Off the Cuff with Claiborne: Paul Chickey

Paul Chickey has been playing ‘doctor’ for almost three decades. A staple of the St. Louis music scene, the drummer is one of the founding members of Dr. Zhivegas, the beloved dance rock cover band. From a residency in Las Vegas to sold out local shows to fields in the middle of nowhere, Chickey and the band have played it all.

Dr. Zhivegas is one of the most celebrated bands in St. Louis. How did everything come together?
Dr. Zhivegas started when I was in an indie rock band called Nerve. We did a benefit at Mississippi Nights, performing disco and funk songs. Our first official gig was Halloween in Soulard in 1995, and it just sort of took off from there.

How many shows do you guys do a year?
There was a time in our heyday when we were doing around 260. Since the pandemic, we’re probably at around 160.

How big do you think your catalog is?
More than 600 songs.

Having been around since the ’90s, how do you keep things fresh for the fans?
What I’ve noticed over the years is that the playlist that gets the most genuine reaction is our original stock and trade, which was ’70s and ’80s funk and disco. We’ve certainly modernized the set over the years, but people still love it.

Does it surprise you that those genres continue to hold up, even with young people?
It’s a testament to a great song. If it can span so many generations, there’s something going on there that’s almost metaphysical.

Where are some of the fun places to play in St. Louis?
I always love playing The Pageant and Delmar Hall. There’s great energy. Some of the larger places like Ballpark Village and the Armory are fun because you can get some big crowds.

Who inspired you to pursue music?
I’m the youngest of six. All of my brothers had a really deep music collection of rock and some blues, and my sister had all the pop and dance records. I would just listen to all of it over and over again. One of my brothers played guitar in a band. They would go outside to take a break, and I would jump on the drum set and start tapping at it.

Why St. Louis for Dr. Zhivegas?
On a practical level, St. Louis is right in the middle of the country. We still travel quite a bit, and we can get to the south and the west coast kind of quickly. More to the point, we have a really genuine, engaged fanbase. We’re nothing but grateful for that. We try to give them a good time every time they come out.

What was your best night on stage?
We were playing The Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri, one time. We have these cages with go-go dancers, and DeeDee James decided to join one of the dancers in the cage. I will never forget that night because it was Halloween, and our bass player was dressed up as the Pope. You can imagine the Pope next to the go-go cages. There’s a rock ’n’ roll story for you.

What’s the most unique gig you’ve ever played?
You name it, we’ve played it. We’ve literally played in the middle of fields with generators that barely worked. I remember one time this lawyer had a wedding for his daughter in a barn on his farm. It’s the middle of winter, and there’s no heat in the barn, barely any power. It was unbelievable. That’s a good example of a gig where you’re scratching your head while you’re there.

The first thing you do after a gig is …
Definitely go for food. I usually don’t eat before the gig, and when we get off work, it’s 2 a.m. and everyone else is asleep. One of the great things about playing a place like Vegas is you can get Thai food at 3 a.m.

Four places for dinner in St. Louis.
My buddy Pepe Kehm owns Peno and Rosé. He’s a great chef. I like Ben Poremba’s places. Bar Moro is fantastic. Matt McGuire has Louie, which is very, very good.

What’s your drink of choice these days?
I’m a red wine guy, so I would say a good Barbaresco. I love the Nebbiolo grape from northern Italy.

Beach or mountains.
Without any hesitation, I used to say beach, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really sort of endeared myself to the mountains and desert. That’s why I love Baja in Mexico—it has all three.

What’s the best thing about being a drummer?
The feeling that you’re driving the ship a little bit. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from that. You’re the quarterback and the center all in one.

What’s the must have item of clothing for a drummer?
A good pair of shoes that fit really well and don’t inhibit you. It’s whatever you feel most comfortable in working the pedals.

Have you worn anything on stage that made you say never again?
There was a jump-suit that was made for me. It was a one-piece thing à la Elvis or something. I still have it somewhere, but it didn’t work out.

How would you describe what you do to someone who has never seen Dr. Zhivegas?
We’re basically a live jukebox. Every single song we play is a No. 1 dance hit, but we present it with the energy of a rock show. It’s the best dance party in town.

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