The Institute for Advanced Study is surely an auspicious site for a wedding, with its rolling New Jersey campus and reputation as an intellectually unmatched haven for the study of … what? Well, everything, or anything apparently.
So as our humble Woodstock bluegrass band drove up to the Princeton campus and parked next to Albert Einstein’s house. Realizing where we were, we all felt a little smarter, Well, maybe it was awestruck that we were feeling.
In any case, we had made the three-and-a-half hour drive through intermittent torrential rains. But skies were clear when we arrived, biding well for the reception, which was sumptuously laid out in a large gorgeous tent. There was a makeshift bandstand, maybe four inches high in front of a portable dance floor on the lawn under the tent. Einstein’s house, next to the tent, was available for the band for tuning, and freshening up.
Somewhere in the first set, it began to rain. For a short period, it rained hard. But the tent held and all stayed dry. The band played until the dinner was served. Speeches were made, toasts were clinked, and all appeared under control.
The bride was beautiful in an off-white full-length gown, and her bridesmaids were stunning in matching dresses. The men wore formal, and wherever a puddle appeared, all stepped gingerly around it.
The skies opened up again in our second set with a vehemence heretofore unseen by humankind, or so it seemed. Still we soldiered on, though our newlywed hosts seemed a little apprehensive that the long-planned wedding party might be truncated. As we went back to Einstein’s between sets we noticed that electrical service was being relayed to the tent from the residence. There were about ten yards of open territory between the two. Lying in the middle of a mud puddle was the junction of two outdoor extension cords. Hey, they’re waterproof, right?
The rain hiccuped a little, going off and on. We came back out, and everyone was ready to dance. We cranked it up. So did the storm, shedding its ambivalence toward us, finally ready to flex. And down she came, in magnificent sheets of pure water.
Though the tent held, it still got pretty moist inside. The folks got a bit looser, able to find spots of dry ground. The dance floor got a bit slick. One little guy, about maybe eight years old and dressed in a fine suit, regarded nature’s bounty with a growing grin on his face.
And still it poured. The tent flaps did nothing much, the ground started muddying, the dance floor began sinking into the lawn. The party went on. We played faster.
The little guy finally went for it. Laughing with glee, he jumped into a large puddle of mud and started dancing. Soon he was fully splattered.
Next, in came the bride and groom, throwing all cares away, dancing in the mud as the floor became completely submerged. And you knew that this could be a marriage that would last.
The bridesmaids and groomsmen joined in, and some of the parents did, too.
The mud was everywhere. The rain’s faucet stayed open. Play on, they asked us, hinting at greater riches than the contract had called for. And we did.
In the end, we were relatively unscathed. A little muddy, but not too bad. Nothing electrical blew.
And the wedding party, covered in mud, was ecstatic. Two weeks later, we got a thank-you note from the couple and a check for a couple of hundred more than we had agreed to take.
Playing weddings and other types of celebrations provides a unique view of the proceedings. From the bandstand, one is positioned to observe as well as be observed, and often the band or bandleader is expected to be a host and keep the event on track. These are generally well-paying jobs, the food is usually good and sometimes quite spectacular, as can be the venues.
It is best to blend into events and be ready to fill in with whatever is needed. There aren’t so many of these wonderful gigs these days, as it seems live music for weddings has been supplanted by (expletive contemplated) DJs.
Caution: The episodes in this article come from the usually unreliable memories of slowly aging musicians. Thus, every tiny detail presented as fact could have undergone shifts of perspective somewhere along the way. But the stories, in general, actually happened — I think.
Robbie Dupree says: “In 1974, $7500 was a lot of money. A fan of my band contacted us and said there was a wedding to play. We don’t play weddings, I told him, but he said this one was so much money you got to do it. And we agreed to do it. It was way up the line on Route 32, I can’t even say where it was. And the idea was for us to stop at a parking space and we’d be picked up. So we waited there, and sure enough a white van came along, a club van with lots of seats, and two guys gave us all blindfolds to put on.
“We were kind of freaked out about it, but like I said $7500 was unheard of for us. So we took the money, put the blindfolds on, and rode for, I don’t know, 15 minutes on what felt like a back road, and we arrived at a location that was all set up for a wedding. The wedding went off. We played three sets, got paid $7500, and there were lots of guests who came. I don’t know if they were blindfolded.
The end of the story for me was that a couple of years later I read about a big drug bust that happened on that property, or at least up that way, and I’m assuming it was that property. We got the cash and we got away, and that was my one wedding story.
“Yes, they blindfolded us on the way back, but it was nighttime by the time we left, so it wasn’t quite as conspicuous.”
Harvey Citron says: “Back in the Seventies and early Eighties when I was doing weddings in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, I had an agent who would put me out on gigs. How it worked was I would call him on Tuesday and he’d say I was playing with the so-and-so orchestra. Give them a call on Thursday and they’ll tell you where to go.
“When I first started there I had never played with any of these people, and the way those wedding bands went they had lots of work in those days. Mostly they were called orchestras, they were not even bands in those days. They might have had ten, twelve, maybe 15 regular people that worked with them. And they would do showcases to sell their band.
“How did they do that? They would have their best players on stage at a bridal show and somebody would say, wow, that lead signer Tony is really great. Can I have him two years from now, on Saturday night, the 17th of June, and he’d look in the book, and see that Tony was scheduled for three gigs that night.. ‘Yeah, he’s available,…’ and it went down the line like that, and whenever they ran out of their regular people they’d call my agent and sometimes he’d provide almost the whole band. Mind you, there were no rehearsals, no set list, no song list. Everything was called by the leader. Those gigs were called ‘screamers.’
“On a Friday night when the band was not going to be the band the people ordered for a wedding. The owner in the office would call the bride and tell her, we’re so sorry, Tony was in a car accident … ‘Oh, is he going to be okay?’ Well, yeah, but he’s not going to make it to the wedding. Good news is, we just got Joey, and he came off the road with Bon Jovi… ‘Oh, thank you.’
Once in a while, they were not happy with that. I remember being on a gig and the bride was just seething …”
Kenny Nemiroff says: “I played a wedding a long time ago at the West Park Winery, and it was Betty MacDonald’s gig, and I was playing keyboard on it. I got there early …. We had a setup down near the building and then there’s a hill that goes up with a bluff on top, about 20 or 30 yards from where the band would be playing, and at the top they have the ceremony. They set up a bunch of seats there, and it was a beautiful day. One of the guests was going to play the ceremony and they needed to borrow a keyboard, so I set up my keyboard at the top for the guy.
“As the people were going up to their seats, the guy is near my keyboard and I’m down the hill setting up there, and all of a sudden I hear this really loud, booming bass line from ‘Can’t Touch This,’ it goes da da da da dum, da dum da dum, and I realize I left the sequencer on, on the keyboard. The guy must have hit the other pedal and it started playing, and everybody is looking at him and he’s looking shocked and terrified. So I had to run up the hill, the 30 yards, as fast as I can. And everybody is turned around looking at me, and the keyboard player is looking at me.
“So I said, ‘It’s his fault,’ and I pointed to him. ‘No, I’m only kidding,’ I said, and that was the end of that. He wound up playing the ceremony.”
We played Mack and Susan’s wedding in 1983, on their beautiful property in the Ulster County hills where they were building a house. It was a lovely, sweet homemade party outdoors on a shiny summer’s day.
Twenty years later, they called again, this time for Mack’s 60th birthday, and we were thrilled to again play our acoustic music on another sunny warm day, this time in the long-completed home they had created.
Another 13 years went by until we were called again, this time for a wedding party for their daughter. By now it was a reunion of old friends.
We closed the joyous day with Mack and Susan swaying to the tune we had first played for them more than three decades before, Bill Staines’ “Roseville Fair…”
And we danced all night to the fiddles and the banjos
Their drifting tune seemed to fill the air
So long ago, but I still remember
How we fell in love at the Roseville Fair.