In January 1956, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers released the single “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” a wistful doo-wop number that hit the top of the UK singles charts, but took more than two decades to reach the ears of Kelvin Swaby.
“My dad used to play a lot of rock ‘n’ roll around the house, as well as ska, soul, Back Beat, and rocksteady,” explains Swaby in a molasses-thick British accent via phone before his band, The Heavy, plays the Mercy Lounge in Nashville. “But that was a song that I really loved singing to.”
In the three years since the release of their first single, The Heavy have helped lead the charge of the so-called neo-soul movement, which includes artists like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (the latter’s horn section has occasionally backed up The Heavy on live dates). What most distinctly sets apart The Heavy is raw sex appeal, both in the sultry build that characterizes the band’s compositions and its frontman’s arresting stage presence.
That early affection for Lymon and the Teenagers and other early blues is an archival spark that Swaby regularly reaches back to onstage. “We go back to the old masters and the way that they presented themselves,” he explains. “I don’t believe in just standing behind the microphone and singing. I look to people like Chester Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf, that really performed—regardless of how slow or fast the song was, they performed it with emotion.”
Swaby’s old-school vantage point proved to be the money ingredient that pushed The Heavy into the mainstream. Their sophomore release, The House That Dirt Built, came out in October 2009 on Counter Records, and thanks to the inclusion of the infectious, sultry single “How You Like Me Now?” in a Kia car commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, The Heavy are the neo-soul buzz band of the moment. The song subsequently popped up all over movies and television, including on HBO’s Entourage and in the trailer for the forthcoming Dwayne Johnson action vehicle Faster. David Letterman was so smitten by the band’s performance of the song on his show in January that he demanded an encore, purportedly a first for the show. So is Swaby weary of being tied so tightly to that song right now?
“I’m not tired of it yet,” he says with a humble laugh. “To see people lose their shit over it now is pretty great.”