"One thing I have learned about having to be competitive is that the more showy elements YOU add to your performance the more people respond to it." -bandleader Mark Richardson

Do you see music as the vehicle that will transport you to a life of fame and leisure? Or do you view performance as a professional means of improving the life you've already built? Eclipse took the latter option. As a result, the Houston-based cover band is not only working steadily, but has been for two decades. Moreover, the full band numbers 10 members. They play all over Texas, primarily, but myriad company functions have also taken them to Florida, Louisiana and Las Vegas. And thanks to certain conventions and society gigs, they've opened for Learning to Listen and/or backed up Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Crystal Gayle and George Carlin.

Eclipse started 21 years ago when key boardist Mark Richardson graduated from college. Four years of studying biology had prepared him for stable employment in the "real" world, but having played in bands since he was a kid he wasn't ready to give up the muse, so he formed a part-time band with his now ex-wife, his brother, and drummer Michael Barela. (He and Richardson are the only remaining original band members.) Along with another player, they started out as a five-piece band with a taste for prog-rock. But as Barela recalls, they were in for a quick education.

Several elements factor into Eclipse's success, including flexibility and a killer promo kit. But one in particular stands out: great ears.

"I kind of miss those days," he acknowledges. "We thought we could play whatever we wanted. We never made any money, though. People enjoyed it, but..."

"When we first started the band, our repertoire consisted of songs we all liked personally, came off albums," Richardson elaborates. We found out real quickly that people who aren't as involved musically as we were did not want to hear that stuff. [laughs] So we've turned into more of a popular song band because of that." As musicians, do he and Barela miss the days of playing challenging songs just because they liked them, as opposed to performing hits because their audience likes them? Absolutely. But making the tricky commitment to satisfy the musical needs of their market has made them giggers with steady work-which has made them better musicians.

Looking around, they saw there was no long-term work or money in the clubs. And they listened to their audiences. Consequently, Eclipse eschewed Yes for Top 40, and smoky bars for society fundraisers and conventions. Barela moved out from behind the drums to assume frontman duties, and a female vocalist was added (two singers, Peggy Neff and Tina Helm, now share lead vocal duties). According to Richardson, band membership now requires "50% musical ability and 50% dependability... being professional, being businesslike, being punctual, having a good appearance." Eclipse gradually evolved into a full-blown orchestra with full costuming and stage equipment, which made them eligible for the higher-class gigs. That required putting together sets of "sure-fire winners" of the past, covering everything from Glenn Miller to Phantom of the Opera.

And now? To hire this band of consummate pros, clients shell out between $6,500 and $15,000 per night, depending upon location, time of year, and whether the band incurs travel expenses. And this band works all the time; notwithstanding the onslaught of summer wedding fever, they're busiest in December and February-traditionally, the gigger's lean season. Eclipse's current lineup includes Richardson (keyboards, vocals), Barela (lead vocals, percussion), Neff and Helm (lead vocals), David Caceres (saxophones, flute), Ed Lowe (trombone), Robert Martin (trumpet), Scott Mochon (guitar, vocals), Chris G. Smith (bass, vocals) and George Weimmer (drums).

"We had to change because as the band got older and wiser, the music got more sophisticated," Barela says. "We don't do the proms and we don't do a lot of rock 'n' roll like we used to, but we can rock and roll with the best of them. We do AC/DC and all that whenever the crowd wants it, and we can do it just as well as anybody can."

"Most bands don't stay together this long. If everybody's trying to be the chief, it doesn't work."
-Drummer Michael Barela

Every few months, they revamp their oldies repertoire to avoid burnout. And they convene for at least four "mega rehearsals" each year, at which they learn 12 new tunes from the Top 100. Here's where good ears become crucial, because choosing songs that will appeal to their broad base of listeners can be a daunting task. Bandleader Richardson's day job helps: he's a music supervisor for Dick Clark's United Stations Radio Network. "I have a pretty good pop sensibility," he says. "I just rely on my innate knowledge and taste in pop music to pick what I think will appeal to the crowd. We're more of a dance momentum band than we are a listening band. It's our job at most of these functions to get everybody excited and dancing and have a good time-that's the whole key." Eclipse knows more than 300 songs; in fact, their slick, fullcolor brochure lists an entire page of song titles, organized by genre-pop/rock, '50s and '60s, easy listening, and country. Their current setlist is an amazing representation of the last four decades in popular music, with hits by artists ranging from Sergio Mendez, James Brown, Prince, Patsy Cline and Van Morrison to Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Fastball, Wynonna, Matchbox 20 and Sheryl Crow.

"We do all of that stuff convincingly-I think that's been another key to why we've been around a long time," Richardson says. "We're able to assimiliate a song by ear real quickly, and put it across pretty convincingly without having to rely on a bunch of charts. The horn players do read charts, and we have everything pretty much written for those guys. But the core musicians are ear players."

Staying on Top

Obviously, people-pleasing skills contribute to the success of any band. For a band like Eclipse, responding to requests is essential. For instance, when they hire on for wedding gigs, they typically agree to perform two songs specially requested by the bride, at no extra charge. They also work hard to connect with their audience-even if the audience is unresponsive.

"We're getting top dollar for what we do, and we try to get it back to the crowd," Barela says. "Whenever the crowd is with us, and they're really working with us, we go out for them. If we can't get 'em going or they're just dead for whatever reason, everybody kinda feels it. [But] when people are paying the big bucks, we need to get out there and do the best job we can, no question about it."

Business ethics also play an integral role in their ongoing success. Richardson says they work with at least 10 different agencies, since exclusive arrangements are not the norm in their market. "Agents have been very important to us over the years and been a big part of our success," he says. "We've been very loyal and protected them on the jobs that they booked for us. They just compete against each other. And even though they all book us, if they end up with the gig, they feel comfortable putting us on it." When Eclipse was first starting out, he says, it was their highquality promo kit that grabbed agents' attention. "Then we started being successful on the job and got a good reputation for being on time and professional and looking good."

The market has also required them to become more of a show band, with minimal dance steps, impersonations and costuming. They keep a minimal but effective wardrobe, which makes them appealing to convention planners. Richardson says that party planners occasionally request that the band dress in a certain style, but clients cover the cost.

"One thing I have learned about having to be competitive is that the more showy elements you add to your performance, the more people respond to it," Richardson says. That, coupled with a sure knowledge of their target audience and keeping up with what's currently happening musically, has enabled them to stay on top even as deejays and other forms of entertainment have encroached upon their territory. "There aren't that many younger competitors," Richardson comments, "just different competitors."

According to Barela, a successful band also requires good teamwork. "Most bands don't stay together this long," Barela offers. "If everybody's trying to be the chief, it doesn't work. Everybody winds up butting heads. You have to decide who's going to be the person who's going to run the show. And Mark does that. I respect what he's done for us. We're a team, and we all know our strengths. "

Staying on top requires something else that's less obvious but every bit as important: In order to keep Eclipse vital, Richardson says, they all maintain other musical interests. The cover band's packed calendar basically precludes membership in other bands, but members keep themselves creatively stimulated by subbing with other groups, writing, working in music stores, or handling public relations for music. Barela and Richardson have achieved some success as songwriters, with a local radio station airing some of their work.

Despite the emphasis on being client-friendly, Eclipse wouldn't continue to get hired if all their talent lay in their calculators. They've conscientiously developed an audience. Richardson wants it clearly understood that music is not secondary to business.

"A great degree of skill is required on all the musicians' parts to accurately reproduce such a wide variety of material, which requires education and practice," he declares. "We still really enjoy what we do on the gig. It's very satisfying to please our audiences."

"What a FUN evening; and your group made it even more fun! Your professionalism is outstanding and your talent is truly unique. Please accept our appreciation for helping make our very special occasion and extraordinary, exceptionally memorable event!"
--Toni Wheeler

"I'm writing to thank you for your wonderful contribution to the success of our daughter's wedding. You have a wonderful talent, and I can only hope that I have a chance to hear your group play again soon. Thank you so much for your contribution for the success of this event."
--Ronald Kessler

"What a pleasure it was working with your fabulous group again! I know that it always "smooth sailing" when you are involved due to your professionalism and talent. I'll be looking forward to our next event together."
--Bobbi Asarch-Personal Party Planner

"Eclipse is by far the finest group we have ever had at any of our functions. Their sound, variety of music, appearance and talent is of the highest caliber and we highly recommend them to our friends and business associates."
--Joe and Barbara Jones-Wholesale Electric, Inc.

"My husband and son, Bradley, join me in thanking you for making Bradley's Bar Mitzvah party so perfect. Eclipse was wonderful and it was quite a feat to be so successful with both the adults and children. Thank you for helping create an evening which exceeded our highest expectations."
--Linda G. Eisemann

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