Kathy White says that two years ago she wouldn't have dreamed of getting on stage, holding a microphone in her hand and singing karaoke.
Now? Besides being a great way to meet new people, she says, "It's addictive." Her husband, Joe, enthusiastically echoes her sentiments.
The Whites usually get in three nights a week on the karaoke stage, sometimes more. Tuesdays they might be found at Bogie's in North Little Rock's Holiday Inn. Wednesday and Thursday often find them at Rudy's Oyster Bar off Pike Avenue. Friday, it's the Fraternal Order of Eagles Club just off 65th Street in Little Rock. Saturday, maybe to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Club. If the mood hits them, they might go out on Sunday night, too. They've honed their skills so much, Joe recently finished second in a major karaoke contest, while Kathy was a finalist in another.
Karaoke, surely you know, is a Japanese import inspired by the digital age. Machines supply the background music for popular songs and a TV monitor supplies the lyrics to prompt those who sing along. And, no, karaoke didn't die in the 1980s, as many of the clueless think. It just needed to get its second wind, which in recent years most certainly has blown hard around Little Rock.
"Five years ago I could count the people who were karaoke operators," says Debbi Tedder, better known around Central Arkansas as Debbi T of T's Tunes Karaoke. "Now, I know 15 people who are doing this regularly."
Some club managers refer to Tedder as the expert in the KJ (karaoke jock) business. She says Joe and Kala Miller got in the business much earlier, in the 1990s, and exposed her to the excitement on stage.
"I had so much fun," she recalled of her 1997 singing debut, "I decided I had to get in the business."
Now, Tedder has two other KJ's working for her, and being a KJ is her source of income. Sometimes the jocks supply the equipment; sometimes the clubs have it in place for the jocks to operate.
Joe and Kala have their own KJ's, too, since some nights a karaoke business has to be in two places at once: private parties provide as much business as area clubs. It's getting so big, the regular operators say, some newcomers are trying to take business away, cutting their prices to almost nothing to get a regular club gig.
Patrick Richardson, who runs the karaoke party at the Underground Pub in the River Market District on Thursdays, works through Joe and Kala's Karaoke Karavan. Anita Cox operates Rockerman's Karaoke and works three nights a week. There's also Diamond Dave Violette, "Chuxterr" Chuck Matthews, Rock'n Randy Worsham and others among the regulars. The KJ's seem to know most of their brethren; they even have a busy Yahoo Internet group site with calendar and message board.
Of course, they wouldn't have a business without the brave souls who, often helped by a little (or a lot of) alcohol, suddenly want four minutes of fame and the adrenaline rush that comes with the crowd's response.
So it was that we went out recently to some of the karaoke hotspots around Pulaski County to catch the action.
Debbi T's show is Tuesdays and Fridays at Legends, in the Galleria Shopping Center on Rodney Parham Road, and the crowd stays until 4 a.m. (she also spends two nights in Hot Springs at Lucky's on Central Avenue and sends another KJ out on Monday nights). Mardi Gras brought out a huge crowd to the club, and the singers began to hit the stage in vocal force around 10 p.m.
By 11:30, things were crazy. In the larger clubs such as Legends and Underground, the KJ's blend singing rotations with hot dance music. With several beers and shots as a warm-up, I dared to approach the stage and fill out the required form: a song number from Debbi T's immense book of more than 10,000 songs, including the latest hot releases, a song title and my name. Tedder likely saved me some embarrassment, mentioning the 30-minute wait in the rotation, so my certain-to-be-awful rendition of Outkasts' "Hey Ya" went unheard.
"If you aren't here early and signed up early, the wait can be an hour or more," said Mike Brown, the club's assistant manager. Debbi T's karaoke show was a holdover from the previous tenants, Cuzins' and BEKS, and it keeps growing in patronage, Brown said. "It's just huge on Fridays. Originally we were planning to have it from 9 to 2, but there are singers until 4."
Electric Cowboy, where "Chuxterr" operates, has karaoke on Sundays, also mixed with dance music. Phyllis Price, who runs the place, says karaoke makes an otherwise off night fairly popular. "Regulars come in singing the same songs, but we're seeing new people too," she said.
Most club owners will tell you that karaoke is cheap entertainment compared with paying a band - a typical KJ will make $150 an hour.
Karaoke also works well in the smaller venues, too. We visited Rudy's Oyster Bar, owned by Rudy Colclasure. Anita Cox brings Rockerman's Karaoke in on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Colclasure, who started one night of karaoke two years ago and found it so successful that he added a second, has a karaoke contest with a $150 prize being held each Thursday in March, with the finals on March 25.
Regular Rudy's diners mix with the karaoke crowd in the small, smoky place. Where Legends was seemingly full of singers picking pop hits, the music choices here are mostly country and classic rock.
"At most shows you'll find that," says Diamond Dave, who jocks four nights at the Sherwood sports bar Allstar's, where they've had karaoke for six years. "Country is just easier to sing. And you'll get some older rock because people have heard the songs a lot."
That's the big key for participants, knowing the songs. KJ's such as Cox will burn CDs for the regular customers to practice with. The KJ's equipment can slow down the tempo or transpose the key to better suit the singer's voice. Sometimes, though, that doesn't help.
At Rudy's, some Brooks and Dunn wannabes in baseball hats howl, and another guy in a reverse cap follows up with an scary imitation of Kenny Chesney. But then up steps Joe White, looking the part with his John Deere hat and farmer's tan, giving a solid rendition of "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." Kathy follows with a moving delivery of the classic rock song "Reflections of My Life." Another performer gives the requisite performance of David Allan Coe's "The Country Song" - we hear it at four other karaoke spots- and Cox even takes to the other side of the CD player to sing.
This crowd doesn't look like it's ready for "I Left My Heart in San Francisco.'" Despite Cox's urgings and the plea that she has 10,000 other songs from which to choose, we delay our karaoke debut again.
It comes later, at the Underground Pub, with several Arkansas Times staff members in the house to witness what surely could be a debacle if we don't get our mix right. Again, I surmise that this crowd - particularly with the modern music Richardson is pumping out of his sound system before starting the karaoke show - isn't keen on hearing Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra.
I scan the book - Richardson has six of these with 8,500 song titles and he urges the crowd to peruse them - and settle on Scott Weiland instead of Sinatra. "Sour Girl" by the Stone Temple Pilots will start that night's karaoke. It's hard going first, but I suck it up (and suck down a couple of brews quickly). I pull it off and the crowd seems to like it. The applause is gratifying, and nothing beats that rush Joe White mentioned at Rudy's.
The talent level that follows is surprisingly good, much better overall than we've heard in other clubs. Part of the karaoke scene isn't just the singing but the stage presence. A guy going by the stage name of Skyman channels Robert Plant. Then young Mary Kate Roach brings down the house with her dead-on rendition of Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield," complete with stage show.
"I know the dance from the video, so I just decided to do the moves," she said, adding that she's only tried the Underground's karaoke one other time, and she was talked into this effort by a friend who mentioned a $50-to-the-winner contest. "It was fantastic, being up there and people cheering."
The later the night goes, the more we see duets, trios and group efforts. Courtney Pike and Candace Crump, who work upstairs at Boscos, sing a duet. Laura Bewley, a commuting UALR student whose background is singing gospel music at the Assembly of God church in her hometown of Russellville, wows the crowd with her range. Anthony Magee, who is a KJ at The Factory on Louisiana Street on Tuesday nights, also sounds professional.
Some karaoke "stars" eventually make it to the big time, we learn from Richardson, although probably not from being discovered on the karaoke stage. "Nobody really hears you in Little Rock," Magee adds.
But, Richardson says, "Before Evanesence became big, their singer [Amy Lee] would come in and sing here."
Most are content just to get the applause of a few clubgoers. Even if you sound more like Cameron Diaz in "My Best Friend's Wedding" than Whitney Houston, the crowd seems to stay in your corner. There are no gongs in karaoke.
"Some of my eating customers wish I'd get one," Rudy Colclasure says.
For those more into speaking than singing, Debbi T says, something new is one the way: movie-oke, featuring classic movie dialog. For every would-be Sinatra, the betting is, there's a would-be Brando, too.
Where to karaoke
Here is some of the leader spots in Central Arkansas that offer regular karaoke nights:
Allstar's Bar and Grill, 8100 Warden Road, 834-9066. 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays until 1 a.m.-2 a.m. Membership required on weekend ($5). Eight-week karaoke contest with $1,000 in cash and prizes to the winner starting in April.
The Arrow, 700 E. 9th St., 301-7911: Periodic karaoke on Saturdays, 7-11 p.m.
Bogies, NLR Holiday Inn: 8 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Conway Supper Club, U.S. Highway 65 N: 9 p.m.-close Fridays, private club.
Electric Cowboy, 8323 I-30, 562-6000: 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Sundays, private club. Six-week karaoke contest ongoing, with up to $1,000 in cash prizes.
FOE (a.k.a Eagles Club), 6200 Aerie St. (off 65th St. and I-30), 562-0876: 8:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. Fridays. Club is open to public on Fridays.
Fox and Hound, Lakewood Village Shopping Center, NLR, 753-8300: 9-11 p.m. Wednesdays, private club.
The Factory, 412 Louisiana, 372-3070: 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays.
Gator's on the River, 100 E. Riverport, NLR, 372-7678: 8 p.m.-midnight every night except Monday.
Honey Hut, 3723 MacArthur, NLR, 753-0991: 9 p.m. Fridays.
Jimmy Doyle Country, Interstate 40 at Galloway Exit, NLR, 945-9042: 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursdays.
Legends, 9700 Rodney Parham Road, 537-2357: 9 p.m.-4 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays. Karaoke contest with cash prizes starting in April.
Moose Lodge Saline Co., 24212 Interstate 30 (next to RV Store), 847-5266: 6-10 p.m. Fridays.
The Pressbox, 3101 Fair Park, 562-8175: 8 p.m. Thursdays.
Rudy's Oyster Bar, 2695 Pike Ave., 771-0808: 7:30 p.m.-11:30 Wednesdays and Thursdays. Karaoke contest finals, March 25, $150 to winner.
The Underground Pub, 500 President Clinton Ave., Museum Center, 707-2537: 8:30 p.m.-close Thursdays.
VFW Club, 2304 S. Arch St., 372-3250: 8 p.m. Sundays.