Sunday, May 26, 2024

NC trend: Superstar wedding band Liquid Pleasure keeps loosening up crowds in its fifth decade

Kenny Mann thought he and his Liquid Pleasure bandmates had a real shot at a music career when the group landed a contract with the Hit Attractions booking agency in 1981. 

More than 40 years later, Mann debated which Raleigh restaurant to choose for dinner with a top executive of Richmond-based East Coast Entertainment, which has represented the group since 1990. The agent wanted to schmooze the veteran musician, who chose Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille in northwest Raleigh.

From choosing venues to negotiating contracts, Mann, 68, is in the driver’s seat now that Liquid Pleasure is one of the best-known U.S. wedding bands. The group also entertains at events sponsored by Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, professional sports teams and at presidential inaugurations. 

“When Barack Obama got elected, we got that call to pack our bags and come to D.C. I was overwhelmed with emotions,” says Mann. “I got up the next day and looked at every major headline around the world, and it had Obama’s inauguration schedule. Seeing Liquid Pleasure’s name even in the Moscow newspaper, it didn’t get much better than that.” 

 At an official Obama ball, the band shared top billing with fellow North Carolina native James Taylor. That followed similar performances at inaugural events for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They’ve also played at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort owned by Donald Trump.

The group formed in 1966 when the original members were in middle school in Chapel Hill. Now, they fly to Florence, Italy, and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for weddings a few times a year. An overseas wedding reception with all 14 performers can run about $75,000, which covers as much as $40,000 in travel and other costs.

High-end domestic performances are closer to $30,000, while the band fills in its calendar of 110 shows a year with lower-ticket appearances such as the recent 75th Anniversary Gala for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP or the free North Hills summer concert series in Raleigh. 

“We have a version of Liquid Pleasure for every price range,” Mann says. “We do charity events for much less.”

Academic roots 

In the ‘80s, the band’s main clientele was fraternities and sororities, first at southern schools and eventually at some Ivy League campuses. Mann quickly realized that the partying college kids would become brides and grooms seeking wedding entertainment in a few years.

“They’re a loss-leader. You get so much business from those parties that turns into wedding and corporate events,” he says, Indeed, Michelle Robinson, a Chicago-born coed who attended Liquid Pleasure events in the early 1980s at Princeton University, had something to do with a future inaugural celebration after she had married Obama.

Liquid Pleasure is a longtime hot commodity for East Coast Entertainment. “They travel the United States on a more regular basis than any of our bands,” says Barry Herndon, a managing partner in Raleigh. “Liquid Pleasure goes from North Carolina to Texas to California and to all points in between. I’ve booked them in Montana for August.”

He credits the musicians, dancers and back-up singers for their talent and strong work ethic. Liquid Pleasure has never canceled a show, even it meant chartering a private plane at the band’s expense or driving through the night when commercial airlines canceled flights. The band’s chemistry with each other and the audience are also key factors to its longevity.

Mann has been performing since fourth grade, when he took piano classes in an after-school music program on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. But his key role is as a frontman and businessman. His easy dialogue and wise cracks with college kids, CEOs and great-grandmothers have endeared Liquid Pleasure to audiences as much as the band’s catalog of more than 2,000 songs.

“Kenny has a great ability to emcee. He’s a charmer. He knows how to make people feel special,” Herndon says. “He’s the master of everything. He’s hilarious. He’s witty. He’s got a personality that people warm up to.”

Mann’s skills were on full display with a crowd of about 500 at Swansboro’s Mullet Festival in October. 

“Raise your hand if you love your wife,” he instructed folks sitting in folding chairs or slightly swaying to the music.  “Well, if you love your wife and want her to keep putting up with your sorry self, ask her to dance for this next song.” Couples who haven’t slow danced in years were soon laughing and swaying to The Temptations’ “My Girl.”

A business decision

Not all of Mann’s stage manners have been innocuous. 

When Liquid Pleasure was fresh on the college fraternity circuit in the early ‘80s, he suggested a contest to loosen up a crowd at the University of Alabama. Mann was a devotee of the coarse comedy of another Chapel Hill band, Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, as well as comedian Richard Pryor. So he invited fraternity boys to come up on stage and see who could yell the N-word the loudest. 

His bandmates had mixed reactions, from rolling their eyes at Mann’s antics to quoting Black empowerment leader Malcolm X after the show. Once the hesitant audience got going, Mann established Liquid Pleasure as a band that wanted its crowd to have fun and let loose.

They charged $500 extra for fraternities trying “the contest” for about nine months, then cut it off. By then the group was in high demand, not for the self-deprecating gimmick, but for its music and personality. 

When asked if the racial slur contest was worth it, Mann says: “We became the No. 1 fraternity band in 18 months so, business wise, yes. But morally, no. But, you know, I don’t think I would change it. It was important to separate your band from competitors.”

The tension felt by Black musicians playing for mostly white audiences is something Mann has pondered throughout his career, he noted in an 2019 Oxford American story. He explained how  the band has used its business success for positive causes, such as improving the segregated neighborhoods where members grew up. “We’ve got to keep making money,” he said.

Early in his career, Mann made a shrewd business decision that paid off when the pandemic hit in 2020. 

“Ninety percent of our calendar got canceled in two weeks. I felt like I was on the musical Titanic,” he says. “But fortunately, we had done what most bands had not done. We had set ourselves up as a legitimate business. We pay taxes. So when the PPP loans came out, we got two of those.” The bands’ federal government pandemic loans totaled $37,380, and were both forgiven, filings show. 

While talent is foremost when Mann fills the rare open position, the ability to mesh with his group is also important.

“We don’t smoke. We don’t drink,” he says. “So the people who came into the band who smoked and drank and did all that stuff, if they were really talented, we’d put up with them. If they could be substituted, we’d ease them on out.”

Liquid Pleasure kicked off the Follow Me to Fuquay-Varina signature outdoor concert series in April.

Hometown historian

Mann’s roots run deep in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. His father, Kenny Mann Sr., was the revered cook at The Rathskeller from 1949 to 2003. The restaurant’s lasagna with cheese that stretches from table-to-mouth is his recipe. His mother, Effie Marie Mann, taught protestors how to lie in the street for peaceful protests.

Kenny Mann Jr. was one of the first Black students to attend Carrboro Elementary School in the 1960s. A classmate, Sharon Smith, joined a middle-school precursor to Liquid Pleasure. She was UNC Chapel basketball coach Dean Smith’s daughter.

“Sharon was so pretty that we figured we were going to have her in the band one way or another,” he recounts. “She sat right beside me in band class. She played the clarinet. We weren’t going to play any Benny Goodman, but she had the personality and the look.”

He recalls seeing Sharon’s legendary father march in protests against Chapel Hill’s segregated restaurants. “Dean Smith and all of Brinkley Baptist Church were there. He wasn’t hiding in the background, he was right up front.” 

He also saw James Taylor singing carols in the city’s Christmas parade. Taylor’s first album in 1968 was released by the Beatles’ newly formed label, Apple Records. 

“One day we looked up, and at the Carolina Coffee Shop there was James Taylor and Paul McCartney sitting in there,” Mann recalls. “Seeing Paul McCartney in Chapel Hill was a big day for me.”

Any day with Liquid Pleasure on stage is also a big day.

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