November 7, 2002
Behind the Music: The Wedding Singer
In the 1998 hit comedy "The Wedding Singer," the eponymous character was a nice Jewish boy named Robbie. At the Sept. 2 Century City Park Hyatt reception of 30-something newlyweds Daphna Ghozland and David Hollander, the wedding singer is a nice Jewish boy named Robbie. True, the latter -- singer/pianist/bandleader Robbie Helperin -- will occasionally perform the odd '80s pop song with his Simcha Orchestra as Adam Sandler did in the movie, but that's where the parallels end, or at least, that's where Helperin would like them to end.
"It was kind of painful to watch," Helperin said of the movie that immortalized his profession as a "Loserville" populated by "creepy musicians," in his words.
But this 39-year-old Jewish band performer doesn't see his job that way. "Part of my drive has been to dispel the stigma of the job by making it as phenomenal as it can be," Helperin said.
The job of a wedding singer is unlike that of other musicians, like a rock star or concert pianist, because a successful wedding band is one that you notice -- and one you don't. It's the soundtrack of your wedding, but it's also the background music.
"I want people to be comfortable speaking," Helperin said. "I don't want to be the kind of performer that takes away from the bride and groom. At the same time, you need to be control. You say as little as possible but as much as you need to get the job done."
While Ghozland, a psychologist, and Hollander, an optometrist, helped Helperin narrow down the song list for their Labor Day wedding, they trusted Helperin enough to let him choose most of the material.
"Robbie's very organized, which certainly helped," Hollander said. "I told him I wanted to dance all night. I didn't want any rap. Basically dance music from the '70s and '80s."
At his Beverly Hills office, Helperin has binders filled with music culled from dozens of cultures. He uses the latest computer software to keep clients and schedules meticulously organized and cross-referenced.
For the big fat Jewish wedding, Helperin offers a wide variety of styles: Klezmer, Moroccan, Yemenite, Persian, Israeli Folk, Chasidic, Yiddish, Musica Mizrachit, modern Jewish rock, modern Jewish funk and modern Jewish disco.
"Most Jews are exposed to a very tiny percentage of the Jewish music out there," Helperin said.
Ghozland also needed some French standards to entertain her father's Algerian-French side. The Simcha Orchestra offered "La Vie En Rose," the Moroccan tune "Porom Pom Pero" and, for the father-daughter dance, "Under Paris Skies" -- all sung in French.
Helperin was a 24-year-old aspiring pop star who counted James Taylor and Billy Joel as inspirations when he joined the Simcha Orchestra, which was founded 20 years ago by Jerry Katz, a guitarist who had once performed with Shlomo Carlebach. "At the time, I had hair down to my shoulders," Helperin said, "Jerry asked, 'You a musician?' I said, 'Yes.'"
Over time, Helperin's role within the band expanded. After Katz made aliyah to Israel, Helperin inherited the Simcha Orchestra on June 5, 1993.
"The same day the business became mine was the day I got married," Helperin said. But he and the band didn't perform at his own wedding. "My wife told me to take the day off."
With a wife to support and the details of his rapidly growing endeavor to oversee, Helperin put aside his pop-singer dreams. Under Helperin's leadership, the Simcha Orchestra amassed a roster of musicians who have performed with Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond and Woody Herman, and have played for Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan and Quincy Jones.
The band's present lineup includes guitarist Tom Bethke, bassist Chris Haller, Bob Faust on trumpet, Joel Lish on viola and singer Sareet Atias. Drummer Jay Setar has been with the band since the early 1980s. Recent additions include cellist Jan Kellie, trombonist Rob Kaufman, and violinist Jonathan Dysart.
Percussionist Jeff Stern -- a Burbank resident who recently played at "Hallelu" and has worked with Craig Taubman, Sam Glaser and Debbie Friedman -- had his very first Jewish gig under Katz's Simcha Orchestra.
Woodwindist Geoff Nudell, who reconnected with junior high school pal Helperin six years ago, admitted that he does not get too sentimental doing weddings and b'nai mitzvah. "It's a job. I don't mean to sound callous, but I don't have any emotional commitment," Nudell said.
Some gigs can be trying, especially religious weddings, which can demand long, uninterrupted performances from the band.
"The schedule is such so that there's continuous music and intensity," said Nudell, who has played bass clarinet for the TV series "Monk" and on the "Undercover Brother" soundtrack. "Typically, the average hora is 30-45 minutes nonstop, so that can be taxing."
Helperin still dreams of returning to his original singer-songwriter aspirations. But for now, he has a wife, a 4-year-old boy and a 9-month-old girl to provide for.
"I really like what I do," Helperin said of leading the Simcha Orchestra. "It's got a little element of everything I ever loved about music -- I get to orchestrate and arrange, conduct, I get to sing, I get to make people happy. The only thing I miss is the songwriting. I'm still looking forward to getting back to that one day."