In November 2015, after two failed attempts in the previous 22 years, I finally succeeded in adding Italy to my World Karaoke Tour when I sang in the Eternal City of Rome. At that point, the tally of countries in which I’d karaoked had just climbed to 39. Jetting off to the Bahamas a few months later, I sought to increase the country count to 40. Spoiler alert: that goal was realized. And I did it in a manner nearly unprecedented in my karaoke travels.
Ordinarily, karaoke is an evening activity. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for the karaoke festivities at a particular bar or restaurant to get underway at 10:00 pm or even later. But this past February, in the Bahamian capital of Nassau, I found a venue that allows patrons to sing all day long — not just after the sun has gone down. And on Valentine’s Day afternoon, I sang there right after lunch! Before we get to the details of this latest international karaoke appearance, I’ll provide some background on the destination where it happened.
A little bit about Nassau and vicinity
Often regarded erroneously as part of the Caribbean, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas is actually located in the western Atlantic Ocean rather than the Caribbean Sea. It does belong to the West Indies, a grouping that essentially consists of all of the island nations and overseas territories that lie between the United States and South America. Nassau is situated on the northern coast of New Providence, the most populous (but only the 13th largest by area) of the more than 700 islands that comprise the country. (A note for my fellow geography geeks: the collection of islands that makes up the nation of the Bahamas is part of the Bahama Archipelago, which includes not only the country of that name but also the British overseas territory of Turks and Caicos. The Bahama Archipelago is also known as the Lucayan Archipelago.)
During my stay in the Bahamas, I lodged on Paradise Island, a tiny island which is just off the northern coast of New Providence and which connects to it via a pair of bridges that traverse Nasssau Harbour. One of those bridges is named for Bahamian actor Sidney Poitier, KBE, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in the 1963 motion picture Lilies of the Field. Mr. Poitier, who was the first person of African descent to win an Academy Award for either Best Actor or Best Actress, also served as the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2012. #themoreyouknow.
Formerly known as Hog Island, Paradise Island is most notably the setting for the globally renowned Atlantis mega-resort. I didn’t stay at the Atlantis, but my hotel was across the street from it and I took advantage of that proximity to, among other things, make multiple forays to the blackjack tables at the Atlantis’s casino. 🙂 Incidentally, some scenes from the 2006 remake of the James Bond film Casino Royale (the first film in the series to star Daniel Craig as Agent 007) were filmed at that casino. But I digress.
If your accommodations are on Paradise Island as mine were, the most pleasant and scenic way to cross the harbour during the daytime hours is to take the ferry that runs between Paradise Island and Nassau — even though you don’t honour Mr. Poitier by doing so. (The ferry doesn’t run at night.) Still, taking a taxi over one of the bridges that link the two islands is not without its charms; for example, one evening the cab driver who was bringing me from Nassau back to Paradise Island said to me, “You want a lady? I can provide a lady for you too.” Now that’s full service. 🙂
Paradise Island also features several homes owned by such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Nicolas Cage. Well, Mr. Cage might probably won’t remain on the list of Paradise Island homeowners for much longer:
In beautiful downtown Nassau
Nassau’s compact downtown is easily walkable; you can also go on a horse-drawn surrey ride, which offers a great way to gain a quick introduction to the area. (I sprang for such a ride.) A highlight of the downtown is the government buildings with their Georgian Colonial architecture — many of which are painted in a distinctive salmon hue.
Yo ho ho and a bottle (or at least a shot glass) of rum
One of the most Bahama-y things you can do is to take a tour of the John Watling’s rum distillery, where the namesake spirit is produced. Situated on a property called the Buena Vista Estate, the distillery is in downtown Nassau, within walking distance from the ferry disembarkation point and also from the cruise ship port. (Nassau is a major hub for cruise ships; some 3 million people per year arrive in the city via this mode of conveyance.)
A boutique distillery, John Watling’s takes its name from a 17th century buccaneer and was established in 2013. The founding of the estate occurred much earlier, in 1789, and Buena Vista was put to various uses prior to the opening of the distillery. During the 1960s, the main building on the estate served as a hotel and restaurant that catered to the rich and famous; its roster of guests during that period included the likes of Robert Mitchum, Joan Crawford, Robert F. Kennedy, Eddie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds. More recently, the estate was one of the shooting locations for the aforementioned remake of the James Bond film Casino Royale.
Upon the conclusion of the tour, visitors to John Watling’s are given the opportunity to do some rum-tasting in the on-site bar; and naturally I took advantage of that opportunity. 🙂
Rum-tasting on a tropical island in the afternoon — it doesn’t get much better than that! Although if you ask me, singing karaoke on a tropical island in the afternoon is one of the rare things that is even better. 🙂 Speaking of which . . .
Singing in Nassau: an afternoon delight
The watering hole where I made my Bahamian karaoke debut was Señor Frog’s, part of an international chain that also boasts outposts in such locales as Aruba, Las Vegas, and New York City (although I don’t know whether any of its other franchises offer karaoke). Found along the waterfront in the vibrant downtown, the Señor Frog’s in Nassau is not a typical karaoke bar where you’ll witness a steady stream of singers being summoned to the mic. The way it works is that any patron who wishes to perform can ask the folks in the DJ booth, and they’ll set you up with the number that you’ve picked out from their karaoke songbook. So karaoke performances are sporadic, dependent upon the desire of patrons to partake of that activity. But the opportunity to do so is available seven days a week, all through the bar’s hours of operation (which are nominally 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., although in my experience sometimes it closes early if the crowd has thinned out).
For my song choice, given the mid-day timeslot, I wanted to select something upbeat to fire up the crowd. Thus, even though it was Valentine’s Day, I opted for the David Lee Roth cover of “Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody,” rather than a mushy love song. Here’s the video showing how that went:
As you can see, the audience was quite raucous. Even though several hours remained until dinnertime, many of the bargoers were already drunk, because Bahamas. Their over-the-top enthusiasm resulted in a great time for me, the singer. Also contributing to my enjoyment of the occasion: the DJ, Anfernee, who did an outstanding job of introducing me to the crowd and setting things up for my performance.
And that is how, on February 14, 2016, The Bahamas became the 40th country on my World Karaoke Tour! Incidentally, outside of special events, the only other places where I’ve ever found venues that offered afternoon singing were Helsinki, Finland and San Francisco, California. Well, there was also the karaoke taxi in Washington, DC whose driver now operates a karaoke-equipped Uber vehicle; that driver offers flexible hours for singing, and I’ve been his passenger on a few occasions. But Helsinki, San Francisco, and now Nasssau are the only cities in which I’ve karaoked in stationary venues prior to the evening hours. 🙂
A brief history of my song
While singing “Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody” is fun in its own right, I appreciate the song even more after learning about its long history and how it evolved into what you see me performing in the video above. Although many people today are familiar only with David Lee Roth’s version of the song, which hails from the decade of the 1980s, the song’s roots can be traced back to early in the 20th century, and its precursors fall into two separate branches that would later merge.
“Just a Gigolo”: it started with a tango
The genesis of one of those branches was an Austrian tango, “Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo,” that was composed in 1928. (Its lyrics had been penned even earlier, in 1924.) Here’s a 1929 recording of that Austrian tango:
It didn’t take long for “Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo” to be translated into English. The initial English-language adaptation, titled “Just a Gigolo,” was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1931, and became the first of many solo hits for the legendary crooner. Have a listen to Mr. Crosby’s rendition of “Just a Gigolo”:
“I Ain’t Got Nobody”: another ageless standard
Meanwhile, the other strand from which Mr. Roth’s song derives originated in the decade of the 1910s when an American standard entitled “I Ain’t Got Nobody” was first published. There are dueling claims regarding who deserves credit for composing and writing the standard (as there are conflicting copyrights), and even the exact wording of its original title is unclear. (One version, copyrighted in 1914, was entitled “I Ain’t Got Nobody and Nobody Cares for Me”). Here’s a recording of “I Ain’t Got Anybody” from 1916, performed by Marion Harris:
I’m not sure which composer and lyricist are behind the particular arrangement heard in this recording. Ms. Harris, by the way, although she was unknown to me before I researched this blog post, was an American singer who was popular in the 1920s and specialized in jazz and the blues. In fact, she was the the first notable white singer to perform in those genres, and in her time she was dubbed the “Queen of the Blues.”
“I Ain’t Got Nobody” has subsequently been recorded by numerous artists, in styles that run the gamut from pop to jazz to country. Here’s Rat Packer Sammy Davis, Jr.’s take on it, from early in his career in 1949:
The medley: an inspired mash-up of two classics
By 1945, both “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody” were well-established in the American musical canon. That year, Louis Prima synthesized them into a single cohesive medley, “Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody.” It was an inspired fusion, reminiscent of the first time someone conceived the idea of blending chocolate with peanut butter. It was also skillfully executed; the medley seamlessly assimilates elements of its old-timey antecedents — to the point where a first-time listener would be unlikely to suspect that it reflects the coupling of two entirely distinct tunes that were born on two different continents. The combo that Mr. Prima engineered got even better in the 1950s, when he tweaked it into a more frenetic “jump-and-jive” (i.e., “swing”) style. Check out that remix, which Mr. Prima first recorded in 1956 (backed by the band Sam Butera & the Witnesses, with whom Mr. Prima had previously performed in live shows in Las Vegas) and which became his signature song:
Nearly three decades after the release of Mr. Prima’s masterpiece, David Lee Roth, shortly before leaving the band Van Halen (of which he’d been the lead singer since the 1970s) released his first solo album, Crazy From the Heat. Among the tracks on that 1985 album was a cover of Mr. Prima’s medley. (The release of that track as a single also occurred in 1985.) Mr. Roth’s update of the song reflected his inimitable personality, as did the innovative music video that accompanied the song. That video is a tour de force:
It makes me feel old to think that Mr. Roth’s cover of “Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody,” released when I was a teenager, is more antique now than Louis Prima’s original version was when Mr. Roth covered it. 🙂 It’s pretty cool to me, though, that the song continues to endure, and that even the millennials who were in attendance during my afternoon at Señor Frog’s were totally into the song when I was performing it.
Finally, here’s a bonus that I came across while writing this and feel compelled to share. I’ll preface it by posing the question: what happens when swing meets disco? The answer is that you get the most amazing interpretation ever of the “Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody” medley, recorded by none other than the Village People! You’ve probably heard “Macho Man,” the Village People’s first charting hit. It turns out that when “Macho Man” was issued as a single in February 1978, the group’s cover of Louis Prima’s great medley was the B-side to that particular 45-RPM vinyl disc. Behold a video of this unheralded gem, also made in 1978. (It’s astonishing to me that the Village People were making live-action music videos three years before the launch of MTV, when there wasn’t yet a platform, or much of a market, for that art form.) Enjoy as the band, apparently out on a field trip from the YMCA, romps around New York City! 🙂
This video is so 1970s — right down to the vintage Lincoln Continental stretch limousine that lead singer Victor Edward Willis is riding around town in! Disco will never die! (On a more sobering note, it was a little sad for me to watch one of the scenes that take place in Battery Park, during which you can spot the Twin Towers of the original World Trade Center. On the other hand, it’s nice to be transported to a simpler time when the terrorist attacks that destroyed those towers were still 23 years in the future. More generally, 1970s nostalgia is always a good thing. 🙂 )
Coming attractions for the World Karaoke Tour
Now that I’ve achieved the milestone of singing in 40 countries, I’m eager to start my progress towards the next 40! Up next in my travel plans: in late May 2016, I’m off to China; Taiwan; and North Korea. My epic trip to the Far East promises to be replete with memorable sights and unique experiences. Hiking the Great Wall will be just the beginning! Additionally, as you’d expect, karaoke will be an integral part of my Asian journey. (Note: after I sing in China I won’t count it as a new country on my list, even though this will be my first visit to the Chinese mainland; I’ve previously sung in Hong Kong and Macau, which are both Chinese territories. So during my Asian excursion, Taiwan and North Korea are slated to become the 41st and 42nd nations in which I’ve karaoked.) Oh, and after dining on the cuisine in China, I may never be able to bring myself to go to a Panda Express in the United States. 🙂
I can’t wait to leave for that trip, and I can’t wait to write about it when I get back!