Starting in the early '90s a small but intense cadre of rockabilly fans with slicked-back hair and big-ass cars roamed Orlando, hoping and praying that the music they enjoyed so much -- pure, simple rock & roll -- would make a comeback. They wore the clothes, they made the scene, and they had a local band to call their own -- Rocket 88.
Fifties style is back all right -- but it's Martin Denny and Frank Sinatra, not Gene Vincent and Bill Haley. The explosive growth of swing has overshadowed the roots-rock movement, and even Rocket 88 changed their tune somewhat. The band made the transition nicely from their rockabilly origins to a larger lineup that focuses on "jump blues" and "ethnic music from the '40s and '50s." That left Rocket 88 bassist Chuck Zayas with no outlet for his rockabilly jones -- a circumstance that would lead to the formation of his current pet project, Blue Flame Combo.
Zayas founded Rocket 88 in 1992 with his brother Marco on guitar, vocalist Mike Bales and drummer Steve Plotnik. The Zayas brothers did time in power-pop bands, while Bales had fronted the ahead-of-their-time, psycho-disco revelers, Love Gods in Leisure Suits. They shared a mutual dissatisfaction with their bands and a mutual appreciation of pompadours and the Stray Cats. "We got together and did what we thought was rockabilly, but it turned out to be pretty punk and rock & roll," says Zayas.
Rocket 88 personified rockabilly in Orlando during the mid-'90s, releasing a vinyl EP, "Mission to Mars," and a CD, "Rock Around," before going on to experiment with horns and jump blues. "My brother didn't like that direction," says Zayas. "He wanted to stay more rock & roll."
Marco soon left the band, and Rocket 88 subsequently broke up until an offer came in to play a rockabilly oriented festival in Indiana. The band added Marcus Brixa to the lineup and began writing songs in a Bill Haley, jump-blues vein. The band soon added a horn section, and the transition was complete.
"We really like our [present] niche," Zayas said. "Sometimes our horn players want to jump back and do the swing thing, but we really try to stay focused."
Zayas views Rocket 88 as offering a depth and exploration of the music styles of the swing era, but his own group, the Blue Flame Combo, is seen by fans as a return to rockabilly roots. "The Blue Flame Combo started out basically because I wanted to work more. ... I had quit my day job [in 1997] and wanted to be a full-time performer." Thus a small group that could play intimate rock at small venues was born. Now the two bands are doing "between 20 and 25 gigs a month," keeping members on their toes.
Adding to the confusion, all three members of Blue Flame Combo are now full members of Rocket 88 (Zayas and Plotnick were already on board, but guitarist/ singer Damian Bacci recently joined). Yet the members don't have much difficulty keeping things separate most of the time.
Furthering the chaos is the near-simultaneous release of CDs from both groups. Rocket 88 is making a do-or-die final local release, hoping at last to secure a national record deal (and going on tour to the Midwest and West Coast to promote the idea this fall).; ;
Blue Flame Combo, on the other hand, is releasing their first full-length recording, "Blue Flame Rocks" on Thursday, June 4. (The band will hold their release party that night at Rat Pack's on the Avenue.) "The whole thing was recorded over a couple of days with all original songs, apart from two covers," says Zayas, who now manages both bands. How much longer can he keep up the pace? "I've got another good six months or so that I can take of this," he says. "I think we're gonna go all the way, one way or another."