Playing in a band is fun. At times, it is also a lot of work, but once the gig is on, it is a lot of fun. When I was gigging regularly and people would ask, “Hey, what are you doing for New Year’s Eve?”, I liked to tell them, “I’m working.” If they expressed their sympathies, I would have to point out, “Nah, I am playing a band job and that’s not work. Pumping gas, waiting tables, or saving lives on New Years, that is work. Getting paid to play music on New Year’s Eve is like putting a cherry on the top of your ice cream sundae.”
Bands are always in demand on the biggest party night of the year, a fact not lost on the Musician’s Union. NYE is the only night of the year when the wage scale doubles, yet nobody ever complains about paying the band more than a normal night. I played enough New Year’s gigs that they kind of all blend together in my memory files. One NYE I remember clearly is stuck in my head because it was the one of the first in many years that I did NOT have a band job. I ended up in Sault Ste. Marie with my buddy Wayne Nevala. Wayne was off to see his girlfriend over semester break and invited me along for the drive. We ended up at some hotel chain lounge listening to a band (I swear on my honor as a drummer) that may have been the template for ‘Murph and the Magictones’ from the first Blues Brothers movie. They played what they played well enough but it made me realize I would rather have been working anywhere that night. Even if the music they were playing wasn’t exactly my type, I would still have stormed the stage for a chance to play if their drummer had keeled over (“Is there a drummer in the house?”).
Two of my more memorable NYE gigs took place on the eve of 1973 and 1974 with my band Knockdown. Both were at the NCO club at K.I.Sawyer Air Force Base where we were more or less the house band. Our guitar player, Ray, was also a non-com at Sawyer so his connections got us a three night weekend once a month over the two years I played with Knockdown. Not only were we locked in for New Year’s Eve many months ahead, we got to be the headliners. Yep, we were the top of the two band bill! The NCO club always hired two bands on NYE: one played from 6:30 pm to 10:30 pm and we switched out equipment and covered the 11 pm to 3 am shift.
I felt bad for the opening band both years because half of their sets were played as dinner music and the dance floor was just getting warmed up when they did their last set. The first year, the early band had come from somewhere down by Green Bay and they played some good stuff. It would have made good dance music, but it was a little too heavy duty rock and roll to serve as music to dine by. We chatted with them a bit when we were swapping out their stuff for ours and they seemed to be a little perplexed as to why they hadn’t gotten a better reaction. Imagine their jaw dropping surprise when we got up and did our usual NCO club opening tune, which was almost always My Girl by the Temptations. While the signature opening guitar riff (played on the original by Robert White of the fabled Motown collective called the Funk Brothers) comes first on the Temptations record, we used fellow Funk Brother James Jamerson’s iconic bass line from the song’s middle eight to open the song. When Lee played the bridge bass line with its distinctive, “ BA bum bum BA bum bum”, people started to cheer. When Ray came in with the the song’s guitar line, they gave us a standing ovation before we had sung the first line. I can only imagine the discussion this generated on their long drive back to Green Bay.
The second year we did this NYE schedule, it was a different opening band, but they also came from somewhere in the land of cheese. It was nearly an instant replay of the year before, right down to the head scratching and sideways glances they threw our way as they departed with My Girl ringing in their ears. It is probably a good thing that they left when they did because what happened next would have only added insult to their injury. We had just rung in the new year when the club manager came to the band stand and said, “The restroom is flooding so we have to shut down early. Please stop playing and tell everyone to go home.” We made the announcement and then sat down at the corner table by the stage. Thinking that maybe if we waited it out, they would get the problem taken care of and we could start playing again, Ray broke out his acoustic guitar and we were entertaining ourselves harmonizing on a couple of tunes. The manager came rushing back and said, “Guys, please stop – people won’t leave because you are still playing.”
We got paid in full and booted out the door after playing less than an hour of our four hour gig. We loaded up the equipment and I found myself back in Marquette having breakfast about the time our third set would have started. The waitress inquired why I wasn’t out celebrating the New Year and I gave her my standard, “I had to work” line. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the rest because she dropped a couple of ‘free coffee’ tokens on the counter and said, “Well honey, I guess I am not the only one who had to go to work instead of going to a party somewhere.” Needless to say, I left her a ten spot for the tip – after all, I “worked” all of an hour and made more than she was going to make for a full night shift pushing coffee and food at people who did get to celebrate.
The only problem with New Year’s Eve gigs? Like birthdays, they only come once a year. I tip my hat to all those folks who celebrate New Year’s Eve by working – we appreciate your public service very much indeed. If you happen to stopped somewhere to eat after the party, I hope you didn’t forget to tip your server. It is a sure bet that they would rather have been at the party, too.
The top piece video is a David Ruffin – Eddie Kendricks concert recorded in 1987 after Ruffin was no longer with the temps – but it is still a better version than a lot of the lipsynced versions from the mid-1960s.