10/05/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Before the zoot suits, the Big Album and the TV gigs with Leno and Letterman, singer Steve Perry, 35, and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies looked like a band on the run—from-sanity. Once, Perry came onstage in a diaper and poured chocolate over himself. ("There were about 15 people in the audience, and he pretty much disgusted everyone," remembers bass player Dan Schmid, 35.) Roman togas came next. Then there was the night Perry took a hammer to a bunch of ghastly black velvet paintings he'd brought onstage. ("It was a really dumb idea," he says with a shrug.)
In the end, what worked best for the eight-man band from Eugene, Ore., was their music—a time-warp mix of '40s-style swing, jump blues and up-tempo dance tunes. Their album Zoot Suit Riot has sold more than a million copies since its release last year, and its title song has boogied onto college radio stations across the country. Suddenly, the Daddies have joined bands like L.A.'s Royal Crown Revue, Chapel Hill's Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Brian Setzer Orchestra in leading America's swing-music revival.
The group started nine years ago when chemistry major Perry and his classmate Schmid quit the University of Oregon to form a band. Perry knew only three guitar chords, the drummer played the drums only "because he had some," says Schmid, "and I had big hands so I took up the bass." Playing in local taverns and clubs and in a hodgepodge of styles at first, the band grew slowly as it improved. Of course, not everyone embraced the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. There was, for example, the woman who told Perry she was most offended by the band's name; he ignored the complaint. After all, Perry points out, "We were standing near a poster for another band called Vomit Launch."
Gradually, the group's focus on '40s-style music sharpened. Then, two years ago, the band was scolded by a fellow musician for their unprofessional look—grungy T-shirts and dirty denim cutoffs—and soon after began suiting up in hepcat threads and two-tone shoes. At last, says Matt Moss, brother of guitarist Jason Moss, "the look matched the music and put them in the position to go to the next level."
The next level was a tour of Europe, followed by one in the U.S. this fall and a new CD expected next year. Star-moves to Hollywood, however, are not in the plans. "Eugene has a small town vibe," says a contented Schmid. "We're just regular guys here."
David Cobb Craig
Paula Yoo in Eugene