For a Song (or Two)

For a Song (or Two)

You have to be brave to get up in front of a crowd and sing, but every week ordinary New Haveners do just that—often, admittedly, emboldened by liquid courage. Karaoke is on offer here at least five nights a week, and if you’re hankering to get your hands on a microphone, there are at least six New Haven-area venues that will lend you theirs and let you sing along.

Karaoke in New Haven is nothing new, but globally, the phenomenon goes back much further. According to a December 2013 profile in The Atlantic, it was invented by a down-and-out drummer and bar pianist named Daisuke Inoue. With the help of a friend of a friend who owned an electronics shop, he created a machine—an 8-track car stereo with a microphone, an amplifier and a coin box—that would play music for people to sing along to. In the early 1970s, two club owners in Osaka purchased Inoue’s invention, and the rest is history.

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Summer 2019 at the Eli Whitney Museum

Karaoke Heroes (212 Crown Street) is New Haven’s most focused manifestation of Inoue’s vision. Located down a long alley at the back of the building, the bar’s walls are covered with bright, colorful comics panels with a superhero karaoke theme (don’t overthink it). Bold lights of concentric rings dot the ceiling. Every table is set with a dog-eared list of every song in the system, including some very odd selections (Bible songs for children?), and lyrics are projected on a TV screen while singers with wireless microphones can stand wherever they’d like.

Four of us stopped in on a quiet Wednesday night when many local karaoke heroes were cramming for finals. A few people lingered at the bar, but we had the rest of the space to ourselves. We ordered drinks and received a ticket with each on which we could write our song selection. Without a drink, tickets cost $3. (Karaoke Heroes was the only bar where we found a fee to sing.) Rather than waiting for your name to come up on the playlist in the main bar—some Yelp reviewers complain the wait can be up to two hours long, and songs don’t seem to come up in order—you can party in a private room with your own system, and the bar will wait on you. Furnished with couches and a small table—and, in one case, a SmartTV offering a much larger song selection—private rooms cost $10 per person per hour with a six-person minimum, plus drinks. There was more of a party vibe the following Saturday, when two women were singing Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” to a packed house.

Over at Rudy’s (1227 Chapel St, New Haven), Wednesday is the night for karaoke, starting at 9:30. Here we found a bigger crowd, though not necessarily there for the music. The setup in the back room was portable, with a small tabletop monitor positioned to face singers away from the crowd. The singers didn’t seem to mind, including one woman named Lucy who offered up a pretty fine rendition of “Feel Like a Woman.”

But the very best karaoke we experienced was on the first floor of Partners (365 Crown St, New Haven) on a Sunday night, when things usually get started around 10:30. That was in spite of the fact that the regulars with whom we spoke said it was quieter than usual, as Yale School of Drama students who often show up were apparently wrapping up their fall semester instead.

Karaoke host Tom Ortiz opened the night with a beautiful rendition of Adele’s “When We Were Young.” Then the mic was passed around from one singer to the next, including our bartender and a woman named Sarah, who knocked the Dixie Chicks’ version of “Landslide” out of the park. In spite of the vocal quality—or maybe because of it—Partners also had the most relaxed vibe, and some people did sit quietly and listen, something we didn’t see at the other spots we visited. Ortiz said that on a busy night, 18 people might sign up to sing, but usually the number is smaller, and everyone gets to sing twice.

We didn’t check out every single karaoke venue in town. The first Sunday of the month is karaoke night at 168 York (168 York St, New Haven), starting around 9ish. 168 prides itself on being “one of the oldest gay bars in CT” and advertises a regular Beer Bash, with $2.50 domestic and $3.50 imported and premium beers, at the same time as karaoke. The Rough Draft (295 Treadwell St, Hamden) has dabbled in karaoke, though nothing is currently scheduled. And if you’re a Yale graduate or professional student (or you know one who can get you in), you can enjoy Friday night karaoke and $2 Yuengling beers at GPSCY, pronounced “gypsy” (204 York St, New Haven).

I hadn’t picked up a karaoke microphone since they were still wired to a box in the ’90s, so I chose the spot where hardly anyone was listening. At Karaoke Heroes on that quiet Wednesday night, two friends and my husband and I perused the song list, deciding to go retro with Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” My friend Bruce took the second mic, and we belted out those “I Will”s to the best of our ability. It’s the surest way to turn any song into an earworm that will stay with you for days. “We nailed it!” Bruce later assured me in a text.

As for Daisuke Inoue, he never patented his machines and made only a modest living from them, according to The Atlantic article. He apparently didn’t come up with the term “karaoke” either. That honor reportedly goes to the unnamed patron of a show at which a karaoke machine took the place of the pit orchestra. When the man noticed the lack of live musicians, the story goes, he used the phrase “empty orchestra,” or “kara okesutura”—which, of course, was a mouthful.

Thus was born the term “karaoke”—and, eventually, the chance to sing like a star halfway around the world.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, of Tom Ortiz at Partners, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2-3, of Karaoke Heroes, photographed by Dan Mims.

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