It’s the singer, not the song |

It’s the singer, not the song

Janet Urquhart
Johnny Fontaine, as he is known to his fans, belts out a Frank Sinatra tune from the stage at Shooters during a recent Wednesday karaoke night. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Strains of the old Ritchie Valens hit “La Bamba” emanate from the Galena Street stairwell that descends into basement of the Elks Building.It’s close to midnight on a Wednesday night and there is no traffic to drown out the eclectic smattering of songs blaring from the open doorway at the bottom of the stone stairs. But that’s no jukebox producing the sour notes of butchered pop tunes. That’s no DJ spinning tracks in the sound booth. Clearly.Karaoke night at Shooters Night Club is in full swing. A mostly local crowd is playing pool in back, drinking beers at the bar and shouting to be heard over the escalating din. Rising above the cacophony is the tortured melody of Semisonic’s “Closing Time.” Marcelo d’Avila has grabbed the mic again, dragging some companions along with him.The affable Brazilian and Shooters employee makes no bones about his singing talent. He hasn’t any.”Sorry, everybody,” he proffers after an earlier solo, “Every Breath You Take,” the familiar hit by The Police.But d’Avila, like everyone else who takes a turn at the mic, is here to have fun. The best singers earn no more notice, or accolades, from the crowd than the worst ones. If anything, the vocally challenged win more applause for their courage than those who belt out something in key.

The bar has been holding karaoke Wednesdays for some three years, said owner Bill Venezia (who contributes a credible rendition of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?” to the evening’s entertainment). The place is often packed for the occasion. There are wanna-be rock stars, Sinatra impersonators and those who are simply cajoled into taking a turn in the spotlight, greased by a drink or two.Aspenite T.R. Schwerin takes the mic several times, warming up with an old Johnny Cash hit, “Fulsom Prison Blues.” He’s good, but not about to be pigeonholed in the country genre.Schwerin said his favorites on any given night might run the gamut from a Cash cover to “Bust a Move” by Young MC or “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats. He’s been known to cover Black Sabbath, as well.”Honest to God, Aspen’s the only place I’ve seen people do the twist to Black Sabbath,” he said.

The song selection is wildly divergent, from rap to ’80s pop to the vocal stylings of the man who calls himself Johnny Fontaine. He favors the classic crooners: Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, Jack Jones.Tonight, he chooses Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String.”A woman follows, softly attempting “Tempted” by the Squeeze.Theatre Aspen actors Diana Dresser and Rick Stear pair up for Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” shortly after the action begins at 10 p.m.”If you want to sing, come here at 10, because at 11 or 12, it’s packed,” Stear advised.

Though they’re both used to performing before an audience, neither Dresser nor Stear consider themselves singers.”You have to be willing to look like an ass,” Stear admitted.”This is the most embarrassing thing in any introvert’s life,” claims Dresser, blaming Stear for her participation. Yet, she takes the stage later for a worthy solo cover of the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces.”The understandable hesitancy to sing before a live, albeit forgiving (or oblivious) audience often disappears once you’ve done it once, according to Schwerin, a capable singer and a regular at karaoke night.”You get up there and you get a buzz doin’ it,” he said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is


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