KJ 2 KJ: Interview with Bill Ramsey, former karaoke host at Powell’s Pubby Amber Fellows, Issac Levine, Ruby Monceaux and Aaron Apsey
For over a decade, you could find Bill Ramsey hosting karaoke on Thursday and Saturday nights at Powell’s Pub on North Huron Street in Ypsilanti. ‘Bill’s Karaoke’ provided a much-loved evening landing spot for a diverse crowd: karaoke die-hards, EMU alumni, military, students, and folks from the neighborhood would arrive in the house-turned-bar after work to grab a drink and sing country-western, hip hop, 80’s hits, and devotional love songs to the backdrop of a shiny and unwieldy laserdisc rig and two CRT TVs. One TV displayed lyrics to sing along to, and the other displayed a montage of confusingly nostalgic, low-budget videos of anonymous actors in loose narratives accompanying each song. Week after week, Bill’s Karaoke was a reliable spot to tap into the pulse of one corner of Ypsi’s nightlife.
Earlier this year, Bill announced he would be phasing out his laserdisc rig and introducing digital karaoke. Soon after that announcement, Bill unexpectedly disappeared and was replaced with a younger gent who used computers instead of laserdiscs. What’s Left contributors were going to Powell’s and wondering, like in Fargo, ‘was Bill ever really here?’ Eerily, no one at Powell’s, or at McShane’s where Bill also hosted karaoke, seemed to know how to reach him. What on earth happened to laserdisc Bill? We at What’s Left had to find out, and so we did—after finally reaching Bill on the phone, we set up a date to meet at the McDonald’s on Michigan Ave. Interviewers and Bill’s Karaoke-heads Amber Fellows and Aaron Apsey, along with fellow karaoke hosts Ruby Monceaux and Isaac Levine, spent an hour with Bill to glean some wisdom from one of the most generous and welcoming karaoke hosts there is. We spent that hour with Bill discussing fair karaoke practices, his laserdisc setup, and Ypsi’s local karaoke stars.
Amber Fellows: Bill, after you left it was definitely like: ‘This is a big deal—we need to interview Bill.’
Bill Ramsey: I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was leaving. I didn’t want anyone to make a fuss or nothing like that, so I just kind of quietly left… [Since then] every time I’d hear a [certain] song on the radio—I’d think of everyone who’d sang that particular song.
AF: We get it but… people noticed.
BR: To begin with, I retired and I can only earn so much money. And I have a day job so I cut [karaoke] out so I wouldn’t earn too much money. I have another job digging egresses, and I used to do karaoke every night except Monday, so I’d be working 7 days a week.
Isaac Levine: You mean working 13 days a week.
BR: *Laughs* Yeah, pretty much. If we dug too many egresses in a day I would have barely enough time to take a shower and get the dirt off me before heading over to karaoke. And coming home from karaoke, I’d almost fall asleep at the stoplight at around 3 a.m.
AF: What time would you get up in the morning to dig egresses?
BR: Usually about 5 or 6 in the morning.
AF: So you’d sleep for about two hours?
BR: Yeah … That only lasted for about 3 years. [Author’s Note: wow react]
AF: Did you work only in Ypsi?
BR: No I’ve worked all over—Monroe Community College, Scone’s in Westland, Buffalo Wild Wings, the Mobile Lounge, Eastern, Kicker’s Youth Lounge, the bowling alley in Saline, Wiard’s, Kavill’s… Some nights I would set up two systems. I would be at Kicker’s until 10 p.m. and then I’d run over to the Mobile Lounge from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday nights.
AF: How long did you work at Powell’s?
BR: Honestly, I can’t remember how long its been. Rick and Debby were the owners then but now Tony took over, and I’d like a big shoutout to go to Tony because I appreciated the opportunity. All the waitresses were really nice to me like Shelly, Christine, Desirae, Amanda, Angela, Jamie…
AF: You know everybody! So where did you grow up?
BR: I didn’t grow up far from here; I grew up in Westland. [I] graduated from John Glenn High School.
AF: How did you get started hosting karaoke?
BR: The guy I grew up with is Dave Holloway of Cadillac Karaoke. He had karaoke when karaoke first started. He asked me to work for him, and I said ‘sure’.
AF: Did you find you were naturally inclined to hosting?
BR: To be honest with you, I was way too shy to get up in front of people. That’s everyone’s biggest fear. I was bowling and there was this karaoke host who was the woman who was singing the national anthem for the Tigers and the Red Wings—Karen Newman. Somebody else put my name down to sing and shamed me into getting up there, and once I sang I thought ‘This isn’t too bad.’
AF: Were the laserdiscs that you used to run karaoke a requirement or were they your personal preference?
BR: I liked to use them—they had the video. Laptops don’t have the video. Sometimes [the videos are] corny, sometimes they’re cool, so that’s what I enjoyed. It entertained the crowd too. I couldn’t always remember [song] names but with the laserdiscs I could remember numbers…
IL: I noticed sometimes you’d get up and sing with people—how did you choose songs to sing?
BR: If people asked me to sing a song, I’d sing. You know, I’m trying to have fun too.
IL: Has there ever been one you didn’t want to sing?
BR: No—because you know what, when I hear you guys sing it makes me think of another song and I try to recommend people to try the song and see if they like it.
IL: I noticed in your hosting style that you are really relaxed.
BR: It’s because I’m there to have fun too. I know what it was like on the other side: maybe wanting to sing a song, you see what I’m saying? I wanted to lay everything out on the table, basically what order [the singers] are in and where they’re at. I know some places where [karaoke hosts] have their favorite people go on and a lot of people don’t like that; it’s not fair because everyone likes to sing.
IL: [Ruby and I] do internet karaoke and we don’t have a book, so people just come up and ask us for songs. It seems like you have perfected a system, with the books and the TVs, where people can know what’s happening without asking.
BR: I like to make it fair because you can only get 12 singers in in an hour and I wanted everyone to have a chance.
AF: You were generous about that too; from what I could tell you didn’t take breaks!
BR: Some [karaoke hosts] take a 15-minute smoke break… I never really even went to the bathroom!
IL: Such a high level of karaoke service! After doing your more physical labor-intensive work in the morning, did running karaoke feel relaxed?
BR: Well, it was a lot easier. I came to have fun. It wasn’t the money… I probably would’ve done it for free!
AF : Your KJ setup is labor-intensive: I’d see you carry in the laserdiscs, the TVs, books, etc—Did anyone ever help you carry your gear in?
BR: People that would sing would often come out and help. Certain bouncers too.
AF: Can you describe your relationship with Ypsi?
BR: You guys are all my friends. Everyone who came to karaoke were all friends of mine. I love everybody. I’m the type of person who doesn’t meet anyone they don’t like, unless they give me a reason not to. Sometimes people were way too drunk but I still got a long with ‘em. Sometimes I’d give people rides home.
BR: Everyone knows Ellen—
AF: Ellen Champagne?
BR: She was too nervous to sing. And you know I had people like Ellen—for 2 or 3 years she couldn’t sing. She was like I was: too shy to get up.
AF: —[and now] she’s an amazing singer. [Author’s Note: Ellen is also an elected official on the Ypsilanti school board]
BR: And she makes the best fudge in the world. It’s better than the Mackinac fudge by a landslide. She would bring it to me on Christmas and stuff.
AF: Was there anything different about working in Ypsi compared to your other gigs?
BR: Here’s the thing about Powell’s: A lot of the older people were people that graduated years ago. People move away, but when they come back, they would come to Powell’s because it was a fun time. It was a good mixture of people that come in there—young, old… everyone has a good time. Young people singing old songs. Old people singing young songs. It’s a good mixture, a good fit—it’s a perfect karaoke place!
AF: Did you ever lose your cool?
BR: Nope. Oh… one time. A guy wanted me to sing a song that I didn’t have, but he was so drunk and I couldn’t put it up. [gesturing to Ruby and Isaac] How do you guys handle that?
Ruby Monceaux: Usually when somebody has got some sort of an attitude I just pretend I can’t hear them until they walk away.
BR: *Laughs* That’s kind of a good idea ‘cause if you make people mad they might be swinging and hitting ya or something. Life’s too short to have any problems.
RM: And they can’t take it personally if I don’t know what they’re saying.
BR: The thing is, they can choose another song. There’s a song in the book for everybody. And the song that they can sing—generally it’s their favorite song; I’m serious!
AF: Do you have a favorite song you like to sing?
BR: I don’t.
Aaron Apsey: A top 5?
BR: Brown Eyed Girl, Jesse’s Girl… A Bad Case of Loving You. I like Beatles songs… I like a lot of songs and it just depends on the mood.
AF: I have an industry question: What is the industry standard pay for a karaoke night so [that new karaoke hosts entering the scene] don’t get ripped off?
BR: Back in the day people used to make $350 or $450 a night. Nowadays some people do it for beer money.
AA: *Laughs* I believe that.
BR: Generally, we would charge $150 a night. Half to Dave (Holloway, owner of Cadillac Karaoke where Bill worked) and I’d take $75.
AF: Why has there been a fee reduction?
BR: Because so many people do it and some do it for beer money.
IL: And there aren’t talks of starting a karaoke union…
BR: I’ve never heard of that! *laughs* It’s just, you know, sometimes people would tip me. But if they do tip you, you put ‘em up a bit [in the queue].
AF: Any favorite memories from your career of hosting?
BR: I’ve had some beautiful nights up north at my brother-in-law’s. There was a game room downstairs but then you’d walk outside and it was cement and there was a roof over it… And over there there was like a hill. One night I set up karaoke outside and a lot of people were sitting out there and we were doing karaoke underneath the moon and the stars. It was the best karaoke night ever. Up north it was really hilly—people could probably hear us like 5 miles down the road! It was awesome.
AF: I have one more question: What are your plans for the future?
BR: I can’t earn any extra money for one more year, and then after that I don’t know… I might even get back into karaoke again!