Crazy About ‘Old Things’
Dave Stuckey and the Hot House Gang swing back into Rusty’s Rhythm Club
By Bliss Bowen
Whether listening to him whoop while fronting his Hot House Gang onstage or discussing Louis Armstrong (his favorite singer) and early 20th-century jazz, it’s hard not to be warmed by Dave Stuckey’s positivity. It’s like a beam of sun shining through his deft covers of standards like “(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost of a Chance” and clever originals such as “Optimisticize” on the recently released “How’m I Doin’?!,” his first album with the Hot House Gang.
That upbeat attitude, coupled with ace musicianship, is integral to the witty, swinging sound Stuckey and the Hot House Gang honed over three years playing 1920s-era jazz for dancers at
the Culver Hotel, a residency that wrapped up in August. On Wednesday they return to Rusty’s Rhythm Club in Playa del Rey.
Friendly and grounded, Stuckey has long been a familiar figure in Western swing circles, leading his own Rhythm Gang and drumming as sideman with ensembles like the Lucky Stars and Lil’ Mo & the Dynaflos. But his love of 1920s jazz taps into something deeper.
“I don’t think any of us can dream that we can play this music on a level of a Fats Waller, but to at least capture the spirit of it and get it right in form is something I’m always trying to shoot for,” Stuckey explains. “And of course, doing your job as a swing band, the test is, can you play for a dance? If the dance floor is full, you’re doing your job. … If you’re playing a gig and people are listening to your songs, and you can tell they’re with you — as a musician, that’s the greatest feeling you can ever have. I can’t play in a vacuum, just play and walk off. If you’re not getting anything back it’s deadly.”
“How’m I Doin’?!” balances lively originals with covers that reflect Stuckey’s astute taste like Lester Young’s “I Never Knew” and the New Orleans chestnut “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble.”
“The reservoir is endless of great songs from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s,” he says. “It’s fun to dig deeper and maybe find a blues song and try it as a jazz song and then see what happens. I’m just crazy about the old stuff.”
Stuckey also savors the disciplined challenge of playing percussion and woodblock with Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys, a “1920s pop” ensemble. (“The drums weren’t the timekeepers, the piano was; the hi-hat wasn’t even invented then.”) He laughingly says his engaging musical curiosity mostly applies to “pre-rock forms,” his passion for which he credits to a lifelong fascination with “old things.”
“It’s not nostalgia, because you can’t be nostalgic for something you never knew in the first place. It’s more that you find something that speaks to you and everything goes from there. As long as I can remember, and I’m not even sure what got me started on it — family talking? — I just loved old things. In grade school, I was checking out old radio shows on cassettes from the library.”
Growing up in Kansas City, he bought his first jazz 78s in high school, “partly due to the influence of R. Crumb and Leon Redbone,” he says. “The cool thing about living in Kansas City if
your ears are open is you can’t help but hear people talk about the great jazz history there — a little later, the ’30s and ’40s on up — the crazy tradition of mobsters and jazz, and Joe Turner singing as a bartender on 12th Street.”
But Stuckey thought that music “was all gone and it was something you read about, like hieroglyphics,” so he stuck to playing rock ‘n’ roll as a kid. He moved to Los Angeles in 1984 and by the late ’80s had formed a band with Randy Weeks, “mining that Delmore Brothers harmony thing” that Weeks had previously explored with the Lonesome Strangers.
By the early ’90s, Stuckey was performing and recording with the Dave & Deke Combo, his critically acclaimed hillbilly partnership with six-string badass Deke Dickerson. (They continue to work together when schedules permit; Stuckey says they’re returning to the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend in April, and they may play a concert in Spain next year.)
In 2000, HighTone released Stuckey’s solo album “Get a Load of This,” a fun Western swing set whose jaunty rendition of Benny Goodman’s “Pick-a-Rib, Pt. 1” hinted at the direction he’d later take with the Hot House Gang.
Widely respected and liked by peers, Stuckey’s advice for musicians and songwriters starting out now in L.A.’s music scene is refreshing.
“You have to play something that you love. … If you don’t like what you’re doing, how can you sell it to people? You don’t have to sell it in any other way than be joyful in playing it. People will respond to it; they just will. You can’t be cynical about music. You just can’t. It’s too important.”
Dave Stuckey and the Hot House Gang play at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18, at Rusty’s Rhythm Club at the Elks Lodge, 8025 W. Manchester Ave., Playa del Rey. $15. Call (310) 606-5606 or visit facebook.com/hothousegang and rustyfrank.com.