Aloha all you bachelor pad music lovers! Slip into your most vibrant Hawaiian shirt, pour yourself a frosty, rum-based pleasure beverage and sway to the gentle breezes wafting through your tiki hut while I tell you all about the hippest of hep cats to emerge from the greater Los Angeles area in years. Actually, crop-up in L.A. is probably a more accurate way to describe what The Martini Kings have done. They are not exactly the world famous, household name, sold-out Japanese tour types one usually associates with bands that "emerge." To be perfectly honest, I don't think I've ever seen them on a proper stage even though I have caught their act on numerous occasions. The Martini Kings can be found entertaining the folks who are hanging out by the snack bar down the hall when they take a break from watching the more famous band playing in the large room. From time to time, the revelers don't make it back to the main stage for quite a while because the vibe at the snack bar is even better than out front. I know; it's happened to me more than once. A few years back, I was unaware of Frank and Tony Marsico and the motley assortment of musicians and dancers who sit in with the brothers at various times at low-key tiki themed events throughout the Southland. Once they entered my radar, though, I made it a point to check them out whenever and wherever they set up and started playing beautiful lounge music.
To be honest, I'm a relatively new convert to the kind of Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman-informed music that The Martini Kings have mastered and made their own. For the majority of my music-digging life I have been into British Invasion (my gear fab fave rave!), '60s garage and instro, '70s punk and pop, '50s rockabilly and a smattering of just about everything else you could think of that a baby boomer who figured out that music is cool stuff while watching the Beatles on their first Ed Sullivan appearance might gravitate to over the course of forty-some odd years. I've had friends whose tastes have run toward bamboo furniture, jungle print bedding and large mugs with hideous faces on them, but for the longest time my only concession to such a lifestyle consisted of a healthy appreciation of loud shirts and a tolerance for the occasional Don Ho record. Once I saw the light, however, I jumped in with both feet. I built a tiki hut in my patio area. I've been collecting all kinds of Island themed mugs, books, clothes, palm trees, carved statues and fruity cocktail mixers. I've even stocked up on all the aforementioned exotica music. Somewhere along the way, at one or another of the tiki events I have been drawn to, I was witness to Frank Marsico's melodic vibes and Tony Marsico's swinging standup bass and found myself hooked.
I'm not positive when and where I first saw The Martini Kings, but it was probably in the small room below Bali Hai in San Diego a few years back at the pre-party for one of the Tiki Oasis events. One of the main reasons I don't remember much in the way of details about that night is because the bartender in the patio area had figured out a way to pack 15 ounces of high octane rum into a 12 ounce Mai Tai that tasted as fruity and delicious as any found at Trader Vic's. I had finished one and had a couple sips of a second in me before I realized I was on another astral plane. One of the only things I remember about the evening was dancing to the mellow beat of one of the best bands I had ever seen and wondering if I could get their CD at some local record shop when I came to my senses a few days later.
One of the next times I saw The Martini Kings was at a book signing for Sven Kirsten's coffee table tome, Tiki Modern, the follow-up to his Book of Tiki. This was at one of the ultra malls that have sprung up all over Southern California. There amid all the high-end restaurants, statuary, boutiques, fountains, shoe stores, manicured lawns, gadget shops and a trolley car or train or some such nonsense that moves the googaw happy idlers from shopping heaven to shopping heaven, The Martini Kings had set up their small combo. Frank on vibes and brother Tony on bass were joined by one of their various drum buddies and a slinky Asian gal doing some mesmerizing exotic dance. Even more intoxicating for me was a tiny table nearby on which were several stacks of CDs, a glass bowl and a small sign. The sign informed me that for ten bucks each I could pick up a number of releases by The Martini Kings. Luckily for me I only had twenties. I tossed my Andy Jackson in and grabbed my first two Martini Kings CDs. Dance of the Virgins features a slinky Asian dancer gal on the cover in a very minimal outfit with a flurry of feathers. Yup, the very same sultry exotic dancer. Her name is Erochica Bamboo and she stars in the Camp Burlesque DVD. I'll give you the low down on the DVD if the mailman can manage to get it here in time. Tikis and Bikinis features another pretty cover girl in the tiniest of bathing suits. The music might be all over the map, but the folks in marketing have a consistent concept of what sells modern lounge music.
The first one I swooned to is Tikis and Bikinis. This one is bouncy and filled with tropical bird sounds, angelic falsetto voices and ukulele heavy versions of standards such as (the ubiquitous) "Tiny Bubbles," "Sloop John B," "Quiet Village" and "Can't Help Falling in Love." There are a few originals here, "We're Uke'in," by Marsico and Brill and "My Ukulele," by Marsico and Johnson. I would imagine Tony is the coauthor of each because he plays the ukulele on the CD and both songs sing the praises of the quaint little Hawaiian instrument. The brothers are remarkably low-key as far as the display of any ego goes and generally not that informative on their CD covers, though, so I may never be sure. Through the magic of modern recording studio trickery, Tony was able to play his stand up bass and ukulele simultaneously while Frank did the same with vibes and various percussion instruments. In a live setting Frank occasionally grabs a couple drum sticks and adds some percussive fills, but I've never seen Tony bust out his uke. Maybe I just haven't been to enough shows yet. The Marsico Brothers are joined this time out by Olivia Marsico (percussion), Joseph Harvey (whistle solo), Julie Raynes (background vocals) and Don Herron (pedal steel). I was quite impressed with my first taste of the band's studio work. It seemed like it ended way too soon so I gave the CD a few more spins before I tried the other one.
Dance of the Virgins totally knocks my socks off. Each CD I've heard since has had its own charm and unique character, but this one is still my absolute favorite. Each and every song is a Marsico Brothers original. Hmm... Attention Frank and Tony! You guys write wonderful songs and I'm betting there are a whole bunch of your fans that would love to hear another CD of magnificent Marsico melodies. The CD opens with a version of the title track that is just under three minutes and closes with a version (or should I say virgin?) that is close to fourteen minutes long. If Iron Butterfly had been drinking zombies back in the '60s instead of smoking copious amounts of cannabis, this is what "In-A-Gadda-Da- Vida" might have sounded like. On the journey from the AM radio hit to the FM radio extended jam, there are ten awe inspiring calls to kick off your shoes and run down the most distant beach you can imagine and frolic with toucans, lizards and flying fish. Bask in "The Winds of Waikaloa." Have a misty eyed time of it sipping a tropical beverage while "Missing the Maui Moon." Pledge to yourself that someday you will "Return to Moorea." Fans of the lounge genre will find parallels to all the old masters. But on these recordings The Martini Kings have come up with all kinds of new wrinkles and present their own spin on bachelor pad music that is guaranteed to mellow even the harshest mood. It just doesn't get any better than this!
After becoming well acquainted with the first two Martini Kings CDs I had picked up, I decided that it made perfect sense to get more. What's that old saw, "two's company, three's a crowd, four's a riot"? I have always been a bit of a rebel rouser, hooligan type so I decided to go on line and see if I could find the other two CDs the band had with them at the bookstore. There were no Martini Kings CDs to be had on Amazon, but a quick Google search brought me to The Martini Kings web site where I learned the group had a whole bunch of CDs. I picked two at random, made a couple fast and easy clicks (perhaps a bit too fast and easy, my accountant might say) and waited about a week for my next Martini Kings infusion. Happy Hour features soft and sexy takes on eight crowd-pleasing standards and one Martini Kings Original. "Lover's Luau" is a dandy addition to the world of samba and swing. It is sandwiched between "Cuchy Frito Man" and "Sleepwalk." The ballroom swish and sway of the Marsico/Sklair interlude is just as captivating as its better-known neighbors. And boy what a neighborhood! "Stardust" occupies a space next door to "Tiny Bubbles" (I hope Don Ho's heirs are lighting their tiki torches with hundred dollar bills as we speak!). "Quiet Village" is right across the street, just five doors down from "Tequila." Matthew Sweet produced and played guitar, ukulele and organ on "Tiny Bubbles." Jerry Angel played drums on most of the songs. The other guests this time out are Lisa Sweet on backing vocals, Ric Menck on drums, Josh Sklair on dobro and guitar, Jack LeCompte on drums and Don Vincent on piano. Did I mention that brother Tony plays organ as well as bass and ukulele? Well, I did now!
The other online purchase, Weekend in Palm Springs is very similar to Happy Hour. The cover art is by Derek. If for some insane reason you decide that your budget will only allow for the purchase of one CD by any one group, keep the following in mind. This one makes for a splendid decorative piece for any mantle as well as being a distinctive aural example of everything that is luxuriously sublime about The Martini Kings. Three of the songs, "Teach Me Tonight," "Wave" and "Just One of those Things" can be heard on the hit HBO series "Six Feet Under." Two others, "Las Nuedas" and "Nylon Jungle" feature prominently on the Camp Burlesque DVD, which I might or might not get to see before writer's cramp forces me to call it quits for this article. Who do these mail carriers think they are, anyway!??? The CD also includes "Stardust," "So Danco Samba," "Summer Samba" and "Because of You." Tony sticks to his bass and is as soulful and easy on the ears as always. Frank's scintillating vibes and percussion are all this and a bag of flamin' hot Cheezy Snapz brand snack crackers. The languid lads are aided and abetted by Jack LeCompte on drums, Josh Sklair on guitar, Stuart Johnson on drums, Kirk Smart on guitar, Mark Roland on sax and flute and Don Vincent on piano. No stretch of time anywhere should ever be without a heaping helping of Martini Kings, but that goes double for a Weekend in Palm Springs.
I am not religious whatsoever, but every year I am drawn to Christmas music like grunion to a moonlit beach at midnight. For eleven months of every year I am just as likely as the next person to want to strangle anyone who spontaneously busts out in a chorus or two of "Frosty the Snowman" or "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." On the first day of December, though, I'm bustin' out CDs and LPs of Christmas music by anyone who ever tried their hand at making a seasonal record. Everything from Herb Alpert to Paul Revere and the Raiders to the Partridge Family to Red Simpson. Don't even get me started on Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon! The first Christmas after discovering The Martini Kings I snatched up a copy of The Kings of Jing-a-Ling. How can a person get excited about a CD that contains "Jingle Bells," "White Christmas," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and six other tried and true seasonal chestnuts? When the songs are performed by The Martini Kings, that's how! Stuart Johnson on drums, Marie Marsico on piano and John Zuker on guitar join Frank and Tony. If I had heard this CD before I was hip to The Martini Kings, I might have guessed this was by Lawrence Welk and his orchestra. Hmmmm.... in a few months I might just have to see if the wild Welkster ever committed any X-Mas tracks to wax. If not, I'll have to listen to The Kings of Jing-a-Ling twice as often as I normally would.
No summer is complete without an all-day show at the Tiki Drive In out in Montclair, a few dozen miles east of Los Angeles. This is the prime happening at which to score that new fez you've been dreaming about or that set of highball glasses with the grinning Satan motif. After the sun goes down, there's no better place to be to catch some of the worst b-movies ever made in the privacy of your own car. I showed up fashionably late but managed to catch the Ghastly Ones up front on a massive stage. After boppin' to their Screamin' Lord Sutch meets Link Wray in a dark alley vibe for a while, I made my way to the snack bar. The Martini Kings were playing among the trash receptacles and sticky benches outside, as I arrived, so I grabbed something cool to drink and found a seat. The band put on a wonderful show and the dancer did her level best to attract more bystanders when she wasn't chasing down some little kid in the front. There were a few CDs I didn't have on the band's table so I stuffed my twenty in the glass bowl and grabbed up Creamy Cocktails and Other Delights and Show of Stars. I had Show of Stars in the CD player before I waved goodbye to the last of the Drive In's colossal parking lot tikis. This one is more of a collaborative effort than the others I've talked about thus far. In fact, the name of the band on this CD is The Amazing King Paris and His Hypnotic Guitar Plus the Intoxicating Sounds of Martini Kings. Try squeezing that onto a ladies small tank top! I wasn't an instant convert to this new sound. The guitar is way too high in the mix. Repeated listening has made me a believer, though, and this is now one of my faves for driving long distances with the volume cranked to the painful threshold. This is lounge surf music with a vengeance. There's no walking with baby elephants or sipping tiny bubbles here. The song titles tell you all you need to know. "Invasion," "Let's Rumble," "Steelin' a Wave" and "Bongo Mambo" are not sissy ditties by any stretch of the imagination. That said, Tony's subtle bass and Frank's relaxed vibes, percussion and marimba keep this rooted in a sound that is as close to easy listening as it is to rock and roll. Daniel Glass provides drums that manage to bring the two camps to the same table for a meeting of the minds. Maybe I'm just imagining things, but I detect a Middle Eastern flavor in several of the tunes. If you can't picture yourself hanging ten on the biggest wave in Hawaii on a magic carpet, then you definitely need this CD to put you in the proper mood.
I didn't listen to Creamy Cocktails and Other Delights until I got home. The band is actually called Cherry Capri & The Martini Kings on this CD. The cover of the original Whipped Cream and Other Delights album by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass has to be the most lust-inducing album any record geek has ever owned and the number of spoofs built around it is probably a world record. The lampshade was definitely a nice touch. Where Herb's baby focused on food, this new comer is all about adult beverages. The opener is my favorite. Cherry sings "My Favorite Things," but the lyrics, courtesy of David Ribnik, are all about various intoxicating drinks. The wild and wacky concept takes the band through songs that should hold the interest of any bartender. "Hot Toddy," "Cocktails for Two," "My Whiskey Sour," "Tie Another Mai Tai On," "Tiny Bubbles" (THERE IS NO ESCAPE FROM DON HO!!!!!), "Rum and Coca Cola," "One Mint Julep," "Tequila," "Singapore Sling" and "Creamy Cocktail" give me a massive hangover just typing their titles. My first few times through weren't as satisfying as later spins. Ms Capri's voice is fine, but it's not as dynamic as the sort of classically trained jazz voice I would like to think belongs on a Martini Kings effort. Of course, try talking one of those five thousand dollar an hour studio chanteuses into donning a lamp shade, downing a "Pearly Necklace" and singing the praises of getting falling down drunk in some smelly tiki bar and see if you don't get a black eye instead of a stellar performance. While I wasn't instantly bowled over, I have come to appreciate Cherry's New York nonchalant girl group style. This is the perfect album to coax partygoers to have a drink. Yeah, like that's ever an issue!!!
I think I picked up Intoxicating Sounds at a gig where I had a few too many Mai Tais, but that might apply to just about any gig. This is a great party platter. Sneak it on during a wild spree of playing Santo and Johnny, Los Straitjackets and Tijuana Brass albums and see if the mood doesn't perk up just a wee bit. Check out the cover. Does that scream sophistication or what?! The couple on the cover is probably twitching convulsively with delirium tremens while locked up in individual iron lungs by now, but flush that mental image out of yer noggin post haste and groove to the fluid melodies of love. The CD was recorded live at Nic's Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills. There's another Los Angeles destination I need to get to "one of these days." Frank plays vibes and throws in some occasional percussion solos, Tony plays stand up and Jerry Angel plays drums. The songs include crowd favorites such as "Watermelon Man," "Green Onions" and "Baby Elephant Walk" as well as more obscure numbers such as "Bags Groove," "Green Dolphin Street" and "Bags and Trane." For best effect play this one over and over and over.
The latest Tiki Oasis was my favorite so far and I can hardly wait for the next one, even though it's almost a year off. The Ghastly Ones, once again, were one of the more celebrated acts and I managed to get to the big stage for their set. There were giant tiki gods set up on either side of the main stage and there was usually a dancing girl or two swaying to the rhythms and beckoning all and sundry to come closer, closer, closer to the main stage. The mai tais must have really been flowing because I missed The Martini Kings, somehow. I'm not even sure if they played the main stage or in the cozy corner by the pool. My guess would be the latter. I paid a visit to The Martini Kings' merch table on the last day. Every CD the band has ever recorded was on display. Two young ladies, who I believe are sisters, were minding the store and sold me a copy of California Cool . That and Las Vegas Story were the only two I didn't have at that point. As I walked away I took a good look at the cover of California Cool and realized that the gal in the rather provocative bathing suit bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the ladies who had just given me change for a twenty. Small world! It turns out that California Cool was a very wise purchase. It was perfect driving music for the looooong trip back to L.A. This one contains nine standards, a full band of stellar players and some of the highest production values found on any Martini Kings platter. The brothers are joined by Jerry Angel on drums, Mark Rowland on sax and flute, Kirk Smart on guitar, Don Vincent on piano and Jack LeCompte who plays drums on the first track. This swinging lounge juggernaut tackles "Mission Impossible," "Pink Panther," "Over the Rainbow," "James Bond Theme" and much, much more. I know the same could be said of practically any of the others, but this would be an excellent first CD for anyone wanting to get acquainted with the band.
About a week after I got back from the Tiki Oasis I started wondering why I didn't just snatch up both of the Martini Kings CDs I was lacking when I had the perfect opportunity. Instead of picking up Las Vegas Story and getting to listen to it immediately, I bought it online, paid an extra few bones for postage and had to wait for a week before I could savor all its delights. This is a live album and it's the closest to classic jazz music that The Martini Kings have put out to date. Instead of Martin Denny, the brothers have used Charles Mingus as their inspiration this time out. I'm not particularly well versed in jazz, but I enjoy this album very much. The band that laid down this improv heavy and very well received set is Frank Marsico on vibes, Tony Marsico on bass, John Zuker on guitar, Jimmy Roberts on sax and Jack LeCompte on drums. Edson Miller mixed the songs. He did a spectacular job of capturing the band in a live setting. All of the leads come through loud and clear, the other instruments are perfectly balanced and the crowd is only heard between songs and in the occasional mellow break. The songs, "Brief and Breezy," "Soft Sounds," "Melancholy Serenade," "Song For My Father," "Freddie the Freeloader," "All Blues," "Now's the Time" and "Sorta Blue" are probably familiar favorites to your average jazzbo, but most of this sounds fresh and exciting to these pop rock ears. If I were in charge of the band's marketing, I might have suggested using the Marsico Brothers and Friends or the Manhattan Monarchs or maybe even the Rob Roy Royalty for the name of the band for Las Vegas Story because this is so different from their lounge material, but I'm not managing their affairs so I'll just keep my pie hole shut.
So there you have it. Ten CDs by one of the most exciting tiki lounge groups in the civilized world. Do yourself a favor and order one of these happening platters today. You can get most of them for ten dollars a pop plus shipping by going to the band's website and following the instructions. Better yet, find out when The Martini Kings are playing near you, place five crisp twenties into their bowl and take all ten albums home with you. I promise you it will be a lot wiser investment than dropping a hundred clams on a black jack table the next time you are in Vegas. This would be the end of my article, but the postman finally came through and delivered Camp Burlesque. The operative word here is "camp." Erochica Bamboo, the lovely lass who graces the cover of Dance of the Virgins, stars as the proprietrix of a resort that trains young female recruits the fine arts of exotic dancing, stripping, skinny dipping, bubble bathing and generally doing all the things juvenile males get a kick out of watching vivacious girls do. This DVD was a major disappointment for me. I bought it thinking there would be hours and hours of live performances by The Martini Kings with a variety of camera angles, extreme close ups and state of the art special effects so I could see Frank and Tony up close and personal any time I wanted to. Instead I have to wade through scene after scene of wiggling and jiggling feminine flesh to get to the good bits. When The Martini Kings are occasionally given some camera time poolside, there is usually a pair of pasties, a g-string and/or more pink epidermal matter than you can shake a stick at right smack dab in the way. I almost got a crick in my neck trying to look around the undulating masses of hormone crazed humanity blocking my view of the vibes and the bass and the lads coaxing beautiful music out of them. Tony Marsico wrote, produced and directed this flesh filled farce and Russ Meyers is obviously one of his heroes. The talent on display includes Kitten Deville, Cherry Capri, Mimi Lemeaux, Gorilla X, Count Smokula, Uncle Eddie Bell, The Swami from El Monte, The Martini Kings and a bounteous bevy of bodacious buxom babes. Unless you're some sort of sex fiend, you'll probably want to focus on securing all the CDs first and pick up the DVD only if you decide to become a Martini Kings completist. Aloha for now, kids. I'll see you out and about the next time the mai tais are flowing at our favorite tiki bar. If The Martini Kings are set up out behind the ice machine somewhere, it's going to be a party!