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FIXATIONS The Night Is Young's : * Six days a week the silver-haired singer haunts Orange County's karaoke bars, waiting his turn to be a momentary star.

January 22, 1992|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Sometimes when he's behind the microphone, the world turns to gold for Bud Young.

"Last Saturday was so beautiful," the silver-haired entertainer enthused. "When I finished singing, the entire place stood up and applauded. I felt like I'd just stepped out of the United Nations or something. Tears almost come to my eyes from the appreciation they show me. I always hit them with my best shot and I walk off the stage satisfied, happy. And I share it all, too, because if they don't applaud I wouldn't have anything to share with anybody."

That said, Young gets back up to sing, not on the stage of an opera house or even a jazz club, but at a far-from-crowded karaoke bar. He launches into "Mack the Knife," accompanied by a canned, taped band backing and TV monitors rolling off follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics.

Six nights a week Young haunts the karaoke bars, waiting his turn to be a momentary star alongside amateur saloon singers, tipsy office workers and on-a-dare kids. The waitresses and regulars all know him in a string of karaoke bars stretching from Fullerton--where he lives--to the Newport Peninsula.

"If this was a powder," Young says of karaoke singing, "I'd be addicted to it. Some nights I just don't feel up to going out. But, I'll tell you, if I miss one night, the next morning I curse myself, because that was a wasted evening then."

His favorite karaoke bar--"where I'm almost the unofficial host"--is Santa Ana's Bombay Bicycle Club near South Coast Plaza. As we chatted there on a recent Wednesday, others followed him on the stage: A military guy in a black Garth Brooks hat warbled out "Good Hearted Woman," while the backing tape suggested that authentic country grit is not the strongest suit of Tokyo studio musicians; some teens howled through "Wild Thing," followed by an uncomfortable fellow wrestling with six minutes of "Like a Rolling Stone" and clearly wishing Bob Dylan hadn't written so damn many verses.

"Sometimes I really itch, sitting through all this to get back up there again," Young admitted. "I'm an amateur, but I have an opportunity to be top dog for three or four minutes each time I'm up there, so naturally I want to be up there more often than I am. There are singers that are very bad, that I'm better than, but they deserve their chance too. So I'll itch and hurt, but I'll wait."

While karaoke singing may be a lark for most participants, Young approaches it as if he were headed for Carnegie Hall. He has 442 songs committed to memory. He plans out his "menu" of songs in advance, though he often revises it once he sizes up his audience. When he sings, it is with a professional ease, drawing his listeners in with grand gestures and with comic touches added to the songs' lyrics. It also doesn't hurt that he can really sing, in a manner that draws from his idols Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

Young--who looks not quite like Eddie Albert and a whole lot better than Tip O'Neill--has just the sort of outgoing personality you'd expect from someone named Bud. Though the 65-year-old has only been singing in the karaoke bars for eight months, he considers himself an "elder statesman" of the Japanese-born karaoke craze and often coaxes others into giving it a try.

"I meet a lot of people who, when I ask, 'Do you sing?' say, "Oh, just in the shower.' So I say, 'No problem, we'll all go over to your place while you shower.'

"I tell them to give the karaoke a try, and quite a few ask me if I'll go up and sing with them, and I'm happy to. It's quite rewarding to watch the transition from a shrinking violet to a Metropolitan (Opera) diva in one song. You take them up and sing with them, and it's such a kick that they start getting up there on their own."

Young previously was a habitue of piano bars, but they're slowly disappearing from the map, so a friend suggested he try the karaoke singing.

"I got up there the first time and it was like I'd never performed in my life, it seemed so unnatural. I was almost frozen with intimidation. But when I finished, I berated myself for having let it get the better of me, so I went back up, and the second time became easier. After that I just let myself go with the flow."

By day, he goes with another flow. Young, who is semi-retired, owns his own business in waste-treatment sales. "It's not the most romantic job in the world. The singing is my escape," he said.

When he speaks of his entertainment "career," it isn't entirely wishful thinking. In his hometown of Chicago, he and partner Richie Victor had a comedy duo that performed on stage, on radio and in the city's fledgling television industry in the late '40s.

"There were three live shows in Chicago then," he recalled, "Kukla Fran and Ollie," "Wrestling at the Rainbow" and us. It was such a wide-open time in television: We'd get done with our show and then go over to help do the voices for "Kukla, Fran and Ollie."

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