Many people use karaoke as a way to feel like a professional singer for a few minutes. Kim Massie used it to become one.
In the late 1990s, the St. Louis-area native was a nurse’s aide outside Cleveland, 40 years old and with grown children, when she started entering and winning karaoke competitions. Those experiences gave her a taste for live performance. When she returned to the area at the end of a bad relationship, she decided to take a shot at becoming a full-time singer.
It’s been a little more than 20 years, and she’s still at it.
Massie’s website declares her the St. Louis Diva, and it’s a title she wears with pride. She’s earned that status, largely from playing weekly residencies around the region for two decades.
Massie is an interpreter of songs, not a songwriter. And the key to her style is variety. Her catalog ranges from songs by Ike and Tina Turner to the Beatles. On Saturday, she’ll debut a new tribute show featuring the music of sophisticated rockers Steely Dan at Atomic Cowboy. She also plays Thursday at the Whitaker Urban Evening Concert Series.
“I don’t like being pigeonholed or stereotyped. You see this black woman so you’re thinking gospel, or jazz or blues, something like that. OK, yeah,” she said. “But I’m much more. And that’s what keeps me workin’.”
Massie has anchored her presence on the scene with engagements like her epic reign at Beale on Broadway; she played there every week for 18 years. She recently started two new residencies: Sundays at Broadway Oyster Bar and Wednesdays at Jazzy 159 in Fairview Heights.
Massie’s style is not showy. She puts the song first, reserving her vocal acrobatics for select moments while connecting with the audience through her strong onstage presence and friendly-but-in-charge personality.
Her warm relationship with the audience is evident. When she opened Missouri History Museum’s “Twilight Tuesdays” concert series in May with a tribute show for Aretha Franklin, the place was packed with enthusiastic fans. It was a similar scene a few days later when she played two freewheeling sets at Atomic Cowboy in the Grove.
Growing up, Massie sang in the black church and listened to classic rock on the radio. She loved singing, but didn’t consider it for a career. When she started entering karaoke contests, the positive response from audiences made her think: Maybe she could sing full time.
“At first I was amazed at how people would listen to me. It was awesome. I was an introvert,” she said. “But the music was what allowed me to be free.”
As a veteran of choirs that exclusively performed sacred music, she felt liberated as well by the wide variety of music available to a karaoke performer.
“And here I could sing anything. I mean anything,” she said. “It wasn’t just gospel music. It was everything else. It gave me that opportunity to be heard.”
A standard Kim Massie show nowadays may veer from Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” making stops in the catalogs of Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers along the way. She’s also performed a tribute to women in rock, with songs by Joan Jett, Pat Benatar and the Eurythmics.
“Her library is so diverse,” vocalist Tasha B. said backstage, before joining Massie as a backup singer for the show at Missouri History Museum. “Her personality exudes love — love for music and love for people. So it just makes it an overall experience, just to encounter her show.”
Massie is a strong supporter of younger musicians on the scene. “She cherishes all of us St. Louis artists as individuals, and she brings us together in ways that sometimes we would not come together,” Tasha B. said.
With tenacity and talent, Massie made herself into a professional singer. She augments her residencies with apperarances at festivals and other events. Fans sometimes give her gifts, and one year she bought a car with the tips she’d saved. But the freelance life can bring a punishing workload. This spring, she had serious bouts with pneumonia and sepsis but was determined to get back onstage.
A few years ago, she had surgery on her thyroid. She was onstage again 10 days later. She didn’t want audiences, or venue bookers, to forget about her.
“The worst thing about doing what we do is the phone stops ringing. When the phone stops ringing, it affects your pocket,” she said.
Beale on Broadway closed in January. That was a hit to her income, but she’s continued to piece together her performance schedule gig by gig. Maintaining her status as the St. Louis Diva is not always a glamorous affair. But her continued success did inspire her to amend her personal motto.
“I had a business card that read, ‘Keep in touch with your dream.’ Right? And then I had to change it to: ‘Living the dream I’ve kept in touch with.’”
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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