80-year-old rediscovers love for singing through karaoke

Pat Smith, left, and Jerry Brown sing a duet last month at Legend's Sports Bar in St. Joseph, Mo. Brown, known by the nickname Downtown, is 80. Smith is his girlfriend, and the two are passionate about karaoke.

? Eighty-year-old “Downtown” Jerry Brown is sitting at a table at Legend’s, waiting for karaoke to begin. On the table sits a book full of CDs, his CDs, the ones he has recorded at home. He takes one out and cleans it, wiping it down before giving it to the DJ to play.

After a few other fellow karaoke singers take the stage, including Brown’s girlfriend, Pat Smith, singing “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” it’s Brown’s turn. He’s starting the night with Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

While most people singing face the monitor, reading the words as they sing, Brown faces the crowd. He knows the music by heart. He should. He practices them at home three to four times a week.

“He likes everything really down pat,” Smith says. “He wants it just right. He won’t do it if it’s not.”

His perfectionism pays off. The crowd applauds when he finishes his song, and he gets a “Good job, Jerry Brown,” from a fellow karaoke singer as he heads back to his table.

When Brown was young, he loved to sing. He loved listening to music and knew almost everything that was on the radio.

But he stopped singing in 1937, at the age of 10, when his parents divorced and he and his mother moved back to St. Joseph from Louisiana. His entire world was in shambles, Brown says, and singing was the last thing on his mind.

It would be 58 years before Brown would sing again.

He was in Kansas City for business and wanted to go out dancing one night. His friends recommended he go to a club called Marcie’s, because it always had a good live band.

Brown got there early, before the band began playing. He walked in and saw something he had never seen before.

“They were playing karaoke, and that was new to me,” he says.

The DJ asked Brown if he were going to sing. Brown told him he wouldn’t even know what key to sing in.

“I’ll help you,” the DJ said. And with that first song, Brown was hooked on singing once again.

“It brought back a lot of old memories,” he says.

It brought back memories of his childhood, the songs he used to listen to and the places he’d been. Memories of his parents singing “My Blue Heaven.”

When he got back to St. Joseph, he began to find bars and clubs that offered karaoke. Eventually, he was singing every night of the week. He traveled to Leavenworth, Kan., and Blue Springs just for karaoke.

He became known on the karaoke circuit and was eventually given the nickname “Downtown” Jerry Brown.

“It’s amazing, I go to some place in Kansas City I’ve never been before, and they know me as “Downtown” Jerry Brown,” he says.

Dirk Allsbury, owner of Star Dusk Disc Jockeys, says Brown stands out in the crowds. When he first met him about 13 years ago, Brown was somewhat of a novelty in the bar and pub scene.

“While everyone else was singing hip-hop and rap, he was crooning songs,” Allsbury says. “He was singing love songs while everyone else was screaming rock and roll.”

Brown and Smith are called up to sing their duet to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s “It’s Your Love.” When they’re finished, Smith sings “Great Balls of Fire,” and then it’s Brown’s turn again. This time it’s “Lady in Red,” which he sings to Smith, who is wearing a red shirt.

It’s 11 p.m. Karaoke ends at 1 a.m. Brown and Smith will be there until the end.

“Wherever we go, it’s from the time they (start) to the time they close,” Smith says.

Brown sings karaoke about four to five nights a week now. He practices during the week and also spends time recording his own CDs, which are on sale at Hastings and Record Warehouse.

Brown says he’s become well known because of his singing, but that’s not why he started or what’s kept him going. For him, it’s about the people he’s met, the songs he sings and the memories they bring back.

“What is most important to me now is all of the friends I’ve made,” he says. “And the joy of singing and listening to others.”