Gentleman Robert, wearing a pinstripe suit and maroon fedora, crooned the words to “It’s All in the Game.” He wandered the room, singing to a few dozen people at a church on skid row.
Jonathan James Brown donned a cowboy hat and sang the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection,” enunciating each word just like Kermit.
Linda Harris spun circles through the room, dancing with friends. Later, when her name was called, she grabbed the microphone and gestured with the confidence of a diva as she sang “I Hope You Dance.”
For 15 years, these moments have arrived every Wednesday, courtesy of Pastor Anthony Stallworth, his wife, Lucy, and a karaoke machine bought by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. The stars of the evening come from the neighborhood’s hotels, shelters and sidewalks.
Performances are ragged, raw and often inspired. On some nights you won’t find a more electric room in Los Angeles, and the crowd bears witness to a brand of musical epiphany seldom seen at a cutting-edge Echo Park club or the stage of the Hollywood Bowl.
Pastor Tony, as he’s known throughout the neighborhood, came up with the idea: “We’re a place where the homeless can come, they can sing a song, they can feel like somebody after being rejected everywhere else, get a free cup of coffee — and people applaud for them.”
The show begins at 7:30 inside the Central City Community Church of the Nazarene, a storefront at 6th and San Pedro streets. The karaoke is held in a nondescript sanctuary, packed with chairs and two tables where singers select songs from thick binders. At its peak, about 100 people pack the room; it’s standing-room-only.
Every karaoke night, Pastor Tony holds an optional prayer session in an adjoining room. One sweltering summer night, a dozen people gave voice to their troubles. A young woman prayed for nothing but strength; she was homeless and was kicked out of a library where she was studying. A disc jockey, blinded in one eye and vision-impaired in the other, prayed for audio gear so he can earn a living.
After hearing the prayers and conveying them to Jesus, Pastor Tony led this offshoot flock to the karaoke room to do a group Electric Slide.
Much of my time as a music critic is dedicated to discovering artists and trends, and appraising concerts and recordings, but I’ve made a point every so often to go to places where songs can resonate with an unusual depth.
Some of the music I’ve experienced in this church has nestled its way into my psyche. When I recently heard the soft metal classic “Carry On Wayward Son” over a gas-station speaker, I didn’t think about Kansas’ rendition. Instead I saw the aging metal head from skid row, playing air guitar and bringing a surprising urgency to the line, “Lay your weary head to rest.”
The repertoire in each three-hour show is wide-ranging.
“It’s a little bit of everything, some do country, some do rock ‘n’ roll,” said Lucy Stallworth, the evening’s disc jockey and emcee. A few rap songs get tossed in — at least those that pass a prohibition on lyrics containing profanity or sexual content. Lucy stacked the scribbled karaoke requests as a woman yowled her way through Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind.”
A few minutes later, a missionary group from Colorado stood up to perform Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and sang in harmony the opening lines — “Mama, just killed a man” — which made Lucy laugh.
“We don’t really have a rule against murder in song,” she said. “Maybe we should.”
Jennifer Campbell is a skid row poet, and when she performs here she prefers what she called “dusties — old music from the ‘60s and the ‘70s like Mary Wells, the Temptations.”
She considers karaoke essential to the neighborhood’s well-being: “It’s a healing agent. Every Wednesday, we can look forward to gathering here peacefully.”
John Malpede, who for the last 26 years has run the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a nonprofit activist theater group on skid row, sees the emotions tapped during karaoke carried beyond the church doors.
“It’s not just that it happens there. It’s that people take that with them when they leave. It really changes the vibe of the neighborhood,” he said. “You see people perform there, you see them later, they see you.”
Two decades ago Pastor Tony himself was in a rough spot. He was living on the streets of San Diego, addicted to crack, sporting a crusty beard and pushing a cart. He was saved by the kindness of a stranger who directed him to a treatment center and introduced him to Jesus. Now Pastor Tony leads a congregation that numbers about 250.
As he walks through the karaoke room each week with a donation basket collecting money to pay for water and coffee for the crowd, his blue eyes sparkle in gratitude with each offering. He wears his hair tight, pulled back into a neat ponytail.
And when he busts out “Jungle Love,” by Minneapolis funk group the Time, he can make the room forget everything except for the “oh-ee-oh” refrain.
One night soon after I started attending in 2008, I was captivated by an unlikely performance of Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic,” a light-as-a-feather aspirational song about hope in the face of desperation.
Sung by a wiry-haired woman, slightly addled — maybe crack, maybe mental issues — “Magic” became something different. Holding the microphone like a long-neck Bud, the woman found comfort in the words, her face turning peaceful, soft. “You have to believe we are magic,” she sang, her voice barely scratching out the melody, “nothing can stand in our way.”
Over the years I kept returning. Thrills came randomly. Sometimes an alcoholic James Brown impersonator arrived in a purple cape to do “I Feel Good.” After he was finished, he vanished into the night like a funk superhero.
The church has accumulated hundreds of karaoke discs stuffed into thick cases and acquired a sound system big enough for the sanctuary.
Morello donated the karaoke machine after he heard of the need through a friend with the outreach group Food Not Bombs. He said people on skid row are marginalized, and not just physically.
“They’re completely erased from history in a way,” he said. “You fall below this certain poverty line, you no longer have any voice — certainly no voice in electoral politics, and no economic voice to buy a lobbyist to serve your cause.
“One small way that these people maintain a voice is through song.”
When Robin Martell stepped up in front of the crowd, his voice was a golden falsetto. He first came to karaoke about a decade ago when he was starting out as a singer and ran with a few well-known names.
“I was like a hardhead, hanging out with Bobby Brown and El DeBarge,” he said. “I went from jumping out of limos and major tours to jumping in and out of tents and alleys for crack.”
Martell pulled himself out of his addiction and now tours as a backup singer for the funk band Lakeside. He returns occasionally on Wednesdays to remind himself where he’s been. You can hear the confidence of a clean voice in his take on Gladys Knight’s “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” which he sang in pitch-perfect tone, making eye contact with audience members when an older, fragile-looking woman, seemingly smitten, stood up, grabbed a microphone and began an impromptu duet.
Some in the crowd sang along, others mingled in the back sipping coffee and chatting. Teens from a visiting church group whispered and laughed among themselves. When Martell finished, the audience clapped vigorously.
Every Wednesday at 9 p.m., when the room is most crowded, Lucy cues up Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West.” After the chairs are pushed to the sides, the crowd steps joyfully to an imperfect line dance.
Among those leading the dance the night Gentleman Robert performed was Harris. She said that she used to be shy onstage, but about a decade ago, she started pushing herself to act in skits and plays with the Poverty Department. Now she’s a regular on karaoke night and often sings LeAnn Rimes’ version of “I Hope You Dance.”
“When I perform this song, it opens up my heart,” she said, “and allows me to know that doors may close in my face, but another one opens. And no matter what, I’m not ashamed. I cry when I cry, but to know that I can get up there and do what I do knowing that you’re not looking down on me, or through me, or around me, but you’re looking at me.”
This evening, she sang like a star: “Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance/And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance/I hope you dance.”
As the singing wound down and the final melody played, the microphones were turned off, the door locked, and Harris walked into the night.