Late on a weeknight it’s dark and loud in Percy’s Café Americana. A skinny, young white man mimics the smooth cries of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” like he just got off the bus from Motown, and every woman in the bar, young and old, is cheering him on. “With karaoke, everybody’s a rock star,” said Mark Ward, 22. After traipsing around the room with a wireless microphone and serenading a few strangers, he returns to a large table of his friends amid vigorous applause. “The thing with karaoke is everyone can do karaoke,” he said.
A singer in a local band, Ward’s no stranger to the stage. But for most weeknight wailers, the sound system at the bar is probably the closest they will ever come to their own concert. It’s music for the masses.
The first karaoke machine was purportedly the invention of a drummer in Kobe, Japan, who made a tape of his band’s instrumentals for a businessman who liked to sing along with the group. Hoping to bring the sing-along technology to more people, the drummer and his buddies began leasing 11 homemade tape players with microphones attached to local bars in 1971.
Amateur singing in Japan, and much of the world, has never been the same since.
Karaoke devotees speculate that the Japanese invention made its way to the Inland Northwest by the late 1980s or early 1990s.
It was about 17 years ago when an intoxicated young woman staggered up to Sammie Garrett’s band at a gig in Worley, Idaho.
“Would you let me sing ‘Crazy’?” the woman asked, referring to a classic Patsy Cline tune, “I know I can do it as good as anybody,” Garrett recalled.
Band members said no. If they let one person sing, they’d have to open it up for everybody.
“You know, drunk or sober, she probably could have knocked that song out as good as anybody,” Garrett said. From then on she vowed to never again turn down another music lover who wanted her turn in the spotlight.
“I knew there was talent out there. I knew there were beautiful people out there who would never make it in a big band,” she said
At 61, Garrett has brought the flashing stardom of karaoke to new singers ever since. She has a gig in Libby, Mont., this weekend.
“The best part of this business is the people who say, ‘No, I can’t sing. No, you can’t get me up there. No, you don’t have enough whiskey in the place.’ Those are the ones I love,” she said.
After she tells of getting turned down at 102 bars in Spokane before coming away with one of her first karaoke jobs, Garrett expounds on the art of making uneasy singers comfortable and keeping the regulars happy.
“It’s a tough business, but it’s a very beautiful business,” she said.
“Crazy” is still a hit at Bolo’s Bar and Grill where Washington State University student Amanda Jean Hawkins, 23, sings her rendition of the classic while couples move to the dance floor as though someone had simply turned on the jukebox.
“It’s definitely something I love a lot,” Hawkins said.
She began taking voice lessons at 9 years old and was in choirs through junior high and high school.
Nearby, Aaron Vincent, 24, sings “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies as the words fly by on the screen in front of him.
“I’m so in love with him right now,” said fiancée Kelly Cliber, 23.
Cliber plans to have karaoke at their wedding, although she said she hasn’t decided what to sing yet.
Karaoke can bring families together. Garrett is a case in point.
Praying to God as she raised her kids, she said, “I asked, please give me one out of those five who will love music.”
She got her wish. Son Phil Johnston has been in the karaoke business for 10 years after many nights of watching his mom in action.
“It gives you something better to do than just sit and drink,” Johnston said recently at Brewskis Pub and Grub on Trent Avenue.
“You get to sit and drink and make fun of people.”
Lately, Johnston has passed his karaoke knowledge on to his nephew, Jeff Crump, who is learning how to work the mike and navigate their 80,000-song collection.
“I’m just here to relieve him so he can go camping,” Crump said. “I have a blast.”
Competition among karaoke hosts is fierce, Johnston said. A quality KJ keeps the patrons coming back, though, and that’s good for business at local watering holes.
“You can drive down Sprague and see every bar has karaoke at least once a week,” he said.
Americans spent about $12 billion on music in all its formats last year, and most people listen to at least one genre.
Karaoke regulars said it takes confidence to bear one’s passion for a certain song onstage, but doing so can liven up a bad day or just add more fun to an already wild night.
“You do it once, you’re hooked. It’s like crack” said Jeremiah Buckles, a singer-turned-part-time KJ at Bolo’s for Dr. Soundgood Karaoke.
“People ask me ‘doesn’t it get old?’ ” he said. “No, because every week is a different experience.”