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Every Kinda People: You Don't Know Diversity Until You've Karaoked at Mel-O-Dee in El Cerrito 

Wednesday, Apr 29 2015
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On a recent Friday in the East Bay, a short woman with long dreads, about 40, gingerly picked up a microphone inside the small cocktail lounge tucked behind Trader Joe's in El Cerrito Plaza, and belted out En Vogue's "Hold On."

She killed it.

The small karaoke area at the back of the lounge — packed like a San Francisco-bound BART train during morning rush hour — roared.

By the end of the night, a girl in her 20s had sung a pristine "Love Shoulda Brought You Home," by Toni Braxton; an older Asian-American gentleman had transformed Wilson Picket's "Mustang Sally"; and a middle-age white guy who looked like he'd just stepped off a booze cruise in Myrtle Beach had murdered (and not in the good way) Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary" — right in the El Cerrito-born rockers' backyard. For shame.

The crowd didn't care. Diverse even by East Bay standards, with a nearly equal mix of professionals and working people, old and young, male and female, and the spectrum of ethnicities, this group showed nothing but love for each singer. And after the first few notes of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" drifted from the speakers just before 1 a.m., the whole lounge was wailing the '70s soul ballad in drunken unison, fists clenched and eyes tightly shut. It was beautiful, man!

It was also just another weekend night at Mel-O-Dee Cocktails, a place one regular calls "the hidden gem of the East Bay."

Mel-O-Dee has been an El Cerrito institution since 1969, but the dive bar became even more of a destination when manager Ralph Zaragoza began doing karaoke nights in 2003. One of the earliest karaoke patrons was Annabel Munyan, who now works the bar and door.

"That's why I started coming here — for the karaoke," Munyan tells me on a quieter Sunday night when the karaoke area is dark. "I hung out here too much and ended up with a job."

Munyan's Mel-O-Dee debut? Petula Clark's "Downtown."

Even on non-karaoke nights, the karaoke crowd comes in. That same Sunday, about 15 people are sitting at the bar nursing drinks and chattering over Sam Cooke and Big Joe Turner songs. Above the juke box on the wall next to the entrance hangs a Tibetan flag, representing a significant slice of the Mel-O-Dee clientele.

"Sometimes they'll put on Tibetan music and all of a sudden this Tibetan dance circle will appear on the dance floor," says Mel-O-Dee regular Caleb Ford, an El Cerrito resident and graduate student in history at UC Berkeley. "I've been to a ton of karaoke places and this is by far my favorite. It's like a microcosm of El Cerrito and Richmond."

Ford, 35, is having drinks with friends including fellow grad student Edward Evenson, 23, whose first performance at Mel-O-Dee was a duet with Ford on the UB40 version of Neil Diamond's "Red Red Wine." They visit on non-karaoke nights because the place and its denizens have become like a second home and family.

"How can you not love it?" Evenson asks, waving his arm towards his bar mates. "It's just a bunch of people from all walks of life: blue collar, white collar, older people, young people ... every kind of person you can imagine. This is not your typical hipster hangout..."

"Quite the opposite," Ford interupts.

It's a bit of a hike from San Francisco. After all, most people travel the other direction — from Richmond and El Cerrito to Berkeley, Oakland or S.F. — for their Friday-night partying. But Munyan sees plenty of people from outside the East Bay. "There was a lady in here just last night from San Francisco," Munyan says, as she prepares another drink. "People come from all over. It's pretty special."


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The Mint: All Karaoke, All the Time

Monday Night Karaoke in Japantown's Hostess Bars

Ballads Are a No-No

Karaoke Kounterpoint: You are hereby found guilty of crimes against humility.

About The Author

Mark Segal Kemp

Mark Segal Kemp

Bio:
Mark Segal Kemp is SF Weekly's former Editor and the author of a book called Dixie Lullaby, as his tinge of a southern accent will attest.

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