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Karaoke Addicts

By Jim Beckerman

Birthdays are one of the few occasions when the average person sings in public.

In the karaoke world, where everyone sings all the time, the ante had to be upped. That's why Sarah Savoye of Hackensack, who is celebrating her birthday at the Monday karaoke night at the Old Time Sizzlin' Steak House, is nervous.

No simple "Happy Birthday to You" in this place. No, Sarah is going to have to sing a song chosen on the spot from Disc 25 (because it's her 25th birthday) and selected at random by the audience. Kamikaze karaoke, it's called.

In the audience, people begin shouting track numbers. "13!" "17!" "3!" "12!"

She's in luck. It turns out to be No. 12, "Theme From Love Story." Gamely, Sarah takes the microphone, watches the lyrics as they appear line by line on a big TV screen, and begins to warble.

"Where do I begin, to tell the story of how great a love can be ..."

The crowd at the Hackensack eatery cheers, whistles, and encourages her -- even joining in at times.

"She fills my heart ..." they sing in giddy chorus.

Ready or not, here comes karaoke -- again.

This huge subculture of amateur entertainers, who add their voices onto other people's hits with the aid of expensive sound systems, had been waning a bit, says John H. Corby, manager of The Karaoke Store and More in Elmwood Park.

Now it's back, and how. "It was extremely popular six or seven years ago, then it went down a little bit, and now it's had a resurgence," Corby says.

It's even become the subject of a big-budget Hollywood movie, "Duets," starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Huey Lewis, and Andre Braugher, which opened Friday.

"I think it will give the karaoke scene a bit of a boost, " says Sue Fox of Hackensack, who hosted the Monday night show, produced by Sing Sing Karaoke, the service arm of the Karaoke Store.

"I think ['Duets'] might prompt people to go to a karaoke show and check it out," Fox says.

For rock star Lewis, "Duets" was an eye-opener.

His own music is popular in karaoke circles: The Sing Sing songbook lists 10 Huey Lewis and the News songs among its 5,000 titles, including "Heart of Rock 'n' Roll," "This is IT," and "The Power of Love."

Yet Lewis himself never explored this musical underground until he was tapped to play the character of Ricky Dean, the karaoke hustler who suckers people into betting against him and then blows them away at the microphone.

"I sort of pooh-poohed karaoke for a long time," says Lewis, who did a little field research by going into a karaoke bar in Vancouver, where "Duets" was shot.

What he saw knocked him for a loop. "I was amazed," he said. "It had more to do with singing than making a record. When you make a record you can do it line by line, and sweeten it with effects. But in karaoke, you only have one shot at it. You can really tell in a karaoke bar who can sing and who can't. It would be interesting to see the top 20 singers sing in a karaoke bar."

Contrary to the stereotype of the no-talent ham croaking "Three Times a Lady" in the wrong key, most of the people who sing karaoke in the thousands of bars, restaurants, and clubs across the nation are pretty good at it.

Some are very, very good.

Which is no surprise, given the amount of time they put in. Hard-core karaoke fiends sometimes do it five or six nights a week, following their favorite "KJ's" -- Karaoke deejays that is -- around a whole circuit of clubs.

Many practice at home on their own karaoke systems -- an increasingly popular item, according to Corby.

"For three years, I've done karaoke at least once a week, sometimes twice," says Tom Evans of Paterson. "I go to six or seven clubs in North Jersey. I guess that's my biggest kick, to karoake sing when I go out."

Karaoke buffs are drawn not only by the love of singing, but by the atmosphere of the karaoke nights. More than one Monday night regular at Sizzlin' Steakhouse described the club as their "Cheers."

"You come, you sing, you have a good time," says Joey Pedulla of Wallington, who was doing a bit of Beach Boys harmonizing with Dave Goetz and Dave Fiduccia, both of Lodi. The Little Italy Boys, they call themselves.

"It's always the same crowd," Pedulla says. "There are people who are bad, but nobody boos anybody."

Legend has it that karaoke was born around 1980, when a resourceful Japanese bar owner, faced with a no-show guitarist, played tapes of instrumental music -- to which the bar patrons began to sing along. The term itself comes from two Japanese words: "karappo," meaning "empty," and "okesutura," meaning orchestra. Karaoke means "empty orchestra," just as "karate" means "empty hand."

Leave it to Americans to give karaoke a new twist.

The Japanese sang the songs, more or less anonymously, from their seats, with all eyes turned to a "mood" video played in the front of the restaurant.

In fame-obsessed America, however, the spotlight was on the performer, not the song. Thus was born the "KJ," the Dick Clark of the karaoke world, whose job was to give young hopefuls their three minutes in the spotlight.

"Everybody loves to show off, everybody wants to have their three minutes of fame," says Rich Pashman, who co-owns The Karaoke Store and More with Chuck Caccioli.

The company, which stages shows seven days a week in 25 bars, has 15 KJs on tap, as well as a full line of karaoke equipment for rent ($125 to $175) and for sale ($289 to $3000). Not to mention custom discs with all the biggest song hits of the last 50 years -- from "ABC" by the Jackson Five to "Zoot Suit Riot" by Cherry Poppin' Daddies -- minus the singing, of course.

And for that matter, minus the original musicians: For legal reasons, karaoke versions of song hits are always copycat versions using session players. "These are not the original recordings -- they're always reproduced," Pashman says.

Not that it matters to the crowd at the Sizzlin' Steakhouse, which is cheering Savoye as she sings "Suddenly Seymour," a "Little Shop of Horrors" duet, with Goetz.

"The compliments are nice," Savoye says. "When people I've never met before say, 'that was really beautiful,' that's great."

Savoye, a Ramapo College student, stumbled onto the karaoke scene seven years ago, when she and some friends ended up at a karaoke night in a Lodi bar. From that point on, she was hooked.

"I'll never forget the first song I sang," Savoye says."My friend dared me to get up with him and sing 'La Bamba.' He tricked me. He didn't sing a word of it. I got stuck singing the whole song."

Funny how karaoke seems to turn people into practical jokers.

In Vancouver, friends put Huey Lewis' name down on a sign-up sheet. The song? "Stuck With You" by Huey Lewis.

"I sounded just like the guy," Lewis says.

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