The following story is an excerpt from Peter Wilson’s upcoming book FIRST FIDDLE: A Life of Musical Diplomacy — My 30 years as a Violinist of The White House, which highlights memorable moments from his career as a member of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band.
When I got the call on Saturday in the late afternoon that a new White House job had come in for Sunday, I was leading a string quartet for the wedding ceremony of the son of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, inside the Commandant’s House. Since we were largely out of view (behind the guests), I was able to listen to the voicemail and engage in a quick text exchange with my Operations Officer. The little information I received was: POTUS hosting a private dinner, requests a solo violin, extremely close hold.
After the wedding, I learned The President wanted to surprise the First Lady with an intimate dinner in honor of their wedding anniversary, which explained why very few knew. No specific musical requests were conveyed, so when I returned home I went to work online to learn all I could regarding their courtship and wedding. After an evening of research and a good night of sleep, I spent most of Sunday committing to memory their wedding song and several other love songs related to their life together, and I brushed up on various other songs in my arsenal. I was used to playing over 2 hours of memorized tunes on solo violin for the Clinton White House; however, limiting myself to love songs cut my repertoire in half.
Upon arriving at The White House in the early evening, the experience became surreal because I realized that in my 26 years of serving there, this was the first time I would enter the grounds alone. When I arrived at the Usher’s Office, I was immediately notified of one detail that had been left out: The dinner would be out by the pool… I was told The President had two requests (1) that the dinner be poolside, weather permitting, and (2) a violin be there to serenade for the evening. (I certainly was pleased to know The President thought a solo violinist would make the evening especially romantic.) The senior usher who had planned the remaining details of the dinner escorted me and described how the evening would unfold. I let him know what music I had prepared, and when I told him I knew their wedding song, he said with delight, “My Man!” He had me hide in the tree line until The President escorted the First Lady from the Oval Office down the path to the pool. I was to begin before they could see me, then emerge and join them off to the side. I chose “Unforgettable” for their entrance. The First Lady was stunned and The President looked so proud he had pulled off the surprise. Two butlers served them during the evening. I went from romantic classical melodies to standards by Gershwin to modern classics by R&B artists.
“You really scored me some big points tonight, brother.” — President Barack Obama
When the main course was served, I played the Hawaiian Wedding Song. As desert was served, I moved closer and played their wedding song “You and I” by Stevie Wonder. The President began singing to the First Lady. I played through the entire dinner, straight for about an hour and 10 minutes. As the dinner concluded, I began to play Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” and The First Couple stood up and began to dance. Afterwards, they both thanked me and The President shook my hand, pulled me in and whispered, “You really scored me some big points tonight, brother.” I wished them both a happy anniversary, and they retired to the Residence. There certainly have been many thrilling and memorable moments and events during my career, but I think this one tops them all. It was a very special night, and I was honored to have played a small role in it.