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Karaoke’s slow comeback from COVID

"It’s only back in full force for the people who truly want to do karaoke"
Credit: St. Louis American
Yanulka Myers (center) performs Karaoke at KJ's Bar and Grill. She is flanked by fellow performers Shantay Jones (left) and Barbara Simpson (right).

ST. LOUIS — Karaoke is a popular pastime for patrons of bars and clubs throughout the world.

There’s a distinct difference, however, between commercial venues that cater to out-of-towners and cavalier weekenders and small, neighborhood venues that cater to locals. 

In the latter, karaoke DJ’s (or KJ’s) have their own loyal followers. The eclectic mixture of professional or wannabe warblers develop a family-like relationship that’s unique to each KJ or location.

Every Thursday night, Shantay Jones, Barbara Simpson and Yanulka (Yon) Myers can be found at KJ’s Bar & Grill on Broadway for karaoke night. The friends, who all graduated from Vashon High School, participated in cheerleading or pom, pom groups but never sang together. They attended the owner of the bar, Kenneth C. Martin’s karaoke shows for years at other venues. When he opened KJ’s about four years ago, the ladies, who go by the stage name “Exquisite,” were given a reserved table for their loyal patronage. When they enter the club, they are greeted with hugs and kisses from regulars. Crowds enthusiastically react to their standard favorites by artists like Vanity 6, George Michaels, John legend or LL Cool J (“I’m Bad” is a house favorite).

“It’s like when you’re at work and you have a work family,” said Simpson, a senior grant management accountant. “When I’m down there on Thursdays, I’m with my KJ karaoke family.  When I walk in and see people that come every week, I make it a point to hug them. I like listening to them sing or having conversations with them.”

Those interactions came to an immediate halt last year as COVID spread throughout the country. Karaoke bars weren’t immune to restrictions imposed by public health officials on all bars and restaurants. Capacity restrictions were enforced because some indoor spaces weren’t properly ventilated or had poor air circulation. Other concerns were that people tend to disregard safety regulations after a few drinks; they lean in during conversations or put their arms one another while forgetting to wear masks.

Regardless of the safety rational, the closure of local karaoke clubs hit devotees like Jones, Simpson and Myers hard:

“When COVID hit, nobody was having fun,” Jones recalled. “After the shutdown, I slept all day and didn’t want to eat for a week.”

Turns out, Jones thinks she may have contracted the virus. She was never diagnosed but a week later, her husband was hospitalized with the coronavirus. He survived but she was cautious before re-entering the karaoke scene. Of the three friends, Jones was the first to come back. This was after Martin announced he was resuming karaoke with limited capacity and a slew of safety regulations, including mic covers, social distancing and mandatory usage of masks. That was enough for Jones:

“I figured I already had it (COVID) so when they opened back up, I was ready to go.”

Myers and Simpson…not so much:

“Barbara and I were like: ‘Uh-uh, nope! We’re scared,” Myers, a cellular analyst with BJC Health Systems confessed. “I missed everybody, but I was still scared.”

Simpson, who suffers from Sickle Cell disease, wasn’t willing to challenge her already compromised immune system. Still, the weekly loss was crushing:

“Oh, my God, it was a struggle,” Simpson recalled. “You get used to it and suddenly, you can’t be around the people you meet every Thursday anymore. It was sad.”

Simpson said her entrée into the world of karaoke was a natural transition. She describes herself as: “that mom at home with a brush in her hand, singing to my kids. I’m not a diva or anything, but I enjoyed singing to them.”

Simpson is an official member of the KJ’s karaoke family. Some enthusiastic singers frequent different clubs multiple times a week. But sometimes the “families” overlap. Such was the case a week ago when several gathered at KJ’s to recognize the passing of a popular karaoke singer who went by the stage name of “French Oils.”

To Jones, the gathering represented a full-fledged karaoke comeback…of sorts:

“It’s back but only for the people who love it. It’s only back in full force for the people who truly want to do karaoke,” Jones stated.

The coronavirus never stopped karaoke, local DJ, Ric Louis, insisted:

“It never left because karaoke is in people’s blood. They enjoy it so they figured out a way to do it in their own spaces, in their own way. I know I did.”

Louis was featured on a couple local news stations last year for innovatively continuing karaoke, gospel and music shows virtually. He’s back to hosting three karaoke events a week around town. Although karaoke slowed, it trudged along stubbornly and will “come back stronger,” Louis said, once the virus is contained.

Simpson, Myers and Jones have all been vaccinated. Jones was the first to return to KJ’s followed later by her childhood friends.

“I still wear my mask and take safety precautions but, yeah, I’m starting to feel a little better about coming out,” Myers confessed. “I’m glad we’re back to having a good time and some laughter with our friends every week like we used to do.”