Party on the Moon on Being Donald Trump's Go-To Cover Band: 'He's Not a Very Laid Back Guy'
As the co-creator and leader of the high-end cover act Party on the Moon, guitarist Dennis Lee Smith was the first one on stage to notice the owner of the Mar-a-Lago golf club was staring directly at him and motioning for an assistant. As dinner was being served in the opulent Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom on New Year’s Eve 2009, the assistant came over to the side of the stage and told Smith, “Mr. Trump would like you to stop playing this crap and play something more upbeat.”
In seconds, Party on the Moon sonically transitioned from the sleepy bossa nova digestive aid “The Girl From Ipanema,” rocketing into a Stevie Wonder medley that immediately packed the Palm Beach, Florida dance floor. Every New Year’s Eve since, the Atlanta-based 13-piece act, chock-full of world class musicians who have toured with Beyonce, Celine Dion and Earth, Wind & Fire, has been the president-elect’s preferred party act.
Over the past 14 years, Smith and Galaxy Party Bands, the company he co-founded with agent Ed Duncan in 2002, have transformed the wedding cover band cliché into a multi-million-dollar-a-year industry, globe-trotting all over the world and playing 100 shows a year for the likes of Eli Manning, Ted Turner, Julius Erving, Barack and Michelle Obama, George H.W. and George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. On its website, the band lists no pricing for its services (Jokes Smith: “What’s that old adage, if you have to ask you probably can’t afford it?”). However, for an extra $15,000 plus airfare and hotel, Party on the Moon offers clients a choice of three superstar rockers from the 1970s, 1980s or 90s who will gig with the band (though due to contract agreements, Smith won’t disclose who the stars are until you arrange a booking).
But last month, when Smith posted a blog on the band’s Facebook page about the possibility of playing Trump’s inauguration in Washington D.C., the backlash was so swift, Smith had to hire someone to delete the hate-filled reaction.
Turns out, Party on the Moon will likely miss the January 20 Trump celebration in Washington D.C. due to an advance booking, but the band is already inked to play this New Year’s Eve again for real estate mogul.
This week, during a rehearsal break over lunch at celebrity chef Richard Blais’ restaurant Flip Burger Boutique in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, the guitarist and author of the new memoir, Rock 'n' Roll, Martial Arts & God sat down with Billboard to discuss gigging for the polarizing president-elect.
How did this NYE at Mar-a-Lago differ from your previous years playing for Donald Trump and his family and friends at the resort?
Every year, Mr. Trump stops at every table, greets every guest and poses for photos. This year, he did the same thing, but it was more difficult to work the room. Every time he moved, a small swarm of people moved with him. At one point, with people wanting pictures with Sylvester Stallone and Fabio, one of the organizers came up and said, “Our servers can’t get to the tables to serve dinner. Can you get everyone on the dance floor?” We played our four-and-a-half minute K.C. and the Sunshine Band medley. K.C.’s from Florida. It worked.
But in other ways, it was like any other year. Mr. Trump sits there with his wife, his children and his grandchildren. Seeing Donald Trump with grandkids in his lap is an image most people don’t get to see.
The Obamas were fans of Beyonce, and the president was known to occasionally bust into an Al Green song. From your perspective, what might a Trump White House music aesthetic sound like?
Hopefully, he’s going to invite Party on the Moon to Washington! Honestly, aside from that first gig in 2009, we’ve never gotten any direction on what to play. But Mr. Trump likes classic rock and upbeat selections. He’s not a very laid-back guy. Perhaps more than any other client we’ve ever had, his main concern is whether his guests are having a good time.
You and Donald Trump both have had a lot of naysayers over the years -- when you and your business partner decided to create an ultra high-end cover band, agents laughed. Trump got the same reaction when he announced he was running for president. What was it about Trump that allowed him to capture the presidency?
Directness. Not only when he’s speaking to voters, but also when he’s on stage on New Year’s Eve talking to his guests. He just puts it all out there. That’s what resonates with me when I’m in the same room with him. You never know what he’s going to say or do. Last year, he came over to the side of the stage and told me, “You’re kicking ass!"
Since your Facebook post, you’ve encountered a lot of criticism from people upset that you would play the Trump inaugural. What are your thoughts about so many musicians coming out against playing for the president-elect?
It’s about respecting the office. If the president-elect wants [me] to play for him, I’m going to do it. If Hillary Clinton had won and she called, we’d play the date. My job is to play music for people, and to create a good time for them. Period. Just don’t play “The Girl From Ipanema."