Retired Northbrook Police Detective Don Henderson thrives in a second career as a popular local karaoke host.
The orange and pink neon sign sheds a bug-zapper-like glow over the parking lot on this humid July evening. The large, vertical B-O-W-L-I-N-G sign’s “O” sports three holes—it’s a bowling ball—and in case you miss that subtlety, there’s a tilted bowling pin right next to it. Jeffery Lanes (125 N. Wolf Road at Dundee in Wheeling, Illinois)—a dirty, cinder-block building in a strip mall, surrounded by yellow-brick, 1960s-era apartment complexes—looks like a thousand other neighborhood bowling alleys. Nothing on the outside, however, suggests the scene inside.
It’s Friday night and most of the regulars are here. No one is bowling. Jason—a tall, mid-thirties guy in jeans and a plain black T-shirt—leans against the bar with a wireless mic, crooning one of his stream of songs that starts out subdued, but gets racier as the night (and the alcohol) flows. Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off is the present state of things, suggesting mid-level alcohol content, but at least we haven’t yet gotten to Clarence Carter’s I Stroke It.
Next up is Aaron, 27, fresh from his Appleby’s job and still in uniform: a blue ball cap with matching shirt and slacks. Pale, short and mildly doughy, in glasses and a goatee—and, perpetually, his Appleby’s cap—Aaron surprises newbies with the low, masculine register of Bob Seeger or Gordon Lightfoot. For his first number, he performs his signature 70s funk song, Vehicle:
“I'm your vehicle, baby I'll take you anywhere you wanna go I'm your vehicle, woman By now I'm sure you know That I love ya (love ya) I need ya (need ya) I want ya, got to have you, child Great God in heaven, you know I love you.”
At the center of these festivities is Don Henderson, a retired, 58-year-old Northbrook Police Department homicide detective and former FBI narcotics task force member. Henderson hosts karaoke at Old Munich Inn in Wheeling on Tuesdays; Trax Tavern and Grill in Deerfield on Wednesdays; and here at Jeffery Lanes in Wheeling on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. No singer himself, Henderson pours his heart and soul into karaoke. He considers himself a “producer of entertainment,” and repeatedly urges me to check out his Website, www.chicagosoundmachine.com, where he feels he has done a good job of articulating his philosophy. (“Sing in the style of the original artist!” suggests the Website. “Remember, exceptional service is our standard.”) He upgraded to digital equipment to record his regulars’ songs for them, and taught himself to program the extensive Website (“Everything you see is me,” he says proudly)—which includes recordings of his singers, photos, detailed information about the bars, an address finder, karaoke contest online voting, and MPEG files of national beer commercials that Henderson likes. He even trained with Comcast in Skokie, to produce on-location cable-access karaoke shows for special occasions like New Years Eve and Halloween. “When is Elvis’ birthday?” he’s asking tonight.
Chain-smoking Henderson—with his cropped white hair, pronounced Chicago accent, and twenty-seven years on the force—is far from the usual rocker-wannabe hosting bar karaoke. He’s also a mixture of opposites: friendly and voluble on the subject of karaoke, adoring of his patrons, yet reverting, at times, to cop-like taciturnity when he’s not the one asking the questions. Of medium height and build, in a collared knit shirt and slacks, he greets his regulars in the bar with smiles, backslaps and hugs.
Smoke from Henderson’s Marlboros rises in the glow of the disco light on his karaoke machine. This is not mere silliness to him, the cast of characters around him notwithstanding. Chicago Sound Machine is the self-owned business he’s built from the ground up over the past eight years. He takes his job as seriously as his singers take their songs, building his days around his gigs—arriving by van at 2:00 in the afternoon to set up his own top-of-the-line karaoke machine, monitor, PA system, 3-inch binders of songs (listed by title and artist), and a CD library of 8,600 songs—and returning for 9:00 pm start times. (My Internet research on his specific system1 suggests that an investment like this represents at least $5,000 in equipment and another $5,000 or more in songs.) The bars are his customers, paying him to attract karaoke singers and keep the alcohol selling. But the singers are the people he needs to please.
And in the eight years he’s been in this business, Henderson has developed quite a local following: Dozens cram into the small bar in front of Jeffery’s every Thursday night—his most popular—to practice their warbles and live out their star fantasies. “Don is just great,” says Diane, 39, another regular—a full-figured, beret-wearing mother of a teenager and a self-labeled “karaoke junky,” who favors country-rock songs you can belt. Henderson has been at Jeffery Lanes now for a good four or five years, and has survived two changes of ownership. “They heard good things,” he says, to account for his longevity.
While working, Henderson stands unobtrusively to the side of the “stage” area, allowing his singers their moments of glory, laughing at their hi-jinks with real enjoyment. Between songs, he pleasantly announces the singer, the song title, and the person who’s up next, and changes CDs in a precise choreography. Henderson and his singers don’t have much room to maneuver. Jeffery’s small barroom sits at the front of the building, with the bowling alley in the back. The bar itself—strings of paper lanterns and Cubs flags pinned over it—wraps around two sides of the room. Only four tables dot the tiny floor space. Henderson’s karaoke machine, monitor, and several large suitcases filled with CDs sit on folding tables near the front window; a fragment of floor space serves as a makeshift stage. Henderson has given this configuration some thought: Nervous singers can face the window—and the blue karaoke monitor with the words—and block out the rest of the bar behind them. “I tell them, ‘Don’t ever look at the crowd—just look at the words.’”
I’ve seen a lot of karaoke and karaoke hosts. Some trash talk their buddies in the audience, and move their songs ahead of everyone else’s. Some get bored with hosting, and put on loud classic-rock while they take a cigarette break outside. Almost all of them take over the mic from the singers every fourth or fifth song, to impress the crowd with their own vocal talents. Don Henderson doesn’t do any of this—yet people flock to his shows. His attention is on his patrons: He’s a singer’s karaoke host.
Born in 1948, Henderson grew up in Waukegan, in the neighborhood of Belvidere and West Streets—“a mix of Whites, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans,” he says. His parents owned and operated the corner bar called Don & Kate’s Tavern—“my father’s and mother’s names.” Henderson has a long history with law enforcement. He served four years in the United States Air Force as a security police officer during the Vietnam War. Upon his return in 1973, he joined the Village of Northbrook police force. Over the next quarter-century, Henderson worked his way from patrolman, to juvenile officer, to homicide detective and FBI task force member.
Working on the force could be brutal. “You were on-call twenty-four, seven.” As a senior detective, Henderson was assigned to work homicide cases. “You were under a lot of pressure to close ‘em within 48 hours. You’d end up sleepin’ at the station. I’d fill up an ashtray like this all the time”—he waves his hand at a beer pail filled with sand on a picnic table, into which he’s already tossed four or five butts in the last forty minutes, while we’ve been chatting behind the bowling alley before the gig. “We did switch from donuts to bagels, though.” He laughs at his cop joke. “New York Bagels in Northbrook. And coffee, goin’ all the time.”
He even worked for a couple of years for “the Feds” in Arlington Heights—“undercover with the FBI. I got to work on good stuff, like money laundering and narcotics.” I don’t suppose he could tell us more about that? “No,” he smiles. “No.” He won’t elaborate.
In 1999, Henderson and his wife Sarah frequented the now-defunct Guardino’s Steak and Seafood on Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling. Both sang karaoke there. “I wasn’t much of a singer—but people kept saying I had a good voice for an announcer.” He does have a great voice, low and warm, somewhere between the crunch of new gravel and the taste of hot caramel syrup. You’d think he’d sing a mean Sinatra.
On the eve of his retirement from the police force in 1999, Henderson was looking for a good part-time business idea. “I was burned out, and didn’t want anything to do with police work or security at age 51,” he explains. He convinced Guardino’s owner, Mike, to let him try hosting one night a week. Mike agreed, and gave him Wednesday night—the slowest night. As a prerequisite, Henderson had to buy his own equipment, as well as a small starter kit of songs. His first investment was not in the most expensive gear. (“It’s still in my garage,” he says.) Despite these limitations, Henderson’s personality drew people to the bar and Wednesdays became Guardino’s biggest karaoke night. Soon Mike was asking him to take other nights, eventually replacing the girl who worked karaoke on Saturday, their busiest bar night. During his first six months hosting, Henderson was still employed and on-call with the Northbrook Police Department full-time. He was lucky: “I never got a call while I was hosting, thank God.”
Patty, the bartender, is up now. She’s 50ish, slender, with permed, bleached hair, and a tan that looks a little leathery. Her flat delivery is perfect for the song, These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ by Nancy Sinatra. Next we have “Pittsburgh”—that’s his karaoke name, no one knows his real one—in military fatigue shorts, a black Metal Haven T-shirt, a black ball cap, black socks and brown loafers. A tuft of light-brown, frizzed hair sticks out the back of the ball cap. Tattoos cover both arms, and tattooed barbed wire snakes around his throat, ending with a skull at the back of his neck. His song choice seems a little tame for his outfit: Gimme All Your Lovin’ by ZZ Top. Karaoke CD manufacturers don’t cater well to the speed metal crowd.
In early 2000, Henderson officially retired from the police department, and began putting his energy into his newly formed karaoke company, Chicago Sound Machine. It seemed the perfect part-time business to keep him busy and making some extra money. When Guardino’s folded, he went place-to-place along the North Shore drumming up business. (“One benefit of this business is that I can work close to home!”) He signed on at Gators for awhile, but they were slow one summer and let him go. He started up with Trax in Deerfield on Wednesdays and Saturdays; when the Gators manager wanted him back at the end of summer, he couldn’t justify abandoning his new manager, Franco, at Trax. He slowly added to his portfolio—first Munich Inn, and then Jeffery’s. Every time, he formed lasting relationships with his bars, by consistently attracting more karaoke singers—and, therefore, more paying bar patrons—than previous hosts.
His fans struggle at first when asked what it is exactly about Henderson that keeps them coming back. All they know is that he’s a “great guy,” and they always have a good time. They can recite the good times for you: endless theme parties, New Years Eve, Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, a pajama party. Halloween when Henderson dressed as a Blues Brother. Henderson’s birthday party when everyone bought him dirty gifts: right there on the Website he’s holding up the nipple and the virility test, grinning. In fact, it’s possible that Henderson’s nice-guy, fatherly image is a bit spruced up for my presence. He once showed up at Jeffery’s buzzed, around 11:00 or so on a night he wasn’t working—“hugs and kisses, arms around folks, rubbing backs…but kicked up a notch or ten!” says Diane. People kept buying him more drinks, and soon he was on-stage with the singers: “It started with just a little swaying, and wound up with him sitting on laps, jumping in between folks dancing, dragging people out to dance with him,” Diane recalls. “[Finally] he was dirty dancing—I mean, like, ass-spanking—with every woman in the bar.”
Certainly much of Henderson’s popularity is the sheer effort and attention he puts into showing his bars’ patrons a good time. He pays to print free hard-stock cards 5,000 at a time for singers to fill out their song selections, and “I save the cards for ‘em, too”—filing and bringing the cards back each night, so that the singers don’t have to look up their songs anew. He once purchased disco lights for shows at the cost of $800 per light (“the kind you put in a nightclub, or a fancy dance place,” he explains), only to shelve them in his garage when singers complained the bright lights were in their eyes. Henderson’s self-maintained Website is so extensive that one of his bars, Trax, shut down their own poorly designed site, and they now direct their customers to his: “They tell people to go to my site to look at their menu.” Henderson even advertises the bars’ other entertainment acts for free: A few months ago, he took it upon himself to produce posters free-of-charge for the Toni Smith show at Old Munich, and “the group loved it—they took ‘em and made more.” He even purchases songs from a Polish karaoke label—in Polish—for a large group of enthusiastic immigrants who like to sing at his shows.
It’s hard to imagine Henderson makes much money at this.
In his most out-there move, he attended classes for months at Comcast’s local studio to become a certified producer, all so he could air cable-access TV shows of his karaoke parties. He filmed his first show at the Comcast studio in Skokie, bribing his singers to the show with free pizza and pop. The singers complained about the time it took him to set up the equipment between songs—“the whole deal took three hours” says Henderson—and about having to travel to Skokie. Now he films his parties on-location at Jeffery’s, setting up the lighting on the bowling lanes behind the bar area. These videos give singers exactly the jolt of stardom they’re looking for. “A couple of my friends called me once,” says Diane with obvious pleasure. “They saw clips from the Halloween party one night as they were flipping through stations.”
Henderson does want to make one thing clear: he will not do private parties. He tried that route early on: “You end up being the babysitter for the kids. It’s a nightmare—you can’t wait to get out.” Once he was left in a room with “ten or twelve kids between the ages of six and ten.” They ran around all night long, knocking over his equipment, grabbing the mics from one another, and screaming—while the adults who hired him were nowhere to be found. It was too much chaos even for a former cop. Now he refuses to host private parties, even when the prospective customer insists there will be no children: “I ain’t takin’ no chances.”
Another thing Henderson’s not interested in are contests—the serious singer type of karaoke contests, such as the World Series of Karaoke auditions for a new, national reality-TV show, which are currently being held in Chicago. The World Series recruited karaoke hosts to hold auditions in local bars around the city, but Henderson was indifferent. His biggest concern is that it doesn’t make money for his bars: “All those people do is drink water and Coca Cola. No one wants to get drunk for the competition. Who’s gonna pay for this?” Henderson hosts his own contests for his regulars, who are more than willing to get drunk as part of the effort.
Not quite everyone in the bar is into karaoke tonight. Two young guys come in speaking Spanish loudly—right over the music—and order a couple of drinks. They leave after two songs. A skinny, 60-something gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt sits at the bar alone watching the Cubs game on the flat panel TV, near a 40ish woman from Diane’s job whose name Diane can’t remember. The woman swats the guy’s hand off her shoulder.
Henderson’s only pet peeve about his beloved regulars is when they try to borrow money from him. “They run up their bar tab too high, and then they come to me. I say, I’m trying to make money here!” In Japan—where karaoke famously originated—singers pay to sing each song, he observes. Still, Henderson doubts that would be a good financial model for him: “I’m lucky to get two dollars in tips sometimes.” It’s one of the disadvantages of working in the same venues for a long time: “You usually get more tips in new places.”
Suddenly, a 50-ish unbathed-looking man at the bar, with matted hair and crazed eyes, yells “Hell, yeah!” at the wrong place during Diane’s rendition of Redneck Woman. Without missing a beat, she turns to me during the instrumental bridge and says mildly, “Tommy is the psycho.” Tommy proves this by rushing the stage on cue whenever a woman takes the mic; several men in the crowd help drag him off-stage each time. Bud, an elderly gentleman with a four-pronged “quad” cane, sings 1940s numbers. “Who’s up?” yells someone; “Be patient,” answers another, as Bud makes his way up. At the end of The Anniversary Song, Bud offers his alternative lyrics: “Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed; we danced all night because there was no bed.” The crowd laughs. Gene, a large, quiet man who fills in for Henderson as a host sometimes, sings Elvis tunes, and actually does them justice. “We all need a twelve-step program,” he jokes to me.
There’s something intangible about what Henderson has done here, and I see why the patrons struggle to express it. It’s the “Cheers factor”—his knack for creating an environment where everybody really does know your name. People can come here by themselves. More than that, they can come here as themselves and know they’ll be recognized and welcomed. Even in neighborhood bars, this level of community is rare.
It also helps solve the puzzle of how a police detective turns into a karaoke host. Not only does this life provide a vacation from the pressures of law enforcement—but his former police days make this business a slam-dunk. He’s seen it all; human quirks and foibles don’t faze him. “Don’s very non-judgmental and open,” says Diane. “He just gets a kick out of all the interaction and drama that goes on.” And because Henderson is in karaoke for business reasons—not to advance his singing career—he has no ego investment in upstaging his singers. “The patrons encouraged me so much, that after three months I was hooked,” he recalls about his early hosting days. What he doesn’t necessarily see is how much he’s encouraging them.
Henderson tries to explain the appeal of this karaoke business one more time—“I just enjoy the people,” is all he can come up with. And he really does.
1 (return to text) His current system is a Pioneer 2-disc CD+G Karaoke Player, Behringer Mixer, two Shure UHF Wireless SM58 Mics, two JBL Eon 15 G Powered Speakers, and a Samsung 20″ LCD TV Monitor.