Back in 2008, John Brophy hosted a karaoke night at a divey sports bar called BC’s Bar and Grill on SE Powell Boulevard. Brophy didn’t take your typical approach to the form: There were no standards in the songbook—no “Margaritaville,” no “Sweet Caroline." Within a few months, he was consistently packing the house for what he called Baby Ketten Karaoke.
"The first few nights were just friends," Brophy recalls. "They were all singers. It was a lot of fun, like a basement party kind of thing. [Then] word got out, and it just kind of blew up."
That's putting it lightly. Baby Ketten would grow into a nationally known phenomenon, proclaimed “America’s greatest karaoke night” by the New York Times in 2013.
Now, 11 years after that first night at BC’s—a decade spent popping up in bars across the city, with sister spinoff nights in Seattle—Brophy is transforming that very space into a brick-and-mortar destination devoted to his singular karaoke vision. Baby Ketten Klub is slated to open later this spring at 2433 SE Powell, with plans to operate 5 p.m.–2:30 a.m. daily.
It was a friend who tipped off Brophy to the sale of BC’s. “It just seemed serendipitous to be back here and make this a permanent space,” he says, adding that he’d received repeated requests from regulars to go full-time with Baby Ketten. He launched a Kickstarter campaign, which raised nearly $21,000, surpassing its initial goal by more than $7,000.
Portland Monthly contributor Casey Jarman described a Baby Ketten Karaoke night in the August 2016 issue of the magazine:
“I notice a balding, middle-aged man flipping through a Baby Ketten Karaoke songbook that’s slightly slimmer than the others. The songs featured in this volume are ‘rareties,’ most of their backing tracks either commissioned by Brophy with a group of like-minded friends or recorded himself in his own home studio. Here you can find Silver Jews, GG Allin, and at least 21 songs by Portland’s Decemberists. You will not, however, find ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ in any of Baby Ketten’s songbooks.”
To get these songs, Brophy buys tracks from karaoke studios or makes them at home using old 45s he buys on eBay. In the New York Times profile, he’s shown constructing them from next to nothing, playing guitar and bass in his home studio and piecing things together as he goes along. After more than a decade, does he still dig for songs online? Always, Brophy says. “I have all the alerts set for instrumental discs [and] B-sides with instrumentals,” he says. That tenacity is necessary: every six months, he retires the top 50 songs.
Baby Ketten Klub will have a main stage with a PA system fit for a decent-sized rock club, as well as two karaoke rooms, each of them themed. One will boast ’70s, dad-basement vibes—Brophy flips on a video test run of a vintage speaker cabinet blasting BTO’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” synced to lights.
The ’80s room will have more of a Duran Duran, Miami Vice feel to it, Brophy says, showing a photo of the Baby Ketten logo on a cartoon Don Johnson.
“I’m trying to reuse as much as possible,” he says, looking around the partially gutted restaurant. “The bar’s been here since the ’70s. We’re using as much of the reclaimed wood that we pulled out of the old stuff.”
He’s also using the original tables and chairs, and he’s purchased several old, buttoned restaurant booths from a defunct Laurelhurst deli. “I’m trying to keep it all not like a ‘New Portland’ situation,” Brophy says.
Add to that a full-service bar, pub food, pinball, and Big Buck Hunter. In the future, Brophy might add trivia, bingo, DJs, or a patio. But for now, karaoke is the focus. Bands have been sending songs, so he’s been able to add to his collection.
“A lot of bands have been really forthcoming with tracks,” Brophy says. “Au Revoir Simone gave us three tracks for our collection, which is awesome—we’d been getting some requests for them.” Grandaddy and Information Society have also offered up their tunes.
Though he hasn’t run karaoke nights over the last six months, Brophy hasn’t stopped making tracks.
“I’ll put aside a day and half to two days and go and crank some out,” he says. “We’ve got probably 60 or so Baby Ketten tracks that no one’s even had a chance to sing yet.”
Hear that? Some 60-odd new Baby Ketten tracks are waiting for you. Now don’t forget to tip your KJ.