Doing It Their Way

Karaoke night

It's a cool Tuesday evening, perfect patio weather, and the bistro tables outside the Coffee Beanery in Coral Springs are filled to capacity. The crowd's collective attention is focused on a preteen girl near the entrance to the gourmet coffee shop, where she stands behind a microphone in front of a TelePrompTer. Lyrics flash across the blue screen as she belts out the theme from Fame in her little voice. When she hits the chorus, the echoed "fame" of background singers comes in right on cue thanks to karaoke DJ Rockin' Ken Kay, who triggers the effect from his seat behind a bank of equipment.

Most karaoke nights take place in darkened bars, where singers loosened by a few stiff drinks play out their star fantasies in a smoky haze. But at this weekly Tuesday karaoke night, no alcohol is served. Singers must rely on guts and caffeine to work up enough courage to step up to the microphone, and the all-ages atmosphere creates a much different vibe -- and a varied mix of material.

After the conclusion of "Fame," for example, an older gentleman delivers a heartfelt rendition of "My Way." He's no Sinatra, but he does a serviceable job on the tune as he croons into the mic. Kay then introduces "Fabulous Phyllis," who looks to be in her late thirties and turns out an emotive rendition of Vanessa Williams' 1991 smash ballad, "Save the Best For Last." A teenager named Jessica follows with an equally dramatic, if spottier, take on "Who Will Save Your Soul" by Jewel, during which a hearty round of hand-clapping by the audience ensues.

Vocal quality varies widely, but there's some surprisingly strong singing going on. Participants without perfect voices benefit perhaps the most from Kay's elaborate sound system, on which he can cue backing vocals, add just the right amount of delay on a Go-Go's lyric, or trigger a trippy reverb effect for a singer doing a psychedelic Jimi Hendrix song. Kay boasts of an 18-bit digital voice-processing unit that feeds off 1000 watts of power. "I also know how to run it," says the smooth-voiced Kay.

He's a singer himself and is a popular attraction at his other karaoke nights, on Wednesdays and Fridays at Mystics Tavern in Margate, at which he treats the crowd to his versions of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino hits. "If you put emotion into the song, people appreciate that and you get applause," he says.

His Friday night gig draws a regular clientele of singers, sort of a cavalcade of wannabe stars. But with the Tuesday family night, Kay has hit on something altogether different -- and even more popular. The lineup of singers on Tuesdays is usually so long that Kay rarely gets to sing. Instead he makes sure the parade of performers sounds as good as possible and that everyone gets a turn. "It gets a little crazy," he admits, "but I deal with it."

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John Ferri