The Cheap Suit Serenaders just weren’t made for these times. The impetus for the band came when two collectors of vintage 78 rpm records bumped into each other at an Alameda Flea Market more than 30 years ago. An animated discussion between the two men revealed a shared love for the recorded music of the late 1920s, a boom time in the music industry.
Al Dodge and acclaimed cartoonist Robert Crumb became good friends who would complement and inspire each other.
“Crumb and Al really hit it off,” said Robert Armstrong, Dodge’s childhood friend. “Al called me up and said, ‘Hey, Crumb really likes this old music too.’ ”As adolescents in Pasadena, Dodge and Armstrong took music lessons from a World War I veteran, learning old songs on mandolin and banjo.
Shortly after, Armstrong moved to the Bay Area, and the trio began trading records at Dodge’s house on McGee Street in Berkeley. They then went on a one-year, sort of anthropological road trip, relying on the kindness of friends and strangers in their quest for their Holy Grail – what they thought must have been thousands of 78 records in people’s closets, cellars and attics.
The fact that Crumb and Armstrong are both cartoonists and fans of vintage music isn’t as strange as one might think. “Certain parts of American culture have an appeal,” Armstrong said. “I could tell Crumb was influenced by earlier cartooning styles. One day, while he was looking for comics, he came across old records. We have a shared love of old culture.”
The trio played instruments, too, and soon formed an impromptu group dubbed “R. Crumb and the Keep on Truckin’ Orchestra,” an ironic jab at Crumb’s most famous cartoon image. When Terry Zwigoff joined the group, a name change was in order, and a gig at an upscale San Francisco wedding provided inspiration for the name Cheap Suit Serenaders.
“We were these grubby, poor guys playing a fancy wedding in Pacific Heights,” Armstrong said. “We all went to the Goodwill Store on Valencia Street and bought 10-dollar suits.” Armstrong credits Dodge with inventing the name.
The Suits went on to record three records in the 1970s for the now-defunct Blue Goose label. Appropriately, they also made two 78 records, including 1972’s “River Blues”/”Wisconsin Wiggles.” The second 78 has a title unsuitable for print in a newspaper, but was based on an English folk record from the 1930s.
Although the group does not focus on any one genre, they continue to find inspiration in the time period.
“In 1926, they figured out how to make records using electronic microphones,” Armstrong said. “Record companies sent out scouts all over the country to find talent and preserved all these old regional styles that were disappearing.
At the same time there was lots of cross-fertilization, because you could finally hear music from the other side of the country. Jazz bands influenced Hawaiian bands; the blues influenced hillbilly music. It was a good time in recording.”
The Great Depression ensured that only the most commercial bands survived, something that still affects the music business today. “Everything is so homogenized now,” Armstrong said.
The Suits are now far apart geographically, and only get together once a year to recreate their bathtub-gin era magic. “Everyone’s off doing other stuff,” said Armstrong.
Terry Zwigoff produced a documentary on Crumb three years ago. Instrumentalist Bob Brozman tours the world. Crumb lives in France. And Armstrong lives near Davis, playing in three bands, painting custom guitars, and teaching children’s illustration classes.
“We all probably wish we were living in a different day and age,” said Armstrong, 52. “There is something that is missing from contemporary music, a lyrical quality. Radio, MTV, that stuff falls flat on my ears. But I’m out of the loop—that’s young people’s music.”
While serious about their music and collection of classic instruments, Armstrong points out that the whole exercise is fun.
“We don’t want to seem precious. We’re not a museum recreation. We want to keep the spirit alive – there’s a certain fun encoded in the music.”