Was the request six months ago, a sixtieth birthday party, the client said. It got me thinking. There is a whole untapped market out there for people who lived as teenagers and twenty somethings through the sixties and seventies. They are all coming up to this big sixtieth birthday date and they all love the kind of music I love to play and earn my living out of! More than that, their kids are off their hands, their mortgage is paid up and they can afford to splash out on a big celebration.
That isn’t the real reason for writing this article, in fact it has very little to do with the subject which is about the day in the life of a working professional London musician. It did get me thinking, however, how things have changed from my own youth. When I was young, sixty-year-old men smoked untipped fags, wore flat caps and suits and listened to Max Bygraves. Now the average sixty year old will be a fan of Wilson Pickett, Otis Reading, James Brown and The Stones and be dressing in Gap. He or she will definitely not be a smoker!!
The engagement was in West Sussex, a lovely part of the world, in late June. The weather was perfect as I loaded up the car. For a soul band music gig you need amplification and some lighting as well as a cd player for keeping the music and atmosphere going for when the band takes a break. I picked up my bass player Andy mid afternoon, and we drove down together to the sixtieth birthday party. Andy is no stranger to soul band work. He was musical director a few years ago to the Flirtations, a sixties Motown soul music band who had three or four hits back in the nineteen sixties. A very experienced and talented musician Andy has also worked with Van Morrison, Phil Collins and Eddie Reader as well as 1980`s swing band Wall Street Crash. Being a close friend for twenty-five years the trip down to the party was a pleasure. Good company, good conversation, lovely weather and countryside and the anticipation of a very rocking gig with some great players!
As usual we arrived early. The party we were playing soul music for were still having dinner and would be at least another hour. That was fine with us as the venue of the party was delightful. The person who’s sixtieth birthday it was had arranged drinks for us and so while we brought the musical gear in to the venue a pot of tea was rustled up for us. Over a brew and the gear sitting outside the function room, we decided on what order the soul music for the party should take. There is no point playing the real lively soul music tunes too early on. A group of sixty year olds with full stomachs are not going to appreciate being coerced into getting down to Mustang Sally by a full on soul band after a big rich pud! The party is always best started with some more laid back soul music by people like Al Green and Ben E King.
The other musicians from the band start to arrive and bring their gear in. There is still time for a cup of tea and we order it for them whilst guitars and drums are brought into the hotel. Shortly the room begins to clear. The sixty-year-old birthday boy is obviously keen to party and doesn’t want to waste time on speeches! As the guests make their way to the bar, go out for a smoke (the young ones…they’ll learn) or take the lovely Sussex evening air, the band dives in and sets up the gear for the party. We meet the host who insists on describing, in detail, a gig he went to in the sixties featuring Stax star Otis Reading who was a master of the soul music genre and a legend in soul music. We are torn between setting up on time and listening to some one recount their memories of a legend! Being a big fan myself I am able to recount a few memories of my own of seeing the Blues Brothers soul and blues band with legendary players Booker T, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. These guys are soul music legends too, having played and written the hit “Green Onions” and having backed Otis Reading and Sam and Dave on many of their live gigs both in London and America. Steve Cropper was also the writer of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, “Knock on Wood” and “In the Midnight Hour”, all soul music tunes we play in our soul band as part of our set and tunes we intended playing for the sixtieth birthday party that very night.
The band is set, the lights are on and we have started our evening’s entertainment. There are already a few people on the floor dancing to that great Bill Withers tune “Lovely Day” and it makes me realize that people who were growing up in the sixties are much more in tune with live music and are used to dancing to a live band than the current generation. What also hits home is how the generation of today, when they get the opportunity to listen to a great soul band playing great soul music, get caught up by the music we play and respond so well to it. It makes me realize that bands such as mine will be playing soul music for a party like this and like we do for younger persons weddings, long after current musical trends die.
The evening progresses, the soul band picks up in tempo, the horns are riffing those familiar riffs from such favourites as “Hold on I`m Coming,” “Dancing in the Street” and “I Feel Good”. I always kid Mark our main singer and master guitarist when he sings “I Feel Good” by James Brown. James Brown is in his mid seventies, American and black. Mark is white, in his forties and from Scunthorpe! At the end of the tune I say what I always say….it always gets a laugh…”Its like James Brown was in the room!”
The audience is hanging in there with us. Drenched in sweat and transported in time, they are back in the Flamingo in Soho or some other sweaty dive of their youth. I look round and the boys in the band are having a ball. We are working real hard; we are sweating more than the audience. To make a band like ours rock as hard as it does requires a great deal of energy. Soul music isn’t music played off the back foot; it is high-energy music that drives. As such, whether it is loud or quiet, it requires total commitment and all ones physical resources. An amateur band just doesn’t cut it. They are unable to give the energy coupled with the sense of groove that good soul music requires. It needs relentless practice of ones instrument, high energy all evening that cannot drop…in fact it must increase as the evening progresses and a lot of stamina that only constant work on your instrument gives you.
Before we know it the night is over. We manage to persuade the birthday boy, after two encores, that it is time to finish. He is delighted with the band and the soul music we have played for his party. A few of his guests have come up for business cards. They too have sixtieth birthday parties coming up and they too love their soul music!!
We have been paid and the gear has been packed away. We are debating whether to employ a roadie at the moment. Everyone in the band loves playing soul music for a party but no one likes to cart gear! The funny thing is this. Every year technology makes musical gear lighter but somehow every year the gear feels slightly heavier!! As you, me, everybody, gets nearer to his or her sixtieth birthday party I suppose everything gets just that little bit heavier!
We say our goodbyes. Hugs and handshakes. You wouldn’t believe that we see each other on average two or three times a week! On the way home we leave the radio off. It is time for quiet reflection. We discuss the gig. What went well. How we could improve the set order. We decide we can`t. What new tunes we want to incorporate into our soul music band party repertoire. This isn’t easy. The most important criteria is to get people up dancing. There is sometimes a conflict between favourites and the sort of tunes, which will fill the floor for the party. This is always our main priority. It is what we get paid for. Paid well for. We have a reputation to maintain.
Andy has been dropped off. It is two o’clock. I am home fifteen minutes later. The gear is brought into the house. Must look into getting that roadie!
On goes the computer. Must check my emails. June and July are a busy time. Just as I thought. Three pressing messages that require an answer. Get to bed at three thirty. Please God don’t let the kids wake me up before ten on Sunday morning. I’ll need to be up then as the band are in Birmingham in the evening doing another soul music party and the M6 can be murder at this time of the year.
The kids come jumping into our room at eight thirty! It doesn’t matter. Monday I am totally free. I can get them off to school and come home and sleep. Someone once said ” If you can earn your living doing what you love you will never do a days work in your life” How true.