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Playing Dr.

The members of Dr. Zhivegas have lives beyond the stage


Starting with a modest four members in 1995 and ballooning to an 11-piece at its most extravagant, Dr. Zhivegas currently consists of nine members:

Frankie Muriel, lead singer and co-owner of Z (nightclub/restaurant on Locust Street): Some may know Muriel from his days fronting hair-metal band KINGOFTHEHILL, which made a stab at the big time with a major-label CD in 1991, right before Nirvana killed hair metal. Needless to say, the CD didn't fly. His solo debut is in the final-mix stage, and he's shopping it to the big labels. Muriel looks like a lead singer and acts like one, too. During the encore of a show at the Springfield, Mo., club Remington's, a dozen ladies ended up dancing onstage. Just as the show was concluding, Muriel motioned to the perfectly named Joe Sturdy, Zhivegas roadie: "I thought he was telling me to get the people offstage," says Sturdy. "But he was telling me to have the Cadillac waiting by the back door because he wanted to get back to the hotel directly from the stage. He never wants to hang around after the show."

Paul Chickey, drummer and co-owner of Z: Chickey, who serves as the band's booker/de facto manager, is one of the four founding members of Dr. Zhivegas, which began as an offshoot of the alt-rock group Nerve. They started Zhivegas "as a lark," he says. Chickey acknowledges the contempt with which the band is sometimes treated: "We call ourselves Whitey Cheeser," he says. "We kind of wallow in it now. I don't take it personal, because I know where I come from, and I know what I like, and I know what I want to play, and I feel good about myself. And I don't feel like I have to prove myself to anybody. I came from a completely different background than Frank, more of a do-it-yourself, originals-right-off-the-bat punk-rock scene. Whatever it was that we [Nerve] wrote, whether it was shit or it was good, we were doing it ourselves, and we were convinced that we should pat ourselves on the back because of it."

Cubby Smith, bassist and road manager: According to nearly everyone in Zhivegas, Smith is the unsung hero, the hardest worker, the nicest guy. "Without Cub, there would be no Zhivegas," they say. On days that Zhivegas is playing outside of town, it's Smith who loads the gear, drives, unloads, deals with union guys, does all the bullshit work. In addition, up onstage, Smith simultaneously lays down fat bass lines and runs some of the lights with his foot. "To see people's response when you go out and play a cover song," he says, "man, I've seen people throw stuff, stand there all night and flip you off, spit at you, and you're, like, 'Why?' It can be a big drag; it'll definitely give you an edge."

Dee Dee James (a.k.a. Muggs), guitarist: James occasionally performs naked or debriefed in chaps. A former touring member of Color Me Badd, James is very cool and an amazing guitar player. He started his music career playing in cover bands in his teens; one of his early bands, Vision, actually gigged at drummer Chickey's Chaminade prom in the mid-'80s. From there. he ended up as the touring guitarist for Color Me Badd. "I played with them for two years -- they had that Sex You Up album." He also spent, "like, three years" playing with Paula Abdul and hooked up with Bootsy Collins during his Color Me Badd stint. "One thing led to another," says James, "and a lot of it [came] from me doing a lot with Bootsy. That's how I ended up going to LA -- moved out there and started working with [Ice] Cube and Snoop. I did a lot of guitars on those rap records out there -- Dr. Dre, Friday soundtracks -- all through Bootsy. They were calling him, 'Hey, man, who's that dude you got?' That's how I was able to make a living out there [in LA], and I lived there for six years. I did all these sessions."

Alonzo Lee, keyboardist: Lee is the former keyboardist for Reggae at Will. His production company, Classic Black, pumps out rap and R&B tracks and is starting to get national exposure by landing songs on major national releases, including forthcoming songs on albums by Young Dre and Krayzie Bone and Shane, plus incidental music on MTV Undressed. "I'm no crusader for cover bands," Lee admits. "I'm all about originals. I know that's the way to go to have any serious longevity, so I have respect for that. But in terms of what people like, and what's working, if you look at numbers, basically people like cover bands. They like stuff you can dance to. It works, so I'm all for it. The whole point is to pack a room and get people out and checking you out. And if you do that, and you switch to originals, that's even more of the ultimate goal. So I see it as a tool to do what you want to do. Also, with this caliber of musicianship, we go into a lot of jams, so we don't exactly do it the same. So it's not the true cover band -- there's a lot of flex in there."

Kasimu, trumpet player: A jazz-head and hip-hop producer, Kasimu is the navigator of the prison van, taking a turn behind the wheel when fellow horn player Lew Winer doesn't feel like driving. Kasimu dresses sharp in vintage clothes -- light-green mohair sweaters, old Dan-Jac winter coats. "I always had other jobs, like stocking groceries, renting cars," he says. "I never made a conscious decision, like, 'I want to be a musician.' I'm just a musician. After I graduated from high school, I was going to go to cooking school, I was going to go to engineering school. And one night after work I came down, had my work clothes on, and I sat in, and that was it." When he joined Dr. Zhivegas, Kasimu was stunned, especially given his jazz background, by the crowds the band draws: "I was, like, 'Wow, man. There's all these ... ladies! I got fans!' I mean, doing the jazz thing, you play all these little lounges to these older folks, people my parents' age."

Lew Winer, saxophonist: At various times, Winer has played with Oliver Sain, Fresh City, Sky Bop Fly and Soul Reunion. "I actually get into the show stuff," he says. "I don't mind fooling around, being foolish. It used to be uncool to do all that. When you're in other bands, jazz bands, you're trying to be a purist. And that's cool: I'm playing, and people are listening. But in this scene, people aren't really listening that well, and mostly they're just looking at a bunch of lights and noise, and it's a different kind of stimulus that they react to."

Denise Atty, background vocalist (soprano): Denise is a born singer. "It's all I do," she says. "If I couldn't sing, I wouldn't be able to survive." She's also the matriarch of her family gospel group, A&B for Christ. Despite her love of singing, Atty occasionally hesitates when called on to perform her signature solo number, "I'm Every Woman." "We crack up," Muriel laughs. "She says, 'I don't want to do it tonight.' She lobbied to not play it last night -- she's telling me that she's not going to be able to do it, it doesn't come out. And I'm, like, 'Whatever. Even on half of a vocal cord, you could outsing anyone I've ever heard.' She always tries to get out of doing it, and I'm, like, 'Nope, put it in there anyway.' And she wails."

Erminie Cannon, background vocalist (alto): More unassuming in her demeanor and presentation than Atty, Cannon has a sturdy voice, especially during "We Are Family." She lights up when the two singers are dancing and, like Atty, seems to love being up onstage. During "Bad Girls," Cannon sparkles when she's singing the backing "beep-beep, yeah, beep-beep" parts. Asked whether she ever gets sick of being in Zhivegas, sick of singing the same songs, she expresses a kind of bafflement. "No," she says. "I just love it." She's played in cover bands for most of her adult life: "Some of it was the same, but we didn't do disco. We did new stuff every week, so whatever was hot at that time, that was what we played." She also sings in alt-rock band Stir's annual homage to Pink Floyd.

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