Curveball pitch

With his League of Decency, Dean keeps 'em dizzy

The craze in recent years for swing music and dance must have struck bandleader Tommy Dean as incredibly ironic. His group, the League of Decency, has been performing a wildly eclectic collection of swing, soul and rootsy rock music since 1984, earning a living by playing practically any music venue, sports bar, wedding and corporate event that was willing to pay.

Along came the swing trend. Like most mass-market phenomena, it was as much about style and fashion as it was about music. The true pioneers of the genre — many of them still alive and working today — did not necessarily benefit from the music's newfound popularity.

The swing thing has faded like last year's teen heartthrob. Meanwhile, Dean, whose League of Decency performs this Friday at Chip's in Winder, continues to do what he does best — keep audiences entertained and off-balance at the same time.

"I'm always looking for a curveball," Dean says. "Once people feel like they've got you pegged, I want to throw them something to throw them off."

The seven-piece band, which includes three horns, has a commanding knowledge of 20th century American popular music, covering everyone from Duke Ellington to Fats Waller to Ray Charles to James Brown and beyond. In the League's hands, Golden Earring's rock gem "Radar Love" becomes a distinctive swing number with an improvisational guitar/bass/drums middle section that can go anywhere.

"I look for songs that we can make our own, something that will be a surprise [for the audience] and a good vehicle for the band," Dean says. "And in my own writing, it's all a big experiment. It's like having my own lab band, which is cool."

Such musical diversity has been Dean's calling card since he launched the League of Decency in 1984. From then until 1988, the group was the house band at The Point, which was owned by Dean's brother Britt. The band built its reputation there, thanks in great part to its musical diversity. Any given night the group shifted freely from a classic Ellington number to an Elvis Presley tune to the old country gem "Cotton Fields" to Eddie Floyd's R&B classic "Knock on Wood."

Britt Dean sold The Point in 1988, and the group was ready to branch out. "The band, which was a quartet at that time, became my little lifeboat out of there, and I've managed to survive doing that," Dean says.

However, the band's heavy rotation at wedding and corporate functions — a necessity in order to keep the group working and intact — caused some booking agents for clubs to disregard the group. That factor, along with the fallout from the swing craze, led the band to use a different name, the Mondo Heptet, for a swing recording it released last fall. The CD, Jump Yer Bones, is "a little encyclopedia of swing," Dean says, including one Waller cover among a collection of originals. (For more information, visit www.heptet.com.)

Whatever he chooses to call it, Dean is delighted with his current band lineup, which in addition to his vocals includes John Hooper, bass; Tim Nash, drums; Spencer Kirkpatrick, guitar; Earl Ford, trombone; Randy Hunter, tenor and baritone saxes; and Karl Liberatore, trumpet.

"This is the first band I've had where every single position is strong, and strong in a way that is able to be spontaneous," Dean says. "I've had strong players, but people who, if they weren't doing something we'd rehearsed a dozen times, were scared. They didn't want to stretch. [With the current lineup], every single guy has big ears and big balls and is willing to fly with the moment. I can change it up in the middle of anything and those guys will go."

The League of Decency performs at Chip's in Winder Fri., May 11, at 9 p.m. For more information call 770-307-2840. The band also performs Sat., May 12, at Ya-Ya's in Decatur.??