Sunday, December 02, 2007

Steve Smith: Hitting the Right Notes at Karaoke

by Steve Charing

There are no American Idol-style judges. Nobody gets booted off the show. No one is forced to embarrass him or herself unless it’s by choice. Yet Friday night Karaoke at the Hippo has become a fun tradition for several years.

Led by the self-described “Barbra Streisand stalker,” Steve Smith of Arbutus, this good-old-fashioned Karaoke party has enjoyed a successful run. The dim lighting in the Club Hippo’s Video Bar plus the small stage that stands in front of spread out cocktail tables provide a nostalgic cabaret atmosphere.

Over the years, there have been great and not-so great performers. But no matter the level of talent, everybody comes to Karaoke to have a good time, unwinding from a week of work. They come to sing and/or hear others entertain while sipping cocktails. They sing along to the lyrics of songs that are displayed all over the walls and screens that encircle the room. It’s high energy and good times. And the emcee, Steve Smith, is as integral a reason for the success as anything else.

“He’s makes [Karaoke] a lot of fun,” says Alan from Baltimore who has been a regular for at least two years and enjoys the atmosphere. “Steve is very funny behind the mic and keeps the show moving at a good pace.” Adds Gary of Baltimore who is a long-time regular at Karaoke, “I like the way he makes the show for the crowd. He does it for them, not just for him.”

Indeed, Steve separates himself from others who have performed similar roles in Karaoke. While many Karaoke emcees are in full drag or dominate the stage during the performances by cutting in to sing along with the performer or otherwise focus the attention on themselves, Steve has the knack of letting the vocalist singularly relish the spotlight.

Steve, who is by day a bartender at Outback Steakhouse, simply introduces each singer and applauds upon the song’s conclusion regardless of the quality of the rendition. His wit plays well during the transitional moments between numbers, which keeps the energy level up and the pace steady. “He is friendly and wants to keep the regulars happy,” says Rachel from Towson who has been a patron of Karaoke at the Hippo for six months and a frequent singer on the stage.

Although the show is billed as “Carol and Friends,” referring to another one of Steve’s heroines, Carol Burnett, he does not do the show in drag. He does, however, dress up as Carol, in particular the character Eunice, on Halloween.

Steve will sing a couple of numbers himself as part of the show. Though no one will mistake him for Josh Groban, Steve is a serviceable vocalist who radiates warmth and passion as he performs.

He was never trained classically, but all of his music education came from the television, radio and his record player. While his brother was listening to Kiss, Zeppelin and the Stones, his sister was listening to Barry Manilow and the Beatles. But it was his parents’ collection that held his interest. “Dionne Warwick, Vikki Carr, and of course, Streisand. These women sang! I wanted to do that,” he explains.

“There is a lot of angst growing up gay,” says Steve. “But when I heard these bombastic voices that could turn to a gentle caressing whisper, none of the angst was there. Then the first time I tried to sing with them, I didn't know or care if it was good or bad, but it was the most comfortable liberating thing I had ever done. There was something therapeutic about releasing all my emotions through song.”

He never really sang too much around people when he was younger. Steve says he was very shy and continues to be so to a degree, but he felt liberated by Karaoke.

“The first time I sang Karaoke was the same place I work for now,” Steve says. “Many years ago when Mary Costello was the hostess, I got up the nerve and did it. It was really bad, but it felt really good. It was a new beginning of sorts. I was at the end of a painful separation and trying to get my bearings again. Although singing didn't fix all my problems, the joy I got from it put them more into perspective.”

He has been running Karaoke at the Hippo for just over two years. Hippo owner Chuck Bowers told OUTloud that he “considers ‘Carol’ (Steve) to be an asset to the community with his energy, personality and talent.”

Born and raised in South Baltimore, Steve’s childhood was fun and filled with the normal activities, such as sports and games. “I found myself to be the happiest however, when I was doing something musical,” he says. “My family loved music—all kinds. My grandmother and uncle were a nightclub act: he played the sax and she sang in a beautiful soprano voice. As a matter of fact my grandmother introduced the great song ‘My Buddy’ to Baltimore radio. She sang on radio many times.”

Steve adds, “My mother and father were jitterbug champions and my mother was a dancer on the Buddy Deane show, she sang with the Maryland State Choir. Music was always there.”

He carries this background and desire to entertain to the stage. He is humble and grateful that Hippo owner Chuck Bowers afforded him the opportunity to do his thing.

“My show is at times a reflection of myself,” Steve points out. “Sometimes disheveled, but with a single purpose of creating fun and happiness through music. You don't have to be a great singer to sing at my show. You can be horrible, and I'll still applaud you. My show is fun and all-inclusive.

“Come enjoy the cathartic experience of singing your song,” he implores. “Whatever song it is, sing it strong, proud and loud! Music is everyone's gift to enjoy!”

And Steve Smith, er Carol, will make it fun.

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