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Confessions of a KJ


When people get up on stage to sing karaoke, they'll often do more than just sing.

They'll strip to the song, "You Can Leave Your Hat On."

Sob to "Wind Beneath My Wings."

Propose to girlfriends during "Just the Two of Us."

They'll spontaneously scream, dance, drop the microphone or drop their pants.

And none of it shocks local karaoke jocks, or KJs, as they're known. To them, the antics that occur inside suburban bars and restaurants on karaoke night are just another day at the office.

The nights start out innocently enough. People pick out a song they like from a list of thousands and then get up on stage to sing it. The instrumental version of the song plays in the background and the lyrics appear on a TV screen.

But as the night wears on and drink glasses empty, inhibitions disappear. The singing gets louder. The crowd gets rowdier. Decency goes out the window. And all of a sudden, a quiet Wednesday night in Wheeling resembles spring break in Cancun.

Amy Randall, 30, a KJ at Randall Road Pub in Batavia, said it's not unusual for people to take off clothing on stage, make sexually suggestive poses, or drunkenly fall off tables or chairs while they're singing.

"I remember there was a straight-laced, really masculine guy that used to put on his best friend's wife's neglige and sing 'Dancing Queen.' It was weird," said Randall, who works full-time as a sixth- grade teacher in North Aurora.

Willie Townes, Randall's fiance, is also a KJ known as "Wonderful Willie" (he has a knack for getting his singers to display their derrieres on stage).

Townes hosts karaoke night at Two Rivers in Naperville where the motto is: "Everyone Sings and No One Gets Hurt."

"It's funniest when people get drunk and they think they're singing good, and they're not," he said. "Everyone wants to get discovered doing karaoke. But I tell them, they're not looking for you. A guy who gets out of his record (company) office is not coming to a karaoke bar looking for talent."

Karaoke is not always lewd and crude. Sometimes it's just people acting silly and laughing at themselves or their friends.

The form of entertainment is wildly popular - KJs are hired for everything from retirement parties to kiddie birthday parties - and most suburban bars feature karaoke nights at least once a week.

"You sing in the car and you sound like Barbra Streisand, don't you? It's living out a fantasy for a few minutes and you have fun with it," said KJ Leroy Finn of Prospect Heights, who works for Regent Entertainment. "Even when people sing terrible, I tell them, 'It wasn't so bad. You just need a little work.' "

Finn, who works at Rocky Vander's in Prospect Heights, Floyds in Carpentersville, Timbuktu in Palatine and Gator's Pub & Grill in Wheeling, said he's seen people visibly shake and sweat with nervousness when they get up on stage.

"People will grab me and say, 'Don't go anywhere!' So I'll stand up there with them while they sing," he said. "It is fun. I laugh all night long, and really have fun with the people."

Most bars have karaoke regulars. At Grand Mandarin in Lisle, talented Asian singers take the stage each karaoke night, including a man known as "The Frank Sinatra of Taiwan."

A KJ's job involves more than just playing songs. KJs are also bouncers, matchmakers, comedians, psychiatrists and singers (usually when no one wants to be the first person on stage).

Their job satisfaction is seeing people have fun - and receiving big tips.

"If someone says, I'll give you $20 to be next, then he's next," said Finn, laughing.

While KJs brag that "they get paid to party," the job does have a few drawbacks. Hearing the same songs night after night is one of them.

Most KJs will tell you they'd happily live the rest of their lives without hearing the song "Summer Night" by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta ever again.

Then there are the songs that no one sings well, like "I Will Always Love You," by Whitney Houston, which KJs will try to talk people out of choosing.

"They'll say, 'But I can sing it really well,' " said Townes.

In his four years as a KJ, Finn said he's only seen about six people with star-quality voices.

KJs must also put up with obstinate people and self-proclaimed "sound experts."

"Good singers are a pain because they want to sing all night long," said Finn. "I'd rather have people sing so-so and have a good time. That's the best."

Townes left a good job with a recording studio to become a KJ with Open Mike Entertainment, in part because it paid better.

"It's a fun job," he said. "It's hard work sometimes, but it can be good, clean fun."

Most requested songs:

  • "Build Me Up Buttercup," by The Foundations

  • "My Heart Will Go On," by Celine Dion.
  • "Friends in Low Places," by Garth Brooks
  • "I Will Survive," by Gloria Gaynor (usually sung by a large group of girls. A favorite among women in general, along with "Goodbye Earl," by Dixie Chicks)
  • "My Way," by Frank Sinatra
  • "Summer Nights," by Olivia Newton John and John Travolta.
  • "Strokin," by Clarence Carter
  • "Love Shack," by the B-52s
  • Anything by Shania Twain

Songs KJs wish you wouldn't request:

  • "Livin' La Vida Loca," by Ricky Martin (if you're not gorgeous and Latino, it just isn't the same)

  • "I Will Always Love You," by Whitney Houston (too many high notes)
  • "Love Shack," by the B-52s (it's not really singing)
  • anything by The Doors (people don't sing these songs, they scream them).
  • "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights," by Meatloaf (it's 9 minutes long)
  • "American Pie" (it's 8 1/2 minutes long. But it's a good song if the KJ needs to use the bathroom or load up his car)
  • "My Way," by Frank Sintra (it's usually sung off key)
  • Anything by Sinatra or Elvis (it's people trying to be funny by imitating them, "it's just horrible.")
  • "Hero" by Mariah Carey ("Not popular with the drunks" because it's so mellow. A difficult song for the crowd to sing along to).

Taken from an article found in The Daily Herald

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