Consider the wedding-reception DJ. He’s hired help, but next to the clergyman who performs the ceremony, he’s in the most public role of all the hired help. It’s on a fine line: He’s an entertainer, but he’s not supposed to make himself the center of attention, either. He will preside over certain events that the bride and groom will remember forever (like their first dance) but he may never officially meet them. Most of the guests probably won’t notice him at all, unless he does something one of them doesn’t like, and in any room of 250 people, that’s almost inevitable.
We attended a wedding this past weekend where I didn’t know anybody, so I had plenty of time to consider the wedding reception DJ. For a couple of years in the early 90s, The Mrs. and I did weddings for a radio guy who also ran a couple of DJ rigs, and who liked to hire other radio people. He usually did the equipment setups and takedowns, so most of the time, all we had to do was walk in and get the party started.
The bride and groom are the clients, of course, but the reception guests are the audience, and the DJ owes them the best show he can put on. Some couples take great pains to come up with a list of songs they want at the reception. But here’s a little secret that some of my brethren in the wedding-DJ biz must surely share: I will ignore many of your suggestions. You simply don’t want me playing seven-minute album cuts by REM at a party attended by 400 people, including both your six-year-old niece and your 89-year-old grandmother, even if REM is the groom’s favorite band. I’d be falling down on the job if I didn’t give you the benefit of the party-making expertise I possess—although I did give in to the couple who wanted me to play “She’s a Lady” by Tom Jones, staggeringly inappropriate though it was.
A few songs are standards that you’ll hear at every wedding you attend: the Chicken Dance, the Hokey Pokey, “Twist and Shout,” “Old Time Rock and Roll,” Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance.” I actually took things a step further—I had a standard program I would follow at almost every wedding. I often played the same songs in the same order, and if not in the same order, I would pair the same records together, “I Knew the Bride” followed by “Mony Mony,” that sort of thing. (That’s the Tommy James “Mony Mony,” by the way, which kicks Billy Idol’s ass anyhow, and does not inspire that obscene chant. You know the one I mean.) One night I played, at the bride’s request, “YMCA,” which I always followed with KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I Like It.” I made the segue and absolutely nobody left the packed dance floor—except the bride, who came blazing over to angrily tell me that I was ruining her party by playing disco. Which, to her, apparently, “YMCA” was not.
In my experience, brides are usually far more stressed out at the reception than grooms are. One night a bride came up to the DJ stand half-angry, half-weepy because the dance floor had cleared, which is completely normal and happens several times at every reception I’ve ever DJed or been to. “Nobody’s having any fun! You’ve got to do something!” (She and the groom had apparently gotten drunk in the limo on the way to the reception, because neither one had seemed fully functional all night. The groom looked like he was ready to pass out from the moment he arrived.) The Mrs. ended up taking her aside to calm her down, and to explain that her family and friends probably wanted to spend some time visiting. “That’s what happened at our wedding,” The Mrs. told her. Well, when the bride found out that her DJs were married, she thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world. She kept telling us we should go out and dance. And if I’m recalling correctly, they ended up paying us the best compliment we could receive—buying an extra hour.
Just as they are in radio, requests at a wedding are a necessary evil, although their face-to-face nature makes them harder than to ignore than radio requests. The guest who won’t take no for an answer is somebody every wedding DJ has met. Sometimes there’s a guy (and it’s inevitably a guy) who wants to hear his favorite song—Black Oak Arkansas’ “Lord Have Mercy on My Soul,” to pick an example from real life—and never mind that no one can dance to it. Likewise, there’s always one guy who can’t think of a request on his own and says, “Can I look at your CDs?” But as a rule, I didn’t let people come up onto the DJ stand for any reason. Most people respected that, but not all. I recall one guy informing us that since the bride and groom were paying us, we should let their guests do whatever they wanted. Like the thoroughly loaded guest who wanted to use our PA system to give a toast to the bride and groom. Given his demeanor and his level of intoxication, this struck me as a very bad idea, and so I told him I wouldn’t let him. He retreated to a table with several equally liquored-up friends, and when it came time for us to tear down the equipment at the end of the night, I was half-sure we weren’t going to get out of the door.
But it’s human nature to remember the bad experiences. There were lots of good ones, too. A few times during the party, when the dance floor was full and you’d segue to a new record, you’d hear and feel a rush of delight as people realized, hey, this is great, let’s stay out here. The look in the eyes of elderly guests when you’d play a couple of big-band tunes could make an otherwise-dull night memorable. Getting handed a wad of cash to do an extra hour was always a very fine thing. And even when we didn’t get asked to stay, it was gratifying when the party got over with lots of people still on the dance floor—they might have stayed for any number of reasons, but I always liked to think it was because the tunes were good.
(The Edmunds recording, from 1977, is the original, and it’s the mp3 I have, although Nick Lowe’s 1985 version is much better.)