In 2011, arranger/pianist Scott Bradlee formed Postmodern Jukebox around a simple yet ingenious concept: Perform beloved contemporary songs (Adele, The White Stripes, etc) in the style of vintage genres, such as ragtime and swing. Their videos quickly went viral, and seven years later, people are still just as hungry for the rotating musical collective’s charmingly retro and technically impressive reimaginings of modern hits. On June 12, Bradlee shares the full Postmodern Jukebox story with the book Outside the Jukebox: How I Turned My Vintage Music Obsession into My Dream Gig. Ahead of its release, Billboard is sharing an exclusive excerpt.
“Attention, Walmart shoppers: Come to the paint counter and get your groove on as we present the sweet sounds of Scott Bradlee and his Intergalactic Purveyors of Funk.” Long before the sold-out tour dates around the world, before the hundreds of millions of YouTube views, and before all my wildest dreams actually came true, this was how I announced my first public appearance as a bandleader: over the loudspeaker at the Walmart at which I worked. It wasn’t exactly well-received, either; instead, it got me fired.
The Walmart in Clinton, New Jersey, was a logical place of employment for me in high school, mainly because it was the only place that was interested in hiring a very unskilled seventeen-year old kid. It also happened to be the workplace of one of my best high school friends and fellow ne’er-do-wells, Cody (who, notoriously, would be fired not long after I started for making price tags that read “MY HAIRY ASS—$1.00” and slapping them on items around the store). In the brief, blissful time that our shifts overlapped, before Cody met his fate, we spent most of our on-the-job hours goofing off and talking music. On one particular afternoon, I had the idea to take things to the next level and actually perform music instead of merely sitting around talking about it.
I won’t claim to have thought, at the time, that bringing in a live band to perform at the paint counter would result in anything other than my termination as a Walmart employee, but I do know this: Even then, the idea of putting music where it didn’t belong fascinated me enough to throw caution and my Walmart career to the wind, just to see what would happen. The musicians who accompanied me— Cody on bass, Steve Ujfalussy on sax, and my friend Josh on conga drums—knew the drill; after all, I’d talked them into performing for confused customers at a gas station convenience store the previous week.
?Upon arriving at the megastore that day, I channeled my inner James Bond and hijacked a large dolly, so as to wheel in my 1978 Fender Rhodes electric piano and a battery-powered amp in the smoothest, least obtrusive, least suspicion-stirring way possible. Realistic? Not at all. But it’s the strategy I’d landed on, and I was committed to seeing it through. I pushed the array of instruments down the frozen food aisle, conscious, of course, of the weird glances I was receiving from customers. But there was no backing out now. This was my musical debut for the entire world, and the number one rule in showbiz is that the show must go on. With steely resolve, I executed a wide left turn into my usual station at the hardware department. With the help of my friends, I quickly set up the instruments around the paint counter before taking my place at the piano. Then, over the public-address system, I made the announcement that begins this tale.
The set began with a favorite of mine: Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.” If nothing else, Walmart’s customers seemed mildly entertained by this departure from the paint counter’s usual programming, which consisted of my mixing paint for them and occasionally supergluing objects to the countertop out of boredom. A few even nodded their heads to the beat. It wasn’t enough people to qualify as a crowd, exactly, but it was enough for me. I imagined myself onstage somewhere grand, with throngs of screaming fans cheering my every note.
A minute or so into the song, as I was passionately digging into the keys and wiping beads of sweat from my brow, I looked up to take in the sweep of my adoring fans only to find, instead, a formation of managers descending on us in a classic pincer movement. I snapped back to reality and stopped playing. A wave of discomfort washed over me as they arrived. My boss spoke.
“Scott, what are you doing?”
I felt it should have been obvious, but I figured I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and reply; he was my superior, after all.
“Playing a concert with my Intergalactic Purveyors of Funk, sir.”
The requisite blank stare.
“You think this is a joke?”
There was no discussion about the artistic merit of what I was doing. I was fired on the spot, made to turn over my badge, and ordered to leave the store immediately. I complied, though not before belting out one last battle cry of rebellion with the band: a performance of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” in protest, right outside the store’s entrance, until the police were called. So ended my first show—and my last day of working for corporate America.
I wasn’t troubled by this in the least. As I sat in my parents’ driveway, trying to figure out how to explain my latest predicament to them in a way that might provoke some sympathy, I found my thoughts drifting to visions of someday getting the opportunity to tell this very story in front of a live audience. That’d show those managers the mistake they’d made, I thought. And in my rebellious teenage mind, anything seemed possible.
Outside the Jukebox: How I Turned My Vintage Music Obsession into My Dream Gig is out June 12. Pre-order here.