Tuesday, November 30, 2010
At The Judges' Table On "Desert Diamond Lucky Break"
I think it has been about eight or nine years since I last set foot in the Desert Diamond Casino on Nogales Highway. That was back when it was not much more than a bingo hall and a small casino, when it didn't have a lush hotel or nightclub, or a grand entrance with token specimens of Tohono O'Odham culture to remind us the Native American nation that built all this once lived in more primitive settings.
I'm here to be one of the judges on “Lucky Break,” a local version of “American Idol” taped at the casino's Monsoon nightclub. I wander past row after row of video slot machines and gray-haired people stabbing their fingers down on buttons. The beeping from each machine spinning reels blends together into a gigantic drone. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air, a reminder this is one of the few public places where you can still light up indoors.
It's at least 45 minutes before tape time when I arrive, but the line to get in is already snaking well outside the door. Each singer has their own fan club, and each fan club has their own signs. I walk up to a woman who's assisting one of the contestants. After she finishes the conversation, I tell her I'm here to judge.
“Great!” she explains, identifying herself as one of the show producers and quickly showing me inside. She notices I'm dressed in a dark suit with a bow tie, giving me a faux tux. Under one arm is my trademark tricorn hat, something I hope they will let me wear on camera.
“I brought it along tonight because I used to wear it when I sang karaoke,” I tell her. “I hope it will inspire people.”
Those were my scoundrel days, the days when when I produced weekend newscasts at KOLD and we'd hit our favorite bar after Sunday's 10pm show. One of the anchors and at least a few crew members would down adult beverages and belt out bad renditions of country standards and a few rockers. Then I'd take the mic, and people looked up from their booze and smokes. This guy could sing -- well. And he performed. He knew the words. He had a few moves.
I had a broad repertoire, running from rock to soul. Earth, Wind And Fire's “September” was my very first song on the first weekend of January, 2000. I did Lionel Richie's “Easy” and Dire Straits' “Money For Nothing.” I had enough falsetto to handle Prince's “Kiss” but enough growl for Dr. Hook's “Cover Of The Rolling Stone.” My version of James Brown's “Get Up” brought down the house, but the one song people wanted to hear again was AC/DC's “Dirty Deeds.”
I'm not Bon Scott, but one of my colleagues swears I have his voice. It's this evil whine, like the Wicked Witch of the West with a hormone imbalance, and I could wrap my throat around it without straining myself, save for a grunting shout at the very end. One occasion, I bellowed so heavily I threw out my back in front of half the station during someone else's going-away party. I had to lie down on couple of aging chairs hoping the pain would subside as I held onto my crown –- that three-cornered hat, the one I wore because it made people happy, even if they called it a pirate hat instead of a patriot hat. That was all before I Got Right With GOD and found other things to lift me up besides a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade followed by a chorus of the Staple Singers' “Respect Yourself.”
One hour before showtime, I'm sipping on a straight Pepsi, wandering about the showroom as crew members prepare the stage and check cameras while the contestants get their briefing and publicity shots. I'm told I will actually be judging two shows tonight, something a co-worker advised me could happen, so I've brought a change of clothes for the second taping.
I also learn I'm judging one of the semi-final rounds, meaning all the singers I'm about to hear already won earlier contests. The scoring for these episodes will be kept secret: judges will offer commentary to each singer but not reveal the 1 to 7 point figure they've written down next to each contestant. Each of the three judges' scorecards will be added to a master sheet, just like in a boxing match. Out of the eight or nine contestants we're going to hear in the first episode, at least half will advance to the next round.
Another judge arrives: the head chef from the casino's fine dining establishment. He's worked a long day, but he's one of the regular judges, and he's eager to get in the game.
“I'd wear my chef hat,” he says upon noticing my tricorn, “but then I'd just look like all the other chefs.”
Soon I'm joined by my other colleague: Mike, a personality from the local country music station, which is also supplying the hosts: Max and Shannon. The producer has told them about the hat, but not the reason I'm wearing it. Max would have to deduce that during the judges' opening statements.
“I'm looking for somebody who's going to connect with the audience and who's really gonna sell that song and win it,” I say after briefly explaining my tricorn's karaoke heritage.
The first singer goes on for two-and-a-half minutes, and she nails her record, a rockin' country hit. I'm second in line to offer commentary behind Mike.
“Boy, it's hard being first out of the gate,” I tell her.
She hopefully can't see I'm a touch nervous. I have never judged a talent competition in my life, and even though I've volunteered for this, just before tape rolled, I prayed to GOD for the wisdom to get through it. I'm also having to crane my neck down towards the microphone on the judges' table. During sound check, the production folks told me I needed to get my mouth closer to it while also projecting a lot more. I feel like they want me to both shout into the mic and eat it. How that makes for quality audio is beyond me.
“You were hitting your marks perfectly,” I critique. “As they said in Colonial times, HUZZAH!” I tip my hat.
Cheers rip through the packed Monsoon nightclub. Max remarks it's becoming more obvious why I'm wearing the hat. Later, he'll remark that he keeps expecting the British to show up, but he passes on a chance to compare me to Paul Revere and The Raiders.
With that first contestant out of the way, I settle into a comfortable routine: a singer comes on, I scribble down notes and a possible one-liner during the first thirty seconds of the performance. It's tough on the performers, and twice as tough on me. The contestants know the words. I have to make mine up as I go along, and there's not a bad singer in the bunch. I have already resolved many weeks before that I don't want to be a Simon. I can't simply say, “nice voice, nice moves, nice performance” every time. I'm not seeing much to criticize, and at this stage of the competition, I shouldn't. I don't want to nitpick, but I don't want to overlook flaws or slough off constructive comments.
An older gentleman dressed in a sharp suit comes on and does Sinatra's “Fly Me To The Moon” with the kinds of spin moves Frank wouldn't have dreamed of doing. The crowd laps it up. This guy gets a 7 -- no questions asked. Mike says all he needs is the cocktail and a cigarette.
“Can you take me to Mars and Venus, too? Can you take this whole room with you?" I comment. "I close my eyes and I hear Ol' Blue Eyes!”
One lady did a tune by Selena, and I had flashbacks to my Rio Grande Valley days. “You got that cumbia thing down,” I say. “Muy bien! Viva!”
I'll give out plenty more Huzzahs before the night is over and get a few cracks about the tricorn.
“Nice hat,” I say to a contestant donning a cowboy topper.
“I wish I could return the comment,” he kids back.
“Ooooo,” I grimace, laying my head down on the desk in feigned disgust. “What's the lowest score I can give?” Great television.
Between the first and second shows, people come over to gush on my judging abilities. I can't believe it. I don't think I'm a star, even if I'm trying harder to show personality. If anything, I'm afraid of stealing the show.
I change into a blue button-down shirt, no tie, no jacket. But the tricorn stays, and so do my zingers.
“Hold on,” I say with my Blackberry up to my ear after one woman's rendition of Aretha Franklin's “Natural Woman.” “The Queen of Soul called and just made you a princess!”
“Mullet,” a personality from K-HIT in Tucson, is amazed with my performance. Mike is back for the second show as the third judge, with Chef heading home after a long day.
The final performer of the second show actually gets to do her song twice. A buzz in the audio forces a re-take. Our producer asks us to clear our minds and focus only on the second performance, but it doesn't matter. She's as good, if not better, the second time around, and either way, she gets high marks for her version of Oleta Adams' “Get Here.”
I don't give anybody below a 5, which makes sense since we're in the semi-finals. I don't think I'd want to be the judge for the final.
The taping wraps up around 11, and just in time. I race to the bathroom after downing two bottles of water throughout the contest.
Shannon from KIIM comes over and is ecstatic. “You were so flippin' funny!” Everybody on the production staff I meet with wants me back. I tell them I want to be back, only I have to see what our general manager wants to do.
After a lot of compliments and hob-nobbing, I walk out the door and was approched by an elderly man who called himself “Blackie The Blues Man.” He's from Chicago, and he looks the part: porkpie hat, white goatee, light brown suit and pants. For the next five minutes, we talk about our musical backgrounds, and he admires my judging abilities.
I can hardly hear him over the din of the slot machines, but I stand fascinated by how he seems to have enough life in him for at least two people. His voice is low and gravelly, one of somebody who's paid their dues and been all over the place. He is a man of GOD, and I can tell it. I don't know why he takes such a keen interest in me, but I have a few good guesses.