He made the trade: Bass for banjo, rock for Melody

Published July 25, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Seven years ago, rock bassist Steve Carter decided enough was enough.

Years of blasting out high-amperage guitar rock to uninterested club crowds had worn his enthusiasm thin. Even on good nights, it was, in his words, "mind-numbing to the point it just seemed pointless."

What followed was a transformation for the Denton, Texas, native. Carter turned in his bass for a tenor banjo. He also turned in his rock persona, exchanging it for his true calling as Little Jack Melody, with a soapy voice that seems part Sinatra, part Randy Newman.

Melody, as he prefers to be called, heads up a diverse ensemble he calls the Young Turks, which blends the non-amplified instrumentation of banjo, tuba, snare drum, soprano sax and harmonium for what Melody calls "neo-cabaret" style, a fusion of brassy, circuslike oompah raves, mellow-mood ballads and swinging Germanic jazz combo beats.

The band has won over a legion of die-hard followers, most of whom consider themselves refugees from the new rock.

"What we've done is to take the ensemble concept and turn it about, using instruments that aren't guitars," Melody said in a recent telephone interview. "You get a wide range of sounds from these instruments, and you can get some subtleties that you don't find elsewhere."

Now in his early 40s, Melody is at the forefront of a musical movement of cross-genre pollination that has produced bands such as Brave Combo and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars and has since spread to include revival bands such as Royal Crown Revue and Squirrel Nut Zippers.

"I think that bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers have made a crack in the consciousness of the pop world," Melody said. "And while we're quite a bit different from the swing-derived bands, we're happy we are somewhere in that neighborhood."

For his inspiration, Melody makes appreciative nods to his pop heroes, such as Tom Waits and Newman. Yet, he says much of the inspiration for what he plays is derived from German composers Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, whose works fueled Weimar Republic gin houses before the Nazi takeover.

"I always enjoyed the intellectual humor of their songs _ that sardonic aspect that came from the time and place where they lived," said Melody, whose spirited version of Alabama Song is every bit as bombastic as the one Jim Morrison sang with the Doors. "I look for ways to say things similarly in my own writing. To make it relevant not just today, but years from now."

Such is true of one of Melody's own favorites, Nero's Song, which was inspired by the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and uses Emperor Nero's Rome as a historical metaphor.

In Happily Ever After, his biblical rewrite envisions Sinatra as the creator and the Adam and Eve played by Bobby Darin and Peggy Lee.

As witty as his lyrics are, his songs are equally compelling musically.

"If you strip a song down to its skeleton, you'll find that if the melody doesn't hold water, you don't really have anything," he said. "Take Moon River. That song has endured because it has a terrifically structured melody that has hooked people for forever."

If it seems Melody's music has a feel for things theatrical, it may be because he has devoted an appreciable amount of energy to a variety of stage productions. Along with band members, he has scored and performed some regional productions, including Nightmare Alley, Starring Tyrone Power and Hubcaps Afire Over Hollywood (a biographical musical on the life of the late sci-fi movie director Ed Wood Jr.), none of which caused much of a stir.

"It was never really my intention to get into theater," Melody said. "But now that I've had a taste of it, it could be a great way to shuffle off in my musical career as I get older."

However, last fall Melody finished scoring the music for love is a place, a biographical piece on poet e.e. cummings. The jury is still out, but the experience has offered a ray of future hope for Melody.

For now, however, Melody and His Young Turks continue to make headway.

"I like to think that every audience that comes to see us is one that will keep coming back again," Melody said. "A knowing friend told me, "You live by the scene and die by the scene.' I don't necessarily think we are part of a scene. We're just out here because we love doing this. It's that simple."


Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks perform at 8 tonight at the State Theater in St. Petersburg. Tickets are $13 at the door.