For those who don’t fully appreciate karaoke it may be difficult to understand why people would sit in a crowded bar like McDonough's, subjecting themselves to occasionally painful renditions of radio hits and re-hashed classics, just for the opportunity to sing one themselves. The reason, though, is fairly simple. Karaoke isn’t something one pursues for the enjoyment of others. It is a selfish passion, one where the singer is allowed to exercise their rockstar dreams without the hassle of playing an instrument, writing songs or reading contracts. “It’s open mic night, but you don’t have to bring your own material,” says Rob Gitten, a ormer karaoke jockey (KJ) and karaoke enthusiast. “People are having a good time. If you don’t like the person singing, you don’t have to listen.”

To be a karaoke regular requires patience. “My waiting list to sing one song can be up to an hour or an hour and a half,” says Scotty Fuller, the KJ at Bay Street Blues on Friday and Saturday nights for the past five years. “And these people will wait.” A dedicated karaoke singer will sit through numerous other songs gladly, ignoring some and reveling in others, waiting for the chance to feed the hunger for stardom. “People want their three minutes of fame,” says Fuller, and most karaoke jockeys agree. “Everyone wants to be a superstar,” says Chris Linderman, one of the few female KJs in Savannah. “Everybody wants to be that multi-millionaire—they’re like, ‘discover me here.’”

Much like a narcotic, karaoke is addictive. People may try it casually one night after a few drinks, and within a few weeks, they find themselves going back weekly or even daily, seeking the rush of belting out a favorite tune. “The first time singing, if you never sang, you’re real nervous,” says Ron Zeigler, KJ at the Dew Drop Inn. “You can hear it in the singer’s voice, they’ll be real timid and shy. Give ’em about two weeks and then you can’t shut ’em up.”

The origin of karaoke is as hazy as the bars in which it began. One legend has it that it started in a snack bar in Kobe City, Japan, where the owner kept tapes of music to accompany vocalists in case a guitarist called in sick. A competing version of the history is that singer Inoue Daisuke was asked by fans for a tape of his instrumentals so that they could sing them while away on a company-sponsored retreat. These requests led the singer to invent a coin-operated karaoke machine, the first of its kind and the predecessor to a more than $200 million a year industry in the United States alone.

Part of karaoke’s appeal is its simplicity. “Karaoke is about going out and having fun, singing a few songs, having a few beers, and then going home,” says Zeigler, one of the few KJs who happens to know the meaning of karaoke in Japanese (it is a compound of the Japanese word karappo meaning “empty” and okesutura meaning “orchestra”). Zeigler’s introduction to karaoke took place in the early 1970s while he was stationed in Japan with the military. “It was a tiny, dark place where you walked in and nobody spoke any English, but they could sing Elvis Presley,” he remembers fondly while taking a drag from his cigarette. His experience singing more than 30 years ago makes him the earliest known supporter of karaoke in Savannah. “When I got back to the States,” Zeigler explains, “nobody had [karaoke] for a while, but then in the early ’80s it started to come up every now and again.”

Fuller has watched karaoke blossom in Savannah, from its earliest moments to its current glory. “The original karaoke bar in Savannah was on White Bluff,” he recalls. “Straight across the street from [the Windsor Shopping Center] where the daycare is, that used to be a bar, and that was where I started.” Beyond that location, the pastime has spread like a musical epidemic, moving past the familiar territory of smoky bars and into restaurants like B&D Burgers and sports bars like Coach’s Corner. “You even see karaoke at weddings and parties now,” Fuller says. “Earlier that would never have happened.”

Whether at a wedding or a bar, the karaoke jockey is a unique breed. On the surface, KJs are as diverse as the types of venues they call home, but deep down they all share a love of singing and a code of ethics for how they run their shows. While there is no book of rules, in general, the KJ hopes for nothing more than a good time to be had by all. “I know a lot of karaoke DJs around town,” says Zeigler, “and we pretty much all have the same feelings on that. It’s all about people having fun and having a good clean show and looking forward to the next time.”

The number one rule is that you can’t skip anyone, no matter how bad they are. “I don’t skip anybody. It doesn’t make a difference if you can’t sing a lick,” Zeigler says. It’s a unanimous sentiment among KJs. “I won’t skip them,” Linderman says, “but I have control of the microphone at all times and I can turn people off if they’re being bad. I don’t usually like to do it, but sometimes people get really obnoxious.”

The rule also means KJs end up hearing a lot of the same songs over and over, often performed by the same people. “Yeah, I have to listen to it, sometimes 10 times a month from the same person,” Fuller says. “But some people, especially regulars, can only sing certain songs.”

Even though it’s been several years since he last ran a karaoke night, Rob Gitten still remembers one regular in particular. “There was a nice old couple who came in, and he would sing ‘Margaritaville’ by Jimmy Buffett. You knew he was coming. He just had a good time with it. Nobody made fun of him, that was that guy’s song.”

While someone new to karaoke might assume that a bad singer would experience the wrath of a drunken crowd, in general, people who frequent karaoke nights are incredibly friendly and forgiving. What the crowd really cares about is the performer’s stage presence. “You can have a terrible voice or a mediocre voice, but if you put on a show on stage the people will go crazy,” Fuller explains. “We have this one guy who comes in and does ’Thriller.’ This guy can dance literally just like Michael Jackson. When he’s through he gets a standing ovation, the people are just screaming and hollering.”

According to Gitten, karaoke is a way for people to become involved with the songs they love. “They learn the songs fully more than they ever have just listening.”

Karaoke is an opportunity for a person to unleash their inhibitions, to let down their façade and show how much they love a certain song, regardless of their talent. This candor is what makes a great karaoke performance. “It don’t make any difference how good you are,” says Zeigler. “If you’ve got balls enough to get up there and try to sing then that’s what makes it great.”

Karaoke becomes so much more than a collection of people drinking heavily and singing badly. “The goal of karaoke,” according to Rob Gitten, “is the same as the human spirit, cheering on even though you don’t really do it well. Being in front of a crowd is the number one fear, second only to death. People try to get up there and face that fear—while they are buzzed.”

Top 10 Most Requested:
Two Savannah KJs rank the most popular songs among karaoke crooners. Southern roots show in the top ranked country favorites but the usual suspects aren’t forgotten.


1. “Family Traditions,” Hank Williams Jr.

2. “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” David Allen Coe

3. “Love Shack,” B-52s

4. “Like a Virgin,” Madonna

5. “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears

6. “Ice, Ice Baby,” Vanilla Ice

7. “Redneck Woman,” Gretchen Wilson

8. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Pat Benatar

9. “Sweet Caroline,” Neil Diamond

10. “Wanted Dead or Alive,” Jon Bon Jovi


1. “Friends in Low Places,” Garth Brooks

2. “I Got You Babe,” Sonny and Cher

3. “Baby Got Back,” Sir Mix-A-Lot

4. “I Love This Bar,” Toby Keith

5. “Like A Virgin,” Madonna

6. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Cyndi Lauper

7. “I Love Rock and Roll,” Joan Jett

8. “Here For the Party,” Gretchen Wilson

9. “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” Toby Keith

10. “New York, New York,” Frank Sinatra