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.)
Laura and Larry. Larry and Laura. Easy names for me to remember. They were the wedding couple du jour. It looked like it would be an easy gig, and mostly it was.
The event was described as a “garden wedding” and was held at some boutique wine country venue. The crowd was small—maybe two dozen guests.
I would describe the bride as a handsome woman, somewhere between 39 and 43. She wore a beautiful, constant smile, and was obviously pleased that she would soon be wed. Cheryl (our vocalist) and I both agreed that the baby she was obviously pregnant with was also happy.
Larry appeared to me to be something of a cookie-cutter groom—a very nice guy, well-built, square jaw, expensive haircut, and probably headed for a partnership in his law or accounting firm. Some men just scream “Vanilla!” But as I’ve said all my adult life, if she’s happy, I’m happy.
The negotiations for providing wedding music had been a snap. And while our fee was not low due to the travel distance to the venue, money did not seem to be an issue. I also realized there wouldn’t be much dancing going on so I adjusted our playlist to better accommodate the drinking, the ongoing conversations, and more drinking. One thing you learn about being a wedding musician is that by the end of the event the band members (and maybe the photographer and waitstaff) are the most—perhaps the only—sober ones in the room.
(I once hired a drummer for a wedding gig who showed up on time and dressed in his tuxedo. Along with his drums he brought a cooler filled with a few six-packs of beer, as if they were a normal component of his drum kit. I read him the riot act about not drinking on the job, and he looked at me like I was nuts. Later I heard from other musicians that he had a reputation for doing this. The moral of the story is that even if you’re a good drummer it doesn’t mean you’re not a jerk. I never played with him again except once at an outdoor jam session where no bride was present. As predicted, he kept his trusty cooler within easy reach.)
Three hours into our four-hour wine country event we were told that it was time for the toasts, so the band took a break. As it was such a small wedding party, the musicians hung out nearby to hear the toasts. The first to speak was the bride’s father. Looking very much like the senior partner in his firm, he addressed the couple with a beaming smile as he raised his glass.
“Laura, you’ve never looked more beautiful than you do today,” he gushed. “I am so glad that you and Andrew found each other.”
Andrew? I think I heard my neck crack as it spun around to look at Cheryl, who was standing next to me. Her eyes were wide, reflecting the same horror that I felt.
Laura and Larry…Larry and Laura buzzed through my brain.
On the other side of the patio the bride was just shaking her head, as if to say, “Dad, you did it again.” Andrew, we later found out, had been her previous fiancé. A thought passed through my mind hoping that Larry was indeed the father of the unborn child. But the groom seemed to be taking it well.
And as far as Dad was concerned, like many back-slapping drinkers, he just laughed it all off. I suppose if you laugh enough and drink enough you get pretty good at forgetting your faux pas. I probably felt worse than he did. Regardless, I reminded myself, this was not my problem. The music and the remainder of the event went as planned.
The Napa-Sonoma wine country is a popular wedding event area, and we made the trip up there many times. As I’ve said before, I tend to remember best the events where something went wrong. Occasionally it was my own fault, and that only made it worse.
We were accustomed to having requests from family and guests who wanted to sit in with the band on a variety of instruments, or just sing a song to the happy couple. Sometimes a person read an original or a classic poem, or something from what is commonly known as the Scriptures.
I was told beforehand that after one particular wedding ceremony, the bride’s uncle, who also happened to be a minister, would be saying a few words. Uncle Joe was indeed a seasoned member of the clergy and his words were sincere and heartfelt. He was obviously close to the bride, and she couldn’t stop dabbing her eyes during his offering. This caused many of the rest of us to tear up as well.
Uncle Joe was the kind of uncle everyone wished they had in their family. And that’s why, when he approached me on the bandstand a little while later, I was happy to agree to his request to sing a song to the bride. I told him, however, that we would have to put it off for about an hour, and he was fine with that. Before he left me, he shook my hand and I felt a folded bill in my palm. I put my hand and the cash in my pocket and didn’t think about it until the break when I told Cheryl that Uncle Joe was going to sing a song to the bride and had passed me a tip. It was at that point I unfolded what turned out to be a hundred dollar bill. Sweet!
I always shared tips with the band, and Cheryl smiled. She went over to talk to Uncle Joe with our song list to pick something he’d like to sing. When she came back, she was no longer smiling.
“Bob, he’s really drunk.”
I sighed. “Let’s just get him up here, do the song fast, one chorus, and get him off.”
Cheryl knew the drill. This wasn’t her first rodeo.
With the bride looking on from fifteen feet away, we announced that Uncle Joe was going to sing a song to her. He stumbled over and took the microphone. I can only say that after he had bumbled his way through half the song it took three of us (Cheryl, the bride, and myself) to get the microphone out of his hands. But it was what he said to me in front of the bride, who was only half laughing as she helped disarm him, that was the killer.
“How about if I give you another hundred and you let me sing another song?” he slurred. I felt sick.
There was nothing I could do. We were being well-paid for the event, and if the bride expressed anything in her glance at me, it was disappointment.
The evening dragged to a close. There was nothing I could do to make it any better. Years later I can still feel the embarrassment. I wonder if every family has an Uncle Joe.
I had carefully positioned my band in a specific niche. While there are always combos who will play for less money, there are also bands who command top dollar. My attempt was to appeal to the middle of the pack, offering what was needed within a reasonable budget. Thus our list of featured options included a bit of everything, including classical wedding ceremony music, pre-dinner/cocktail jazz, a “big band” sound, the “Songs of Sinatra,” a variety of ethnic dance music, and even a Live Band/DJ combo for those couples who wanted the recorded version of “their song” performed for their first dance or some popular recordings for the “younger crowd” to dance to after the parents and grandparents had left or gone to their hotel rooms.
One day we got a call to provide thirty or forty minutes of pre-ceremony live music followed by a simple, romantic song, the recessional, to be played as the couple walked back down the aisle. When I asked who would be providing music for the rest of the event, I was curtly told, “We have other bands that will do that.”
I can without hesitation describe this as a multi-million-dollar wedding event. The event site was the Mark Hopkins Hotel (or maybe the Fairmont) in San Francisco. What I do remember was that the family had taken over most of the hotel for the weekend.
Walking through the ballroom to get to the terrace where our trio would be performing, I saw scaffolding going up for several bandstands (including one for a large ensemble) and stage lighting. There was a champagne wall and dozens of gaming tables for Pai gow, roulette, Mah jongg, poker, blackjack, and other games. Virtually all of the dealers were Asian, as was the wedding coordinator, who greeted me with a clipboard in her hand. She had everything under control. Catering crews and wait staff were busy setting up tables and buffets. Roadies were unpacking and setting up sound systems. (I think I saw Cecil B. DeMille walk by. Maybe it was Busby Berkeley.)
Ironically, the wedding ceremony itself was simple. Perhaps the couple had already been married in Hong Kong or Monte Carlo. The bride looked stunning in the first of what I found out was going to be seven gowns she would wear during the event. Seven gowns, each a different color. This was obviously the intersection of good luck and an immense fortune.
The guys I was playing with left after our musical obligation was over, but there was no way I was going to miss what was going on after.
No one questioned my presence since I was wearing a tuxedo, and I wandered from station to station, listening to the different bands—each larger in size than the previous, featuring everything from R&B to Glenn Miller to Michael Jackson. As the evening wore on, the gaming tables became busier and visits to the wall of champagne more frequent.
Whenever there were loud “Oohs and Aahs” I turned to see the bride enter in a new gown more incredible than the last.
I hate to say it, but eventually I got bored and wondered if I was the only person present who had a built-in limit for opulence. I picked up my car at the valet station—the band’s vehicles had been comped—and left.
As I drove back over the Bay Bridge I wondered, as I often did after playing a wedding, whether and how long this marriage would last. Call me a skeptic. Or a realist.