The Wedding Song : Bands Find a Rewarding Niche Providing Magic Moments at Receptions
Heather Warnick stood on the small stage at the Calabasas Inn, under a metal chandelier shaped like an exotic plant. A band composed of four tuxedoed musicians, poised to play guitar, bass, keyboards and drums, stood behind her.
As a little girl, Warnick dreamed of being a singer with a band much like this one. She wanted to dress up and perform before crowds, singing pop music.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 27, 1989
She has gotten her wish.
“Ladies and gentlemen! I’ve just received word that our bride and groom have arrived at the Calabasas Inn!” she announced into a hand-held microphone.
Warnick is the leader of one of the San Fernando Valley’s most successful wedding bands.
“I want everyone in the room to start cheering for them as loudly as they can,” she told the crowd of about 100 as the big moment neared. The crowd began to applaud politely.
“They can’t hear you!” Warnick scolded, and the crowd got livelier. Then, as the just-married couple shyly stuck their heads through the door, Warnick joyfully announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present, for the very first time, our bride and groom: Karen and Kurt Linden! All right!”
Just as Warnick had instructed them to do, the newlyweds entered and made their way to the dance floor, stopping several times to greet friends and relatives. The band, known as the Music Connection, broke into “I Had the Time of My Life” from the movie “Dirty Dancing,” and Warnick began singing.
There was almost an audible sigh from the crowd as the couple began their first dance as husband and wife.
Because of its ability to manufacture moments like these, the Music Connection is in high demand, playing up to four events a weekend. A pride in what they do and their success soothes whatever resentment might be generated by not playing more glamorous events.
Like actors who end up on soap operas, poets who do greeting cards or baseball players who never go beyond Triple-A, the musicians in wedding bands have not achieved their dreams. But they are, nonetheless, often skilled performers who derive great satisfaction from their achievements.
“I’m a professional, and I am proud of what I do,” said David Gallagher, leader of Sunswept, another popular wedding band based in the Valley. “That’s more than a lot of people in music can say.”
Gallagher, 33, had so many rock ‘n’ roll bands when he was a teen-ager in Buffalo, N.Y., that he can’t remember the name of his first.
“We were Shining Star for a while, Crystal Blue, the Loners--it changed all the time,” he said, sitting in the living room of his home in Van Nuys, where he meets prospective customers. “But we were always playing a mixture of the Stones and Led Zeppelin and the Beatles.”
Gallagher and his various bands played school dances until he and the other musicians turned 16, when they switched to nightclubs and bars. He played his first wedding when he was 18. “I think we got $50,” Gallagher, a drummer, said with a laugh.
During that time, Gallagher developed an interest in jazz, which worked well for weddings. “Back in the 1960s and into the ‘70s, weddings meant doing jazz standards almost all night. Lots of ‘Misty,’ ‘Satin Doll,’ ‘In the Mood’ and ‘Girl From Ipanema.’ We might do a twist number or something like ‘Proud Mary’ for the one big rock ‘n’ roll number for the night.”
Gallagher moved to Los Angeles in 1982 in hopes of finding steady work as a studio musician. To avoid “doing the waiter” bit while he was working toward his dream, he put together a band to play at weddings, Christmas parties, bar mitzvahs, corporate events and all the other occasions that musicians call “casuals.”
The casuals eventually came to take up more and more of his time. “I think what happened to me is that I turned 30,” Gallagher said. “I suddenly wanted a steady paycheck.”
Sunswept plays two to four weddings or other casuals on most weekends and charges about $1,000 per event. To supplement his income, Gallagher acts as an agent for several other wedding bands. When prospective clients come to his house, he can show them videos of Sunswept and a variety of ensembles ranging from classical to mariachi.
Like Gallagher, George Banfalvi started his career playing dances. He started the Music Connection in 1976 while he was a student at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys.
A year after the band formed, it won second place at a citywide “Battle of the Bands” at the Hollywood Bowl. After that came a few club dates, some parties and, finally, weddings. Three years later, when the Music Connection was playing more and more casuals, Banfalvi went looking for a female singer to join the all-male ensemble.
“It gives you a lot more versatility for the kinds of occasions we were playing,” said Banfalvi, 30, who plays bass. His Northridge home is the headquarters for the group, which rehearses there once a week.
“With a female singer, you can do love duets. It’s definitely a better marketing aspect for a band.”
Warnick, who had worked free-lance with several bands as a singer, was ready to settle down with one steadily working group.
“I had the illusions of grandeur that every young singer has--cut a record, Vegas,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t get to do that, but I have a family and I wanted a job where I didn’t have to go on the road for weeks at a time. I didn’t want to be out seven nights a week at a club.”
She and Banfalvi became partners, and she took over many of the business and organizational aspects of the Music Connection. She meets with couples and discusses costs, which total about $1,500 for a standard four hours.
“I am in music, I love what I do, we’re good at it, we work hard and we’re successful,” Warnick said. “Who could fight with that?”
Most of the band’s bookings are a result of being seen at various functions, Warnick said, and the group is already booked for some bar mitzvahs in 1991. Band members have not had a free weekend, other than vacations, for several years.
The other members of the Music Connection said they love their work, although they hope to eventually move on to other musical endeavors.
Keyboardist Paul Trudeau, 28, has started to get some studio work. Most recently, Trudeau, who lives in North Hollywood, played on a series of jingles produced for a Japanese radio program. Drummer Michael Cassam, 31, of Calabasas would like to work on pop albums, tour with a pop band and eventually become a recording artist.
Lead guitarist Wayne Milligan, 36, of Simi Valley also had a violin with him at the wedding reception. Before any of the guests came into the room, he warmed up by playing a Bach partita.
“Classical music is where I want to be, where I will be in a couple years,” he said with a broad smile. He has studied violin since he was 21 and hopes to join a symphony. “In the meantime, playing with a band like this on weekends keeps me going.”
The Music Connection plays soft rock, contemporary dance music and oldies--the standard repertoire for most wedding bands--almost exclusively. So does Sunswept. “The days of the Big Band, jazz sound for weddings is practically over,” Gallagher said. “The contemporary wedding band now is actually a rock ‘n’ roll band that can do a few standards.
“Rock ‘n’ roll has been around so long that almost everyone responds to it,” Gallagher said. “They love the dance oldies, the Motown. Once we get into ‘Louie, Louie’ or ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ that’s usually it for the night. The party is off and running.”
“It’s our job to make the party,” Warnick said. “I like to get them up there dancing.”
Which is why, shortly after the festivities began at the Calabasas Inn, Warnick began to worry about the Linden party. One of her well-practiced techniques is to segue immediately from the first dance--a slow number that traditionally ends with almost everyone on the floor--into a fast number. “While I’ve got them all up there, I like to sneak in something fast to let them know it’s going to be a fun party.”
A Tough Crowd
As soon as “Time of My Life” ended, Warnick quickly called for a spirited Kool and the Gang song, “Celebrate.” But most of the guests, even the young couples, walked off the dance floor and returned to their seats for polite conversation.
“This sometimes happens at an afternoon party,” Warnick said during the band’s first break. “But I have some tricks I can use.”
“Now, please join us in what we call ‘Karen and Kurt’s Love Circle,’ ” she announced after the salad course. “We need everyone up here in a big circle. We’ll give you a minute or so to make your way up here.”
No one moved. Warnick looked a tiny bit desperate. “Let’s do it for Karen and Kurt,” she said as the band started playing an instrumental version of “That’s What Friends Are For.”
“A big circle,” she said with a smile. “Right here.”
Still nothing. Warnick grabbed the wireless mike and jumped off the little stage, heading for the nearest table. “I’m going to invite this table to be the very first ones up to start the love circle! Thank you! I promise it won’t hurt.” No movement, but she quickly moved on to the next table, working the room for all it was worth.
After more pleas, a few guests began to move tentatively. Warnick capitalized on their movement to get almost everyone started toward the dance floor. She asked everyone to hold hands while the bride and groom danced in the middle of the circle.
Guests swayed to the music as Warnick sang the song about warmth and friendship. Then, as soon as the number was over, the band broke into “La Bamba,” one of the sure-fire dance songs of all time.
Except for a handful of couples, everyone drifted back to their tables.
“You can’t say I didn’t try,” Warnick said with a laugh during the next break. “Sometimes the tricks just don’t work.”
The guests at the Linden reception seemed happy to simply eat and politely visit with one another as the band played the rest of its four-hour engagement. With the exception of a few preteens and an irrepressible 18-month-old who hit the dance floor often, it was a distinctly laid-back wedding party. The Music Connection resigned itself to providing background music with “Rocket Man,” “Lean on Me,” “The Wind Beneath My Wings” and the like.
Warnick would rather have had the crowd up and dancing--the Music Connection’s reputation was built on generating a lively atmosphere. But she recognizes that her first priority is to size up the crowd and give them what they want.
At the end of the afternoon party, Warnick sang “The Wind Beneath My Wings” from the movie “Beaches” for the second time by request. Most guests had left by then, although several had stopped on the way out to pick up one of the band’s cards from a discreet holder on the stage.
As the band began to pack up, the bride approached them.
“You were fantastic ,” Karen Linden told them, squeezing Warnick’s hand. “It was just what I wanted. Thank you so much.”
As the bride went back to join her husband, Warnick smiled. “Well,” she said, “maybe it seemed like a slow day to us, but she and her husband seemed happy with what we did.
“I guess that’s what matters.”