The King Of Karaoke

Charles McElhose and his $150,000 collection of songs are developing a faithful and fairly talented local following

June 28, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Doing his best impersonation of a singing Ken doll, Charles McElhose joins in a duet of 1997's silly Aqua hit "Barbie Girl." In a mock manly baritone, he milks the song's biting lyrics.

It's Wednesday night at the Days Inn in Towson, and McElhose, known as "Karaoke Charlie," is sharing his collection of songs -- everything from Genesis to Jennifer Love Hewitt. In the hotel's dimly lit, smoke-filled Crystal Restaurant, bustling with waitresses delivering Miller Lite after Miller Lite, a crowd of supportive and mostly skilled singers eagerly anticipates a shot at faux fame.

Karaoke Charlie claims he has the biggest collection of karaoke songs in the continental United States. And while verification is difficult, the collection, in which he says he has invested nearly $150,000, is a staggering 36,000 tracks.

"Locally, he is considered to have the most music," says Greg Lazzaroni, owner of the Aberdeen store (formerly Karaoke Direct), specializing in karaoke equipment and CDs.

In McElhose's song book, predictable standards like "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" are only a few page-turns away from current indie faves like Liz Phair's "Polyester Bride" or the juvenile novelty ditties of Adam Sandler.

"If it's been produced, I have it. If I don't, I'll buy it," says McElhose, 44, a Catonsville resident and Baltimore native who owns the Patterson Bowling Center in Fells Point and his own burglar alarm company.

But some songs can't be bought. Not yet, at least. McElhose would love to add Elvis' "Do The Clam," from the movie "Clambake," to his stock. "But guess what?" says McElhose. "We have six pages of Elvis."

Since 1995, Karaoke Charlie has carried his collection each week to such locations as the Days Inn and Dundalk's Old Mill Tavern. And while his following is not exactly of Grateful Dead proportions, it's wildly loyal.

"I'll follow Charlie anywhere," says Michael Gilbert, 30, a part-time forklift operator from Eldersburg. Gilbert, who just finished his rendition of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," once drove an hour and a half in a storm to attend a McElhose karaoke night.

On a recent Wednesday, the repertoire at the Days Inn was more than a little bit country. Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks and Garth Brooks dominated, with the occasional Alanis Morissette impersonator, Sinatra worshiper or Olivia Newton-John wannabe interrupting the twangy flow.

Contrary to what most people may think, the crowd was not a bunch of tone-deaf geeks. Many were natural-born performers, working the audience, mugging for laughs and -- perhaps most impressively -- singing competently.

While crooning Louis Prima's "Just a Gigolo," McElhose's son Craig, 23, paused to glance into women's eyes with cheesy lounge-singer longing and teasingly rubbed bald men's heads.

Karaoke veteran Kay Sullivan added tipsy choreography to Eric Burdon and War's "Spill The Wine." The 43-year-old Baltimore resident weaved back and forth while singing in a cool, mellow voice.

In the meantime, McElhose dutifully changed discs and flipped through his books with first-timers, careful not to interrupt the headliner of the moment.

An obsession begins

McElhose had his first brush with karaoke in 1995. He went to Kelly's, a Fells Point bar right across the street from his bowling alley. He got the urge to sing "Precious and Few" by Climax, a favorite of his in high school. They didn't have it. Would they ever get it? he asked. The owner replied he had no plans to add anything to his 2,500-song collection.

From that moment, McElhose felt compelled to find the song.

In search of "Precious and Few," he went to Karaoke Direct. There McElhose found the song, and a few others as well. He spent $34,000 on discs in a matter of hours.

"When my husband does something, he goes full force," says his wife, Theresa, 43.

Sure, he loved music. But a passion for song doesn't necessarily lead to ruling a karaoke kingdom. Never in his life had McElhose imagined this much-maligned art form would become an obsession.

McElhose took music classes at Southern High School, where he won a Peabody scholarship that gave him free private singing lessons for a year. McElhose, a baritone, sang with the Maryland Chorus for two years during the '70s. He also was accepted into the Baltimore Symphony Chorus, though he never joined due to scheduling reasons.

McElhose and his wife met in their high school choir. Their son Craig also made a musical love connection. He first laid eyes on fiancee Kristen Corkran, 21, on karaoke night at a Bel Air bar.

Besides spurring family romances, karaoke has introduced the McElhoses, who don't drink alcohol, to a new scene. "We'd been married 20 years; I'd never been in a bar before," Theresa McElhose says. "My dad's a minister."

At the Crystal Restaurant, she's quite a contrast to the majority of her husband's disciples, who are throwing back shots of Southern Comfort and rapidly draining beers.

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