Money Plays 8 formed in Denver two decades ago. The nine-piece outfit, which broke up in 2002 and will play two twentieth-anniversary reunion shows on Saturday, May 6, quickly established itself as the area’s most popular swing band.
The musicians almost opened for Ray Charles on tour, but first the band had to audition for a few record-label reps and their wives.
“It’s pretty weird to play in front of these older cats that don’t smile or anything,” singer and founder James Leo says. “And then you got to do all your antics and shit.”
Although the label guys didn’t smile, they liked Money Plays 8.
“They bought us this round of shots,” Leo says. “We were going to open for Ray Charles and maybe put out a record or something. They hand us all the shots. They say, ‘Cheers and congratulations!’”
But then trumpet player Jason "Powderkeg" Dowe (who was number six of thirteen trumpeters the band went through) took a shot just as one of the reps’ wives came over.
“She was wearing this low-cut dress,” Leo says. “He takes a shot, and he spits down her cleavage. Yeah. That was the end of that.”
While Money Plays 8 didn’t get to open for Ray Charles, the group was quite successful in Denver at a time when the swing scene was having a revival thanks to California-based bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue and Chicago’s Mighty Blue Kings, as well the 1996 film Swingers.
Leo started Money Plays 8, whose name was borrowed from gambling lingo, with singer Craig Mills. He then added guitarist Mike Taveira, drummer Nick White, bassist Don Jerome and pianist Chris Alaimo. Leo’s friend Dan Schoen, who passed away in 2013, was the band’s original on-stage bartender, and introduced Leo to trombonist Dave Flomberg, who also brought in saxophonist Paul Dubbs.
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Money Plays 8's members wanted to steer clear of the ’90s grunge scene and return to the roots music that the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Beatles listened to, says Leo. Early on, the group, which performed its first gig on Kentucky Derby Day, was playing obscure covers by R&B and blues artists like Roy Milton and Amos Milburn.
“When we hit the ground, it sounded like we could claim them as our own, but we immediately started writing our own songs and ditched the covers,” Leo says.
Sporting suits and fedoras, Money Plays 8 built up a strong following playing the Kit Kat Club at Herb’s Hideout on Thursdays, across the street at the now-defunct Blue Room, and at 9th Avenue West (now La Rumba). It got to the point where the band was constantly busy for years and even flew out to play at Los Angeles’s famed venue the Derby, where parts of Swingers was filmed.
Part of the band’s shtick was its on-stage bartender, or “enabler,” as he was dubbed. Taking a cue from Morris Day and the Time, Leo says the enabler was part valet/part bartender, who would mix drinks for the band and hold up a mirror so the musicians could check their ties.
After releasing its 1998 debut, Yeah, Charlie!, which was distributed by Hep Cat Records, Money Plays 8 started work on a followup, Against All Odds, that same year, but they never finished it because they got so busy. Leo hopes to finish it someday.
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In the meantime, the act will record both of its twentieth-anniversary shows on Saturday. The first gig is a Kentucky Derby party in the parking lot of Bar Car that’s a benefit for the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and kicks off right after the famed horse race ends, approximately 4:20 p.m. The same night, Money Plays 8 headlines the Goosetown Tavern.
Leo says Bar Car’s owner, Jeremy Matzke, was responsible for getting the band back together. “Jeremy and I go back twenty years,” Leo says, “and he's been asking for a reunion for the last four years. We used to throw Kentucky Derby parties together at our houses.”
As a few of the members of Money Plays 8 live out of state, Leo says he doesn’t see the band starting to play on a regular basis if these show goes well – but it could turn into a yearly reunion.
Money Plays 8, 4:20 p.m. Saturday, May 6, the Bar Car, $10-$12; 10 p.m., Saturday, May 6, Goosetown Tavern, $10.