Time was, if a singer didn't have a band, the only possible venue for his talents was the church choir, or the shower. In the 80s, a miraculous export from Japan changed everything. Karaoke democratized singing as public performance, allowing anyone with good pipes and the discipline to learn a song to perfection to get up on stage and sing, no faking, no a capella, with the real backing track.
Now, going on 30 years later, karaoke has become more than just a Friday night drunken dare. Rare at the beginning, at least on this side of the planet, a culture of performance perfectionists has sprung up. Karaoke is becoming a legitimate art form.
This would all come as no surprise to the 21 singers who came together Saturday morning for an amazing display of talent and showmanship in the Touch of Class karaoke final at the Levy County Fair in Williston. Everyone had qualified at a Levy County karaoke event, many going to every event of the qualifying stage to scout the other singers and their songs.
The top three winners received cash prizes: $1,000, $500 and $250, and the first place singer also got 10 hours of studio time at Skylab Studio in Gainesville. Two other special award recipients got $20 gift certificates to Bell's Family Restaurant in Chiefland.
Some of the singers came from outside Levy County; others, however, have been airing it out at area venues for years - since childhood, even.
Bronson's Reginald Stacy, Cedar Key's Samantha Beckham and Gulf Hammock's Naomi Cahours are no strangers to local music fans. Stacy came up singing in his church, Bronson's Church of God in Christ, and is a regular performer at Cole's Four Corners. Beckham and Cahours, who also play guitar, can be heard together many weekend nights at the Big Deck or other venues in and around Cedar Key.
Their dedication and experience pretty well exemplifies the kind of artistry and seriousness of most of the contestants in Saturday's event. Though Saturday's theme was Country Day, and most of the songs did twang, some singers dipped into R & B, blues and gospel. Genre aside, they all brought it. The judges - Deborah Brochetti, Julie Jeffus, Chip Futch and Ava Plummer - agreed that their work that day was harder and more entertaining than they ever expected. Each singer got two songs, a warmup and a contest selection, but in many cases the warmup song eclipsed the main selection.
The singers made the judges work. Cahours sang LeAnn Rimes' "Blue," a personal favorite and a comfortable fit for her.
"This is a song I love, and I know I can sing it well," she said. "I learned to yodel when I was eight years old, and I've always been able to hit those kind of notes."
She did hit them, and beautifully, with a compelling presence that brought the song straight to the listener.
Cahours had to sing first, a tough position in a contest, but near the end of the event, Samantha's mom Cissy said, "I don't think anybody's out-sung her yet."
When her turn came, Beckham abandoned comfort for challenge with Martina McBride's "Broken Wing" as her warmup.
?I'd rather take a chance to sing a song nobody else can sing than stay safe," she said.
Her mom noted that Sam was courting danger on this day.
"Her voice is sore today," she said. "She was out last night singing."
Beckham skillfully negotiated the hairpin turns in that song, keeping melisma to a minimum but nailing the accidentals.
"I know the song really well, so I can look ahead and see which note is going to be difficult, and plan for when I need to take a deep breath and push from my stomach to hit it."
The hardest part, the judges agreed, was deciding whom to reward, and how well, and whom to leave out. Stacy turned in a sterling performance in both his warmup song, Ray Charles' "Georgia," and his main song, Prince's "Purple Rain." He finished out of the main prizes, but did receive an award for Best Appearance. Dianne Alloway of Inglis brought the audience near tears with her rendition of Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia," but did not receive a prize. Nancy Bell of Williston connected with gospel fans with Ray Boltz's "I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb."
Natalie Nicole Green of Gainesville, who sang "What I Like About You," won "Best Overall Performance" for her animated, hand-clapping, foot-stomping audience appeal.
In the end, Beckham and Cahours took the "place" and "show" prizes behind Jeremy Gentry of Chiefland, a rough-voiced country-gospel shouter who brought the house down with Vince Gill's "Go Rest High On That Mountain."
Gentry, a flight attendant for Delta Airlines, said he had been singing for as long as he could remember.
"So long," he said, "that when I was a kid, my brothers used to argue in the car, and beg my mom and dad to make me stop singing - to every song on the radio."
Beckham and Cahours, who planned to split the prize if they won, said they weren't too disappointed with their finish.
"It's not too bad if we don't win," Beckham said. "It's more important to get a chance to sing and keep getting better."