Kings of karaoke

In smoky bars packed with strangers, everyday Joes search for all the right notes during three minutes of fame

Sunday, October 26, 2003


Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

Doug Bowen, right, belts out lyrics from the song "Super Freak" as Danielle Perrin, left, and Allison Maher dance alongside. Bowen, a staple of Lawrence's ever-changing karaoke scene, sang recently at Molly McGee's.

Doug Bowen's 15 minutes of fame keep on ticking.

Since winning a karaoke contest after singing "Super Freak," the 75-year-old retired construction worker has been a regular on the karaoke circuit in and around Lawrence. A couple of weeks ago, he made the rounds, singing at Dick Clark's American Bandstand in Overland Park and Lawrence's Molly McGee's and Set 'Em Up Jacks.

Bowen had his first brush with karaoke about five years ago at Duffy's. He's been hooked ever since.

"I signed up to sing a couple of songs, but I didn't know I was in the contest and you didn't get to choose your songs," he recalled of his karaoke debut. "The women I was with put me in the contest and they said, 'It's your turn.' I said, 'Whoa, what do you mean it's my turn?' They chose 'Super Freak.' The karaoke dude asked me if I knew it, and I said I had never heard of 'Super Freak.'"

Bowen was stunned to see the lyrics "She's a very kinky girl/The kind you don't take home to mother" scroll on a video screen with the prerecorded accompaniment to "Super Freak." He was able to finish, though.

"I won $50 singing that darn thing," Bowen said.


Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

Sean McKean, right, sings "The Humpty Dance" in front of a crowd gathered at Old Chicago on karaoke night. The bar and grill has since discontinued a regular karaoke night.

Since then, Bowen has expanded his repertoire to three songs. He always sings "Super Freak," "Strokin'" and "My Way" before the bars close.

"I sing the same songs," Bowen said. "Those are the three I know the best."

During a recent rendition of "Strokin'" at Molly McGee's, Bowen bantered with the bar patrons between lyrics.

Bowen: "Have you ever made love just before breakfast?"

Bar patrons: "Hell, yes."

Bowen: "Have you ever made love while you watched the late, late show?"

Bar patrons: "Hell, yes."

At the end of the song, KJ (karaoke jockey) Tom Hinson hollers, "Doug, bringing down the house once again."

'All about fun'
Michelle Layne, owner of Kansas City, Mo.,-based B Sharp Entertainment, said Bowen was part of a boom in karaoke in Lawrence and the area. Her company does two karaoke shows a week in Lawrence and approximately 50 karaoke shows weekly in the area. Layne said she invested in a quality sound system to enhance the singers' performances.

"The whole key is to remember it's all about the singer," Layne said. "We want to give them their three minutes of fame. There's that feeling everybody wants to be up there in front of everybody and be a rock star. We really work hard to make them sound good. We've done shows for ages 5 to 90."

Hinson, who works for B Sharp Entertainment, has been a disc/karaoke jockey for 12 years. Bar patrons flip through a three-ring notebook, fill out their requests on a small piece of paper and hand it to Hinson before singing in front of the bar.

"It's all about fun," he said. "You have to stomach some of the songs; at the same time you shake it off. It's about having fun and having a few beers and get up there and sing a song you wouldn't otherwise get to. Of course, we like to hear good singers all night, but you can't eliminate those who are giving it a try."

Layne and Hinson have grown accustomed to hearing the same tunes over and over.

"Summer Nights," made popular by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in "Grease," is a frequent group karaoke request, Layne said, with men and women exchanging lyrics.

"I used to love 'Summer Nights,'" Layne said. "Not anymore."

Other "oversung" songs, according to Layne, include Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights," Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl" and The Eagles' "Desperado."

Layne and Hinson said the amount of singing picks up, especially with country selections, later in the night after patrons have consumed more "beverages."

"I think people need, what I like to call, 'liquid courage,'" Layne said.

Added Hinson, "Some people have the balls to get up there, some people don't. After a few beers, they seem to get more courage."

Hinson doesn't tolerate bar patrons heckling singers.

"If I heard people booing, my job as DJ would be to get on the mic and get on them," he said. "If they got the balls to get up there and do it, don't boo them."

Kasey Monroe, a Kansas University sophomore film student from Geneseo, wore a leather jacket and grasped a scarf during his rendition of the classic ballad "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" at Molly McGee's. Monroe is a finicky karaoke singer.

"I just like Meat Loaf songs," Monroe said. "I even have the red scarf."


Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

Jeremy Swedlund, Topeka, sings "Rodeo" by Garth Brooks on karaoke night at Old Chicago.

There are times Monroe would like to shorten certain singers' time at the mic.

"Sometimes I wish they had a gong," Monroe said. "But I've never seen anyone try that ... yet."

Keeping balanced
Henry T's Bar & Grill, has karaoke every other Saturday.

Aubrey McCalman, bar manager, said popular songs for karaoke fell under country, retro and '70s.

"It's definitely slower at the beginning," McCalman said. "Some people who come in don't know it's karaoke. By the end of the night, they get up there after a drink or two. There are definitely people who come in here for it every week. We try to mix it up so not one person is singing all the time."

Henry T's plans to have a Halloween contest Friday in which the singer's costume has to have something to do with the song the singer selects.

Personal entertainment
The Moon Bar provides a personal form of karaoke entertainment. The bar, which opened this summer, has five private karaoke rooms available to rent seven days a week. The rooms seat up to 15 people.


Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

From left, DJ Tom Hinson looks on as Amanda Green, Allison Maher and Danielle Perrin sing "Baby Got Back" recently at Molly McGee's.

Tony Wang, Moon Bar manager, said the private rooms were popular for work groups and family parties. With games of pool being played and rock 'n' roll tunes blaring in the main bar, karaoke singers are secluded in sound-proof rooms.

"They're with friends, and they don't want to get booed by people you don't know," Wang said.

There are no karaoke jockeys in the private rooms. The room renters control the video screen by remote control. Moon Bar offers songs in Asian, English, Korean and Japanese. Karaoke, in fact, is Japanese for "empty orchestra."

"Private karaoke rooms are big in Oriental countries," Wang said.

Timing is everything
On a recent Saturday night at Kaspar's Bar & Grill, Deanna Rule and Bryan Bloom ruled karaoke, pairing for such classics as "My Ding-A-Ling" and "Me and Bobby McGee." With a shortage of willing singers, the two burst into song more than 30 times in a five-hour span in a room reserved for karaoke in the back room of Kaspar's.

"If we want to sing more, this is the place to be," said Rule, who normally sings karaoke once a month and went solo recently on such classics as "Annie's Song," "The Tide is High," and "Midnight Train to Georgia." "Retro does pretty well here. It's nice to sing songs you've never sung before. It gives us a chance to try new stuff to see if we can do it or not, to see what it sounds like. When it's really crowded, you don't get that much time on the mic. You probably only sing three or four songs that night in a five-hour block because of the people."

Bloom, whose performances included "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," said he liked the cozy atmosphere at Kaspar's.

"When this is filled with people, you feel more warm singing to them than going to a place that makes you have to sing good or to present yourself good," he said. "This place is more relaxed and a laid-back atmosphere ... and nobody laughs at us."


Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

Holly Garber, Lawrence, entertains karaoke enthusiasts at Old Chicago's now-defunct karaoke night.

Bloom said too many alcoholic beverages consumed before singing could spoil the performance.

"They think they're better when they've been drinking," he said, "but we want to hear them."