The year was 1985. I had worked at my very first job for only weeks and already I was angling for the next one (sound familiar?). One day during my off time at Carowinds I wandered into one of its arcades to play video games (Commando, Paperboy, and Karate Champ were favorites). There was a new store at the end of this barn-like arcade building, full of bright spotlights, new carpeting, and three glass booths that resembled changing rooms. Curious and out of quarters for the moment, I wandered over and struck up a conversation with the owner.
The man behind the counter was Derek Slep, a fast-talking musician and recording engineer who along with his brother Kurt owned this new venture, Sing-A-Song Recording Studios. Sing-A-Song turned park visitors into recording stars: mixing their voice into their favorite music. In 15 minutes a customer would pick out a song from an extensive list of background music, then step into a booth and rehearse and record a song. A short while later they were presented with a cassette tape with their name and song on it.
Derek had worked in Nashville as a recording engineer, including Linda Ronstadt he said. He was hiring employees and – because Derek was also a good salesman – I soon became one of them. He offered the chance to learn how to work some cool audio equipment. He also offered a bump in pay above the $3.35/hr I earned as a Carowinds employee and I would still get to ride my beloved roller coasters for free when I wasn’t working. How could I say no?
There were typically three employees and either Derek or Kurt in the booth. One worked register, one helped customers with the booth, and one worked the mixing board. On busy summer weekends a larger crew might be called in. There were times the studio was wall-to-wall!
While I did my share of the other tasks, I loved working the board. It had more switches than a 747 cockpit! Not only that, the mixing board was featured prominently in the studio’s window, where girls would check me out. It was one of the few places at the time where I could be geeky and still attract girls.
At the board were three 4-track cassette tape decks, three stereo cassette decks for recording, three compressors, JBL monitor speakers, and a 16-track mixing board. A shelf full of music tapes was on the nearby wall. I could converse with the singers in the booth, making sure their audio levels were fine and trying to get them feeling comfortable with the process. Even though we were in an amusement park, the equipment and setup was first-rate. It could be intimidating. Frequently our Saturdays would be so busy that I would have only enough time to welcome a singer in one booth before switching over to the two other booths, juggling three sessions at a time. The place was making money hand over fist on those days, charging $20 a tape.
When I wasn’t working the board Derek would have me on the floor putting the sales pitch on visitors. We would have a “best-of” tape playing over the speakers and that would usually get a smile out of them. Derek constantly pushed me to get over my shy tendencies and make a sale, and those skills are still with me today. I think that job was the first time I ventured from my reclusive ways.
At the end of the day after we had closed out the register and cleaned up, the crew would sometimes “cut a record” ourselves. These two guys I worked with recorded under the nicknames of “Otis and Gus,” making hilariously obscene songs while I cracked up at the mixing board. Needless to say, those songs didn’t make it to the best-of tape. Not the public tape, at least!
One Saturday there was a traveling rap show playing at Carowinds concert venue, the Paladium (funny how I can’t find a good link for that). A huge crowd of park visitors followed these artists around and soon they were all in our store. I met Lisa Lisa from Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam as well as the Force MDs. Someone told me Kurtis Blow was there, too, but I didn’t get a chance to meet him.
The Force MDs recorded a freestyling rap over one of our most popular rap songs and had me in awe. That lasted up until I got stuck having to clean the mountain of hair gel off the booth headphones! Ah, the Eighties! I still have their autographs somewhere (and maybe Lisa Lisa’s, too – she was a babe).
There were a few groupies who hung around me, as well. This was an entirely new experience for me and I wasn’t quite used to it. My Carowinds uniform was dorky to the extreme: blue pants, blue suspenders, anda frilly white long-sleeve shirt. On the other hand, at Sing-A-Song I wore a slick-looking red polo shirt with black pants. Derek would tease me to no end when these girls would hang around me which would usually make my face as red as the shirt I was wearing! I certainly did enjoy the attention, even if I didn’t quite know what to do with it.
The season soon came to an end, the studio closed for the winter, and I returned to high school. About six months later Derek and Kurt called me up with some additional work to do. I spent a few hours chatting with Derek’s family in his apartment, labeling boxes and boxes cassette tapes for shipment to customers.
It was obvious that Derek and Kurt were taking this business places. They had opened another studio at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. I imagined what it would be like to stick around but eventually left it behind when our family picked up and moved to Northern Virginia.
I’m glad we moved because I likely wouldn’t have married my lovely wife if we hadn’t, but things could have also been good had I stayed: The Sleps went on to build themselves a multimillion-dollar business as the country’s leading producer of karaoke music.
Working at Sing-A-Song was one of the most fun jobs I’ve had and one of the most formative, too. I wouldn’t have guessed I’d still be musing about it twenty-four years later.