was fearless," she says, "because he really believed in what we do here." He also led the group's charge to secure its new facilities. Before Daniels left, his family made a large contribution to the group's capital campaign to help pay for its new home. (Daniels's father is a former agri-business exec, and not, as some musicians have wondered, the "Daniels" of Denver's late May D&F retailers.) That donation and Daniels's fervent director efforts led the Swallow Hill board to recently rename their largest music space "Daniels Hall."
Since leaving Swallow Hill's helm, Daniels has kept busy. He's increased his songwriting efforts and begun shopping tunes to other artists (his "I'm Still Looking" will be the title track to Hazel Miller's upcoming release). He also hopes to finalize a soundtrack scoring job with a local filmmaker, an offer that sprang from Daniels's work as a studio musician. Daniels has done vocal and guitar jingle work for Ford, United, Cascadian Farms, McDonald's, Qdoba and many other companies, work he says has helped him hone his chops while fleshing out his music-making income. If some see that as a diluting of one's craft, Daniels can defend it.
"I did a United thing that ran for about four months," he says. "Every time I got on the plane, I'd hear my guitar playing. Now, that's really a treat. One of the things that's tough for all musicians," he adds, "is figuring out how to make a living and also figuring out how to do what's in your heart. I'm lucky, because a lot of times -- not all the time -- I can combine both. That's really the key. And hell, it beats the hell out of selling shoes."
For the foreseeable future, the selling of Chris Daniels and the Kings will be the job of K-tel's marketing team, an arrangement that suits Daniels just fine. "It really is dreamy," Daniels says. "I couldn't have imagined a year ago that I could have a record deal and be working on films and commercials. And that people would be saying, 'Yeah, we love this old catalogue. And not only that, we want to do a best-of record and give you money to do a new record.' Okay, twist my arm."
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