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Sara Sherr is illuminated. Behind a hulking mixer, her face is floating in the glow of her MacBook. The dank and smoky Italian Market bar, 12 Steps Down, is hers tonight. Or maybe it belongs to the short man standing on the other side of her mixer, jerking around violently to “Toxicity” by System of a Down. Sherr is quietly counting karaoke requests on recycled slips of paper. The man is maybe two words behind on every line. He races to catch up, distorting SOAD’s already off-kilter vocal rhythms. He is roaring his head back like the mic is giving him an electric boost of rock.
This is a pretty typical night for a karaoke host.
Sherr is expressionless, mouthing the titles of ’90s alt-rock gems as she searches her catalogue to see if she can accommodate the next request. The man finishes his song with a skipping stealth dance around the floor in front of Sherr. Besides a few die-hard SOAD heads, the bar-goers have stopped paying attention. Sherr nods as the karaoke singer finishes his song, panting like James Brown (or Serj Tankian). It is like he has just shaken off his silk cape and is returning to just being a guy at a bar in South Philly on a Tuesday Night. Sherr presses a few buttons and announces the next singers on the list like she is emceeing the ultimate amateur variety show.
“It’s a little bit like being a DJ,” said Sherr. “It’s a little bit like being a kindergarten teacher at show and tell.”
Sherr, 45, hosts four nights of karaoke at various Philly bars every week. She is among a small group of “karaoke hosts,” traveling around the city with a public address system, a mixer, a hard drive of thousands of karaoke versions of songs, and the tome-like books of song options. Sherr does not have her own car, so she pays friends to drive her to her gigs.
Sherr’s workday usually lasts from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. She sits in the corner sober and facilitating fun for a bar full of people who have had enough city-wides to think they are Mariah Carey.
“You just have to keep reminding yourself that everyone else is on a totally different wavelength than you are,” Sherr said. “It really makes me a more patient person.”
How karaoke became a career
Sherr’s father was a DJ for 30 years until he found karaoke. DJ Rockin’ Ron, Ron Sherr, had been taking photos at weddings and birthday parties and realized that karaoke would fit perfectly with what he loved to do, as well as what every party guest wants after a deluge of mimosas. He started a company, BridgeMusico, that facilitates Karaoke and other entertainments. According to his website: “DJ Rockin’ Ron has the uncanny ability to turn any event into the party of the year.”
In 2006, Sherr was working at the old Tower Records at Broad and Chestnut. But it was going under. She was also writing about music for the Inquirer and the Daily News. Her father asked her if she wanted him to, “hook her up with the equipment and songs.” She had loved singing karaoke with her friends (although she admits that getting up there the first time was a bit of a personal hurdle to get over the fear of singing in front of others).
She started doing Monday nights at the Millcreek Tavern in Southwest Philly. The more she did it, the more the lifestyle attracted her. She brought the fun and it was consistent, unlike freelance writing and trying to book shows (which she says is “like herding cats.”)
In 2010, Sherr became a full-time karaoke host. She now does Monday nights at SouthHouse (13th and Shunk), Tuesdays at 12 Steps Down (9th and Christian), Thursdays at Sarah’s Place (29th near Girard), and Sundays at Bob & Barbara’s (15th and South).
Yes, a lot of people sing Journey
Sherr is helping people express themselves — three shirtless men standing on a pool table, a punk rock Enya enthusiast. She says she can see the catharsis in so many faces. Maybe they were at work all day, she says, maybe they are having a problem with their significant other. Karaoke lets people be both pop stars and 12-year-olds in their bedrooms with a hairbrush mic.
Sherr says that song choices vary by crowd. If the crowd is more collegiate or mainstream, you will hear “Sweet Caroline,” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Piano Man,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Disney songs. She hears “Don’t Stop Believin’” a lot, and says that song usually inspires a group of six or eight to form what she calls “A Journey Choir.”
Here are some additional songs that Sherr gets requests for all the time:
- Radiohead – “Creep”
- Danzig – “Mother”
- Salt N Pepa – “Shoop”
- Fugees – “Killing Me Softly”
- Alanis Morrissette- “You Oughta Know”
- Weezer – “Say It Ain’t So”
- Lisa Loeb – “Stay”
- TLC – “Waterfalls”
- R. Kelly – “Ignition Remix”
- Toadies – “Possum Kingdom”
- Anything from The Smiths
- Blink 182 – “Dammit”
- Wheatus – “Teenage Dirtbag”
- Talking Heads – “Psycho Killer” and “Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)”
- Tenacious D – “Fuck Her Gently”
The best songs are the simplest, Sherr says. It doesn’t matter how well you sing; it’s about engaging with the crowd.
“I have people coming in they are just, like, they’re ready for American Idol or they are ready for the theater or whatever,” she said. “But then it’s all about them and it’s not about the crowd.”
Then there’s Grandma Dynamite. The 85-year-old used to be a Bob & Barbara’s karaoke staple. She could mesmerize the crowd. Nobody knew where she was from, whether she had a place to stay, or if she had anyone taking care of her (she’d show up with hospital bands on). “She had a felicitous relationship with reality,” says Sherr, who found herself in many long conversations with Grandma Dynamite. Eventually, the star was asked not to come back Bob & Barbara’s (Sherr thinks she may have been panhandling, but no one knows for sure.) Then a couple of years ago, Sherr received a holiday card from Grandma Dynamite that said, “May you receive the joy, love and peace you give by letting us express ourself in song.”
Never drop the mic
Sherr also wishes that people wouldn’t do so many ballads. Not to diss John Legend, but his songs (although a very popular karaoke choice) are a little monotonous when not sung in his velvet voice. Also, she says that Sam Smith songs are a total karaoke buzzkill.
Philly artists that people like to sing at Sherr’s karaoke nights besides Boyz II Men and John Legend? Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan, Musiq (formerly Musiq Soulchild), Hall and Oates, and Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl.”
Sherr says that her main concern is for her equipment. People have a tendency to try to get crazy and reckless when they become R. Kelly or Morrissey.
“Don’t drop the mic,” says Sherr. “Nothing that you do is so amazing that you should slam my mic down on the floor. Don’t damage my equipment because you think that your version of 4 Non Blondes was so show-stopping.”