When it comes to wedding receptions, who do you think is in charge? The mother of the bride? The caterer? The bride and groom?
Good guesses, but all wrong. It's the DJ.
"I have a very powerful job," says popular Bloomington DJ Joe Beck. "I'm the controller, and if I don't make it happen, it won't happen."
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a DJ was known as a disc jockey and his job was to spin LPs on enormous equipment. These days, most music is recorded on compact discs.
Beck has thousands and thousands of CDs and constantly updates his "standard mix" of 500 CDs. The music allows Beck to navigate everything from a bar mitzvah to a 50th wedding anniversary reception. Subscription services keep him supplied with the latest releases in a variety of genres: Top 40, country, urban and dance club.
But for Joe Beck, being a DJ involves a lot more than hitting the button for yet another round of "YMCA," the "Electric Slide" and the "Macarena." "I'm an entertainer," he says.
Beck reads a crowd and figures out what it will take to get them going. He will cheerlead, cajole, dance, sing, lip sync, joke and, most of all, take charge. What separates him from other DJs is his "level of involvement."
In the world of DJs, Beck is a success story. He's booked far in advance and can command fees of $1,000 per night (plus overnight accommodations) when he works in Chicago. Local fees are lower, starting with $275 to $375 for high school dances, graduation and birthday parties.
Beck employs five DJs through his company, Entertainment Plus. In hiring DJs, he looks for an extensive knowledge of music, enthusiasm and an outgoing personality. It's almost impossible, Beck says, to find anyone as good as he is.
He brings a lot of passions to the job.
Beck, 43, grew up in Chicago watching "The Ed Sullivan Show."
"I'd watch the Jackson 5, Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder and think, if they can make it, so can I."
Beck slept with a transistor radio plugged into his ear, tuned to Chicago WYPP DJs Buddy Bell and Frank Alexander. Beck paid attention and learned "the patter."
By the time Beck reached high school, he had landed his first gig as a DJ. He learned to play drums. He picked up the latest dances quickly and he could sing.
As an Illinois State University student in the late 1970s, Beck was a popular DJ in the black fraternity scene. He started at local clubs in the 1980s, pioneering the scene at Bogey's, Rocky's and others. Before long, he added weddings to his list.
Now, Beck works an average of three days a week as a DJ plus a standing weekly gig playing with a blues and R&B band. In that group, Beck handles bass, drums and vocals. On occasion, Beck teaches dance classes, particularly hip-hop or line dancing. Beck says he loves it all--with the exception of hauling and setting up equipment.
Beck takes a lot of pride in the fact that he get a crowd going. If no one is listening to the music, he'll change it, find the right niche and sneak the volume up. If that doesn't work, he'll lip sync and get out on the dance floor by himself. People will see Beck having fun and they'll join in themselves.
Sooner or later, Beck says, he'll get a "happenin' crowd." That's when trouble can happen. Some guy, who usually doesn't dance, will come up and request some dreadful song. The classic downer, he says, is Lynyrd Skynyrd's 15-minute rendition of "Freebird."
Handling such requests can be tricky. He may save it for the "last song," knowing the audience will request additional songs, anyway.
Requests for wildly inappropriate songs (usually rap, he says) are also tricky. If the language and subject matter are unsuited to the group, Beck may refuse to play it.
Fad songs, such as "YMCA" and "Celebration," are fine and he never tires of playing them. "They get the crowd going," he says, and that's what he wants.
On this Saturday, Beck arrives at the Radisson Hotel and Convention Center in Bloomington to DJ the second wedding reception in a 13-hour work day. He preset his equipment, including lights, and hid all the cords. He previously met with the bride and groom to come up with a list of "event songs" for special dances.
When the bride arrives, Beck checks with her quickly about the pronunciation of a bridesmaid's name.
One of Beck's first tasks is to introduce the head table. His voice is smooth, low, rich. He introduces the parents, ring bearers and flower girl. Then, he kicks on "Who Let The Dogs Out" and hams it up for the introduction of the wedding party. Next come the flashing lights and the Chicago Bulls' theme music for the introduction of the newlywed couple.
Beck is fully in charge. He moves to the head table, passing the microphone around for toasts, asking for a round of applause for each participant. He explains the order for the buffet line and says the blessing. Radisson staff members file by Beck's equipment table as they refill water glasses, clear plates. "Hey, Joe," they say. "What's up, man?" Beck laughs. "They're glad it's me because they know they'll get to hear some good music tonight."
"I'm Joe Beck," he announces, his voice full of enthusiasm and confidence. "We've got lots of great music, so stick around and participate in the fun."