That's Me in the Spotlight
By Ron Donoho
“It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday...” and I’m sitting in a long, narrow sing-along piano bar at Kelly’s Steak House in Mission Valley.
“The regular crowd shuffles in...” to hear Paul Gregg, whose ivory tickling provides the only perceptible wattage in the dimly lit room.
“There’s an old man sitting next to me...”
wearing Bavarian lederhosen.
“Making love to his tonic and gin...” Filling a Naugahyde stool, this burly gentleman decides to celebrate Oktoberfest by crooning Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
“And the piano sounds like a carnival...” So now a red-coiffed ex-burlesque dancer—she’s legally deaf—shimmies off her stool.
“And the microphone smells like a beer...”
while she pours herself into the bouncy, burlesque ditty “Once I Had a Man.”
Sedately watching Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” lyrics come to life night after night is 96-year-old Hazel Hays. A Kelly’s fixture, Hays contentedly sips champagne cocktails and smokes her exotic cigarettes. Warning to interlopers: Don’t attempt to occupy “her” barstool.
A few miles—and a couple of generations—away, the Lamplighter bar in Mission Hills packs ’em in for karaoke night. Clad in a leather bomber jacket and black tights, Valerie Baez climbs onstage. A few male patrons whistle their approval. Rivulets of raven hair dangle in her face as she belts out “You Oughta Know” (she’s cloned the angry Alanis Morissette look and sound).
After Baez, the talent pool thins. Bryan Adams’ “Really Love a Woman” is worked over by a stocky stud who vaguely resembles Tom Jones but sings like Howie Mandel. A Doors classic is mangled. An obviously inebriated couple stumbles through “The Christmas Song”—never mind that Halloween is still weeks away. Self-proclaimed in-house critic Mike Touch looks around restlessly from his roost at the bar. “I hate it when [singers] have the attitude but not the ability,” he grumbles.
Welcome to the worlds of nonprofessional public singing.
Who are these people? They’re secretaries. Lawyers. Psychiatrists. Massage therapists. If aging athletes fade to weekend warrior status, then stifled singers evolve into piano-bar princesses. And karaoke kings. Many frequent these amateur-hour showcases seeking attention and applause missing from a workaday existence. Deep down, the better singers fantasize about what might have been. Others are just looking for a good time. Or a mental release.
Cindy Sada is a travel agent by day. Three or four nights a week she becomes a karaoke diva. On this particular evening at the Lamplighter, she reels off throaty renditions of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” Sada is one of the better singers; people actually dance while she performs. “I’ve got karaoke fever,” she says. “I used to do this every night—now I’ve cut down some. But I really believe singing in public is like therapy. It’s therapy for your soul.”
In a sense, Paul Gregg is a piano therapist. “Yeah, I get to know the people who are regulars at Kelly’s. And I get to know what’s going on in their lives.” There are those Gregg doesn’t know by name; rather, he associates them with the songs they sing over and over—like the bartender who knows what his regulars drink.
A sometime player in a small band, Gregg moved to San Diego from Phoenix in 1974. He’s worked on and off at Kelly’s—mostly on—since 1983. Attired in a pressed shirt, gray V-neck sweater vest and red tie, Gregg paints on his show-biz smile six nights a week.
A microphone—which is passed from singer to singer—rests on the semicircular, green-trimmed table in front of Gregg’s piano. Mixed drinks—a Manhattan here, Scotch and rocks there —dot the table. As if in conference, eight men and women lean forward over their drinks; there is much consultation with Gregg between tunes. A couple on the right chats briefly with him. Then Gregg ends the brief intermission with his own version of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”
Most who take up the mike at Kelly’s are above-average singers. I’m especially impressed by the pipes on Lederhosen Man. His Elvis tribute receives a resounding ovation. But think about it: How would you react to a guy out in public wearing a suspenders-and-leather-shorts combo and singing like The King? Here, nobody laughs or even appears to be smothering a snicker.
Gregg fears that the local scene is on a downward popularity spiral. If there were more than two dozen thriving piano bars in San Diego in the mid-1980s, there are now half as many. The crowds diminished alongside the rise of karaoke, which plays more to the Zeitgeist of younger rock-and-roll enthusiasts.
The Red Fox Room is an anomaly, however, drawing young and old. This piano lounge in North Park is how the set would look if Pulp Fiction became a sitcom. Under a low-lying smoky haze, white-haired Shirley Allen sits behind the piano. A Virginia Slim dangles from her lips. “You don’t have to smoke a pack a day for three decades to have a voice like mine,” she notes to no one in particular. “But it helps.”
Smoky-voiced Allen is accompanied on several songs by instrumentalist David Shaw, who exudes Harvey Keitel sangfroid. His detached cool makes him a natural for the above-mentioned, Fox Network–bound Pulp Fiction: The Series. Just when you’re impressed that Shaw plays saxophone and trumpet, he whips out a clarinet. No, really.
Shaw and Allen are surrounded by a predictable coterie of gray-haired singers-in-waiting. But hold on to your Geritol. Filing through the door is a pack of female twentysomethings. One is striking in a red, form-fitting geisha dress. Retro chic. Across the cloudy bar, a young Romeo—granted, Shakespeare’s character had neither nose ring nor two-toned locks—checks out the new talent. Meanwhile, a bald octogenarian with graying goatee performs “I Get a Kick Out of You” (Cole Porter, circa 1934).
“Especially on Saturday nights, we get a mix with the college kids,” says Red Fox manager Paul DeLisle. “We used to have just old folks, but the college boys seem to like Shirley and David.”
The Red Fox Room shows that we can all just get along. But a great deal of animosity exists between piano-bar and karaoke enthusiasts. “Karaoke is for people who don’t know the words,” claims Sherry Denton, a Kelly’s regular by night and executive secretary by day.
Frank Adams, whose So-Cal Sings company provides karaoke equipment and deejays for parties and local bars, disagrees. “Piano bars are great if you’re 80 years old. The best thing about karaoke is that you’re being backed by the original music. It’s a better overall feeling.”
For the uninitiated, karaoke is an abbreviated Japanese compound word. Roughly translated, it means “empty orchestra.” It’s widely held that karaoke was born in Japan 20 years ago at a Ko_be snack bar. When a regularly performing guitarist fell ill, the owner of the bar prepared tapes of accompaniment recordings. Sushi snackers sang along to the tapes.
High-tech stepped in and karaoke spread throughout Japan, eventually finding its way to the United States. Adams says the craze was at its pinnacle here in 1989. “At one time there may have been about a hundred places in San Diego where you could sing karaoke,” says Adams. He thinks that number is slightly down now, but sees a karaoke comeback on the horizon.
Adams spots many familiar faces in the crowd at the Lamplighter. Indeed, the karaoke circuit can be a cult of personalities. He chats with Alanis lookalike Valerie Baez and Cindy Sada, the James Brown– diggin’, hardest-workin’ travel agent in show business. Then, chewing on a wad of gum, Adams takes the stage. The lyrics of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man” flash onto a small, onstage monitor for Adams. He sings —and chews—with great confidence as the words also appear on a large-screen television. (This feature is quite informative. I didn’t know, for instance, that “Sex Machine” contains the lyrics: “Taste. A piano. Taste. A piano.”)
Clearly, the Lamplighter hosts an eclectic musical smorgasbord. Sandwiched between a bad rendering of Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and a passable attempt at Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” is zookeeper Steve Friedlund. My man Friedlund is a handler of large mammals at the San Diego Zoo. With receding hairline, mustache and glasses, he appears a less urbane version of sportscaster Pat O’Brien. Friedlund sings “The Highwayman,” an old country-western standard recorded by Glen Campbell. It’s doubtful the song was meant to be performed amidst multicolored, dancing strobe and laser lights. But Friedlund seems oblivious to the obnoxious staging. His vocal effort is better than some; not as good as others. For him, the achievement is in the effort.
“I sing on the job,” he admits, though his critics at work are fairly nonjudgmental large mammals. “I guess I’m really shy overall. But it’s a lot of fun to come here and do this, and to hear the applause.”
Motivated now—in part by the singing zoo man—I make a beeline to Harbor Island. To critique any activity, better to have firsthand knowledge. Don Hatch is hosting a karaoke night at the Travelodge’s Waterfront Club. The crowd seems to be mostly hotel guests. Tourists. Very off-key visitors to our city. This is perfect: fellow tin ears—and a group with little chance of ever seeing me again.
When Don Hatch plays the “Macarena,” I consider leaving. Instead, I make for the bar and order a shot of Cuervo Gold. The warm tequila is emboldening. So is listening to someone else butchering “I Think I Love You.” Yes, that Partridge Family golden oldie.
No need to elaborate on my choice of “After the Lovin’” by Engelbert Humperdinck. Suffice to say, I’ve always been intrigued by young Arnold Dorsey’s decision to adopt that bizarre stage name. In review, my performance reminds me of something I heard Shirley Allen grumble about one Red Fox Room singer: “I don’t know why that guy can’t stay in one key.”
I’ve retired—but the shows go on. And that’s just fine with the matron of piano bars. Hazel Hays—born in 1900—has been frequenting Kelly’s and other local lounges for more than half a century. She hardly ever sings anymore; she just enjoys the company. When I ask her how she’s put up with 50+ years of listening to amateur warbling, she is succinct: “Everybody’s pretty nice. And it’s better than staying home watching TV.”
Hmmm. Karaoke or The Jerry Springer Show. Piano bars or The Nanny. If you put it that way ... save me a stool, Hazel.