They've stood together on top of the World Trade Center, driven at all hours of the night, and pulled a trailer out of a ditch chariot-style after an unfortunate truck accident on the way to a gig—all in the name of their energetic, big-band swing music.
Since they assembled at Lehigh University five years ago, the core members of the Slicked Up Nines
have grown as men and as musicians, this year playing an electric show on the opening night of the 20th anniversary of Musikfest, Bethlehem’s annual 10-day music festival.
Listen to an MP3 of the Slicked Up 9s song The Good Life. Or right click on link and choose an option to save to your computer.
On stage, the Slicked Up Nines are animated, talented, and obviously having a whole lot of fun playing an entertaining mix of cover songs and originals. Halfway through their opening song at Musikfest in August, people were up out of their seats--some in denim shorts and tank tops and others in traditional hepster gear--swing dancing like it was 1934.
"The excitement of getting a gig like the one at Musikfest and seeing an audience get fired up about something I'm passionate about makes all the hard work worth it," says Greg Hild, saxophonist and band manager.
"We don't get much sleep, carry lots of heavy equipment, and we're often in desperate need of a shower—but we do it because we love the band," adds Matt Hefner, who plays piano, bass saxophone, and clarinet and drives hundreds of miles from Binghamton, New York to Slicked Up Nines shows all over the East Coast.
Click on these links to listen to samples of Lean Baby and Secret Agent Man
In addition to Hild and Hefner, two Nines—Brad Scheller, lead vocalist and upright bass, and Donnie Weissberg, vocals and trombone—call Lehigh their alma mater. And two other nines--Matt Scheller, drummer for the band and brother of Brad, and Scott Shirey, guitarist--still traipse up the hill for class, Scheller as a sophomore Shirey as a freshman. The remaining Nines attended or attend other music schools. (Don’t bother counting: There have always been only eight Nines. The name comes from the hepster slang for dressing up.)
A band is born
The Slicked Up Nines were born on the Lehigh campus in 1998, when a few guys put a pipe dream in motion. “We’d been tossing around the idea of forming a band for a while,” says Hild, who graduated from Lehigh with a computer engineering and music degree in 2001. “Then one day someone in my fraternity (Delta Sig) said ‘We’re having a party in two weeks. Why don’t you guys get that band together and play at the party?’ We chuckled and thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ Then we sort of looked at each other …"
In that moment, a successful swing band was born. Calling themselves “Grinnin’ Chessy Cats”—a moniker that didn’t last long—the band started rehearsing and in just two weeks played the fraternity party.
“We were a huge hit at the party,” Hild recalls. “Swing was pretty new back then, so people were surprised—but pleasantly so—by the music. They claimed it was the best party they’d ever been to.”
The Slicked Up 9s have been pleasing crowds ever since. The band may have been an overnight sensation, but it was built on years of hard work and plenty of musical talent. Most of the members met with instruments in hand at Lehigh's jazz ensemble or music department.
`More than just a dream’
Since their debut at the fraternity party, the Nines have played almost every venue imaginable. They performed in the Windows of the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center just three months before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Other memorable shows include the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York and at an all-girl Catholic high school.
"The Catholic high school gig was a turning point, because it was the first time we went out of our element (on campus at Lehigh) to a totally foreign audience," Hild says. "And we were very well received. We felt like we were on the Ed Sullivan Show. Girls were screaming and asking for our autographs. It was the first time we realized the band was more than just a dream--we had already exceeded our hopes and things were going to be pretty exciting from then on."
One of the biggest thrills for the Nines came in July 2000, when they opened for the Brian Setzer Orchestra at the State Theater in Easton. "The crowd was cheering, the lights went off, and then we went out there and played," says Hefner. "And we were a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds opening up for Brian Setzer. It was amazing."
Hild also remembers the State Theater gig as one of the best. "We performed our show and then we got to take a seat and listen to the Setzer Orchestra, one of our biggest inspirations, knowing that we had just been up there. It was one of the highlights of my life, let alone with the band."
Matt Scheller, who has been the Nines’ drummer since he started dancing with the band at age 16, remembers the show at the Windows of the World. "It was the summer before September 11, and it was incredible. Greg always gets us these ridiculously cool gigs."
The balancing act
In the midst of their busy schedule playing weddings (a recent one being of a couple who met at a Slicked Up Nines show at Lehigh), clubs, and parties at millionaires' houses, the group still makes it back to Bethlehem regularly. They play at the Starfish Brasserie bi-monthly, where they have a regular audience, and they return home to Lehigh a few times a year, most recently for a Nov. 8 show at Lamberton Hall. And this January, they'll play at Bethlehem Mayor Callahan's inaugural ball at the Hotel Bethlehem.
The Slicked Up Nines all admit it's a hectic life--juggling intense, demanding day jobs and gigs all over the East Coast from Lake George, New York to Southern Virginia. When he’s not on the road with the band, Hefner is an engineer at IBM in Binghamton. And Hild is a software engineer at Northrop Grumman in Conshohocken, Pa.
"For those of us who graduated from Lehigh, we're all pretty happy with what we do and we take it pretty seriously,” Hild says. “Obviously, if we wanted to be musicians we'd have to give up the lifestyles we've earned in an academic sense. So I think we're all pretty happy and we don't plan on changing course with the way we're doing things now.
“We don't see any limitations with the way we do the band,” he adds. ”Everyone's pretty serious about their careers and all of us are doing really well in our non-band lives."
Hefner has turned down job opportunities all over the country to stay near the band. "I know I've made the right decision to stay in the band. What we do is so rare—the type of music and a group of guys who are so dedicated. I don't think I could find that anywhere else."
Lehigh Alumni Bulletin Online
Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2003