Standing at a lanky 6 feet, 5 inches tall, with gray hair and singing in a gravelly voice, John Gradley neither looks nor sounds anything like Michael Jackson. Yet that is exactly who Gradley channels in a viral video that's reached more than 20,000 views as of press time. He dons Jackson's signature red leather jacket and proceeds to bust out some of MJ's most impressive dance moves at an empty Mike Talayna's Juke Box Restaurant on Hampton Avenue. Gradley is a legend on the St. Louis karaoke scene, meticulously studying his many audiences and selecting the most thrilling song for each crowd. And he is a hell of a performer. Just as he does with his Jackson impersonation, Gradley throws himself completely into his singing. He might not make a fan out of every spectator, but he is impossible to ignore onstage.
The viral video has already raised Gradley's profile and given insight into how the ultimate karaoke mind works. For example, Gradley claims his memorization of song lyrics helps separate him from other singers. We talked to Gradley about his dreams, his favorite things about the local scene and how he became St. Louis' premier karaoke singer.
Bob McMahon: When and how did you discover that karaoke was your passion? How did you get into it?
John Gradley: I started playing drums about 36 years ago, way back in '75 when I was 5 years old, and I didn't really discover the art of karaoke until I was about 24 or 25. I was with the person I was dating at the time, and there was a little side bar that was down the street. It said, "karaoke," and we just thought we'd give it a try. And with me wanting to be a performer, I tried it, and I just said to myself: You know what? This is as far as I can get being a performer. I love to sing, I love doing cover songs, and I got so good at it.
So what specifically drew you to performing as Michael Jackson, a man you neither look nor sound like?
I don't sing like him onstage, I just dance to his music. I lip-synch is what I do. I don't really sing him because if I dance and sing at the same time, it's hard for me to do the notes. Now the dancing is what actually catches people's attention.
Aside from dancing to MJ songs, what are some of your go-to, I-need-to-wow-the-crowd-now type songs?
There's more than one type of song, actually. How I decide is to study the crowd, the atmosphere, if they're really getting into the music or if they're getting into the company that they're with, and I'll try to decide which song will actually get these people going.
I'll actually mix up the mood. I might put a mike on there and pretend like I'm playing a guitar or do a split. Anything else that'll get the crowd's attention and the response I'm looking for. Sometimes you have an off night, sometimes you don't get that response at all. But you gotta do what you can to keep the crowd entertained at all times. Of course the way I dress kind of gets people's attention too. I usually just help the DJs keep the crowd going because the more they're being entertained, the better it's going to be for the facility in general.
That being said, are there any songs that are your favorites to perform?
Yes there is. There's a Def Leppard one, which is my wife's favorite, "Pour Some Sugar on Me." Also there's one by Bon Jovi, which is "Wanted Dead or Alive," that's another one of her favorites. I do Backstreet Boys' "Larger Than Life." I've even done "Caribbean Queen," which is by Billy Ocean. It's mainly retro-type material that I usually do because I grew up in that era, and it's the kind of material I do best.
You said in the video that you practice around twenty hours a week.
Actually, I was kind of extreme on that. It's whenever I get a chance. I might practice for a couple of hours before I go do the show just to keep myself hyped up and do whatever I gotta do to please the crowd. I would say I actually do five to ten hours a week.
Still, that's a lot more than I'd think most people do. You seem to take this more seriously than most people.
I wanted to do something different with [karaoke]. I discovered that I could take it and give it a life, something that's never been done before. People are amazed. People ask, "How do you do what you do? How did you get started with it?" And I just tell the people, "I started with it years ago, because I wanted to be an entertainer myself." That was my dream, to be a star, and I'm still chasing that dream, and I'm not going to stop chasing that dream until I possibly achieve it.
What to you defines being a star?
A paid entertainer. Getting a better life for yourself and your family. Better finances, better living accommodations, things of that nature. Thinking about your life and your family's lives, you know, getting everybody something better to hold onto.
When would you say you became established as a performer in the local karaoke scene?
Definitely a long, long time ago, like over ten years ago. That's when people started recognizing me for who I was. I would walk into a place, and they'd be like, "Hey, John, are you going to sing tonight?" or, "Are you going to do Michael Jackson?"
Has your life changed as a result of this viral video?
In general popularity, yes. People have begun to notice what I do. They have seen the video. I've even had people walk up to me on my job and say, "I've seen your videos. You're amazing! You're awesome!" And I might get a message over Facebook or a text message over my phone saying, "Hey, can you come down tonight?"
What is your favorite place to perform at in St. Louis?
Big Daddy's on the Landing and Big Daddy's in the Soulard area. Because those DJs have helped me throw the video out there on YouTube, they've let their friends see it, and they've actually helped me the most. The one in the Soulard area actually shows it on their big screen every now and then. He's shown it five times now altogether, and people actually like what they see, because when I had been there they'd be like, "Oh man, I just saw your videos. I think you're awesome! Where are you going to be performing next?" No words could explain how I feel about what's going on.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I'd like to thank my wife, Beverly, for her many years of support and helping me through this because she's been a very supportive lady. We've been married about thirteen years, and her birthday was just yesterday, and I love and I cherish her for everything that she's done and helping me to get out there to get the exposure I need because she believes in my overall ability to do the show. She believes also that I'm going to make it into the big time one of these days, and she really doesn't want me to stop until I get to that point, but she also wants to see me rest now and then. [Laughs]