Not long after I started my business, I learned about karaoke. In the early ‘90s, karaoke was becoming a popular niche in entertainment, but there were only a few places to do it. Karaoke, if you’re not familiar, is when the music is played without the main vocal; it’s up to the singer or singers to do the singing. It’s not a cheesy as it sounds. Back then, the main company that put money into karaoke was Pioneer, a respectable stereo label. They had invested heavily in laser discs, and they put out volumes of the discs with 10-20 songs on each one. The music often sounded as well produced as the original songs, and, instead of the blank background we see now, there were really lame videos of people riding motorcycles and rainy nights and green pastures and… the point is, these videos had nothing to do with the songs. The lyrics would appear on the screen and light up when it was time to sing them. For a guy like me who enjoyed singing and was just okay enough not to be embarrassed, it was a perfect match.
I honestly don’t remember how I heard about the place. Perhaps a client mentioned it to me, or a friend of a friend told me about it. Apparently, there was a spot in the East Bay that had a karaoke show one night a week. It was called the Christie Bar and Grill, located on Christie Street in Emeryville. I was not a bar person back then; I didn’t just wander in, yet I was drawn to the place. It was a nice place, but very dark, except for one corner. That area was lit by a single spotlight, and one microphone stood on a stand, lonely, waiting to be held and sang to. I had to see this for myself, so I stuck around. Eventually, the “show” started. The show consisted of one guy furiously shuffling laser discs in and out of a player, while trying to convince others to sing. There were few takers, so the host had to get up again and again to sing. “The show must go on!” Gradually, as the liquid courage began to sink in, others started to join in.
The catalog of songs wasn’t that expansive back then; there were only a few hundred of the most popular songs you could think of available to sing. I eventually gave it a shot, and I was hooked from the jump. I found myself going there every karaoke night; these kinds of people are lovingly referred to as “karaoke nerds.” (If a karaoke host has gigs in more than one spot, those who follow the host to different locations on different nights are known as “karaoke groupies,” and hosts are eternally grateful for their loyalty)
It was long before I was offered a job as karaoke DJ; a “KJ,” as they’re known. The bar was looking to expand their karaoke presence, and, since I was there every karaoke night anyway, and because I also owned a fledgling DJ business, I got the gig. I don’t remember what it paid – I’m sure it was awful. Karaoke gigs often are. But I didn’t care. When I’m DJing, I enjoy watching other people appreciate what I’m playing. They show their appreciation by dancing, sure, but there are plenty of events without a dance floor. I scan the faces of the people in the room; are their heads bobbing? Are their eyes closed slightly as they try to remember who performed the song they’re hearing? Are they nodding their approval, ever so subtly, when just the right song comes on? But there’s something really rewarding in helping someone get up and sing for the first time. Seeing the joy come across their face as the song progresses, growing more confident with every phrase. You can see the ones that are hooked right away; there’s no hiding that smile.
Once a karaoke show has established itself, regulars like me start showing up. A sort of mini community begins to grow. You all have a common passion – music – from which endless conversations commence. You’re all revealing a vulnerability by singing in public, yet everyone is supportive and appreciative. You’re all there to have fun, and rare is the night when you don’t. As you get to know each other, you get a feel for songs a person can handle, songs in their “wheelhouse.” One person’s a huge Sinatra fan, while another devours every Beatles song imaginable. What started as a glorified living room set-up now has a massive laser disc carousel player (very rare back then) and every song title available. The Christie Bar and Grill had fast become the spot to head to if you wanted some karaoke. I was proud to be a small part of it.
Of course, karaoke, like DJing, has its drawbacks. You have to learn to tune certain things out. I still suffer from “APSD,” better known as “American Pie Stress Disorder.” Someone had to sing Don McLean’s American Pie at least once every evening. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a classic song. But, it’s eight minutes long. Over and over again. And, it’s the kind of song that invariably gets the person singing it to be the “get everyone to sing” guy. This can be fun, but it gets really awkward when you’re four minutes in and no one else is feeling it. That’s when the regulars can make or break you; if they’re nice (and they almost always are) they’ll sense the awkward and sing along. But, if you lose that group, you might as well take your air guitar and go home. DJing has ruined certain songs for me, many of which I’d bet you could guess without any prompts from me. They’re the kind of songs I just won’t play anymore unless someone specifically requests them: Y.M.C.A., Love Shack, Baby Got Back, Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,… I can’t do it. I’m done.
Karaoke is no different. I can’t hear Billy Joel’s Piano Man anymore. Back then, the big song was Just Once by James Ingram. Nice song, but every. single. man. had. to. sing. it. It was if there was some unwritten test dudes had to take on karaoke night, and the only question wasn’t true/false, it was Just Once. (Nowadays, it seems women have a similar assessment on karaoke night; they have to sing Carrie Underwood’s Before He Cheats or their woman card privileges are revoked) Every guy has to do at least one Sinatra song; it’s not written anywhere, but it’s known. Too many men (and women) have Friends In Low Places, and want to sing about Summer Lovin’, because, you know, they had themselves a blast (‘cause it happened so fast).
Sometimes, though, one person sings a song, and it just becomes theirs. Others can do it, sure, but no one does it quite as well. There was one regular who came in and he had a sweet falsetto voice. He particularly enjoyed showing it off while singing the Stylistics. It was perfect for him; no other guy would go near those high notes. When everyone else would be talking about their favorite songs to sing, we always knew his answer: Stylistics. When we talked about trying some new tunes, he was content with his Stylistics jams. You have to respect consistency.
The Christie Bar and Grill was situated right near what is now the Emery Bay shopping center. It is a well-traveled area, right off one of the busiest freeway interchanges in the state of California. Freeways merge to head west into San Francisco or south to Oakland or east to Berkeley and Sacramento. Near the Bar and Grill in the City was a spot called “Fillmore West” which was run by rock impresario Bill Graham. Different artists would come and go, and we’d often get a spillover of patrons at the bar once the shows were over. One night, we’d heard that the Stylistics were at the Fillmore, which was especially cool for our Stylistics regular. His heroes were in the Bay! Of course, we prodded him to get up and sing his jams; it seemed only appropriate. It was late in the evening when in walked a well-dressed older gentleman. He had a few friends with him, and he seemed intent on taking a spot as far away from the karaoke as possible. But, after a few songs, he seemed to inch closer, intrigued by what he was seeing and hearing. When the Stylistics fan got up to sing Betcha By Golly Wow, the gentleman quietly asked if he could sing with the man at the mic. He calmly grabbed a stool and sat next to our singer, who suddenly couldn’t breathe. The older man was Russell Thompkins, the very man whose soulful tenor provided the lead vocal on that very same Stylistics song. For a brief few minutes, I got to watch my friend sing his favorite song with his favorite singer. And, he held his own! He could hang; we knew he could. Now, Mr. Thompkins did too.
Music can be a very personal thing. Whether we’re alone in our cars or isolated in the shower or off on a long run, we can hear a song we love and belt out the vocals without a care in the world. It takes a special kind of person to be comfortable and brave enough to do the same thing in front of others. Singing a song that others enjoy, seeing those same bobbing heads and slightly closed eyes, you create a momentary bond, and it’s addictive. I have no intention of seeking a cure.