Sing like no one’s listening

Forget drag, leather contests and two-stepping — karaoke is the one night in gay clubs where everybody comes out

CLICK HERE TO VIEW A KARAOKE SLIDESHOW

RICH LOPEZ  |  Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

One cold Tuesday night in December, the Round-Up Saloon’s parlor bar has a handful of people inside. Some are partaking in well drink specials; others are furiously texting, and one guy can’t seem to leave the bartender alone.

But in a few minutes, they will all be focused on the same thing: Whether to get on stage or just sing along as they settle in for a night of karaoke.

Despite public speaking being a fear on par with death for most Americans, the post-American Idol world finds a slew of gay clubs featuring karaoke nights — and they are among the most popular events out of the week.

Just what gets people to step up to a microphone on a regular basis — or have others turn out to watch them?

As it turns it out, it’s so much more than just singing a song you like.

“Although it doesn’t happen with every singer, it’s fun to watch someone be so uninhibited, whether they are good or bad,” says Andrew Phifer.

Phifer has done it once to, of all things, the theme from TVs Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Mostly, though, he prefers to watch others, usually at the Round-Up.

Last year’s Voice of Pride winner Mel Arizpe hosts karaoke at the club, lining up singers and songs for “Tittie Tuesday Karaoke;” in between songs, she points out the several regulars who have a certain uninhibited quality.

A prime example was the man singing Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” and trying to engage the audience by asking, “Who remembers the ’80s?”

“Karaoke caters to everyone,” Arizpe says. “Who doesn’t wanna belt ‘Pussy Control,’ with 30 other people singing right along? Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you really haven’t until you’ve come out to watch.”

Little Chalupa at Joe’s

Where the Round-Up gets progressively more crowded on a school night, Joe’s Place at Wednesday night karaoke, with host Little Chalupa, is a lighter bunch.

No more than a handful of people at a time are in the bar, but the enthusiasm is just as high.

Duets by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson are covered, and one man with a Michael Jackson fetish ad-libs the songs while Chalupa offers something else to the mix: Spanish-language songs.

Even one dancer in his undies from the Brick side of the club will sing.

Likely not by design, the stage at Joe’s on this hump day evening definitely has more than enough of its share of “serious singers.” The smaller crowd didn’t dissuade these vocalists from taking to the stage as if auditioning for American Idol. They want to assure that all 17 of us hear their talents.

Putting their vibratos to the test, the mostly male crowd signs on for fleeting stardom, if just for a moment — until their next song makes it to the top of the list.

“I think there are three types of karaoke singers,” says Josh Warr, a visitor to the Joe’s who is also straight. “The people who take it seriously probably had some theater and have this in them to do. You have people like me who’ve sung in a band and just do what we do for fun. Then there are those who can’t sing worth a damn and can’t help but be silly about it.”

Warr does a good rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” with some added humorous touches that go over like a, well, brick. Those gathered are clearly waiting their turns to be the next top diva.

Is it that one moment that drives them to almost over-perform? Ben Mitchell thinks so.

The local author has sung with the Turtle Creek Chorale, and although it’s been years since his last karaoke performance, he admits there is a surrealistic quality that makes being onstage a special moment.

“You get to be on stage performing in front of an audience, and it is the closest thing to being a ‘star’ that we ever get,” he says.

Arizpe agrees.

“Gay or straight, everyone wants to be a star,” she says. “Along with that, I think what attracts gay audiences is the environment — the lights, the stage, the showtunes … not to mention music from Lady Gaga and Glee.”

Save for Warr, the stars at Joe’s this night weren’t tongue-in-cheeking their performances. While the vocal talents aren’t the stuff Grammys are made of, they wouldn’t cause ears to bleed, either.

The guy covering Celine Dion couldn’t meet her key with his low register but impressively nailed a long note. “Michael Jackson guy’s” “Thriller” might be blasphemous, but his heart and ego are into it. His friend, though, chose Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” but sang it in the key of Beyonce.

At one corner of the bar, Little Chalupa sits at his laptop lining up singers and songs and even getting onstage himself for some Kid Rock. Hosting karaoke gigs four nights a week at Sue Ellen’s, Alexandre’s and Joe’s, he’s a pro at the game in the Dallas gay club scene.

Starting as a bartender at Woody’s, Chalupa began his stint as a host there and eight years later, he’s become the go-to guy for karaoke. Along the way, he’s learned a few things about the scene.

“Although every bar is having karaoke, it has to do with the host, and a supportive staff,” he says. “Spectators will really enjoy themselves a lot more and come back. The host has to make it fun and keep a flow. Sometimes I have 30 people waiting on my list.”

Chalupa reiterates the one popular reason people do this — simple fun. Whether he’s gigging at Joe’s or Sue Ellen’s, his crowds may be different, but the payoff is the same.

For him, it’s a bigger payoff when they really can’t sing.

“The ones who can’t sing and do it are having the most fun. I have a lot of bad singers, but that’s what motivates other people to get up there. I’ve devirginized a lot of non-singers,” he laughs.

He admits though, he’s not overly fond of the self-appointed divas, many of whom were taking his stage at Joe’s.

“The seriousness I don’t like. Some people do that because this is the time for them to show off — if they have talent, “ he says. “Or sometimes people walk in, put their song in and leave only to come back when it’s their turn. That’s not fair to people who are there. I’m there to make money for my place.”

Save for the few “talented” singers, Chalupa knows people are having a fine time. Whether it’s the ladies at Sue Ellen’s, an older crowd at Alexandre’s or his younger participants at Joe’s, Chalupa really just celebrates that spirit in someone to risk making a spectacle of themselves — and it mostly turns out well.

Barbara’s Pavillion

Barbara’s Pavilion in Oak Cliff is a popular spot for many reasons: Its gay friendliness, its neighborhood feel and its karaoke.

A diverse crowd lines the bar on this Sunday night. The place isn’t overly busy, but by 7 p.m. when the singing starts, the regulars are already at it. That’s proven by the married couple who gaze into each others’ eyes while dueting on Moulin Rouge’s “I’ll Fly Away.”

There are some familiar faces here from my recent night at the Round-Up. “Pussy Control” lady takes her turn with Blondie and later with Four Non Blondes. The employees even get in on the action.

Of all the clubs I visited, Barbara’s is the least intimidating. This is where everybody knows your name. They don’t know mine, but friendly attempts at conversation don’t go unnoticed.

And after every song, the crowd claps and hoots — even if a singer sounds like a pained animal waiting to be put out of its misery.

“I don’t really sing, I just like to scream my songs out,” says Angela Johnson. “Really, this is my therapy.”

Motivations run the gamut when it comes to karaoke. Arizpe says it brings confidence out in people, but I’m not so sure. Singing in front of strangers overall is one of the more vulnerable situations to put yourself in.

Natural singers who are good don’t have to worry, but the majority of us are up there to be potentially laughed at and — worse — judged.

It can be like a rollercoaster ride: Maybe it’s the thrill of danger while knowing you’ll finish safely.

Or you’re just haven’t had enough cocktails, like Justin Bradford who has had his fair share of mike experiences at the Round-Up.

“I like drinking the liquid courage that allows me to belt out whiskey-drenched vocals in the likes of Tanya Tucker,” he says.

“That allows me to momentarily bask in the spotlight of talent, because in reality, I have a terrible singing voice.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 14, 2011.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW A KARAOKE SLIDESHOW

—  John Wright