Boogie Nights

Bring in da funk, bring in da bucks: backstage with Dr. Zhivegas, St. Louis' most popular -- and derided -- cover band

Dr. Zhivegas' kingpins were supposed to be renting the DeVille sedan but had to settle for the Seville. Renting a tour bus was also an option at one point, but that didn't work out. As a result, the drive to Springfield, Mo., is a bit more cramped than usual. Singer Frankie Muriel, drummer Paul Chickey and guitarist Dee Dee James must jockey for room, but the soft leather seats are perfectly sculpted for comfort; what it lacks in space, the Seville more than makes up for in luxury.

The prison van, as its passengers have tagged it, is out there somewhere, on its way down I-44 south to the same destination. It carries five other members of Dr. Zhivegas, and, although the van has plenty of elbow room, it's most certainly not a Caddy. But the travelers have adjusted to the routine: The two background vocalists, Denise Atty and Erminie Cannon, are stretched out in their own van seats; keyboard player Alonzo Lee's in the way-back, listening to Tito Puente and new British two-step music and reading books about sound production; up front, the horn section, Lew Winer and Kasimu -- the driver and navigator, respectively, of the van -- are listening to Freddie Hubbard and Art Blakey tapes, talking music.

The gear truck, its cab crammed with bassist Cubby Smith, sound man Doc Durham and lighting technician Dan "Spot" Lastovka, its cargo area filled with the equipment -- strobes, cans, fog machines, instruments and miscellaneous gear -- is probably just arriving at Remington's, a cinderblock country & western bar outside of town that, later this evening, will be sold out, jammed with 2,000 revelers singing all the words to "I Will Survive."

There's no point anymore in traveling as a minicaravan; after six years of this, the dozen involved know the deal -- where the hotel and club are, what time they perform, what their roles are -- and any problems can be quickly settled with cell phones that double as walkie-talkies. A pack of this many people can be a royal pain in the ass when you just want to grab a bite to eat or make a bathroom stop, so the vehicles and their passengers simply come and go on their own -- the Cadillac, the prison van and the truck.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when the band could squeeze into a little van; in fatter times, they'd spring for a full-size tour bus. But even that was a drag for a few members.

"Before, we used to all ride in the 15-passenger van, and they were, like, 'We need to get something separate,'" says keyboardist Lee. "Because there were 10 people -- which is true -- it's hard to gain direction and focus: 'I want to eat this. I want to eat that. I gotta go to the bathroom.'" So Zhivegas CEOs Muriel and Chickey decided to trade community for luxury, and James joined them -- a perk that comes with playing lead guitar.

"The Caddy's an old-man birthright," says Chickey.

"We've earned this," says Muriel.

"When you're pushing 35," adds Chickey, "and you want to drive a Cadillac, that's your business."

"We've gone over that with them [the other band members] before," says Muriel. "Every decision that you make has a corresponding cost. We decide that we want to eat at [classy Springfield restaurant] Clary's, because we enjoy the food, and it helps us -- it's all about whatever helps you do the best you can at show time, whatever it happens to be, whether it's being comfortable on the way to the gig, eating a good meal, having the lights and sound right. So we go to Clary's, because to me it's important to have a good meal and a good relaxing environment where you can forget about everything for a minute. Some people wouldn't do that. If you want to eat at McDonald's for $5, that's your choice, too. That's not my choice, so I don't want to go do it."

"We end up playing the babysitter," says Chickey, "and that's why we have the come-and-go-as-we-please thing. We used to have that group thing -- that 'OK, here we go ...' And it was too much of a headache, bottom line. We are who we are. We're a cover band. We play music, making a living, whatever. We're taking a Caddy. Say what you want. We've earned it."

What do you do when something you created "as a lark" explodes and proceeds to take on a life of its own? Ends up being more popular than the music you truly care about? Simple: You ride the wave, enjoy it when you can, all the while stuffing your pockets with cash and planning for the day when any spark of fun has long since fizzled.

After six years, Dr. Zhivegas works at least three gigs a week, 49 weeks a year, tossing out the classic funk and disco crowd-pleasers and the occasional obscurity. Some nights the band stretches the music so tight with energy that it nearly snaps, and you're sure this is the hardest funk band in the country; just as often, they simply go through the motions with songs they've played perhaps a few thousand times. They play club gigs a couple of times a week and augment those with the bread and butter of the cover-band circuit, corporate events and private parties. As one of the most financially successful St. Louis bands of the '90s, Dr. Zhivegas earns from a month's worth of performances what most St. Louis bands playing original music make in a year -- last year they brought in more than a half-million dollars -- and most of the nine players make their livings doing this. Anyone serious about music and his or her instrument dreams of making a living out of it; as a result, the band employs some of the most talented players in town, and the money affords them an opportunity to pursue other interests. Two of its members, drummer Chickey and singer Muriel, recently purchased the old Hot Locust/ Side Door complex on Locust and christened it Z. It contains a restaurant in front and a club -- Zhivegas' home base (kind of like Shoji Tabuchi's Branson theater) -- in back.

Next Page »