The Really Long Winded Tale Of How I Came To Find Myself Working As A Wedding Singer On New Year’s Eve 2013
CHAPTER ONE: A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Like most kids I sang along to the radio. Ask my mom and I’m sure she’ll be happy to tell you about all the times I’d drag a radio into the bathroom so I could belt along to Elton John while I took endless showers as a teenager. Sometime in the early 90’s some friends of mine dragged me out to a restaurant that was doing karaoke (back when it was a relatively new phenomenon) and submitted my name without letting me know. At that point I *thought* I had a decent voice, but never really knew for sure. After managing to not humiliate myself to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It”, I realized that I could in fact carry a tune pretty well and what’s more, rather enjoyed it.
A few years later I discovered theater and acting, and while it would seem natural that I would find myself doing musical theater, that never really happened. I’ve done the occasional one-off musical show, but for the most part I’ve stayed away. When asked why, my stock answer was always that I didn’t care for showtunes as a musical form, nor was I a big fan of dancing, which often goes hand-in-hand when it comes to musicals (both of which are legit reasons). The singing was never really a problem, although in truth I was always secretly uneasy with the idea of blowing the lyrics. If you fumble dialogue you can always cover without the audience knowing. Blow a line in a song and it’s usually pretty clear. So aside from fairly regular trips to local watering holes for drunken karaoke nights, I’ve kept my singing under the radar.
That is until a few months ago when I was grabbing a drink and banging out some tunes with a friend of mine who in addition to being an actress, also happens to sing in a band. The conversation hit the usual point of, “I like your voice, why don’t you do more musicals?”, to which I responded with my stock reply. It was her response which caught me off-guard. “Have you ever thought about joining a band?”.
Now in reality, I had, although not for many years. I had been offered chances to audition for bands twice before, both times by half-drunk guys in bars who liked my singing. One I never followed up on, the other I did but never heard back from the guy. Now at 40+ years old the idea of “fronting a band” seemed a little ludicrous. But we talked a little more about it, with my friend telling me about her experience singing with her band at weddings and small clubs and suddenly I heard myself saying, “You know, that sounds like something I might like to try”. Having been acting for close to 20 years, I was looking for something a little different and this seemed to fit the bill.
CHAPTER TWO: FOLLOWING A WHIM
The next day my inbox delivered an email from my friend with a link to a Craigslist ad looking for a male singer for a professional wedding band. I threw the link up on Facebook just to see what people thought, but I had already made up my mind to at least respond. I figured the worst that could happen is that I’d get nowhere, and since I was already there, what was the harm? So I eventually fired off an email to the guy, pumping up my limited singing experience and trying to make my acting seem like a bigger deal than it was. About a week later I got a response asking for some recordings. Hurdle number one: I didn’t have any. But what I do have are some pretty awesome friends, and a week later after a pretty awkward night of singing into a broom handle so I could at least *feel* like a singer, one such friend worked his magic on a couple of meager recordings of my voice singing to some generic karaoke backing tracks and I had my first audition tape. I sent them off the next day, feeling reasonably certain that I’d get a “thanks, but no” in response.
It took two weeks, but the rejection finally came. At least, that’s how I read it at first: “Hi Gordon, Thanks for sending along your info. Unfortunately we’re not able to offer you an audition at this point”. I had to stop mid-sentence when I realized what it actually said was, “Hi Gordon, Thanks for sending along your info. I think you have a really great voice, and would like to invite you to try out for the band.”. Needless to say, I was quite stunned. I guess its one thing to have your friends constantly telling you something, but it’s something else entirely when it’s someone you don’t know who has a vested interest in being honest with you. A month or so later I received my audition appointment for a week later and a list of six songs to prepare. I crammed as best as I could, knowing *nothing* of what was going to be expected of me. The songs were not in my particular vocal wheelhouse and I was really trying to get “off-book”, figuring it would help to show up with everything memorized. Turns out songs are a boatload harder to learn than dialogue and when the day came I was feeling woefully unprepared.
My audition was scheduled for 8:30. At 6:00 I was all but ready to call and cancel. Instead I sucked it up and thought, “Well, at least it’ll be a valuable experience”. By the time I arrived they were a little behind schedule and I was able to chill in a corner of the basement/rehearsal studio and listen to the dude before me as he copped to being almost *completely* unprepared before struggling through the couple of songs he was willing to try. While I wouldn’t say this sent my confidence through the roof, it certainly set my nerves at ease. My turn came, I did what I could with the songs, tried my best to be personable in the limited time I had, and eventually left thinking, “Hey! You tried something new!”. In my mind, the experiment was now over.
Twenty-four hours later I was waiting out a nasty snowstorm in the cozy confines of a movie theater with a lovely female companion when I randomly checked my email on my phone to try and confirm something completely unrelated to my audition experience of the night before. I was pretty shocked to see an email from the band leader asking me to call him, “at your convenience”. Given the movie was about to begin, my convenience wasn’t going to be until later in the night, so I put it out of my mind, figuring I’d call the next day at a reasonable hour. About two hours later, as the movie wrapped up, I checked my email again and found a new email asking me to call “any time before midnight”. So there it was, in the lobby of an empty movie theater that I got the offer to sing, for at least one night, at the wedding of a couple I would never know. The conversation and nearly everything that has followed was pretty surreal.
Two weeks. That’s how much time I was given to familiarize myself with upwards of 26 songs which we would be playing that evening for which I was the featured vocalist. Having never done any singing of this nature or on this level before, I naturally thought, “I’m screwed”. But fill up my iPod I did and after a few hours of researching song lyrics (always a dicey proposition at best), I began studying in earnest. We managed one Saturday morning rehearsal before the gig, which amounted to a quick run through of the songs that were new to the band, plus a few of the standards which I was particularly concerned about, but that was it. It was then that I also learned that both the guitar player and both horn players we would be using that night were not part of the normal band, so I wouldn’t be the only new face. It seemed the entire event was going to be a bit of a crapshoot. New Year’s Eve was certainly going to be interesting this year.
CHAPTER THREE: THE LEAD-UP
Mother Nature, being the fickle broad we all know she is, decided to christen my maiden vocal performance with a nasty head cold that haunted me all through the holidays. I eventually slapped myself with a “no talking” edict for a few days after nearly destroying my voice just trying to talk over people at a party a few days earlier. I woke up the morning of December 31st feeling better, but not great, and after a few attempts to warm up my voice found that my upper range – which was already going to be strained by songs that were pushing me to my normal limit – was pretty much shot. I began to have serious doubts about my ability to even *sing* certain songs, let alone sing them well. Heading into the night my anxiety over how exactly I was going to work with a live band (in particular my ability to grasp when I should start singing, when I should stop; who was responsible for deciding when the song was over) was now coupled with an anxiety over whether my voice would actually hold out. Good times.
Having taken the day off from work, I spent the morning running errands, including fixing a near flat tire that would have *really* hampered my day. Along the way I managed to pick up a music stand (just in case) and discover that I had been misreading the email from the band about the gig and that in fact what I needed was not a black SUIT and bowtie, but rather a black TUX and bowtie (which should have been obvious, but hey, I’m a moron sometimes). Off I went to procure a tuxedo. In a moment of brash confidence I decided to purchase one rather than try and rent because hey, I was gonna need one *anyway* once I started doing this on a regular basis. Plus I got a nice new blue suit out of it thanks to a holiday “buy-one-get-one-free” deal. At least, that’s how I justified such a ridiculous purchase.
My own past experience paired with some well-intended advice had told me that drinking alcohol was not a good idea when you needed to rely on your voice, so I had already made up my mind to stay clear of the bar during the wedding in hopes of preserving what little pipes I had left. And yet, there I was at 5PM sitting in a local restaurant sipping a Corona while I waited for the adjustments to be made on my newly purchased tux. I’m not sure it helped my voice much, but I gotta say, it certainly helped take the edge off. If not the most satisfying beer I’ve ever drank, it’s definitely in the top 5.
I arrived at the gig earlier than expected and did my best to be useful while our band leader and our loan roadie set up shop. In a bad news/good news moment, they told me they didn’t have a stand for me lay my lyric book on, so off to my car I went to fetch the loaner I had miraculously picked up that day. Soon it became apparent that sound check was going to be scrapped entirely because by the time we finished setting up it would be time for the actual wedding ceremony to begin. And seeing as how *that* was taking place in the room next door, well… I think you get the idea. It was right around then that I discovered that I forgot to grab my suspenders from my closet and the tux of course had no means to hold a belt.
So there I was: decked out in a tux that required me to constantly be pulling up my pants, about to step in front of a crowd of a few hundred people and attempt to sing songs that I wasn’t totally comfortable with and which weren’t really in my range, songs I had never really rehearsed with a live band before, let alone performed for an audience, all with a group of people I was mostly meeting for the first time that night. Oh yeah, and somewhere in the room was a young couple for whom this night was a very, VERY special occasion. And yet strangely… I never really felt nervous. Which was good, because things were about to get weird.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE GIG
Our set list was broken into three blocks. The first was a few specific songs for background while I introduced the bridal party (a role I was happy to take and which the band leader was equally happy to unload on me), then a few more slow numbers before dinner was served. The introductions went off without a hitch and I even managed to not mangle the Sinatra song I was given as my debut number. My voice wasn’t in great shape, but it felt like it might cooperate enough to get through the night. It was right around this time that our keyboard player and secondary male vocalist rather abruptly removed himself from the proceedings and rushed offstage complaining of dizziness and a tingling sensation in his fingers. Awesome. We plowed ahead, although suddenly there was the Wedding Planner asking us to fill a little bit of time because they weren’t quite ready for the dinner to be served. Looked like we’d be dipping into the second block of songs for a while. One problem though: no keyboard player. On the fly we worked through a couple of tunes that didn’t require keys, unfortunately wasting some prime dancing numbers in the process. Somewhere in the mess I managed to murder The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” as all my various fears about singing live came flooding forward. Dinner finally got served and we took a break to lick our wounds and regroup for the night ahead.
I never eat before a show when I act, so I wasn’t about to load up on wedding food in the midst of an already uneasy situation. Instead I sat idly by sipping water watching the rest of the band eat as they swapped war stories of other gigs where things didn’t quite go as planned. The verdict was that while we weren’t off to a great start, it was far from a disaster. Meanwhile the EMT’s arrived on the scene to check on our discombobulated piano player. Turns out he had wacked his head quite mightily the day before and there was concern he might be suffering delayed concussion symptoms. His vitals checked out though, and after refusing an offer to be taken to the hospital, filled up on some grub and declared himself fit to continue. With one catch: he could play keys, but not sing. In and of itself this wasn’t a big deal as he had only a few numbers in the remainder of the set and those could easily be cut as we were going to be behind schedule anyway. The one problem was that the first two songs of our second set were the traditional father-daughter and mother-son dances, both to be sung by him. Next thing I knew I was wandering around an empty chapel with in iPod and lyric sheet trying to work out a song I had never heard before in my life. The night was truly turning into the ultimate trial by fire.
With emergency plans now in place, we headed out for our second set. The parental dances went out without incident (thanks in part to my number being as generic as is possible while still being considered an actual song) and we gradually worked our way into the up-tempo numbers that got an otherwise unenthusiastic crowd onto the dance floor. It was *then* that I began, for the first time during the entire experience, to actually have a good time. My voice held out through “Old Time Rock & Roll” and “Gimme Some Lovin'”, two tracks I was convinced were going to shred my vocal chords (I wanna punch young Steve Winwood in the face) and my campy delivery of “Love Shack” kept things fun.
Along the way I learned the valuable lesson that when you’re not sure what to do or where the song is going, check with the drummer. He carries it and he’s the guy to bail you out. I made plenty of mistakes, pissing the horn players off on multiple occasions when I jumped in with a verse before they’d had a chance to finish soloing, but all in all the band covered my ass and kept the audience from realizing what an unexperienced rube they had foisted upon them. We skipped a bunch of stuff and played fast and loose with the order (which unfortunately led to lengthy momentum killing breaks in between songs as we all scrambled to flip pages in search of the right song) and I began to realize that if I was going to keep doing this gig going forward I was going to need to work on my between-song banter. Our talented female vocalist banged out her tunes like the vet she is and worked the crowd beautifully through a rendition of Ike & Tina’s “Proud Mary” to bring our second set to a rousing (if ill-timed) close. The night was officially swinging back our way and the rush of performing hit me big. Even knowing I wasn’t crushing it (my voice was losing steam by the end), I was having a blast and managed to make it at least *look* like I wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment.
Our third and final set was more of the same, ripping through more modern fare like “Moves Like Jagger” and – Lord help me – “Blurred Lines” without incident (our trumpet player actually bailed us out with a rousing solo in place of the rap portion which our poor keyboard player was no longer up to) and just generally having a good time. We even worked in some Clash and Beastie Boys as requested by the groom leading up to the gig, so I managed to get some street cred back (yeah, right). Midnight came, I led the crowd in a countdown, somebody fired off a ridiculous confetti cannon that blanketed the dance floor and we polished off the night with a few more tunes. Second to last was my Moby Dick, the song I had feared most coming into the night – The Isley Brother’s “Shout”. My voice was, as expected, pretty much toast at this point, but by some miracle I was able to surge ahead and belt it out with all the strength I had left and despite my screeching, people seemed to dig it. We closed with “Save The Last Dance For Me” and suddenly the entire affair was over.
I lingered for a little bit, offering to help pack up equipment before essentially being told I wasn’t much use to them outside of carrying stuff, which they were a long way from needing. So with that I packed up my stuff, hopped in my car, and one hour into the new year headed to meet my special lady friend for a surprise New Year’s celebration.
Of course, I sang the whole car-ride there. I mean at that point… what the hell, right?