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The Ballad of Little Lou

The best karaoke in town is holed up in a little club along West 54th. Won't you stop in and sing along?

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Everybody knows the man with the microphone. Choruses of "Little Lou! Howya doin'?" are unavoidable upon passing through the foreboding front door at Tina's Nite Club. But if the jovial vibes and the cold beer you're about to order don't set your mind at ease, perhaps the man himself can draw you into the neon glow of good times and, inevitably, a little bit of Journey's greatest hits along the way.

Little Lou saddles toward the corner, lugging in his equipment for the night. He's the guy you've got to see if you want to belt out your favorite tunes on the ol' karaoke rig. Thankfully, he's the best in the game.

"I've learned a lot of people to sing," Lou says, reflecting wistfully. "I learned my girlfriend to sing. She never did karaoke; she was one of the shyest girls in Cleveland. Now I can't keep her off the mic." Lou's smile is infectious.

It's about 8:30 p.m. The show won't start for another hour, but there's a steady roster of regulars hanging at the bar. Sweaty bottles of Miller Lite stand at attention, emptying slowly as the sun dips low behind the scant Detroit-Shoreway skyline of homes.

Lou, 68, runs the show Wednesday and Thursday nights at Tina's. Really, though, he'll tell you that everyone in the room is running the show. It's a family.

"I'm an entertainer," Lou says, taking a quick drag off a cigarette and letting a sly smile wash across his face. He's leaning back comfortably in a plastic chair on the club's patio, awaiting the night ahead with laid-back optimism. A prison-yard chain-link fence surrounds him, because that's just how Tina's rolls. People start trickling into the bar and out toward the patio, lighting up and talking about anything and everything.

"You know what? It's the atmosphere. Everybody knows everybody," Lou says. He's been manning the karaoke op at Tina's for 17 years. "They come out here and they just have a ball."

A grizzled man bursts from the door just now — "Gahddam, it's still dayligh' out." — blinking bleary eyes in the early evening sun. Elsewhere, a pair of young ladies discuss plans for a midsummer party: "We're doin' a barbecue. We want to hire you again, Lou."

Most nights at Tina's, beneath neon and haze, the mic passes hands and soaks up the zealous voices of eager singers. Lou chats up the crowd between songs, congratulating each participant and doffing his cap at their willingness to step up and lend their budding talents for a few minutes. Business as usual. This show's been going on for nearly 20 years. But beyond his humble, craggy exterior, Lou's got a lifelong relationship with fun and music.

Lou loves music.

Karaoke wasn't always the plan, of course. But Lou's heart married the gods of music many moons ago. He began playing guitar at age 12. His ears guided him through time, alongside all the artists he's enjoyed. Later on, he formed a long-running band called Crosstown Country. Lou played guitar, harmonica and piano. He was damn good and he could thrown down with the best of them. The band was damn good.

Things end, though, and time tends to exacerbate complications among close friends. After a while, Lou felt he had to split and find something new.

"I'm going out on my own. I'm going into KARAOKE," he recounts with characteristic verve. "They said, 'You must be crazy.' I said, 'I'll give anything a shot.'" He traded in the speakers he had been using for years for a Peavey rig, outfitted perfectly for jobs like the one he would eventually oversee at Tina's.

"I said, 'I'm on the road now, baby.'"

The old band's legacy translates to his current setup, dubbed "Crosstown Country Karaoke." He hit up various bars and parties for years, proffering the magic of the microphone to anyone interested in a few minutes of vocal fame. For a while, he was running karaoke seven nights a week all around town. Most significantly, though, for Lou and his many adoring fans, it all began here at the unsuspecting corner of West 54th and Herman back in 1996.

"We do '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, 2000s," he says, rattling off the range of songs like an afternoon DJ. His mountainous binders - pages and pages of song titles, artists and cryptic CD numbers — contain a vast selection. He keeps it mostly up to date. But that doesn't really matter; people show up at karaoke joints to tango with tunes like "Billie Jean," "Born in the U.S.A." or "Don't Stop Believin'" (duh).

"They go right back to my oldies," he says, adding, with a patently Fonz-esque attitude, "Eeyy... It works for me!" The whole point is to keep the fun level soaring through the roof and make sure everyone's feeling good all night. Of course, the classics tend to stir loud-as-you-can-scream sing-alongs and ass-shakin' dance parties on the compact floor. And when that happens, it's alchemical, turning dive bar desolation unexpectedly into magic.

Lou evinces the classic Merry Prankster template, but he also bores down into moments of sincere reflection. He says that karaoke taps into the more meaningful depth behind music. The words pass by in dazzling hues and highlighted streaks of color. It's all of the moment. Very Zen. Even at home, he surrounds himself with this stuff. Across town, he's arranged his own karaoke outlet in his sunroom. It's a sanctuary, a place for moments of privacy, contemplation and, of course, music.

"I used to sit up in my garage with my whole band," he says, referencing the old days. Now he croons sweet melodies with his girlfriend of two years — "The best thing that ever happened to me," he says about her — and plays the classics.

Week in and week out: more shows, more songs, more fun. Little Lou got in on the karaoke game a long time ago. He knows the ropes and he'll certainly learn you a thing or two about what it means to really sing from your heart. For Lou, it's all from the heart.

"Before I leave the bar for the night, I thank everybody and go around and shake their hands," Lou says. The moon clings to its orbit high the sky as Lou ducks out of the stark front door at Tina's. It's been a good night. It always is, even when things get a bit crazy.

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