By Chandlor Henderson and Henry Houston
About 90 years after the 1920s swing craze that followed an influenza pandemic and World War I, Eugene-based band the Daddies were playing at a January 2011 European fashion show called Bread and Butter at the decommissioned Nazi-era airport Templehauf in Berlin.
“They set up a huge boxing arena with bars along the sides,” Daddies Saxophonist Willie Matheis tells Eugene Weekly. “And a stage for a band with a ring in the middle, kind of a ’20s period theme.”
Today, in the midst of a pandemic that has silenced most live music for a year and a half, Eugene’s hometown band the Daddies (formerly known as the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies) are returning to the stage. On Saturday, Oct. 2, the band plays at Sessions Music Hall, which remodeled one of its rooms for a 1920s feel.
The band’s peak in popularity was more than 20 years ago when their Zoot Suit Riot was in the Billboard charts. In the 2010s, the band’s twist on swing took the Daddies overseas and to more formal performance halls in the U.S. Today, the founder and songwriter Steve Perry is finding ways to branch out to new genres, something he’s done throughout most of his musical life, while also homing in on the vision of the band.
From the start of his music career and as he advanced as a musician, Perry has explored various genres, from garage rock to jazz. He says he wants to write music that’s challenging and also gets people dancing at shows.
Perry’s musical career began with the garage rock band called the Jazz Greats. After Perry heard punk band Salvation Army’s song “She Turns to Flowers” during a break at a Dead Kennedys show, he and the Jazz Greats broke up. He then started Saint Huck with future Daddies members, drummer Tim Arnold and bassist Dan Schmid.
The new band allowed Perry, Arnold and Schmid a new genre to work with: paisley underground, which fused psychedelic energy with prolific guitar and strong vocals.
“It was a great concept intellectually,” Perry says of Saint Huck. “But when we played shows people would sit on the ground.” But Perry wanted the crowds to interact with the music.
Unhappy with the state of Saint Huck, Perry listened to a tape from a six cassette compilation from the Smithsonian Institute of Jazz that his mother sent to him for his birthday in 1987. The compilation was arranged chronologically, he says, starting with Jelly Roll Morton and ending with free jazz. After hearing “Ko-Ko” by Duke Ellington, Perry decided to sell his Fender Stratocaster guitar and buy a 1940s vintage Leedy and Ludwig drum kit.
“I just started messing around with trying to write jazzy tunes,” Perry says, while also looking for someone to play standup bass. As he experimented with jazz on the instruments, he tells EW that he ended up writing the basics for future Daddies songs: “Dr. Bones” and “Cherry Poppin’ Daddies Strut.”
Struttin’ to Mainstream
Before the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were named, the bandmates lived in a house with about nine other people, from three different bands.
At the time, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bad Brains were popular, Perry says. “The idea would be to mix that style with swing and make music where people could dance,” he adds.
Originally they were called Mr. Wiggles — now associated with a children’s band, it was a reference to a song by Parliament that was spray painted on the band’s rehearsal space wall. But the band’s name changed while listening to a viper jive (a jazz genre from the ‘20s through ‘40s) record, Perry recalls.
“A voice cut through the room,” Perry says. “He says ‘I’ll be your Cherry Poppin’ Daddy Baby’ and we thought it was hilarious and perfect.”
Controversy over the name occurred pretty quickly, Perry says. After their first show at WOW Hall, Perry says he went off stage and Rich Glauber from the EW interviewed the band. “Once we were featured in EW the town started hating us.”
People in Eugene took issue with the name and felt so strongly about it people would sometimes picket their shows, Perry says.
But the Daddies kept doing shows and grew as a band. “We were big in Eugene briefly,” Perry says, “then we started touring in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco.”
The Daddies’ popularity grew, eventually getting popular in Southern California, home to ’90s ska band Reel Big Fish, who they toured with.
While touring with Reel Big Fish and Let’s Go Bowling, then-manager of the Daddies Howard Libes says he was often asked which album had horns on it. So Libes talked with Perry about releasing Zoot Suit Riot, a compilation album from previous records that had a few new songs with horns.
The Daddies released the album on July 1, 1997. Sales started out slow, Libes says, but by August 1998, the band sold one million copies of Zoot Suit Riot, later going double platinum after selling more than two million copies.
“I didn’t even realize it was happening because we were in Eugene working on an album,” Perry recalls. While recording, he says he received a call from an executive from Mojo Records, which had signed the Daddies and was a part of the media giant Universal Records.
“Then one day the guy says to me ‘Steve, I don’t care what you’re saying you have to get down to Davis [California] now’,” Perry says.
When Perry and the band arrived in Davis, Mojo had a tour bus waiting for them. Up to that point the Daddies had been touring in vans. “That was my ‘Oh, shit’ moment,” Perry says. After that everything changed. Universal started promoting the Daddies and shortly after that “Zoot Suit Riot” was on MTV.
After the Mainstream Success
Years after the Daddies’ mainstream success, they’d go on international tours, bringing their ska, punk and swing music to countries like Korea, Bulgaria and Germany in the 2010s. Recently in the U.S., Perry says the band has taken to performing arts venues, similar to Eugene’s Hult Center.
The band’s three upcoming albums indicate the Daddies are still defying genre stereotypes. But at 57 years old, Perry says he’s discovered a vision for the band that is now becoming clear to him.
Perry did take some time away from the Daddies when his wife, Yvette “Cherry” Perry, was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer in 2018. In the first year of her cancer treatment, Perry says he turned down gigs because he was his wife’s caregiver. She was given six months to live, he adds, but she’s still living beyond the diagnosis timeline.
His wife’s cancer hasn’t impacted the Daddies, Perry says. Before COVID-19, the band didn’t do tours, but he says that he would play single shows. “We’re not laying low intentionally,” he adds. “We’re just playing better venues.”
Meaning, the Daddies are playing performance halls. It’s a place for Perry to explain the different jazz genres that the Daddies play, but it is also a bit problematic, Perry says, because the Daddies are a dance band and no one is dancing at those venues.
“People don’t realize, because we came out of the underground, that we’re well versed and know what we’re doing,” he says of the band’s musical credentials. “It is more of an uptown audience. Some of our punk rock music isn’t going to fly there.”
With the performance hall concerts and recent albums, Perry says he wanted to show that the Daddies can play traditional jazz, pointing to the Rat Pack covers Please Return the Evening (2014), and hot jazz genre The Boop-a-Doo (2016). Playing those songs at performance halls was a way to prove to traditional swing fans that, “we’re not shitty at swing,” he says.
The Daddies originally planned to have their Oct. 2 Session show as an outlet for the band to run through the set they don’t do at performance centers — ska, punk and rockabilly. But the band brought back guitarist Chris Ward, who played with the band a few years ago, Perry says. Because having rehearsal during the pandemic is so difficult, it’s been easier to learn the swing songs, he adds.
Yet the pandemic has been a good time for Perry to write. He says the Daddies have three new albums on the horizon: swing, ska/pop and rockabilly. And the varied genres of those albums is a trend for the band. “The Daddies have never been limited to one style,” he adds. “We’ve been successful in certain ways, but if we had stuck to one style, we’d have been easier to market.”
The past year has been a time for Perry to reflect on the band and its musical vision, too, he says. He’s been following the first part of the vision of the Daddies when he first started the band and bought the drums and banjo and started playing swing-based music, he says. But a second part of the vision that he compares to the 1980s British ska band the Madness’ combination of lyrical themes of the working class with the Victorian era sounds of music hall.
“We’d deal with racism and working class issues like child abuse,” he says. “You take the traditional sounds of America — jazz — and plug that into a new kind of working class stories.” That’s been in earlier Daddies albums, like Zoot Suit Riot, Perry adds, though it was more cryptic. “But now there’s a lot more straightforward material, and it’s just more fun and danceable,” he says.