The Trials of a Wedding Singer

Mister D: I thought this was a rather cute essay myself

Special to The Charlotte Observer

I’m at the Very Large Country Club in Eastern North Carolina, attending my 400th wedding reception. Actually, I’m guessing at the number — it’s probably low — and I’m not so much attending as performing. I’m a musician, and one of the ways I make a living is playing these functions. I’m the guy who sings “Just The Way You Are” for the bride and groom’s first dance or “Start Me Up” to get everyone on the dance floor or “The Way You Look Tonight” for the older couple who are always surprised that I know it. This isn’t my regular band, but rather a freelance job — I’m here as a sideman.

I usually enjoy playing wedding receptions because I like ritual, and few things in life contain as much ritual as weddings. Ritual piles up like layers on a cake, from the proposal to the vows, familiar patterns that give weddings so much meaning for everyone involved. Ritual clings like perfume to this wedding party as they glide into the reception room, all young, dark-haired and sleek as panthers. The bride and groom look startled and then pleased as they hear themselves announced for the very first time as “Mr. and Mrs. –” over the bandleader’s microphone.

Tonight’s special song is Bette Midler’s “The Wind Beneath My Wings” for the father-daughter dance. It’s a good tune (much, much better than the execrable “Butterfly Kisses” which seems finally to be on its way out) and though I’ve never played or sung it, it’s familiar enough for me to breeze through the sheet music that has just been placed in front of me. It’s written in Midler’s key, however, and only when I get to the chorus do I realize the trouble I’m in .

“Did you ever know that you’re my hero?” I squeak in a voice that has become that of the Little Rascals’ Alfalfa. I feel my eyebrows arching upward, searching for notes my throat hasn’t a prayer of hitting “And everything I would like to be?” Father and daughter stop dancing and turn to stare, along with the semicircle of family and friends transfixed by my voice, which now desperately drops an octave (“You are the wind beneath my … “), seeking safety and, finding none, claws its way back to Midler country for the final word “wings.” People’s jaws do actually drop when they’re amazed, I think to myself as the sax player takes over and puts the tune out of its misery.

The wedding party finishes their dance, and most of the crowd joins them on the dance floor as the band feels its way through the set. How much fun they’ll have depends on what we play and how much they like each other. It’s easy to spot the families who are already comfortable: They laugh a lot and are fond of such exuberant pursuits as swimming in formal wear. Other receptions are subdued affairs, with the occasional bitter ex-spouse or general apprehension about the marriage glooming the air.

Everyone in the room has in a sense been married only an hour earlier, and we are the soundtrack to this part-celebration-part–release-valve that follows The Ceremony: that emotional, stress-filled part of the day that peaks at the few minutes between the words “speak now or forever hold your peace” and ” I do.”

I can’t play wedding ceremonies. The last one I did, years ago, was for two close friends. The song was “Let It Be Me” by the Everly Brothers; every eye in the church was on me, and I was fine until I looked into the faces of the bride and groom and emotion overcame me. On cue my throat tightened, turning the song into a guitar instrumental (my fingers, apparently uninterested in this inner dialogue, worked just fine). I shut my eyes and managed to finish the tune, vowing never to do weddings again.

Back at the Very Large Country Club, the afternoon cruises to its end. There’s the ribald yet touching toast by the groom’s college roommate, the cake cutting, champagne drinking with linked arms, the tossing of the garter and the bouquet (which, as usual, catches on the chandelier and has to be tossed again), the rush through the front door, rice, limousine and we’re done.

I pack my equipment and wonder how many of my 400-plus couples are still together as I indulge in my own unbroken ritual, having a small piece of the wedding cake. I am somewhat of an expert on wedding cake; this one possesses a nice balance of sweetness and tartness, which, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, seems a good metaphor for marriage and life in general — food for thought as I drive home.

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