WOSTER: December once meant a busy time of year for musicians
Time was, on a Saturday in the middle of December, I’d be waking up after a long office Christmas party and starting to think about going to another one later in the evening.
No, I wasn’t a big holiday party animal. I was part of a four-piece dance band. December was a good time for gigs 30 years ago, what with state agencies and private businesses throwing big bashes for their employees. Most of the year, my band The “Sensational” Standbys could count on a couple of bookings a month, sometimes less, seldom more. December was a good time for me and the boys, if by good time you mean making some extra cash for Christmas expenses by staying up until 2:30 in the morning on back-to-back weekend nights and coming home smelling of cigarette smoke and stale beer and then waking up coughing your lungs out from the second-hand stuff the night before.
It was fun, usually. The four of us grew comfortable with our individual styles, and we had a good time whether people danced or not. We came from different musical eras — from swing bands to psychedelic stuff — and we learned to play each other’s favorite songs.
Understand, now, it was way more fun playing a four-hour dance job if people filled the dance floor than not. Knocking out tunes for an empty dance floor may not be working cement or branding calves, but some nights it felt like we earned our pay.
Now and then when the crowd was less than enthusiastic or the band maybe wasn’t playing what they wanted, Larry the bass player would sidle up to me during an instrumental break early in the evening, nod at the empty dance floor and whisper, “No sense holding back any of our best stuff for later in the night.” Those were the nights when it worked best to turn the job into just four guys making music together, trying some new stuff, pulling out the old stuff we hadn’t done for a while, playing for the music’s sake, not the money. (Yeah, I know. That sounds artsy.)
Money is probably a big reason we were often busy back in the early days during the holiday party season. We didn’t charge much. We didn’t practice much, either, so it balanced out. I think we got $300 a night, or $75 each. That wasn’t bad, although it wasn’t a windfall for leaving the house at 7:30 p.m. to start the set-up, playing from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and then tearing down and getting home at 2:30 a.m. It was enough to keep us going, but not enough to let us quit our day jobs and go on the road or head for recording careers in Nashville.
Some of those holiday parties in the early days were pretty wild. Lots of drinking, hollering, smoking and carrying on. Many times, that was an upbeat atmosphere for the band. Sometimes, it got old fast.
The more years we played together, the fewer holiday parties we booked. More and more offices and businesses decided a free-for-all on a Friday or Saturday evening in December maybe wasn’t the best way for a company to reward its employees. Drinking a lot and climbing in a car became less acceptable over the years, too. Some folks still did it, but more and more of them seemed happy to have two or three drinks over the evening and head for the exit around midnight.
That meant smaller crowds for the last hour or so. We had a few medleys of tunes we could string together to carry us through the last 30 or 40 minutes of a job without working too hard. I had to be careful. If we played mellow stuff too long, the bass player fell asleep on his feet. He usually didn’t miss a beat, but it was unsettling to see.
We quit playing 15 or 18 years ago. I sometimes think it would be nice to book a job again, but only if we started at 7 p.m. and quit by 9:30, 10 tops. Oh, and I’d need a roadie to haul my gear.