'Dancing With the Stars' Fires Longtime Band Leader

Dancing with The Stars Hough Pickler - H 2013
Adam Taylor/ABC

Dancing with The Stars Hough Pickler - H 2013

Veteran orchestrator and band leader Harold Wheeler takes a 28-member group of musicians and singers with him, to be replaced by another band and the ABC competition's boosted use of recordings.

American Federation of Musicians president Ray Hair blasted ABC Monday for firing longtime band leader Harold Wheeler and replacing the live backing band on Dancing With the Stars with preexisting sound recordings and what he referred to as a "small electric band."

"People who love Dancing With the Stars also love the superb performances of the orchestra because it is such an integral part of the show," said Hair. "The tight, elaborate musical productions that catapulted the show into the top 10 in 17 countries can’t be duplicated by recordings and a small combo. Viewers, whether they are young or old, will reject that as artistic fraud."

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The Harold Wheeler Orchestra and Singers, which goes with Wheeler, consists of 28 members and has performed on the show for 17 seasons. A joint statement from BBC Worldwide Productions and ABC acknowledged that history, while shedding no light on the reason for the band’s departure: "Our talented music director, Harold Wheeler, will not be joining us for season 18 of Dancing With the Stars. Since season one, Harold and his band have performed brilliant music in our ballroom for our dancers and the American viewers at home. We are grateful to him and his band for their amazing work and years of collaboration. We wish him the best of luck."

A source close to the show told The Hollywood Reporter that live music will continue to be a large component on the show, and Wheeler's replacement will be choosing a new band. 

The union claims that “network sources say that a recent shift in ABC/Disney’s executive staff in charge of primetime reality series programming led to pressure on DWTS producer BBC Worldwide to cut corners and pander to a younger viewing audience.” (ABC tapped Lisa Berger as head of alternative and late night back in September after the departure of longtime reality chief John Saade.)

In a September interview with THR, executive producer Conrad Green commented on the recent introduction of recorded music, which the series started using for some performances in recent seasons. “We feel that there are some types of music and types of songs, a lot of modern music particularly, is so produced that it's impossible for an 18-piece band to replicate that sound," Green said. "You get to a point where you're forcing a band to try and do sound that they just literally can't pull off.”

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He added, “It took hundreds of hours in a studio to get some of those sounds. So in some cases we're thinking, let's just use that song. What's the point in forcing a band to try to do something that's impossible to achieve?”

Hair said the motivation is strictly dollars and cents. “It’s not like ABC and Disney don’t have any money and can’t afford an orchestra. It’s about the insatiable thirst for profits at the expense of music, art, and those who create it,” he said. “Firing the band, using recordings and hiring fewer musicians won’t boost ratings. It will kill the show.”

The AFM’s beef with recorded music has a long history and a broad range. As far back as 1942, the union went on strike against radio networks in an attempt to block the use of recorded music in radio and preserve live orchestras. More recently -- including during a 2003 strike -- the union has struggled with cuts in the size of Broadway orchestras as instruments have been replaced by synthesizers and recordings.

Michael O'Connell contributed reporting.

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