AT THE ARTFUL BISTRO RESTAURANT IN OWINGS MILLS, Johnny Walker is serenading a packed dance floor with the Stevie Wonder classic, "I Just Called to Say I Love You." The white-haired couples on the floor are slow but graceful. They've gathered on this Sunday afternoon for an 80th birthday party.
It's a typical weekend for Walker. Thirty years ago, he would have been singing to newlyweds. His eight-piece band, the Johnny Walker Revue, used to play five weddings in a weekend -- one Friday night, a double Saturday and a double Sunday.
Now, he's lucky to get one wedding a month. For bands like Walker's, the wedding business has dried up, killed by DJs and their infinite catalog of songs. "We went down to five pieces, then four, then three, and now I'm down to one," says Walker, 66, who plays keyboards. "I do a lot of solo work."
For many musicians, it's all that's left. Numerous bands have broken up for lack of work, as young couples have brought in DJs and even karaoke machines for weddings.
DJs are cheaper, and the younger generation wants to hear songs sung by the artists they know, just like they sound on the radio. Bands are what their parents hired for weddings.
Even as films have popularized wedding singers and wedding crashers, the era of the wedding band is coming to an end. Bridal experts estimate that 90 percent to 95 percent of weddings are now handled by DJs, forcing musicians like Walker to find other work.
Walker now has a regular Monday night gig at Seasons Pizza, on York Road in Towson, where an older crowd dances cha-chas and sambas, and he plays anniversaries, birthday parties and happy hours. He enjoys those events, and his fans appreciate him. But something is missing -- the camaraderie of a band, the energy that comes from playing with others, the excitement of a wedding.
Not to mention the free booze. Some wedding planners say bands fell out of favor because the musicians would eat and drink all night on the host's dime, but musicians say that is exaggerated. And besides, they say, the beer sometimes came to them whether they wanted it or not.
At one wedding Walker played, a fight broke out and his band was caught in the middle. He said the men were throwing pitchers of beer at each other, the booze flying across the dance floor in front of the band. And then one guy wanted to climb on top of a speaker and dive into the crowd.
"It was like something you see in the movies," Walker said. "Those days are gone. It's not like it used to be. Now, most of the people I play for are older. And even the younger ones, there's not as much fights."
Weddings have mellowed a lot since the first wedding he played, when he was 15, at the Ebenezer Fire Hall in White Marsh. That was particularly memorable because the mother of the bride was hit in the face and fell to the floor.
"She was probably out for at least two or three minutes. I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Oh my God, how did I get into this thing?' " Walker said. But of course, the band played on. "You always gotta keep playing," he said, "to get everything back to normal."
(For the record, Walker's real name is John Redding Jr., but when he formed his first musical duo with a high school friend, Tom Pezza, they changed names to sound more professional. So John Redding became Johnny Walker, and Tom Pezza was Tom Collins. Yes, it's a mystery why musicians have a reputation for drinking.)
The decline of the wedding band has been a long time coming. DJs began making inroads in the 1980s, with their lower rates and ability to play songs like they sound on the radio. The advent of the CD meant DJs could carry more music in less space. By the '90s, big wedding halls like Martin's West had given up their house bands.
"I did think about a band for a little bit," said Donna Marie Lupinos, 24, who will be married in Stevensville this fall and has already hired a DJ she found through the Internet.
"The main reason we didn't go with a band is the cost," she said. "Bands are a lot costlier. And sometimes, they only do one or two different genres of music and I really wanted variety. And people sometimes want to hear the real version of songs, not a cover."
Not only are the bands disappearing, but so are their names that evoke an era -- the Admirals, the Royals, the Breakers, Bobby and the Believers, Finesse, Sound of Velvet, the Townsmen, the Contours and the Y's. The names of popular DJs don't have quite the same ring -- DJ Magic, DJ Hawk and, out of Frederick, Mobile DJ WTVC 64.
"A DJ is just like having your own stereo, only bigger," said Helmut Licht, who has a 14-piece big band. "I still remember seeing the first DJ wedding. I was in a ballroom at Martin's West and I didn't see a band. I was totally, absolutely, profoundly shaken. I could not believe that somebody would hire a record player for a wedding."