The Karaoke Kraze

The passionate, the shy - vocalists both semitalented and otherwise - act out their fantasy to be singing stars on the stages of cabaret clubs and lounges

IT'S booming in Los Angeles. It's on the rise in New York. And flying in the face of New England conservatism, it's hit the town of Worcester, Mass. - not exactly entertainment mecca of the Northeast. They call it karaoke (``kah rah OH kay'') a form of sing-along that's electrifying night clubs and restaurants across the United States - and making its way into homes as well. As Richard Forte, co-owner of Pippins restaurant here, says, ``We're the hottest place in town right now.''

Cheryl Berthiaume, an elementary school teacher, steps up to the microphone in the lounge at Pippins and launches into ``My Mammy,'' an Al Jolson tune from the '20s. As recorded music plays, television screens project a MTV-style video with the lyrics of the song flashing below.

By the last verse, Mrs. Berthiaume, sensing she's on a roll, shimmies her shoulders and sinks to her knees with one arm stretched out imploringly. ``I'd walk a million miles, for one of your smiles ... My Maaaaaammy!!'' The crowd whoops with approval.

Back at her table, a beaming Mrs. Berthiaume says, ``It's like it's my song!''

Ah, the chance to be a star. Everybody's secret desire. The kind of fantasy that's got people young and old, semi-talented and otherwise, lining up to do karaoke - a singing craze that swept Japan during the last decade and is now entering mainstream America.

Songs ranging from rap tunes to Madonna's latest hit to ``Alexander's Ragtime Band'' have their vocal parts stripped from them, leaving the bare instrumental accompaniment for would-be crooners to make their own.

``My heart was really pounding,'' says Bob Haddad, a car salesman who had just finished singing an off-key but convincingly macho version of ``Mack the Knife.'' As he returned to his table, audience members greeted him with high-fives. ``Once you're up there, it's good - you feel good,'' Mr. Haddad says.

The Japanese word ``karaoke'' means roughly ``empty orchestra'' and harks back to the earlier concept of ``Music Minus One'' (MMO), in which an instrumental part, such as a bass line, is deleted from an orchestral recording, allowing bass players to practice their part in context. MMO Music Group, the US company that invented MMO back in the 1950s, made a sing-along format, too, but it never became popular.

The Japanese, however, latched on to the idea in the late '70s and since then, karaoke has been the trendiest way for Japanese businessmen to entertain their colleagues after work. People there are buying the equipment for home use, too. Some 400,000 commercial establishments and over 7 million homes in Japan have karaoke, estimates Jake Ramirez, assistant marketing manager for Pioneer Laser Entertainment Inc. in Long Beach, Calif., one of a burgeoning number of companies producing karaoke ``singing mac hines,'' special stereo or laser disc systems with microphones attached.

In the US, ``this is the year it seems to taking off,'' says Ernie Taylor, president of The Singing Store, in Van Nuys, Calif., a retail outlet that sells all manner of karaoke equipment for both commercial and home use. The national dealer base of his related wholesale company, Trax Distributors, has grown from 300 to 600 musical instrument stores in the last year, he says.

At The Singing Store, you can buy a hand-held karaoke unit for under $80, a cassette-style recorder between $100 and $200, or a top-of-the-line Megastar karaoke system ($976) with ``digital echo'' for that singing-in-the-shower effect. Other formats include compact-disc karaoke players with computer graphics, and laser disc systems with moving video images.

``There's something interesting about singing - it's fun to do even if you're bad,'' says David Kratka, vice-president of MMO Music Group in Irvington, N.Y. His firm produces over 4,500 ``Pocket Songs'' titles on cassettes and CDs that allow you to remove the vocals by adjusting the balance level. Hits by Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, and Frank Sinatra are customer favorites. ``People enjoy watching other people try to sing ... and with a sing-along tape and a professional background, even a bad sing er sounds better,'' he says.

Mr. Kratka attributes American interest in karaoke to the growing club and restaurant activity and the rising number of karaoke machine manufacturers, of which there are about 20 so far, he estimates. Some are beginning to sell their wares through mass-merchant chains like Wal-Mart, Venture, Lechmere, and Caldor.

``My business has more than doubled every year for the last four years,'' adds Kratka. He says he expects 1991 to be ``the biggest growth year for the whole [karaoke] industry yet.''

That's not hard to believe, judging from the enthusiastic crowd at Pippins. At each table is a booklet listing hundreds of song titles to choose from. Pick your song, sign your name on a list, and wait to be called. This particular evening, karaoke singing began at 9:00 p.m., and by 10:15 there was an hour-long wait to sing.

Audience favorite Ralph Maher, a 64-year-old traveling salesman from southern California, poured on the schmaltz with ``And I Love You So,'' originally by Perry Como. Unlike some singers that night, he was completely at ease, oozing romance as he cuddled the microphone and shut his eyes on the high notes.

``People who are fat, relatively ugly, or bald can come to these places and really have an opportunity to express who they are, and then go back to their humdrum lives,'' says Mr. Maher, who says he has ``an unbelievable repertoire.'' He searches out piano bars in every town he visits.

Sing-along entertainment ``has been around a long time in this country, but now it has a whole new meaning,'' Maher says, referring to Pippins' video screens, the souped-up microphones, and the huge song list to choose from. ``I see people who normally wouldn't open their mouths, and they become divas.''

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