When I was young, really young, I only wanted to be a bandleader. As a preschooler at Temple Sinai in Dresher, I used to hand out my father’s business cards and book my classmates’ bar and bat mitzvahs.
My paternal grandparents encouraged me to sing “Fiddler on the Roof” medleys in public places, and by encouraged I mean my grandmother would bribe me with pickles she’d take from Jack’s Deli in the Northeast, wrap in a napkin and stick in her purse in anticipation of this bribery scheme. I loved pickles.
As a toddler, I would show up to contemporaries’ birthday parties and ask the attending adult straight away, “Will there be any Jewish music here?” If the answer was no, I was out of there. It’s taken years of introspection, but I’ve come to realize this was not my fault.
My first job was working for my father, who, for the better part of my childhood, was a bandleader — or, put more crudely, a wedding singer.
My job was to lug the band’s equipment. The official job title was schlepper. He employed a minyan’s worth of schleppers over the years. Some were strong, none looked it; some smelled, all looked like they would. Some drank, some smoked, some were suspected of being high (never substantiated). All were Jewish. (I’m not sure if that was just coincidence or because Jewish kids were more likely to understand the meaning of the word schlepper and, thus, their role). And all were overworked and underpaid, by their own unique interpretations of supply and demand.
My younger brother and I both worked dozens and dozens of dates as schleppers. If you wanted the job done fast, call Jon Silver; if you wanted the job done right, call Matt. My brother recently told me, air of lamentation in his voice, that he still believes this to be the crucial distinction that characterizes us. I’d rather have his penchant for economy and his vocal range (he maintains a side gig as “San Diego’s Sinatra”).
My father, back when you might’ve known him, was Kenny Silver the bandleader. To friends and family these days, it’s Ken, or Dad, or the Silver Dragon; it’s only Kenny to my mother when she doesn’t like him. And to those he serves now, it’s Principal Silver.
Principal Silver, much like Kenny Silver, is affable, thoughtful and funny-on-the-goofy-side-of-funny. He’s a guy parents like and an elementary school principal that little children don’t fear. Which is really impressive considering how childhood often perceives its first official authority figures.
He’s a musician by training, sensibility and temperament, if not prodigious talent and Carnegie Hall-level dedication to practice. At 28 (in the late ’70s), he became one of the youngest school administrators in the state of Pennsylvania, before abandoning his post in the Abington School District a year later to play music with his Philadelphia-area party band full time. This did not thrill his in-laws.
The Ken Silver Orchestra became the hottest band on Philadelphia’s tony party circuit for the better part of the next 20 years. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, lavish corporate soirees. The bacchanalia of the Main Line country club scene, every big charity ball from Philly up to Manhattan and down to Baltimore.
He played for politicians: Mayor Goode, Mayor Street, Mayor Rendell, Gov. Rendell, Baroness Thatcher, Vice President Gore, and President Clinton on a rainy night at the Locust Club, where the legendarily charismatic president, eyeing my father’s Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone from across the room (the president knew his saxophones), walked over, waited until the song was finished, extended his hand and said, in the manner of all the most gifted clerics and politicians, “Nice to see you again, Kenny.”
At his peak, my father was playing about 120 dates a year. This lasted from the mid-’70s to the late ’90s.
When casino gaming was legalized in Atlantic City, musicians thought they’d have it good forever. And my dad certainly did for a while. He undercarded for Frank Sinatra and Paul Anka at high-roller affairs; he once played Jackie Mason’s sham wedding at the Sands. It was all during the time when Steve Wynn and Donald Trump built shiny monuments to late-’80s excess that no one could’ve imagined sitting empty and corroded and emblematic of the most forlorn resort town three decades hence.
But this was never my father’s world, not really. No doubt he had a bandleader’s high-wattage smile and employed it readily, almost indiscriminately, in a way that made it more an accessory than the manifestation of an emotion. And, yes, he did drive a Mercedes, and, maybe, while pulling it into a gig at, say, The Ritz-Carlton, he might pull up next to the valet station and insouciantly toss the keys to the valet as if to communicate that this world of opulent luxury was commonplace.
But this was not the true Ken Silver. It wasn’t an act, because an act implies something underhanded or deceitful, which wouldn’t be on the mark. This was salesmanship, affecting the demeanor the clients found most attractive. Is there an appreciable difference in the quality of a wedding band with five horns instead of four, with three female vocalists instead of two, with or without a breakdancer? Not really, but if you can quell anxiety about the quality of the product by adding empty calories, why not?
It’s easy to see this as unscrupulous or morally compromising. What the righteous don’t understand is that there’s a difference between being unscrupulous and what the kids today call “getting yours” in a business where loyalty is fickle, success fleeting and musicianship often beside the point. Because, even in the most civilized of times, the talent is often seen as well-dressed, well-paid help.
But it wasn’t cynicism as much as fatigue that prompted my father’s career pivot back to public education.
In the spring of 1996, the company my dad founded, The Entertainment Group, folded.
DJs were hot and more economical and didn’t complain (or complained less) if the clients refused to feed them. Ask a musician of a certain age if he thinks a DJ is an artist, and then set aside a good half-hour and make sure you’ve got access to a comfortable chair and nowhere else to be.
The rise of affordable automated music notwithstanding, the musical trends had passed my father by. He didn’t have the will or want to keep up. He had two young sons and was more interested in coaching Little League and being down the shore during wedding season, playing tennis and riding his bike.
He thought about whether he could go the rest of his life without again perceiving the myriad nauseous qualities of hotel kitchens after midnight, or the dangers that lurk in loading docks at 2:30 a.m. — dangers like prehistorically sized city rats who appear as though they’ve evolved to fight back against cats.
He decided he could go without and, to this day, he sees weddings as right up there with laws and sausages on that list of things you don’t want to see being made.
The memories of his career as a very minor, hyperlocal celebrity are vivid, though after two decades as a school principal, they seem remote, another lifetime ago.
As for me, my mother thinks I still want to be a bandleader — this is her rationale for why I didn’t want to be a lawyer after getting a law degree.
If I could be paid in pickles from Jack’s Delicatessen, I’d get the band back together. ❤
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