Bayou City

Meet the Karaoke Superstars of Houston, Vol. 1

“Nikia…calling Nikia to the stage, you’re up next.”

We were at Christian’s Tailgate’s downtown location on a Friday night in Houston, a city abundant with first-rate music options. Jordan Donald and Lyric Michelle, two of this city’s most promising professional musicians, were playing a joint set at House of Blues. Guitar-slinger Ian Moore was in from Austin, wailin’ away at Fitzgerald’s. Houston’s own Omotai was grinding it out at Rudyard’s. But, this night, we chose to listen to Nikia, who brought the house down with her cover of the 4 Non Blondes classic “What’s Up?”

Nikia isn’t the latest pop star going by one cool name (yet). She’s a personal trainer who just happens to have a strong, attention-grabbing voice. She was sharing it with others at Christian’s as part of its routine karaoke offerings.

Modern karaoke — music tracks sans vocals and lyrics flashing on monitors for amateur singers — is only a few years away from its 50th anniversary. As a form of interactive entertainment, its popularity hasn’t waned over time. Today, it’s showcased in pop culture thanks to James Corden’s "Carpool Karaoke" bits. It’s a $10 billion global industry. And, of course, it’s a staple in bars and nightclubs everywhere, including Houston.

Karaoke is about more than having a fun night out. When Nikia was done with her turn at the mike, we asked her and then many of her fellow karaoke singers why they love the activity. Here’s what some of Houston’s karaoke superstars had to share. In true karaoke fashion, we decided to keep things on an informal, first-name basis:

Bobbi and Russell are friends and frequent visitors to karaoke nights at the Cozy Corner in southwest Houston. He’d just finished “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” and she was about to sing Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s” when we cornered them for a chat. They’ve each been singing karaoke about five years, they shared, mostly because they love to sing and have fine voices. They each found karaoke was useful to them outside of the bar, too.

“It was like a group singing thing and then I got the courage to do it on my own. A lot of people do it in groups first and then get enough confidence to do it on their own,” Bobbi said. That confidence carried over into real-life when she was asked to speak at a function for work.

“I had to talk in front of about a thousand people one day and it was like, ‘Okay, I can do it,’ and I did it. It was an accomplishment and it was because I’d done (karaoke),” she shared.

Not surprisingly, “I Will Survive,” was Bobbi’s first solo song in a karaoke bar. For Russell, it was classic country and western, Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is still his go-to song.

“You can sing in your car and you always sound good in your car. But it’s the freedom of going up in front of a bunch of people and being yourself, no matter what it sounds like, because a lot of people are just impressed that you have the self-confidence to go up there and sing,” Russell said. “I’ve had bad days and I can usually come in here and do karaoke and it cheers me right up.”

Bobbi admitted karaoke is a bit addictive; Russell said his work takes him across the country, and Houston’s karaoke scene is one of the nation's best. 

They’ve been singing at their neighborhood bar long enough to have a following, too, they shared.

“When we walk in here, people know who we are and that kinda of feels good. It’s like that whole Cheers thing,” Russell said.

And on cue they broke into song, the “where everybody knows your name” line from the TV show’s theme song, followed by high laughter that left us feeling we’d set ourselves up for that one.

Bonnie is a grade-school teacher and Meg is finishing her Masters in education. If those are viewed as mild-mannered pursuits, the duo was anything but when we caught them at Christian’s. They were so focused on their song of choice, Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams,” that they actually delivered the song’s remix — complete with Lil Wayne’s and Nicki Minaj’s “No Ceilings” – to a stunned crowd.

“We’re friends and we started singing together like a couple of weeks ago,” Bonnie said, and Meg jumped right in as if delivering the next line on the video prompter with, “She’s got the vocals down and I like to rap.”

And rap she did. The lyrics weren’t on the video monitor because the karaoke track wasn’t designed as a remix. Bonnie and Meg did that all on their own.

“I think going to a bar is fine but going to a bar where there’s something going on – whether it’s karaoke or, we got to ‘Singo,’ which is like Bingo with music – if there’s something going on at the bar, you have more fun," Bonnie said. “I just think it’s more fun to people watch if there’s something going on.”

Do Houstonian’s karaoke on Sunday nights? We went to see who was closing the weekend by singing for strangers and met Mike at Spotlight Karaoke on Westheimer. On Monday morning, he’d be back on the job as an insurance broker, but not before he sang. The crowd wasn’t as dense as it might be on Friday or Saturday, but Mike still expected a lot of himself.

“I do it pretty often,” he said of singing karaoke. “Sometimes you have to wait around but I like to listen to the other guys. Karaoke is so much fun if you can get on key. I wanna go up there and do a good job for the crowd. They’re not necessarily here to be entertained by you, but it still feels good when they applaud for you. “

Mike heard applause from those on hand for his turn at Travis Tritt’s “The Whiskey Ain’t Working.” He said he enjoys singing songs from all genres. One of his favorites is Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” which typically gets a good response. The song selection is secondary to its delivery, he said.

"Well, let's put it this way," he said, "I'm not going to have any fun screeching off-key, and I don't expect other people to have to listen to that."

Music booth professionals are DJs. In this world, they’re “KJ’s,” or karaoke jockeys. We met Brian at Christian’s; Daniel at Spotlight; and, Terry, who is partner/owner at Glitter Karaoke in Midtown. They all confirmed some notions about karaoke we’ve long suspected:

Brian, who has been at Christian’s downtown about a year since moving from the midtown location, said Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" might be the most-requested song but also said he'd rather hear it ten more times than have to listen to another person attempt Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

“Yes – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ because hardly anybody can pull of Queen,” Terry agreed. “It comes on at least three or four times a night. That and Journey – ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’ That’s another one that, unless you’re badass, you can’t pull of Steve Perry.”

Other songs they wish would go on hiatus include Adele’s “Hello” and “Picture” by Kid Rock.

Daniel told us the key to a good karaoke night is the KJ being organized and fair; being meticulous allows him to squeeze as many as 14 karaoke singers into a single hour. Because he performed karaoke more than 500 times at bars everywhere before he ever got in the booth, Daniel said he's cognizant of the crowd and tries to spread the rotation fairly between the parties that come to Spotlight. We told him we were surprised to find the bar open for singing on a Sunday night, but he said he could tell us 20 different bars offering opportunities to amateur singers at the tail end of the weekend.

Terry said people love to sing and don’t care what night of the week they do it on.

“Most of them love music and I guess the other part is they just love to sing,” he said. “We have some that are crazy good and some that are crazy bad. But most of the time the crazy bad ones are the ones that have the best time, because they don’t care.”

Sometimes a friend helps you find your passion. It’s a cool thing to witness and something we saw when Melanie and Carol took the stage at Glitter to perform Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be.”

“We knew we were going to sing together coming tonight. I was really excited about the song because we played it last night at my house and I was telling her that’s my theme song for myself,” Carol said.

“I said, we have to sing this,” Melanie jumped in. “So, I looked it up on the playlist and they had it, so we had to sing it.”

The two are friends. Melanie is the polished, experienced karaoke superstar. She’s comfortable, friendly and confident enough to share that her “go-to” song is the Divinyls' “I Touch Myself.” That’s a long way from her singing roots.

“When I was in middle school and high school I was in choir, and show choir as well, so it’s kind of like a bit of nostalgia,” she shared. “Because I don’t perform anymore, it’s nice to get up there and kind of feel like I’m back in high school performing show tunes or dancing around the stage. It’s nice.”

“That was actually the second time I’ve ever done karaoke and sang in front of people like that,” Carol admitted. (Her previous attempt? Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente.”)

“It was cool because I wanted to do my theme song, it’s like this song of empowerment and to be up there and be able to sing this song of empowerment it was actually really cool for me, it was really fun.”

Carol said it may have been a little harder to do without her friend by her side, but Melanie assured her she’d be okay and needed to do it.

“I’m an enabler when it comes to karaoke,” Melanie said.

Nikia said she comes from a very musical family. Her mother sang and played guitar. Her father played trumpet professionally for Little Joe Y La Familia.

“I grew up around music, I love music, but I never grew up singing in public,” she said. “I never really sang in public or felt confident in my voice. I never pursued music. I pursued psychology, I pursued kinesiology, so fitness and the mind.”

She’s a personal trainer, but her psychology background is definitely at work as we discuss why she loves karaoke.

“It’s just so funny when people are really drunk and they’re really confident in the song that they always sing in the shower, or like in their car by themselves, but they’re gonna sing it in front of everyone. I love that! I love karaoke. You see a side of a person that you wouldn’t normally see – you see the shower or the road trip side of a person that you wouldn’t normally see.”

“It’s that part of yourself like, whenever I was a kid, I’d always dress up and play pretend, like all kids do. Karaoke is kind of like that. I’m going to go out and sing whatever I want to sing and be whoever I want to be that night.”

She had an admission that steered everything back to music.

“I moved here from San Antonio, which is a very musically oriented city. I didn’t think Houston was very musically oriented at all and I’ve been seeking that,” she said. “Going to karaoke I think I’ve been able to find it, people that love music — whether they’re good at it or not — it’s nice to be around people that love music.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.