BY Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Don’t call Gary Shreffler a karaoke singer. The Tempe resident takes offense to that label.
“There’s a difference between a karaoke singer and singers who do karaoke,” he says. “I’m the latter.”
Typical karaoke singers, he says, go out every once in a while. If they’re avid singers, they may go out once a week and perform the same songs repeatedly.
“They don’t put any work into it,” he adds. “They’re just having fun. The other type—the singers who do karaoke—is someone who takes the art very seriously and spend way stupid money getting good at it.”
Shreffler says he’s not alone. Singers abound in the Valley who perform karaoke to stay tuned up.
“I started out as a karaoke singer,” he admits. “I won’t deny that a bit.”
Tricks of the trade
Shreffler realized he could only hone his vocal skills so much on his own. Of all the things in his life that he does well, he adds, he does one thing exceptionally—sing.
Now 62, he started karaoke at 37 and took singing lessons from age 45 to 54. In 2007, he attended a professional singing camp in Hollywood.
“You know in these movies how men go through their mid-life crazy stage? I couldn’t afford to buy a car,” he says with a laugh. “My middle-age crazy was to decide to have the voice I didn’t have as a kid. I had a picture in my head about how far I could go. I far exceeded that.”
Shreffler grew up just south of Chicago. When he was 37, he was temporarily homeless and working menial jobs. On St. Patrick’s Day weekend of 1995, friends invited him to karaoke night.
“I discovered with my second song, ‘Mack the Knife,’ that I could do this,” he says. “Two songs after that, they’re all cheering me on from the corner table. This sensation came up from my toes—the sensation of power.
“Mentally, I’m going, ‘What in the world? Where is this coming from?’ It just poured out. Because I was living out of a camping trailer in Tucson. Even in late March nights, it got pretty cold. Karaoke was an excuse to stay out until the bars closed. Then I didn’t have to spend all that alone time in the trailer.”
Soon, karaoke became an addiction. One particular night, he was performing “smoother stuff.” The crowd was getting amped up, he says, and a “smart karaoke singer plays to the crowd.”
What did he whip out?
“I pulled out Metallica,” he says. “A lot of people poo poo karaoke. Metallica lead singer James Hetfield is extremely easy to do. He has a growl in his voice, and that was the first tool I used way, way back when I started with ‘Mack the Knife.’ But I don’t do crowd-pleasing songs. That’s a cheap way to get applause.”
Cheryl Guy sang in karaoke competitions as a way of meeting new people after she moved to Arizona. It worked. One person she met was Shreffler.
“We just started going with him and got addicted,” Guy says. “I grew up singing in church. I was the church choir soloist. I had the opportunity once to do work on a cruise ship, but I have two boys and we have a business. I maybe would have considered it when I was young.”
Guy was singing on Tuesday nights at the Nestle Café in the West Valley when she was asked to compete. She pauses to think about her forte, then says she sings country, ballads, ’80s rock hits and jazzy songs, like those by Norah Jones.
“I have a big mouth,” she says with a laugh. “I have a hard time quieting my voice. That’s a weakness with me singing. It probably comes from church, too. I sing a lot of gospel.”
Specializing in ’90s alternative
Julee Payne vividly remembers the first song she sang—it was a Spice Girls tune.
She specializes in ’90s alternative and ’80s rock, like the Scorpions and Queen.
“I’m all over the place,” Payne says. “But it gets me out of my shell. I’m actually really shy. For me, it’s a way to get to know people and relax after a hard day of work.”
One song she just cannot sing is “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” by Meghan Trainor and John Legend.
“I cannot sing that one,” she says. I would love to, but it’s very hard.”
Couples who sing together
Jim Gill and Allison SyWassink are naturals when it comes to singing. Like Guy, Gill started singing karaoke to meet people after moving here from Milwaukee. He went to a variety of places because he “didn’t want to be that guy who was singing the same song in the same place.”
The addiction became a monster that just hasn’t stopped, he says.
SyWassink’s story is different. Her background is in classical music, and she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance. She didn’t go to bars in her 20s for fear of smoke ruining her voice.
She did karaoke a handful of times in her life, but after she met Gill, things changed. She went to support him.
“I look at karaoke as just something fun,” she says. “I like to sing, obviously. I’m a little more comfortable now singing pop music. I appreciate the fact that karaoke is a nice way to give anybody a chance to get up and burst out their inner rock star—from good singers to those who are almost tone deaf.”