Features & Columns
Bay Area Wedding Singers
Share Their Secrets
From truck drivers to X-ray diagnosticians, automation threatens millions of American jobs. We have traded face-to-face, human interactions for economic efficiency in almost all fields. But some things must remain sacred—and funky. While DJs and (shudder) playlists further encroach upon the most hallowed day in many romantic relationships—the wedding day—a relic from the past has maintained a unique nuptial niche. We're talking, of course, about wedding singers.
Today's incarnations are nothing like Adam Sandler's crass burnout. They vary from traditionalists to award-winning singer-songwriters to gaudy '80s cover bands, but the very best perform a range that rivals any DJ—but with more oomph than could ever be extracted from a canned set.
Embracing an inherently personal and improvised gig, many of these performers start by singing a friend's wedding, and, in turn, they establish some of their first and biggest fans during the reception.
We interviewed six of the finest wedding singers on the Bay Area nuptials circuit to see what they bring to the table while combating the rise of the machines. Longtime favorites like Joe Sharino have made their bones in the Bay Area, but the industry has shifted from local to national in scale, taking performers from barns to skyscrapers, from Hawaii to Chicago.
With only one shot at crafting the perfect moment, these men and women persevere through noise ordinances, impromptu song requests outside of their set and windstorms that carry away song sheets.
But these artists stress that it's well worth any unforeseen technical difficulties to serenade a couple that's just finished pledging their eternal love for one another. These are music's least selfish performers, consistently sacrificing center stage to give newlyweds an unforgettable evening of romance. So, meet the artists who eschew the spotlight for someone else's special day.
Working since the mid-'80's, Joe Sharino reckons he and his band have probably played more weddings than any other in Northern California. He clocks the tally at more than 620, and nobody plays that many without having a strategy.
"If you get the bride and groom and their family involved, you've won the ballgame," Sharino says. "It gets everybody going."
Sharino calls himself an "observer" of crowds, and he and his band don't form setlists. Rather, they quiz the bride and groom on the music they like, then read the room to determine how each cover track goes over. Since weddings bring all ages together, it can be tricky to find communal tastes. Well, sometimes.
"People getting married now love the '80s," he says. "Good lord, you play 'Don't Stop Believing' and the roof blows off the place."
Unable to find a satisfying answer for why that is, Sharino admits the wedding circuit brings along its own brand of oddities. On his list of top 10 strangest gigs, there's the mother-of-the-bride who cajoled the band to fire up the party while a guest lay on the ground, suffering from a heart attack. At another, police shut down a reception in Carmel because the band lacked a permit to play musical instruments. Sharino and company beat-boxed, mimicked guitar riffs and bass lines and sang a capella—for two hours.
But the strangest story came in Sun Valley, Idaho, when the best man and groomsmen disappeared. After 20 minutes, they descended a staircase, completely nude, except for orange condoms. Without any apparent plan, the two men bounced back onto the packed dance floor. The stunt did not go over well.
"They ended up getting arrested," Sharino says. "The bride did not think it was funny."
And though Sharino just celebrated his 35th wedding anniversary, he mostly lets the ceremony take care of the romance. Primarily a reception band, he figures by the time he comes on, everyone's gotten the mushiness out of their system. They just want to get down.
"Two weeks after your wedding is over, none of the people will remember the vows, the flowers, the dresses, the food," Sharino says. "They remember one thing: Did I have fun? And that's where we come in."
Bobby Jo Valentine
Bobby Jo Valentine didn't want his rising star to be clouded by assumptions spawned by Sandler's mullet-coiffed character. After positive reviews of his burgeoning career, the acoustic guitarist singer-songwriter had done a few friends' weddings but shied away from the gigs, fearing they might be a sell-out move.
"I resisted it for a long time," he says. "But I really love feeling like part of someone's really special moment and I discovered the music that I already play naturally falls into that romantic, sincere style. It just was a perfect fit."
Now, Valentine travels nationally, doing about 45 weddings a year in addition to touring for his original music, which has been recognized by the West Coast Songwriter's Association. As opposed to shows where he's alone in a spotlight, Valentine enjoys the collaborative aspect of a wedding where he's on a team with the couple, the caterers, the flower people and, after he's set the mood, the DJ.
"After everyone has had their wine, the DJ is great," he says. "But for the first couple hours, let's stay in the romantic mode. A live musician can bring people into the present moment. The DJ will just take you away to the last time you were at a club. And that's the key, celebrating what role either artist has to play."
Valentine usually plays the ceremony, dinner and cocktails, then the first couple dances, but not always. Last year, a couple had their officiant drop out and asked him to do the honors. On a windy day in Half Moon Bay, Valentine sang them down the aisle, set down his guitar and led them through their vows. After the kiss, he started singing the recessional, when his music stand toppled over. So he made up lyrics on the spot.
"No one blinked an eye," he says. "After that I was like, 'OK, most things won't be as bad as this, and this went fine.' Part of it is leaning into whatever chaotic thing happens. Like, 'This was meant to happen. This is OK.'"
Contrary to his initial reservations, wedding singing has boosted his original work. The couples he sings for tend to become his biggest fans, and he reaches a new audience by including a CD in gift baskets for guests.
Plus, Valentine gets access to some pretty choice venues. Last year, he was flown out to Chicago by a couple who hosted the event on the top floor of a 98-story skyscraper. There, a 16-piece orchestra accompanied Valentine on three of his original tracks.
"It was just amazing," he says. "Probably one of my favorite experiences in music. Period. And I wouldn't have had that if I hadn't been open to playing weddings."
Viewed through the lens of modern cynicism, Ben Mallare admits he might be a bit hokey. Clad in a white dinner jacket, Mallare continues the legacy of the old-school wedding singers by gently embarrassing himself as a gregarious master of ceremonies.
"I'm cheesy," he says. "I used to sing at weddings with more traditional band leaders. I was really attracted to the elegance they were able to create, everybody looking super sharp. I like adding on that, really laying it on thick with making sure the bride and groom and parents feel super special."
Though he started out as a rustic group, playing mostly in barns on farms, Mallare broadened his band's repertoire to perform just about anything, so they can shape-shift to a guest's desires. He acknowledges some parties may want to hear familiar music, but he prides himself on his eclectic players' ability to match the variety of a DJ while allowing him to respond to the crowd.
"Sometimes a dance circle will break out," Mallare says. "Then I'm going to have the band loop or continue the chorus or play softer or louder or make it funky. But the point being, I've got unlimited flexibility as to what I can do to match the moment."
Mallare's moment in the crucible came when the band went to Seattle for a 125-guest wedding, only to realize the venue had a sound ordinance barring amplified music. Improvising, he dug an acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and box drum out of the van. During the reception, they picked up and moved about the room, eventually spawning a dance circle around the band.
"It's all very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants," Mallare says. "But once you get used to that, you just trust your instincts and expertise and you know you'll make it great, regardless of the situation."
Mallare works the West Coast and can customize his band from three pieces to 10, depending upon a customer's desires and budget. He wants to ensure anyone can afford the group that he started four years ago after a foray into writing and recording original songs left him unsatisfied.
"It was all about me," he says. "There was no fulfillment. Maybe somebody enjoys the music, but it didn't really mean anything to them. So doing this, and being the accompaniment for a bride's processional, or for a first dance, or a parent's dance, to create that special moment for somebody else, it's very rewarding."
The wedding had already ended when the bride scrambled up to Lori Carsillo and asked her to play the father-daughter dance—a request she had neglected to mention during months of planning. Carsillo racked her head for a song and came up with one of her favorites: "Fly Me to the Moon." As she started to sing, Carsillo noticed a twinkle in the eye of the old man who held his daughter. Turned out, that was the song he'd danced to with his wife on their wedding night.
"That couldn't have gone any better," Carsillo says with a little laugh.
Known around the Bay Area for her jazz singing, Carsillo excels in smoky lounge stylings. She never over-affects her natural singing voice, opting for an unpretentious style that lets lyrics drip slow, steady and smooth, like warm caramel from a spoon. She's equally happy as the focal point of a room or a pleasing bit of ambience.
"I definitely am not a diva," Carsillo says. "And I don't even care if they're paying attention. I'm really there to provide background. You just go with the flow and have to remember that this is not about me, and it's about these people."
Like many wedding singers, she started by singing for a friend, then watched her side gig spread through word of mouth. The addition of live music to a wedding not only makes for a fresh environment, Carsillo says, but the performative side also ties the room together, giving the more introverted "a little concert" to look at while taking a break from dancing or socializing.
Carsillo mostly sticks to swing, ballads and bossa nova, throwback styles that compliment slow dancing and the tinkling of champagne flutes. But she prides herself on her adaptability—able to switch from Sinatra to, per one guest's request, Incubus.
"It was such a neat moment," she says. "They were so happy. A lot of bands are very versatile. Even if it's out of your style, sometimes, you can create a really unique moment that no one else will have."
Still, Carsillo recognizes that as the evening wears on, some guests prefer to bust moves that aren't necessarily conducive to her mellow melodies. After dinner and cocktails, she gladly hands the mic to the DJ who can spark the shift to party time.
"Then everybody can dance to the '80s music that they love. I'm not going to tackle 'Love Shack' or anything," she says, before adding that a slow-jazz rendition of the pop hit might just work.
When he goes onstage with 80s A GoGo, Laurent Fourgo ties a bandana around his head, throws on a silver, sequined vest and starts channelling the rambunctious energy of a long-departed decade.
"Being costumed, you get into different characters," Fourgo says. "For me, my goal is for someone who knows me not to recognize me."
After immigrating from France, Fourgo jammed with Bay Area musicians, looking for the right members to include in his livewire band. It took a few years before he found them and went full-time into marketing, booking and playing events. Flanked by characters like the Latin Prince, Boom Box B., Matty McFly and Tubular Rubular, Fourgo co-fronts his band with Bella Donna as they play music as loud as their costumes and antics.
"We're very serious about the music to make sure that we're playing the songs the right way," he says. "But at the same time, when you do your solo, kick your leg like a rock star, that's what people expect. You need to not even think about what you're doing. Then you can focus on the crazy dance moves. You need to put on a show."
80s A GoGo can be booked for ritzier events, in which case they'll don more formal outfits as they did at a recent gig at a San Francisco country club. But they're most in their element when they're cutting loose. At a birthday party in Pleasanton, the host requested the band show up in full regalia. When Fourgo and company arrived, the guests wore fluorescent tights, pink boas and big shades. It was an '80s themed party, and 80s A GoGo killed.
"We don't play during cocktail hour or dinner," Fourgo says. "We're really for, 'Hey, the party starts now.'"
Fourgo has noticed that it usually takes about one set for the crowd to imbibe sufficiently and acclimate to the band. At which point, they'll start mimicking the moves Fourgo and Bella Donna do onstage, such as their balletic side-to-side sways during the piano intro to "Video Killed the Radio Star."
And perhaps because he competes with DJs to book the more lit portion of the evening, Fourgo doesn't mince words when he considers his band against the stylings of turntablists. Like a Frenchman might compare his country's wine to an Italian's, he makes it clear that if a prospective client has the funds, it's no contest.
"Let's be honest, it's all about money," he said. "If people had money, they would go with a band, people playing real music. It took time for them to practice all those songs and master the instruments. So the energy is going to be different and the connection is going to be stronger."
Josh Klipp's parents met while singing a wedding. His father tickled the ivories of the church organ, while his mother sang for the bride, her best friend. They connected during the reception, got married, then played weddings for the next 26 years.
"It was perfectly normal for me to have couples sitting in the living room on weekends, talking about what they were going to be doing for their wedding," Klipp says.
After aiding the family business for a few years, Klipp struck out on his own, forming a six-piece band with a guitar, drums, upright bass and saxophone along with co-lead-singer, Mayra Swatt. They can handle everything from swing to rock to R&B to New Orleans jazz. Mostly clad in black, but with modern accents like skinny ties and tattoos, they give off the vibe of one of those hip, refurb barber shops.
"When (Swatt) starting doing weddings with us," Klipp says, "she asked, 'What do I wear?' and I was like, 'Well, nothing that shows up the bride.' This isn't about the band. It's about these people and their families and friends and how we can make this a day they can remember for the rest of their lives."
The Klipptones play gigs around the Bay, but even after all these years the frontman hasn't become jaded watching couples pledge their everlasting love to one another. After some weddings, Klipp will text his own wife, letting her know that he just renewed their vows in his head.
"I keep thinking I'll get tired of it," he says. "But then when I'm sitting there and I'm watching it—this is what it's about. This is what we want in life. To feel love and to give that love. It touches me every time."
During a gig at a dive bar with a musician who doesn't do the wedding circuit, Klipp says, he was approached by a couple on their first wedding anniversary. They had walked down the aisle to Sting's "Fields of Gold" and requested that the song make it into the set. During a break, Klipp's partner chafed at the suggestion, asking derogatorily, "What are we, wedding singers?"
"And I was like, 'Yeah, we are,'" Klipp says. "These wedding bands get kind of a bad rap, but here's the thing, 20 minutes later, we were playing 'Fields of Gold.' And this couple was reliving that experience. And you see them, dancing at this cruddy bar, in love all over again."