There’s a place in heaven for wedding musicians. You just have to go through the kitchen to get there.
An old saying. (I may have made it up.)
I remember the first wedding I played.
It all started innocently enough when one of my patients, Susan, discovered during our after-exam chat that I was a musician and had a jazz combo.
“Would you be interested in playing for an MS Society fundraiser? It doesn’t pay, but there’s food.”
“I’d love to. What’s the date?” A gig is a gig. And maybe, I thought, someone who had MS might benefit as a result of the obvious healing nature of our repertoire.
I’d been playing gigs since I was fourteen and have been a bandleader for so long that I believe I may have come out of the womb destined to play that role.
My fellow musicians were also happy to perform at the fundraiser and we arrived at the appointed time and place, set up our instruments, and waited for Susan, who seemed to be in charge of the event, to give us the signal to play. Hundreds of walkers, runners, and cyclists were on-hand to complete their previously determined distances—each had hit up friends and family members for contributions, and all of the proceeds went to the MS Society.
We played for about 30 minutes as the people on foot and a variety of wheeled vehicles began their circuitous event; then we sat around for a long while until they began to drag themselves across the finish line. Although some participants looked at this as a true “race” and put everything they had into it, for many others it was more symbolic, especially if a family member or friend had MS.
A large number of volunteer organizers wearing matching t-shirts and carrying clipboards ran around “organizing” things. Some helped provide food and beverages for the participants. And several of us just made music. I think at one point we too were given t-shirts. A good time was had by all—including us.
We soon became regulars at these MS fundraising events. My band was also playing at other venues, and we’d become a pretty tight group—Cheryl on vocals, myself on keyboard, Bruce or George on bass, and the other Bruce on drums.
A year or so later, Susan again came into my office as a patient and announced to me that she’d soon be getting married.
“Could your band play for my wedding?”
“Of course! It would be my honor!”
And we did. It was a lovely affair, and this time we were paid.
We continued to play benefits for the MS Society, including one at an upscale restaurant in San Francisco where the guest of honor was David L. Lander, the guy who played Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley. Squiggy, who had MS and served as a “Goodwill Ambassador” for the MS Society, offered a fun talk at the luncheon, including the line, “Now that Annette Funicello, Richard Pryor, and I have MS, everybody wants to have it.”
Soon after this event Susan changed jobs and we followed her to the Diabetes Association. In truth, I’ve known many more people with diabetes than MS. We played pretty much the same musical repertoire for both organizations.
One day a woman about my age whom I’d never met before came in for an eye exam. She’d written under “occupation” that she was the publisher of Here Comes The Guide. This was before everything was online, and I recalled having seen a copy when my wife’s younger son was getting married.
After the exam, I asked Lynne, “Can you tell me a little bit about Here Comes The Guide?
“Why do you want to know? Are you getting married?”
“Not yet. I’m still in recovery from the first one. But I do have a band, and I’m curious: what does it take to get into the Guide?”
She appeared to scoff.
“It’s a pretty good band,” I offered, not knowing whether to be offended.
“That’s not the problem. We have a very stringent qualifying procedure, and we actually charge the vendors who want to be vetted. But the real problem is we’re going to press in just a few weeks. I’m not sure there’s enough time for you to get it all done before the deadline.”
Now it felt like she was taunting me. “I work great under pressure,” I responded. That’s not necessarily true, but I like to say it. “Can I give it a try?”
She looked at her watch, closed her eyes, and sighed. “Give me your email address and I’ll send you the instructions. Remember, there’s not much time.”
The application required a huge number of personal and professional references—30 or 40. The woman responsible for vetting me and my band would be contacting all of the names on my list. The process took a lot of time, and that’s why there was a hefty application fee.
I spent the next 10 or 20 hours—waking and sleeping—compiling the list. The sticking point, of course, was that we were trying to get into a guidebook aimed primarily at brides, but I’d played exactly one wedding. The cost for the application was not insignificant; and the cost for placing an ad in the Guide itself was significant.
What the hell. I believe that sometimes opportunities drop out of the sky and into your lap for a reason, so it’s best not to ignore them. I thought hard as I scrolled through the Rolodex in my mind.
My list of references included my piano teacher, my saxophone teacher, and a drummer I knew who taught percussion in a community college. I added my high school band teacher to the list. What the hell. I also included my rabbi, a couple of people I’d met in a theater class I took, my best friend from high school, someone in law enforcement, another optometrist who was a bass player, and someone else from high school. And, of course, Susan—my one and only bride.
I quit brainstorming when I realized I was seriously thinking of putting my barber on the list.
I notified them all that they’d be hearing from Here Comes the Guide and submitted the application and my check. Then I waited.
I soon got an email confirming that the person in charge of my vetting had received my paperwork and she’d get back to me soon. I think I was more anxious about this application than when I’d applied to grad school.
When she finally called, I was sitting at my desk at home. I asked if I could put her on speaker. I didn’t ask her if I could record the conversation, but I did, flicking the switch on my Radio Shack cassette recorder sitting nearby. I could always record over the tape if the interview was a disaster.
I could hear the smile in her voice as she began. “I want to tell you, Robert, that I have done hundreds of these applications, and yours was the most interesting I’ve ever done!”
I was glad I was recording this. No one would ever believe it otherwise.
“Most people who are bandleaders send me 30 or 40 bride references. Do you have any idea what it’s like talking to so many brides? Most of them can tell me every detail about their dress and their shoes, but recall virtually nothing about the band. They’re too busy, well, getting married.
“And I need to tell you, I truly enjoyed talking to your high school band teacher! He remembers you very well and had a lot of nice things to say about you.
“It was also fun talking to some of the musicians you’ve played with, and the cop was a blast.
“And Susan, the bride. I was happy to hear you’d volunteered for her organization. I talked to her for a long time. My cousin has MS.”
I could only shake my head.
When Lynne called me the next day she was amazed at the report she’d received from my investigator. But she also reminded me that we only had a few days to prepare the ad for the upcoming Guide. She’d already sent me instructions and specifications. I told her she’d have an ad very soon.
The reason I was so sure of this was that my father owned an advertising agency that catered to small businesses. And my business was indeed small. It was a snap for him to take the photographs and copy I sent him and put an ad together. His finished product looked great!
Unfortunately, Lynne wasn’t as impressed. She told me her office would redo the whole thing at no charge. That was fine with me—it was her Guide. In the end, they moved some photos around, replaced a couple of typefaces, made a few minor edits, and changed the clever little eighth notes I’d asked my dad to use instead of check marks. (They changed the little notes to…drum roll…check marks.)
Here Comes The Guide was filled with sections for music, catering, photography, florists, wedding planners, and event venues. Our new ad looked as good or better than any of the others. Next, I needed to ramp up my website, and my web designer and I got busy.
It took a couple of months for the new edition of the Guide to hit the newsstands, but when it did I started getting inquiries right away. And some of those turned into bookings.
Little did I know at the time that I would be leading a fairly active life as a wedding bandleader for the next 20 years or so, with an exciting cast of talented musicians and vocalists. This was, of course, in addition to my regular gig as a doctor of optometry. (At times, I started to feel like a TV character who carries around a selection of business cards: House painting? Of course! Do you need a taxi? Hop in! Gardening? It’s my specialty. We also walk dogs. And cats.)
I met with many brides and grooms. We played at their weddings. We worked hard and made some money.
But if you think being a wedding bandleader is just about playing music, well, you have no idea. Stay tuned!