When I first moved to San Francisco, I went to a traditional karaoke spot with some friends. I was atonally talk-singing my way through "Footloose" when it became clear that the crowd was not on my side. As a last resort, I playfully kicked off my shoes and launched into a drunken Snoopy dance, a move that never failed to wow ’em back in college. It only turned the audience further against me. I was still trying to fish my shoe out from under the DJ's station as someone started singing “On My Own” from Les Misérables in key. I swore I would never do karaoke again.
Everything changed when a friend invited me to DJ Purple karaoke at Jack's Club, an unassuming dive bar in Potrero Hill. When I walked in, a girl with a big leopard print bow in her hair was slurring into the microphone, “Do you want to hurr a song, beeeshes?” Judging from the enthusiastic crowd response, bitches surely did. She then miscalculated a crotch thrust, fell down, got back up, and aggressively attacked “All That She Wants” by Ace of Base. The woman sounded like a beleaguered baby pterodactyl, but no one cared. And then something truly unexpected happened. DJ Purple pulled out a saxophone and began playing with abandon. An outsider might think a drunken karaoke rendition of Ace of Base accompanied by the saxophone sounds dorky. It doesn’t. It sounds awesome, and I was hooked.
It’s four years later and I keep going back to Jack's. I’m not the only regular, either. That’s because DJ Purple and his saxophone transform the scruffy dive bar floor into a stage, every singer on it into Lady Gaga, and a room full of perfect strangers into your biggest fans.
To understand the magic, you have to get to know the man behind the sax, as I did on a recent evening of dinner, watermelon juice, and Stone Temple Pilots.
DJ Purple can’t really talk when he’s doing karaoke. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him take a pee break. So we decide to meet on a Thursday – his night at the bar – at the Velvet Cantina, a Mexican restaurant in the Mission not too far from Jack's.
He walks in – a tall, thin guy with rimless glasses who looks like he'd be more at home behind a lecture podium than a DJ station. Over enchiladas and watermelon juice he tells me he’s a full-time karaoke man, and has nights up and down the Peninsula. But Jack’s is where he arrived in San Francisco and where he’s ruled for several years. He recently added a more central location to his list, hosting a night at the much bigger Make-Out Room.
Purple (whose real name is Steve Hays) tells me he earned his nickname in college. Some older friends dubbed him “Purple Hays” as a pun on the Jimi Hendrix song. He often wears the color when he's performing, and tonight is no exception. He's sporting a T-shirt that reads “Purple Power.”
After dinner, we pile into Purple’s van, which is loaded with equipment. We jet over to Jack's, and I help him unload all the things you need for a successful night: songbooks, speakers, laptops, a cowbell, a tambourine, and inflatable guitars. And, of course, the sax.
Around 9 p.m. people are starting to pour in. There are boys in jean jackets with punk slogans, girls in short skirts and owlish glasses, and a seemingly homeless man who is swiveling his hips just outside the front door. I decide it’s a good time to duck into the bathroom, before there’s a wait.
When I emerge, the place is suddenly packed. Someone is doing the Eve 6 song “Inside Out” and everyone is singing along. Two girls are clutching each other, screaming the lyrics into each other’s faces, specks of spit flying. Witnessing this scene, it isn’t hard to believe that DJ Purple has facilitated more than a few romances. He says he knows of at least one marriage, and recently a girl wrote him to say that she and her boyfriend of six months had met at one of his karaoke nights.
Liquid courage is being slammed back tonight, with lots of people in the crowd clutching mini-pitchers of beer. DJ Purple may be the only sober one; he's taking long swigs from an Odwalla orange juice container. Purple doesn’t drink. He read once that drinking kills your brain cells. “I'm pretty attached to my brain cells,” he says by way of explanation. He doesn’t mind being around really drunk people, but he does have one bit of (perhaps obvious) advice: Don’t get soused and bug the DJ about when he’s going to play your song.
I can see Purple carefully shuffling the slips splayed out on his podium, creating the perfect lineup to keep everyone in a fever pitch. His stage isn’t a karaoke democracy, it's a benevolent dictatorship. He has carefully honed his songbooks to omit many slow numbers. And, breaking a time-honored karaoke code, he doesn't always play requests in the order they were submitted. He’s more interested in keeping a nonstop dance party going than pleasing wannabe divas. And then, of course, there's the saxophone. Purple has been playing the saxophone since he was kid in New Jersey. He tells me that when the music teacher came around to let kids pick instruments, he was instantly attracted to this one.
Purple’s songbook has about 3,000 tunes, and many are to be expected: long lists of tracks by Madonna and Michael Jackson, for instance. But he throws in occasional curveballs, like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an anthem that’s much-hated by karaoke DJs (and audiences) for its length. But under Purple’s reign this song always unites the bar in a head-banging sing-along.
A guy in a suit takes the mic to sing Stone Temple Pilots’ “Vasoline,” and when DJ Purple butts in with his sax, it's revelatory. Everyone starts cheering and the dude on the mic says humbly, “DJ Purple, everyone!” This kind of reverence is not uncommon.
Listening to Purple carve out space for a saxophone solo in a grunge hit is to know his singular genius. He doesn't accompany every song, but he doesn't just bust out the sax for obvious numbers, either.
He tells me that people often ask what song they should pick if they want a sax solo. And he doesn’t really know how to answer, because unlike the rest of his tightly calibrated karaoke practice, he doesn’t plan that part. He’ll hear a musical break and decide in that moment that the song needs a little “extra pizzazz.” And sometimes on songs where there’s already a saxophone, he won’t play his because his solo wouldn’t be heard: “You’re just hearing two saxophones,” he says. “Not that that’s always a bad thing.”
We're several hours into the night and it’s finally my turn to take the mic.
Purple is presiding over the room from behind a cluster of speakers and laptops. Slung around his neck is his gleaming saxophone.
I’ve picked “Jump in the Line” by Harry Belafonte. On cue I bray, “Shake, shake, shake, señora, shake your body line!”
Jack's is packed with people and like them, I’m bathed in spinning red and green lights that emanate from Purple's podium. The exultant crowd has steamed up the windows and we're sealed together by sweat, spilled beer, and camaraderie. Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for arrives:
My cue screen flashes the words “musical break.” I let the mic drift down to my side and turn expectantly to the corner.
DJ Purple raises his instrument to his lips and blows, eyes closed, neck muscles popping, one knee thrust forward. The crowd lurches into a frenzy, cheering and screaming as we're all enraptured by the strident sound of the saxophone.
I finish up my rendition and return the microphone to its holster for the next singer. Everyone cheers, because DJ Purple karaoke isn’t about how well you sing.
I leave right after this. I'm drunk and tired, and it’s time to call it a night and stumble home. For the next few blocks, I can hear the crowd cheering for the next singer, and for the one after that, and most of all, for DJ Purple.
If you’re in a Purple kind of mood, swing by Jack's Club on a Thursday after 9 p.m. or Make-Out Room on the fourth Monday of the month after 9:30 p.m.
When picking your songs, think about what a crowd would most like to dance and sing along to, and don’t be afraid to stray from the obvious pop songs. I’ve seen people kill it on Beck’s “Loser.”
No matter how cold the San Francisco night, consider layers: It will get hot in the club from all the dancing.
Most importantly, don’t forget to tip your KJ.