My Favorite New Year’s Eve Gig Story

Volume 113, No. 1January, 2013


New Year’s Eve gigs can be great, but they are also the stuff that legends are made of. We asked our musicians for their best (or worst!) New Year’s Eve gig stories. Here are some tales you don’t want to miss…

Guitarist and fans YURI ARCURS via istock

Guitarist and fans by Yuri Arcurs via istock

Many years ago I was playing a New Year’s Eve party at a Texas
country club with the Peter Duchin band. In the huge catering tent where we sat
the ceiling was covered by a net that contained hundreds of inflated balloons,
awaiting the midnight hour. At the countdown, they pulled the rope that released
the net. The net fell to the floor, but all the balloons stayed right where they
were, on the ceiling. Someone, sparing no expense, had filled them with helium.


– Bill Crow


When I was a young musician in the 1980’s, for about eight or
nine New Year’s Eves in a row I played at the Ridgewood, New Jersey country
club with my father, the late, great Herbie Wasserman. Playing together was a
ton of fun and without him I never would have lasted that long in the club date
business. Once, driving home from the gig at about 2 a.m., Dad turned to me and
said, “You know Ron, my father died 50 years ago today.” I was
absolutely speechless and stunned at this pronouncement, and had no idea how to
respond to this rare mention of my grandfather. He had died on a Depression-era
New Year’s day long before, when my own dad was still a child. The car was
mostly quiet the rest of the trip home as we both silently contemplated the
meanings of fatherhood, loss, life, time and remembrance.


– Ron Wasserman


New Year’s Eve, 1999. Our band is scheduled to start at 10 p.m.
We arrive at approximately 9 p.m. to get set up, as would any responsible band.
But the restaurant won’t let us in until 10:30 p.m., as they don’t want to
give up the tables. It’s 15 degrees and windy. We wait in our cars, freezing
and carbon monoxidizing. Finally we get in and start playing by 11 p.m. It’s
going well. At 11:50 p.m., the leader tells me to kick off a fast rockin’ tune
at the stroke of midnight. I do so.

Almost immediately an old man with intense garlic breath starts to
scream into my ear in a heavy German accent: “Turn the music down!”

I was singing at the time so all I could do was to sing softer and
turn down my guitar.

A few minutes later I felt hands around my throat from behind. The
old man was trying to choke me! He was well on his way to accomplishing his task
when I shook loose.

Being a level-headed person (even with such provocation), rather
than escalate the scene, I put down my guitar and left the bandstand, after
which the band took a break.

End of story. Oh yeah, I later offered him a breath mint.

Ironically it was not a jazz gig, on which I generally expect to be
accosted one way or another.


– Joe Giglio


Years ago, while working as music director for a repertory theatre
company out in California, the general director and sometime
“conductor” decided to raise some money for the company with a New
Year’s Eve offering dinner, a concert performance of “Die Fledermaus,”
and then dancing to a big band. She hired me to put together the big band. Part
of the deal was that my wife and I would get dinner first, along with all the
paying guests.

But right before the performance was to begin, she came up to me
and somewhat frantically told me I had to sit next to her at the podium and,
keeping my arms below a café curtain run across the stage in front of the
orchestra, conduct the operetta, since she didn’t know the score yet. The
orchestra and the singers watched me as I conducted it as discreetly as possible
and she waved her arms around with abandon for the sake (one guesses) of the
audience. That would have been bad enough but then, during the big band segment,
when it got up to almost midnight we finished a number and I announced to the
crowd that we were going to count down to midnight, followed by the obligatory
“Auld Lang Syne.” We started the countdown but at about
“six” some woman yelled, “Hurry up!” I stopped counting and
yelled back, “Lady, it’s time! I have no control over it!”

“Auld Lang Syne” started a little late because of that.


– Jim Lahti


It was New Year’s Eve, 1943. I was part of an Army Air Force
dance band at Santa Ana, California that had been asked to play at the
neighboring El Toro Marine Air Force Base for their New Year’s celebration. We
played the job and returned to our base by bus. I was 18 and had put a few under
my belt at the party. After getting off of the bus in the darkness I proceeded
to run across the area towards my barracks. I went head over heels with my horn
in my hand after tripping over a low wire strung between who knows what. I got
up, quite shaken, and made it to my bunk. I lived through almost three years of
World War II made it out alive, but almost got killed coming home from a gig.


– Seymour Simon


The year: 1998. The place: La Belle Epoque restaurant. After a
spontaneous Brazilian jam session a friend asked me if I wanted to play a New
Year’s gig with some Brazilian musicians. I decided to give up my above-scale
club date and play fun music for a change. The rehearsal proved it would indeed
be fun. However we did have to back this horrible singer to start the show. I
figured it would be worth it in the end.

The restaurant staff was friendly. We survived the bossa nova set
with the bad singer. After a few Brazilian standards, the clients began to
complain that we only played one style. “Play some jazz!” someone

The players did not know any standards at all. So I said, “Let’s
just play a blues.”

“What?” the leader asked. “You mean like
swing?” Suddenly the accordion player started the opening two measures of
“In the Mood.” I joined in on my hi-hat and smiled. Hope?

But something was wrong. The accordionist was staying on the first
chord. I called out “Go to the 4, go to the 5!” No deviation. He
stayed on those two measures for 20 minutes – no changes at all.

I thought about jumping out the window and buying a new drum set

We did, however, get paid and fed


– Jon Berger


My most memorable New Year’s Eve gig was in 2004, when I played
in the Rainbow Room. At midnight I watched the ball drop in Times Square –
from above!


– Rick Suchow


My most memorable New Year’s Eve gig was about nine years ago. It
was a normal gig until the end. The hotel decided to do a balloon drop at
midnight. They overloaded the net with balloons of various sizes (mostly large).
When the balloons finished falling, we were buried up to our waists. We had to
“pop” our way to our equipment. The guests had to “pop”
their way out at the end of the night. During the clean-up, the hotel staff used
leaf blowers to clear the lobby.

Another story: A couple of years ago I had a New Year’s Eve gig
on the 16th floor of the Baltimore World Trade Center in the Inner Harbor. As
the clock approached midnigh,t the head waiter looked at his watch and started
the countdown to midnight and directed us to start playing “Aud Lang Syne”
slightly before what I thought was time. Just then the city-sponsored fireworks
were set off. The cool part was looking out through the picture windows at the
fireworks exploding at eye level that looked close enough to touch.


– Phil Ravita


I was on the Queen Elizabeth II playing New Year’s Eve for about
1,200 passengers. My friend had the enviable job of being in the band room
directly behind the stage on a walkie-talkie, pretending to be up on the bridge.
As midnight approached, and we continued to play to a packed dance floor, the
cruise director announced, “We’re now going to speak to Gary who is on
the bridge with our captain, watching the satellite Greenwich Mean Time Clock
for our official countdown to 1987! Take it Gary!”

Gary started counting. But he started counting UP! “1… 2…
3… 4… 5…”

Needless to say there was confusion and suddenly three mics were
alive with various people in charge quickly counting down and somehow arriving
at “Happy New Year” at approximately the same time.

The passengers seemed deflated (but they also seemed drunk).


– Jon Lesser


It was 2008. I was conducting a production of “West Side
Story” at the Chatelet Opera House in Paris and viewing the Eiffel Tower
celebration from my dressing room at midnight.


– Donald Chan


A few years back I participated in a New Year’s event that may
have been the only time Studio 54 – in its disco heyday – used live music.
It was a union job, strictly legit, but that was perhaps the only conventional
thing about it. We were told by the contractor that we’d play two tunes at
midnight and then be paid and dismissed. It seemed a pleasant alternative to
marathon parties I’d played in the past. We were told to wear black
turtlenecks and when we began to assemble for a runthrough I couldn’t help
thinking we looked like some sort of reunion of a former teen gang. The
backstage area had all the charm of an abandoned warehouse. There was very
little in the way of lighting, as if to cover up the state of neglect.

We were to play on a motorized frame over a makeshift stage.
(Research has since revealed that this used to be an opera house.) Our little
rehearsal began. As we played the frame lurched forward. It was like trying to
play on horseback.

We were led by a young man who, though well-intentioned, had no
rhythm and had obviously never conducted before. But the rehearsal went quickly
because they were soon to open their doors to the patrons.

We were led back downstairs to the makeshift dressing room.

The music started up. Disco, like a aural hurricane set to a beat.,
a beat that never varied. Non-musicians, I think, can never comprehend what
torture it is to hear the same beat for a couple of hours.

A makeup lady showed up. To complete the spectacle, we were told,
she would gel our hair. After our hair was appropriately moussed and sculpted to
her specifications (think of the Tintin quiff) she took out a container of gold
metal flakes and applied it, as one would salt an egg.

Midnight approached and we were led upstairs. While lining up to go
on we could see a bit of the festivities. Ah, the “tableau vivant.” As
the music pounded, a kind of Greco-Roman theme was taking place. Mercury
boogying with Adonis. That sort of thing.

At midnight the motorized frame we were standing on began to move.
The dance music stopped and we began to play. The mad toga party froze in place
and we were stared at, as passersby might pause to look at a traffic accident. I
wonder if we looked as strange to them as they looked to us.

We executed the two short pieces we had assigned and then were paid
and dismissed (as promised). But it took me several weeks to rid myself of those
gold flakes (that era’s pixie dust) that the young lady had put in my hair. It
was like trying to rid yourself of sand you’d picked up at the beach. That is
as close as I ever got to the Beautiful People of that epoch, but it was close


– Dave Wilson


I believe the year was New Year’s Eve 1996. I played a First
Night celebration in Foxboro, Mass. We were hired to perform the Beatles’
“Sgt. Pepper’s” album in its entirety. It was tremendous fun to
learn and rehearse all the parts. It was an early show, so we ended up playing
the whole album again at a party later that night.


– Jim Whitney


My most memorable New Year’s Eve gig occurred almost 30 years ago
when I was first starting out in music. Back then I was doing a few club dates.
I was probably 21 and was still pretty green. I got a call to do New Year’s
Eve at a large fire station in Long Island. The firemen and their wives and
neighbors were all there. We played a pretty normal gig, with a mix of pop and
standards. We counted down the seconds to the new year. Everyone shouted
“Happy New Year!” as we hit zero. Not two or three seconds after
midnight, the fire alarms in the firehouse started ringing. We had just started
“Auld Lang Syne” and people were just in the middle of their kisses.
So we stopped playing, as everyone began to realize that this was not a
celebratory ringing of the bells. All the firemen ran for their gear and within
seconds we were all standing around, looking at each other. What do we do now?

The firetrucks were rolling out right past the bandstand. For a
good five minutes, all the guests had a look of disbelief on their faces. But we
were still professionals, so we played some other tunes and kept going.

We were contracted to play until 2 a.m. It was now about 1, but the
firemen had not returned. By this time the party had decidedly taken a strange
turn and we called it a night when the fire chief’s wife told us, “Give
it a rest – this party’s over!”


– Ed Rohrlich


My most memorable New Year’s gig was playing with reggae legends
Toots and the Maytals in a field in the middle of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, when
the year 1999 was ending and the new millennium was about to begin. We rang out
the old century with his version of “Country Roads” and brought in the
new one with “Sweet And Dandy,” the song that originally made me fall
in love with reggae back in 1973.

To make it even better, three of the guys in the band besides Toots
had played on the original record!

My second most memorable New Year’s Eve gig was a club date in
Rockland County at the end of 1987. It was a Polish/Italian wedding with around
300 guests and an incredibly lavish dinner, cake and so on. And it was obvious
that every single person in the room, including the bride and groom, was
convinced that the whole affair was a horrible mistake but that things had
proceeded too far to call it off.

Everybody in the band except me was a club date veteran of many
years’ standing, had worked together often, were cool personally, and had a
real band vibe and groove. It should have been an easy gig. We played every
conceivable sure shot in the club date canon, including a variety of traditional
Polish and Italian songs I had never heard before. No reaction. Nothing. Even
“My Way” got only a vague murmur.

When only six people out of 300 got up to dance to “Brown Eyed
Girl,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Shout,” the bandleader
turned around in complete exasperation. “What do we have to do to get a
reaction here? I’m about ready to set myself on fire, but I’m not even sure
that would work. I’m ready to plug in the tape player and send all of you
home. Anybody got any ideas?” The bandstand was silent.

Mercifully, the gig ended two sets later, without anybody else
dancing for the rest of the evening. In over 40 years of playing professionally,
I have never seen anything like it. Every so often, I remember the gig and
wonder how many weeks the marriage lasted.


– Andy Bassford


Every New Year for 10 years I played and sang at this beautiful
home on the water at Mission Beach in San Diego. It was always a great night to
gather around the piano and sing.

Unfortunately, one year a group of French sailors crashed the
party. They were quite drunk and gathered around the piano requesting for me to
play Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” not only once but six times!

After the sixth chorus of “Sing me a song, you’re the piano
man,” they spilled three beers and several cocktails on my new tux. I was
soaking wet, tired and hoarse so I finally decided that was it and packed up my
charts went home.

It’s an evening I’ll never forget. I also retired “Piano
Man” from my repertoire permanently.


– Mark Akens


The New Year’s Eve gig that stands out for me? Probably one where
I played for a singer at a fancy restaurant. We got paid and fed; I tried
pheasant for the first time. (Yes, it tastes just like chicken!) The singer’s
girlfriend was at the gig, so he directed every song to her. We did six or seven
renditions of “But Beautiful.” Another memory: I first met my husband
at a New Year’s Eve party at the beginning of the new millenium, at the home
of a friend who’s an opera coach and accompanist. He wanted to sing the duet
from Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs des Perles” with a friend he brought to
the party (both are professional opera singers), and the party host didn’t
have the score in his collection nor did he know the piece by heart.

I volunteered to provide the accompaniment, thinking I knew the
piece better than I did. We started off all right, then I blanked on the bridge
section. Despite the efforts of the tenor to feed me the chord changes, we all
stopped after a while and just laughed.

Two years later, at another New Year’s Eve party at this same
location, my husband and I had better luck performing the “Toreador
Song” for the crowd.


– Christine Talbott Sutin


It was New Year’s Eve 1973. We were fairly new as a band and hadn’t
gotten out of Brooklyn yet. This really sleazy mob-connected agent booked us at
“The Happening Lounge” which was a mob-controlled skull orchard right
on the corner of Henry Street and Hamilton Avenue in Red Hook, right outside the
Battery Tunnel. We were booked as a four-piece oldies band for $400 gross/$350
net, and the hours were 11:30 p.m. ‘till 7 a.m.(!)

The agent told us it was a nice crowd of mostly Italian-American
folks (like we were!). However, when we got there and set up, the place was a
knife and gun club, and the crowd was all pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers!
The crowd just kept coming and going the entire night and all the requests we
got were for only hard core Latin.

We were clearly not the right band for this place. In the coat
closet there was a rifle with a bayonet hanging on the wall, as well as all
kinds of clubs and bats! We were scared spitless the whole night, but stuck it

At the end of the gig, the club owner cut our pay and only gave us
$330. It was clearly not the time nor place for an argument, so we just packed
up and drove home – and never worked with that agent again. Last I’d heard
about him a number of years back, he’d gotten a really bad beating from the


– Bill Turner


More than 30 years ago, my Dixieland band, the On the Lam Band, was
hired to play for a parade from the Plaza Hotel, up Fifth Avenue to the Bethesda
Fountain in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. Our job was simply to the lead
people to the fountain for some other greater purpose which I no longer recall
(something they had no doubt paid dearly for). We delivered the crowd to the
fountain at approximately 11:30 p.m., at which point we were done. Since it was
a cold night, and there was no reason to hang about, we headed for home via the
Lexington Avenue subway (all of the band members lived in the East Village in
those days).

While we were waiting for the train at the 68th Street Station, one
of the band members noticed that it was almost midnight. Having our instruments
so close at hand we decided that it would simply be unconstitutional not to play
“Auld Lang Syne,” no matter where we were. As the midnight hour
approached we removed our instruments from their cases. At that moment the train
came into the station. Then, just as the doors opened, someone called out
“It’s midnight!” and we broke into “Auld Lang Syne.”

Now you can just imagine the looks on the faces of those people
who, by whatever chance of fate, were riding that car on the train that night.

After “Auld Lang Syne” we gave them a few Dixieland
classics. They were truly amazed and cheered by our music. While it was not
truly a “gig” it was one of the most spontaneous and unforgettable
moments of my life, New Year’s Eve or otherwise.


– Gary Zema


My favorite New Year’s gig was back around 1997. The gig was in
the Promenade room in the Rainbow complex at the NBC Building. What made it so
unusual was the instrumentation: Spanky Davis on trumpet, Wayne Andre on
trombone and me on guitar. Of course I knew it would be a treat playing with
those two great players but I wondered if we could make it sound good with no
real rhythm section. We played the mixture of American standard songbook
material, swing, dixie and maybe a few more contemporary things. My recollection
is that we pulled off without any complaints from any of the customers. In fact
everybody, the band included, had a good time.


– Flip Peters