Ahhh, the glamorous life of a cruise ship musician; plying his trade on the ocean wave, never knowing which exotic port of call he’ll be sailing into next (he lost his itinerary), holding sway over an eager crowd who are hanging on to his every note. OK, I admit, I’m painting a romantic view, but surely, this has got to be a dream gig for any jobbing musician? I spoke to one such musician, cruise ship drummer Andy Charlton, about magicians, cliff divers, dolphins and bagpipers and a little about life spent as part of a cruise ship band, too.
Hi Andy! Tell us a little about how you got into cruise ship drumming.
Hi! I got into cruise ship drumming after I met a keyboard player who had worked ‘the boats’ when I was a young drummer. I listened to his stories of life onboard, and set my sights on doing it myself.
I spoke with the agent who he worked through, and asked him how I got to work on ships. He told me that, apart from being a reasonable player, versatile and ideally a reasonably level-headed guy, I would either need to read well, or sing well. I was never going to be a good singer, (I never sing twice in the same band!) so I concentrated on my reading. Two years later, I got a phone call a week before Christmas: “Do you want to do a two- week Christmas cruise, followed by a three- month world cruise?”
Yes, that was me off round the world!
What sorts of material do you generally play and which do you enjoy the best?
From my point of view, I am lucky that I enjoy most types of music, and love the feeling of seeing an arrangement for the first time, and 10 minutes later having produced a piece of music with life and emotion.
With cruises now a more popular holiday choice than ever, do you think are we seeing a wider variety of musical styles today, to perhaps better appeal to wider cross-section of the public?
Wider variety of styles? Definitely! Along with a wider variety of cruises, of course. When I started, cruises were largely for, ‘Old people… and their parents.’ Nowadays, there are cruises aimed at many different markets. Generally some cruises and companies attract a more elderly, genteel audience, some have a younger more free and easy crowd, and even, with the likes of Disney, some very child- friendly cruises. Add to this, theme cruises where a whole ship will be taken over for a week for a specific event.
This means that, being a cruise ship drummer, versatility is paramount. As the house band, you will be expected to back at least some of the acts, even on specialty weeks. So you might be playing a Jazz cruise one week, (with the BBC big band in the audience watching you before their spot – no pressure there, then!), and a biker cruise next week, where you are backing a full-on Meatloaf tribute.
Certainly does sound varied! So have you found that audiences have more fun on a cruise than they would, say coming to a one-off evening show back home?
Certainly, it’s good for the audience that the show is part of the whole experience. No dodging back through the rain to a municipal car park and wondering if your car is still in one piece on a ship, just a fine dinner, followed by an excellent show, followed by the midnight buffet, of course.
Any amusing stories or memorable incidents to share?
Wow, memorable incidents – too many to list!
Go on, give us a few!
Having wanted to see the cliff divers at Acapulco since I was eight, I spent the whole time in port with a stupid grin on my face. Sitting late at night on the pontoon that the tenders moor to on the ship watching the dolphins swim around my feet. New Year’s Eve on my first cruise, actually playing in a Russian band, drinking with the guys and watching the fireworks in Madeira…..
Alright, stop, you’re making me jealous! So anything funny happen?
Lots of things I can’t tell here!
Go on, there must be some you can share!
Well, we once had a magician who did a trick with a borrowed 100 dollar bill. Having borrowed the bill, he dressed the volunteer in a cloak and had her spin round, as we played, the DaDaDaDaaaah” from Phantom of the Opera. One night, the wind from the cloak blew the bill from the table; it wafted forward, and then dived back under the front edge of the stage. While the act had to replace the bill for the spectator, we, the band, could all hear the stage hands scrabbling about under the stage. Funnily enough, when the magician went under the stage afterwards to try to get it back, it wasn’t there.
We had another act, a juggler, who was very good, but he had one part of his act where he was pushing himself a little too far. On his music, one trumpet player in the past had drawn a load of little boxes and written, “Tick the box whenever he drops a club.” There were around 100 ticks!
One onboard talent show, we had a bagpipe player. Our MD was very…er… honest. The bagpiper played his stuff at rehearsal, then, looking at the MD’s face, asked him a question: “You don’t like bagpipes do you.” I think he expected a bland, “Oh yes, I love them.” Instead he got the truth…. “No, I don’t like them. They’re not a musical instrument; they’re for scaring the enemy.” We couldn’t play the rest of the rehearsal for laughing. Then there was the best audience talent show competitor ever – a 17-year-old girl. She was very shy, and had declined a rehearsal, but her act was called ‘car alarm.’ On the night, after many acts, some seemingly going on forever, she walked up to the mic, did a three-second impression of a shrieking car alarm, and walked off to a standing ovation.
Ha! Ha! Thanks a lot for sharing, Andy. Here’s to many more unique cruise experiences!
By Simon Brotherton