Joe Fedl sees it all. The twangy cowgirl, the drunk college guy, the smooth Madonna wannabe.
Some dance while they sing. Some sound like pros. Some, though, are really bad.
Fedl knows the Columbia karaoke scene like few others. He’s been working it for five years as a karaoke jockey.
The weeknight get-togethers Fedl sparks serve almost as reunions. People of all sorts gather under stage lights and around microphone stands to sing to cheering crowds and adoring fans. Suddenly, they’re rock ’n’ roll or country stars, if only for a night.
The dictionary defines karaoke as the practice of singing popular songs to recorded music. But for some participants, it’s a lifestyle. Karaoke creates a distinct culture and a cohesive community. What began in Japan as a musical phenomenon has translated into a karaoke culture that extends to a host of bars and restaurants in Columbia.
It’s a Wednesday night at Buffalo Wild Wings on Nifong Boulevard. The crowd is young, the seats full. Fedl chats with patrons before two guys, not quite sober, start the night by singing “Eye of the Tiger.” They manage to mumble only a third of the words, but the crowd is undeterred.
Next up is Patty Lager, who has a local band named The Code. She nails “You Really Got Me,” by The Kinks.
“There are some good people, and there are some people where I try not to listen,” Lager says with a smile.
A few songs later, Fedl takes a turn at the microphone, singing The Grass Roots’ “Temptation Eyes.” It’s clear he’s been doing this awhile. Because he is older than nearly all his patrons, he calls everyone “kids.”
As more singers step up to share their voices, it’s clear that most will want to keep their day jobs. Then Robin Donovan takes the mic to sing a rousing version of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Heads bob and hands sway. This woman can sing.
“When I hit a note that sounds like Madonna, that’s the best part,” Donovan says. She has done karaoke roughly 10 times. “Like a Prayer” is her song of choice.
“I did the Beatles once, but that was a mistake,” she says.
Fedl works three venues in Columbia: Buffalo Wild Wings, the Bear’s Breath Bar & Grill, and Legends.
Running a karaoke operation involves more than people skills. Fedl offers 5,600 songs and just added 14 new CDs. He has $17,000 in music equipment that he spends hours setting up and taking down.
“I was singing a little bit of karaoke, and I wanted to do a band, but it didn’t work out. So I decided to get into the business,” Fedl says.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of karaoke is the crowds it attracts. Groups of karaoke regulars frequent the bars and restaurants that offer the chance to sing in public, several business owners say.
“We get pretty busy on Wednesday nights, just for karaoke,” says Josh Karch, manager of Buffalo Wild Wings. “We have a few customers that come in on Wednesdays that wouldn’t normally come.”
Karaoke can also be the catalyst for forming new friendships.
“The sad part is I build relationships with some college students, and they come in and say they are leaving the next week,” Fedl says. “That’s the real negative side of the business.”
Now it’s Tuesday night, and Fedl is preparing for a night of karaoke at The Bear’s Breath on Business Loop 70. The owners recently changed karaoke night from Mondays to Tuesdays to attract more customers.
Jessi Lupo, a bartender who’s off-duty for the night, smiles and tells Joe she came in just for him. Then she asks if he will help her with a duet later in the night. He agrees.
“I can’t sing, but I love karaoke,” Lupo says. “I don’t do it for talent; I do it for fun.”
Lupo loosens the small crowd by singing and dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
“How was that, really?” she asks Fedl as she walks off the stage.
“I’m not answering that,” he says with a laugh.
The Bear’s Breath has a different feel than Buffalo Wild Wings. It’s a much smaller venue with only 20 people in the bar. The bartender steps from her post to sing Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine.” Another man hops on stage to croon Chris Cagle’s emotional “Breath In, Breath Out.”
Fedl is fascinated by the songs people select.
“What I find interesting is, they will come up here and sing a lot of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s and ’80s music; country and rock. But when they are out and they go to parties, they listen to rap and hip-hop,” he says.
From Alan Jackson to the Jackson 5, Fedl’s song book contains hundreds of artists from the past 50 years. He has Alabama, Shaggy, Alicia Keys and the Velvets. He has 16 pages of Elvis.
Karaoke attracts people of every age and walk of life. The Bear’s Breath attracts an older crowd, but the karaoke crowd leans more toward people in their 20s.
Claudia McNeely and her boyfriend, both far beyond their college years, come mainly to hear the music.
“I just come to get out of the house,” she says.
McNeely points out several good singers in the tavern and a host of people she has seen at other karaoke joints. It’s like a small town: Everyone seems to know everyone.
For many business owners, karaoke is an inexpensive way to boost business. It’s popular, it’s usually cheaper than a live band, and it’s something that can be done on a regular schedule.
“It’s a great way to advertise your bar,” Bear’s Breath owner Art Williams says. “It’s a great tool because people hear you have karaoke and come to your bar.”
Despite his passion for karaoke, Fedl knows it’s a business.
“Some of the bars I work, I know the nights we do karaoke are some of the busiest nights of the week,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how I feel. If the owners are happy, I’m happy.”
But there are limits. Many karaoke jockeys promote drinking on stage, offer toasts, announce drink specials and allow people to say whatever they want. Not Joe.
“I’ve got a policy: What they say at the table is the bar’s business; what they say over the microphone is my business,” he says.
A young, chatty group full of regulars fills Legends on Nifong Boulevard on a recent Thursday night. About 60 people crowd into the bar to eat, to play pool and, of course, to sing. Everyone at Legends seems to know Joe; he’s one of the gang.
“We’ve been coming here a while, so Joe started saving our songs so we wouldn’t have to write them down,” Jeromy Roberts says.
A dozen college students sit at a nearby table. These are regulars, too. Cheers go up around the table when they’re asked whether they know Fedl.
“If I had to be anyone in 30 years, I’d be Joe,” Matt Telthorst quips.
Fedl likes the young, hip atmosphere of Legends.
“The kids relate to this place more,” he says. “It’s a little family.”
As 1 a.m. rolls around, Fedl nears the end of a long day. But by the time he takes down his equipment, drives home and gets to bed, it will be 2:30 a.m. Then he’s up at 7:30 for his day job selling business forms. In the afternoon, he’ll set up his equipment elsewhere and brace for another four hours of music.
In many ways, karaoke is not what one expects. It’s not just a bunch of amateur folks mindlessly missing notes while wailing country tunes. It’s just not a drunken honky-tonk. And it’s not the local version of “American Idol.” It’s really a community of friends.
At Buffalo Wild Wings, one of the most unusual acts was a mother-daughter duet. The daughter, Amy Michaels, was celebrating her 21st birthday by singing with her mom, who traveled from Washington state to join her.
Their song — the Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone” — carried a message that goes to the heart of the karaoke sensation:
“Now me, I went to Nashville,
Tryin’ to be the big deal,
Playin’ down on Broadway,
Gettin’ there the hard way,
Living from a tip jar,
Sleeping in my car,
Hocking my guitar,
Yeah, I’m gonna be a star.”
In the world of karaoke, everyone gets to be a star.
If only for a night.