Kimberly Young belts out a song during Friday night karaoke at Cooty's bar while Warren Dunn of Dunn-Rite Karaoke readies the next song in the background. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Karaoke DJs learn to take a back seat for a living

Karaoke DJs are like sports referees and bus drivers: You really only notice them when they screw up. It's not a gig that's loaded with prestige, but expert karaoke cruise directors must navigate a fine line: soothing the performance jitters of amateur singers and maintaining a festive club vibe without calling too much attention to themselves. The stars, after all, are the singers and not the people running the machine.

Simon Olivarez has looked at life from both sides of the karaoke DJ/singer divide. Olivarez, the burly, bearded karaoke grandmaster at King's Lounge and My House, has been a karaoke obsessive for 11 years. In the early '90s, he became a regular at Twenty Grand and Shenanigans.

"I used to go to karaoke, and when it first started, I would be like, 'There's no way I'd ever get up there,'" Olivarez recalls. "Then, one night, I got drunk and somebody talked me into going up there and I sang one song for almost a year: 'Don't Rock the Jukebox.' It was the only song I'd sing all night long. Once I started that, I got hooked. I mean, it's a rush."

Olivarez's penchant for singing at Twenty Grand and Shenanigans landed him a DJ gig at both clubs. "When I did it there, they had their own system, and I ran it for them and only got paid 40 bucks a night," he says. "What I've got invested now is about $15,000. I've got almost 4,000 songs, but I know people who have a lot more."

One DJ who has a lot more is Larry Irvine, known to his devotees as "Nitewing." A veteran singer who spent 25 years on the road with live bands (including the Sha Na Na pastiche George Chain and the Missing Links), Irvine and his sidekick, Madonna Young, boast a catalog of more than 21,000 songs, and Irvine matter of factly says, "We can do anything from 1920 to 2004."

"If you can't sing yourself, it's hard, because there are some nights when it's really dead, and you've got to do it."
— Simon Olivarez
Decked out in his trademark matching black pants and boots, white shirt and pinstriped vest, the gangly Irvine has the aura of an old-skool crowd pleaser. He's a rock 'n' roll vaudevillian, a Catskills crooner, and he sticks out on the local karaoke scene because of his persistent - often manic - efforts to whip up audience enthusiasm. While most karaoke DJs - including Olivarez - take a low-key approach, Irvine duckwalks, chicken dances, yodels and day-o's his way into your heart.

Every Tuesday night at BLS, Irvine runs a veritable modern-maturity showcase, with the senior-heavy contingent of singers tackling such dusty standards as "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," "Filipino Baby," and the Chicago showstopper "Razzle Dazzle."

Irvine's own singing forte is '50s doo-wop, which he still performs weekly with a live band at Make My Day Lounge, but he says he turned to karaoke three years ago for purely practical reasons.

"In all honesty, karaoke pays better than working with a full, live band, because you split the money amongst four or five musicians, so you don't make all that much," Irvine says. "But whether it's a live band or karaoke, you still have up to three hours a day tearing down, setting up, moving equipment to each location to prepare for the next night. But karaoke is really about having fun."

Olivarez says that all successful karaoke DJs must possess three important skills: the abilities to sing, run the song machine, and mingle with the crowd. "If you can't sing yourself, it's hard, because there are some nights when it's really dead, and you've got to do it," he says. "As a matter of fact, last week it took an hour-and-a-half before my singers started showing up, so I was up there by myself singing, all that time."

An offshoot of the karaoke movement has been the growing popularity of barroom singalongs, in which piano players play popular favorites and encourage the audience to join in. Singalongs satisfy the same performance cravings as karaoke, but with a much lower risk of public humiliation.

Along the River Walk, at Howl at the Moon, outrageously big crowds turn out for these singalongs. Tommy Rodriguez has played piano at Howl since 1996, and he says his job is all about audience participation.

Russell Boyd leads a singalong at Howl at the Moon. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

"There's core songs to this job," Rodriguez says. "I have a 2-and-a-half year old daughter, and shortly after she was born, I recorded all of what I believe are about the 100 core songs, and I play them consistently through the day. 'Cause really, piano singalong is getting more and more popular and people who can do it well are getting less and less common. So it's really a good thing for pianists who have a good repertoire of songs.

According to Rodriguez, the core list includes oldies-radio perennials such as "Piano Man," "Brown Eyed Girl," "American Pie," "The Joker," "Johnny B. Goode," "I Will Survive," "Margaritaville," and "My Girl," but he's also used to quirkier requests like Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" or Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back."

Even at BLS, with its emphasis on pre-rock and country tunes, "Baby Got Back" rears its head, when eight girls in their early 20s share the mic for a raucous performance.

Irvine, ever the giddy showman, follows the performance with a joke that would make Henny Youngman wince: "By the way," he says with a laugh, "your daddy must have been a baker, 'cause you've all got nice buns."

The silence is deafening. Meanwhile, amateur singers hurriedly jot down their next song request. As Irvine knows, a karaoke DJ doesn't own the stage, he just keeps it warm for a while. •