Karaoke nights at Cathay Pacific in Quincy bring together a diverse crowd of regulars who like to belt out the classics
When things are difficult at work, or a relationship is on the rocks, or when not much is happening and it’s just a good time to perform, longtime devotees of the karaoke circuit south of Boston hit the stage.
The diverse mix of singers gathers at least once a week, if not more, in a spacious retro-style lounge at Cathay Pacific, a Chinese restaurant in Quincy and a karaoke mecca for more than 30 years.
Here the committed amateurs, typically in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, sing the classics - favorites that include the smooth tunes of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, the disco harmonies of the Bee Gees, the rhythm-and-blues of Gladys Knight, and the jazz vocals of Billie Holiday.
“This is what we call the old school,’’ said Andre Wright, a Dorchester resident. Moments earlier he was tapping his foot and shaking his shoulders on stage, his high-falsetto rendition of a ballad inspiring people to dance. He said he likes to sing about relationships. He likes the release.
“It relieves a lot of stress. You don’t have to be a great singer, but you can express a feeling,’’ said Wright, a soft-spoken man dressed in all black, a single gold chain set over his shirt. He works as a house manager at the Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston.
“These are basically our local karaoke heavy hitters,’’ he said. “We’re not like American Idol or anything, but we’d qualify. We support each other. We’ve known each other for years. It’s like the Cheers bar here.’’
On stage, Bob Mitchell of Quincy, a regular since 1994, known by the others as Bobby Bob, a tall man with tattoos of shamrocks and a Celtic cross on his arms, is crooning a Frank Sinatra song, owning the space as he snaps his fingers and strolls the dance floor.
“Everyone enjoys Bobby Bob, he’s the entertainer. He’s the one who breaks the ice. He gets people up there,’’ said Wright, nodding as Mitchell begins to serenade a table of women. “That right there is signature Bobby Bob.’’
The camaraderie among the two dozen or so karaoke devotees at the Cathay Pacific crosses racial and class lines. It creates a bond so strong an American Irish-Italian DJ describes it as inspiring, altering the environment for all.
“There’s a whole lot of people from diverse cultures that walk through those doors, but they all have something in common - a love of music,’’ said Joe Taliaferro, known as DJ Joey, in the house twice a week.
“Lots of people thought karaoke died years ago. I was apprehensive to get involved at first, I didn’t know what to expect,’’ said Taliaferro, a disc jockey for 31 years, brought on board by Joe Petruzzelli, who is known as DJ Joe Pet, to host a couple of the five karaoke nights offered weekly at Cathay Pacific.
“I found there is literally a circuit of karaoke junkies,’’ he said. “And there is a real culture of nonjudgment here; people care about each other. I’ve absolutely fallen in love with it. I feel the people here have blessed me with their presence, whether they’re black, white, Asian, whatever.’’
This array of karaoke’s frequent fliers hail from Quincy, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Braintree, Hyde Park, Rockland, and Pembroke, to name a few spots, the regulars said.
The chance to sing, offered Sunday through Thursday, draws crowds that are sometimes mainly white, sometimes mainly black, and sometimes mixed, the regulars say.
The talent is also mixed.
“Some of these people could go professional but would rather come down here and chill out without the pressure,’’ said Petruzzelli, who is in charge of the karaoke program, a DJ for three nights per week, and a professional drummer. He also hosts an annual summer karaoke contest at Cathay Pacific.
“Some are not singers but they are great entertainers. It doesn’t matter if you are good or not, nobody boos you here,’’ he said.
Singers have a selection of more than 250,000 songs, Petruzzelli said, and a sound system that lets them prove themselves.
While some at Cathay Pacific said they occasionally check out karaoke in other spots, such as the Great Chow in Abington or Kings in Dedham, they find the singers are young, fun, but without the serious devotion that inspires “the old school.’’
The trick to performing your best, aside from practice, is to know the mood you are in and the atmosphere in the room, said David Bowden, a Roxbury resident and a regular at these karaoke nights for 20 years.
“You wouldn’t do something the room wouldn’t get,’’ he said. “Tonight we have a mix, urban inner-city folks, couples, and suburban guys coming to watch the sports game. You have to know when a night is kind of dead because that’s when you try new songs, and it’s OK to bomb because it’s only us.’’
Bowden and Yma Arrington, also a Roxbury resident and a regular for eight years, got up on stage, and all chatter ceased as the friends performed a duet, “Where is the Love,’’ by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Bowden sang the straight melody; Arrington the harmony. The applause was sincere; people had been transported.
“It’s a big family. The only thing you need to do to get into the family is sing a song,’’ said Bowden, after the performance. He and Arrington met through karaoke; he is a pest control specialist, she is a retired member of a force she asked be referred to only as “Boston’s finest.’’
“Karaoke is very addictive,’’ said Arrington. “People have their songs, and we all know it. We know things about each other. You make friends here, people you’d never expect.’’
She noted her acquaintance with “both Joes’’ - “DJ Joey’’ and “DJ Joe Pet’’ - and a young woman, a college student, seated beside her, nicknamed, for reasons none explain, “Shady 140,’’ a moniker shouted out whenever she takes the stage.
“There’s a bunch of us and there’s no color lines,’’ said Arrington, an accomplished soul singer who has also performed at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston. “We give everybody a little nickname.’’
Over at the Polynesian tiki bar at the back of the karaoke lounge, Ella Wiggins, 42, a Randolph resident and writer, was drinking festive Long Island ice teas with Crystal Williams, 43, a Boston resident and city labor department employee. Neither are karaoke devotees, they said, but they like to watch.
“I love the guy right here - the tall white guy at the end of the bar. He puts on a show. He comes over and sings to you,’’ said Wiggins.
She pointed toward Mitchell - Bobby Bob - who was talking with one and all.
Mitchell said karaoke is his saving grace. Loyalty to karaoke was the reason for the demise of his last romantic relationship, a union of three years destroyed by the jealous strain created by his passion for singing to an audience, a devotion played out several nights per week.
“Over the years,’’ he said, “when I had really bad days, no matter how bad, I could come here to escape. When I’m performing, people come up to me and say, ‘Bobby Bob, we love you, man.’ One time an old couple came in for Chinese food, and they told me: ‘You made our night.’ ’’
Now when he sings he moves like a true performer, as if holding a microphone in a swanky Las Vegas nightclub.
“I play Frank Sinatra,’’ Mitchell said. “It’s like I’m being him, a great entertainer.
“Nobody can ask me to give that up, this is my outlet. It’s my best thing.’’
Meg Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.