The clinking of glasses. The chatter of boozed-up revelers. The sounds of a stranger singing your favorite song—and nailing it. The cheers that ensue.
There’s something special about karaoke bars, and even more so about the people who frequent them. Whether it’s the older gentleman in the back with distant eyes and a voice like Dean Martin or the shy kid bellied up to the bar who hits “Piano Man” out of the park, all die-hard karaoke fans have a story. We talked to seven of the city’s finest karaoke stars to find out what makes them pour their hearts out onstage. In this land of nonstop entertainment, they’re some of the most Vegas folks of all.
Allan "Tiny" Smith
Home base: Dino’s
Go-to song: Anything by Jay-Z or Kanye West
They say you don’t choose your nickname—it chooses you. Allan Smith, better known at Dino’s as Tiny, got his years ago while working construction. And though his voice is anything but Tiny, it stuck.
The 34-year-old now works at Dino’s, running karaoke every Wednesday while going to UNLV full-time to become a teacher. His main love, however, can always be found inside the pub. “I don’t try to sing well; I try to mimic what I hear,” Smith says, naming Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” as one of his sure-fire crowd-pleasers. “I try to see what the crowd wants, what kind of people are in the audience,” he says. Hip-hop is another favorite among the Dino’s crowd. Whether its Jay Z or Tupac, the audience is bound to go wild.
Karaoke has become such a huge part of his lifestyle, he’s always planning new songs to perform, and mining the radio for the newest hits. “Karaoke definitely determines where I go on the weekends,” he says. “I don’t go out on the weekends without singing.”
Home base: Jake’s Bar
Go-to song: John Legend, “Ordinary People”
I’m quiet, I’m not outspoken. I sing jazz, and I keep to myself.” Stepping to the microphone in Las Vegas’ smoky bars might be a pastime dominated by men, but 27-year-old Philena Carter has no problem owning the spotlight. Her shyness conceals a voice you must hear to believe.
The Oklahoma-born Carter moved to Las Vegas eight years ago and almost immediately began karaoking through a meetup group. “They started doing karaoke every Friday, and I really got hooked on it,” Carter says. “I’ve been doing it ever since.” An aspiring singer-songwriter, Carter calls karaoke the best practice a performer can get—so much so, she tries to go twice a week. “Usually, I’ll put in six or seven songs and tell them to choose randomly. I get in the mood of every song as it comes to me.”
Inside Jake’s Bar, Carter is a standout. Bar staff and patrons come up to her to say hello. “I missed that voice!” one man says of Carter’s singing style, slighty raspy and reminiscent of singer-songwriters like Corrine Bailey Rae and Colbie Caillat. She’s easily the youngest performer at Jake’s, but she keeps going back because it reminds her of home.
“I’m from Oklahoma, and the people are so much different out there,” she says. “They’re genuine and nice and if you say something to them they listen. It’s a great vibe.”
Home base: J Karaoke
Go-to song: TLC, “Creep”
Jesse Siharath comes out from behind the kitchen at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House, his crisp white shirt not yet dirtied from his shift. Aside from baking delicious pastries and cooking up killer grub at Emeril Lagasse’s MGM haunt, the sous chef is also known for rocking the mic.
Having grown up in Nashville, Siharath has a wide arsenal of material from which to choose. He loves country music but also grew up listening to TLC and Toni Braxton, so he can kick it up a notch when the timing’s right. “My music selection goes across the board. I’ll sing some bluegrass if I want to,” he laughs.
Siharath moved to Las Vegas four years ago and began karaoking with his friend and fellow chef Diane, exploring spots like J Karaoke and Zizzy that cater to private parties. “When you’re in those individual rooms, you don’t care how stupid you look,” Siharath says. “Most people have things they do after work to get their mind off it. One of my hobbies is singing. It’s time for you to just not think about anything else and have fun with your friends.”
He once won a lip-syncing competition at now-shuttered Drink and Drag with a performance of Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” For Siharath, it’s all about living the dream, even if it’s just for a moment. “You can kind of pretend you are this awesome singer like Rihanna,” he says. “Or whatever you want to be.”
Kevin Anderson & Robby Cunningham
Home base: Artifice
Go-to song: The Darkness, “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
The first time I saw Kevin Anderson and Robby Cunningham sing at the Artifice, they were shirtless and kissing onstage, hitting every high note in “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.”
“That was our thing,” Cunningham says cheekily while bartending in that very same building. “After we were done with the song, they were all just like, ‘Who the f*ck are you guys?’”
I wasn’t the only one who thought they were memorable. The two best friends made such an impression with the staff that the bar eventually hired them. “Essentially, karaoke is the whole reason both of us work here,” Anderson says.
The pair moved to Las Vegas from Detroit three years ago in hopes of discovering something completely different, and while Vegas has surpassed those expectations, the duo’s love of karaoke followed them here. “I just get a weird gratification from it that I can’t explain,” Anderson says. “It feels good nailing a song that you love, and it feels even better if there’s a completely random person who’s like, ‘Man, I didn’t see that coming.’”
It even landed Cunningham a singing gig. After seeing him perform, Vegas musician Frank Sidoris—who once toured as Slash’s guitarist—asked Cunningham to join his cover band, Royal Electric, on the spot. “It was from karaoke and doing a really mean Michael McDonald impression,” Cunningham grins.
Home base: Ellis Island
Go-to song: Lou Rawls, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”
The year was 1963, and 15-year-old Ronald Kasai was in his first band, cutting his teeth playing covers by The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison and The Animals. His group’s defining moment? Winning a battle of the bands competition and landing an opening gig for The Who, he says.
During his 70 years, the retired software engineer and multi-instrumentalist’s life has revolved around rock ’n’ roll—from running sound at a venue in Utah in the 1970s to playing bass for touring groups like Randy Hartfield & The Real McCoy Band. But it was his Army service from 1969 to 1972 that led him to develop software for car dealerships, which eventually connected him to Las Vegas. Kasai just moved here in the past year, but he’s worked—and sung karaoke—in the desert since the 1980s. “I think the very first song I sang was Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy,’ at the Excalibur,” he recalls.
Kasai never took the lead in any of his bands, but his youthful charm, classic Western style and Johnny Cash-like voice certainly commands the stage now. The night I caught him singing at Ellis Island, he was performing Conway Twitty’s “Slow Hand” in his deep and rich register. The room went quiet to take in the singer’s smooth delivery.
And even though he’s sold all but a few of his guitars, it’s his love of music that keeps him performing. “I like to sing,” Kasai explains. “Name a place, and I’ve probably sung in it.”
Home base: Champagne’s
Go-to song: Anything by Elvis or Tom Waits
When Las Vegas native Chris Moinichen isn’t slinging drinks behind the bar at Champagne’s Cafe, he’s typically touring the country, singing in rockabilly band The Delta Bombers. When he isn’t doing that, he’s probably singing karaoke.
Moinichen’s hobby originally started five years ago as a date-night activity when he met his wife. Today, it’s something the bartender gets to practice between pouring drinks for his customers.
The Delta Bombers singer is a natural-born showman; that much is evident whenever Champagne’s KJ, Doug Price, calls the bartender to the stage. The gruff-singing, beer-spitting punk singer transforms into a classic crooner under the bar’s red lights as he bellows the lyrics to Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” mimicking the King’s smoky vibrato.
Before he got into punk and metal, Moinichen grew up listening to his dad sing Elvis songs, and he’s never lost his affinity for the oldies. “I like picking different songs than what we do in the band, because I can actually practice singing different styles,” Moinichen says. “[The Delta Bombers] is like a rockabilly punk band, and I sing very rough and hard. For karaoke, I like to sing everything.”