If You Love Wedding Music, Why Don’t You Marry It?

The Long Island-based band Code Bleu (with singer Pamela Lewis, third from the right) questions the bride and groom, then sets up a crowd-pleasing playlist in advance. | Photo courtesy of Code Bleu

BY JIM MELLOAN | Fifty years and a couple of months ago, Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. And so, in March and April, I was playing that one on my “50 Years Ago This Week” radio show. I had dinner with my dad a while back, and he remarked what a classic it was. He had heard it played at a wedding reception recently. He suggested I should write about it. I told him great idea, but my editor, Scott Stiffler, wanted my column to concentrate on acts with New York connections — and Sly & the Family Stone were from San Francisco. Dad said, “Well, you could write about the fact that they still play it at New York area weddings.” I thought this was funny, and I related it to Scott as an amusing anecdote. Much to my surprise, he liked the idea, and what with it being wedding season in June, suggested I do a column on the stuff they play at wedding receptions around here these days. So this is that column, and that was the intro to this column.

Now here’s the part about that song and Sly & the Family Stone: It was the first Top 40 hit for the group. It pioneered a genre that became known as psychedelic soul, and soon major acts such as the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and the Four Tops started churning out hits with a similar sound. It led to the development of funk. CBS Records executive Clive Davis had asked the band to come up with a poppier sound than was reflected on their first album, “A Whole New Thing.”

Sly rose to the occasion with “Dance to the Music” (which also served as the second album’s name). The band wasn’t crazy about going in this direction. Saxophonist Jerry Martini said it “was such an unhip thing for us to do.” But it did the trick of launching the band into the pubic consciousness, and the band’s unusual combination of four lead singers, rock guitar riffs, gospel organ, and horns seemed plenty hip to the record-buying public. The song takes the hoary format of introducing members of the band and letting each one do a lick so we can hear how the whole sound comes together. Archie Bell & the Drells had a number one hit a couple months later with a song with a similar structure, “Tighten Up.” The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band sent up the format in 1967 with “The Intro and the Outro,” in which a couple dozen fanciful characters are introduced as members of the band, including John Wayne on xylophone, Adolf Hitler “looking very relaxed” on vibes, and the Count Basie Orchestra on triangle. “Dance to the Music” may have gotten a boost in popularity in the 21st century with its inclusion in “Shrek in the Swamp Karaoke Dance Party,” a DVD extra for the 2001 movie “Shrek.”

I haven’t been to any weddings in years. So I realized, to paraphrase The Martian, I’m gonna have to report the shit out of this column. That was easily enough done thanks to crowdsourcing via a Facebook query and an interview with a local contemporary expert, a singer with one of Long Island’s most successful wedding bands. Through these we can piece together what the musical fare at a New York metro area wedding reception in 2018 might consist of.

Weddings are, of course, multi-generational celebrations, so we can expect that music from every era that attendees might have witnessed will be represented. The cocktail hour will feature the jazzier stuff: Kenny G, “Wave,” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. As the guests file in and sit down to dinner, the music will continue to be low-key: Fleetwood Mac, Marvin Gaye, Sade, Anita Baker, and the soft side of Amy Winehouse. There will also be contemporary love songs of the unabashed variety, like John Legend’s “All of Me” or Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.”

Pamela Lewis is a singer with Code Bleu, an 8 to 11-piece Long Island band that does about 100 weddings a year (details at skylineorchestras.com/code-bleu). She explained how the outfit combines a rigorous process of determining what particular songs and genres any given couple is interested in with the skill of reading the room at any given time and deploying an instinctual knowledge of what is going to work best at that time. Bandleaders Sean and Donna Gillen send out a questionnaire to the bride and groom and then meet with them personally to make sure everything they want is covered. The couples are often already familiar with Code Bleu’s work, and they have the option to see them at regularly scheduled showcases. The Gillens then send out a CD to all the band members that contains all the songs they need to know for the week’s upcoming gigs.

A happy wedding party, after having danced the night away… but to what tunes? In the center is bride Caroline Kingston. | Photo by Pamela Lewis

After dinner may be the time when the parents and grandparents have a few drinks under their belts and are ready to cut loose, so a ’50s and early ’60s set might be in order: “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Rockin’ Robin,” “Heat Wave,” a couple of twist numbers, and (generally a must) the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”

“I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll)” serves up the neat trick of being event-specific and evoking nostalgia for both the late ’70s, when it was written by Nick Lowe, and performed by both him and Dave Edmunds, and the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll style it’s written in. The ’70s and ’80s brought out a number of wedding warhorses, many of which are still practically de rigeur today: Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight,” Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” and “Last Dance,” and the standard Barry White half-dozen.

There may be the part where the groom is blindfolded and has to find and remove the bride’s garter with his teeth, often while a recording of Yello’s 1985 electronica number “Oh Yeah,” featured in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is played (or alternatively, says Lewis, the band plays Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”). Cake-cutting ceremonies have recently often featured “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, an anthemic paean to the pleasures of, yes, home.

The 21st century kicks in with a few songs that have become classics: OutKast’s “Hey Ya!,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (a prime example of today’s music’s total disregard for the importance of melody), and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” (a welcome exception to that trend). Two others with which I was not at all familiar: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” (which has, holy shit, more than three billion views on YouTube), and Walk on the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” (nice enough, but I prefer the hard-rocking 1980 song of the same name, by the very obscure San Francisco new wave band Pearl Harbor and the Explosions). Lewis reports that in the past five years country has gotten much more popular, with couples requesting songs such as “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” by Luke Bryan, and “The Fighter” by Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood.

So that is my report. Now, before the month is out get yourself a decent suit or a fine new dress, get invited to a wedding or just crash one, and celebrate: get down tonight, shut up, and dance to the music!

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