Gary Gibula for the south
Remember “The Wedding Singer?”
The 1998 Adam Sandler comedy told the story of a wedding singer who dreamed of singing in a rock band.
Your humble narrator is the antithesis of this scenario – an established rock musician who later became a wedding singer.
While still a sophomore in high school, my rock band “Cerebus” was hired to perform at a prom at my own school. I was 15 years old.
I continued to play rock, rockabilly, Motown, rhythm and blues, new wave and even punk during my college years at SIU.
After graduating, in need of money, I started playing guitar and singing in a Chicago band that played at high-priced wedding receptions in the city’s biggest hotels. True story.
After several years of uncomfortable evenings playing music while wearing a tuxedo, I abruptly gave up the lucrative paychecks and decided to tour for three years in a St. Louis Grateful Dead tribute band. It was quite a turnaround.
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Looking back, the wedding singer’s experience provided many memorable moments. Would you like to hear some true stories from the trenches?
As the guitarist and lead singer of the Jeff Sandler Orchestra, I sang the “first dance” song, the “father-daughter dance”, Motown hit mixes, Polish polkas, traditional Jewish Hora mixes, 1970s Disco hits and a dozen other genres of music.
If you’ve ever laughed at a “funniest home video” of someone falling on the dance floor at a wedding reception, it’s even funnier when you’re there in person.
I have witnessed dozens of these unfortunate, often embarrassing moments.
Sometimes this happens when a wedding guest is over-served at the reception. Please note that I did not use the word “drunk”. However, as most adults know, alcohol tends to release inhibitions.
I’ve seen wild parties where the inhibitions of almost everyone in the room were non-existent. It is these occasions that make the most memorable wedding receptions – all the guests are cheerful and in good spirits to celebrate the union of the happy couple.
But having a good time doesn’t always depend on alcohol.
For example, the wedding of one of my three sisters, Suzanne. Of all the parties I’ve attended or been hired to play music, hers was one where everyone in the room was just determined to have a good time.
It was a Jewish wedding, which includes a traditional group dance where the bride and groom sit on chairs and are hoisted overhead by the men.
But, as you can guess, this maneuver can sometimes lead to disaster. I’ve seen a bride or groom fall to the ground when the person supporting one of the chair legs doesn’t keep their end of the bargain.
“We played years ago at a wedding reception where beer was free but there was a charge for mixed drinks,” recalls Jeff Sandler, the conductor of my wedding band. “The guests were drinking so much beer that they ran out of room for the kegs behind the bar and had to place them on the back edge of the stage.
“Throughout the evening there was a line of men in casual attire bumping into musicians and knocking mugs of beer over drums and amplifiers,” he said.
Whether a guest is drunk or not, it’s half funny and half sad when someone falls into the party, so to speak. This only happens when musicians perform at ground level and close to the dance floor.
I saw middle-aged women as well as couples not paying attention to where they were dancing or polka-ing. They then waltz straight into the back ground speaker and fall backwards into the band area.
I remember predicting when an overjoyed dancer was about to fall into the group, then catching him at the last moment, saving him from embarrassment or serious injury.
Humorous moments invariably arise at nearly every wedding reception when there’s a guest in the crowd who thinks they’re a musician or singer. In the latter case, the person is usually a karaoke singer who thinks their talent also extends to singing with a live band.
Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.
I saw a guest interrupt the leader of the group and ask him to sing a song. Unfortunately, the momentum on the dance floor then stops when musicians try to find sheet music or remember chord changes in a semi-obscure song while at the same time figuring out what musical key the singer wants to use. .
This is why an experienced group leader will never allow such a disaster to occur.
But sometimes these moments are well planned in advance.
I played at a wedding reception where the groom surprised everyone in the room – including me, the band’s guitarist – by strapping on an acoustic guitar, then playing and singing a tender love ballad to his bride. This, of course, had been pre-arranged with my group leader, without my knowledge.
Like when a band performs in a bar, I’ve played at wedding receptions where, in the middle of a song, the power to the stage is suddenly completely cut off. I may have been in the middle of a song lyric when the sound system stopped working, the amplifiers turned off, and the stage lights went out.
It happened to me at a few different receptions that I instantly realized what had happened, sprang into action, and looked for the stage circuit breaker or power strip that had tripped a fuse.
There was also the hassle of moving the band’s equipment from the venue of the outdoor wedding ceremony to inside the reception ballroom.
“It’s called a ‘chamber roll,'” Sandler explained. “We had violins, flute and piano at the ceremony, and other musicians waiting backstage when it was their turn to play for happy hour. We were trying to set up the equipment inside the ballroom when a very nervous party organizer opened the doors half an hour too early, allowing 250 people into the room while the sound team and musicians were setting up frantically the equipment wearing shorts and tennis shoes.”
As you can imagine, bad weather can significantly affect wedding activities that take place outdoors.
“It was a wedding in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, where the cocktail hour and reception were to take place on a small stage right by the lake,” Sandler recalled. “There was no road or even a path to the lake and it took several trips with a small golf card to get all the gear up a muddy hill to the stage.
“After at least three hours of setting up, the sky quickly turned black and a light rain fell. We had to pack our bags and carry everything back up the hill to the clubhouse, where we sort of started playing on time. I never even had time to put on my tuxedo.”
I remember several summer wedding receptions that took place in ballrooms where the air conditioning didn’t work. But there I was, the wedding singer, dressed in a full tuxedo, singing out loud and sweating bullets. True tales from the trenches!
Gary Gibula is a SIU alumnus, musician, writer, editor and author of the Music Historicity Columns. He can be reached at [email protected]