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Until this point, Al Latta's show has been perfect. But then he turns to his minidisc player and selects Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." The beat hits the speakers, and within the first verse, Latta is screwed.
Four slender sorority sisters, Kappa Alpha Thetas from the University of Kansas, clamber onstage to dance beside him. Then a guy with spiky hair, faded jeans and a patch-covered T-shirt jumps up to grind beside them. And then the audience stops making eye contact with Latta. Fists pump the air like this is a rock show. Catcalls drown out his words.
This is his great fear. "A cover singer involves the audience in the show but still controls the show," he will say later. He considers guys who cede that power the lowest rung of musicians: fucking karaoke artists.
Latta finds a stubbed-out cigarette and relights it. Cordless mike in one hand, cigarette in the other, he swaggers offstage as the music to Jackson's never-ending keep on with the force, don't stop chorus recycles. Once again, he's level with the audience.
Taking a short blonde under his arm, he proclaims, "I'm in love with her sister." Then he stops a brunette near her muscled boyfriend. "I didn't touch her, I swear," he says to the boyfriend. He's ditched his dress shirt, and his suit jacket hangs open, revealing his bare chest.
Finally, the Jackson track rolls into Latta's favorite Frank Sinatra song, "The Way You Look Tonight." Standing in the audience, drenched in sweat, he reaches up to the blue-eyed Theta onstage, serenading:
Someday, when I'm awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you.
When she turns toward him, the crowd follows her gaze. The back-table bachelor party. The women in their pink boas and tiaras and fur coats. The drunks who shout that he's wearing a toupee. (He doesn't deny it.) When he does stunts like this, he owns them.
Right now there are a handful of other Italian-named artists in black suits and tuxedos playing at Italian-themed bars across the metro -- Anthony's downtown, the Touche in Overland Park, Vivace in the River Market, the Copa Room in midtown. Guys like Frank Cherrito and Rudy Amato. Both men still have day jobs, as a car salesman and a building maintenance manager, respectively. They inhabit a world Latta has mostly left behind.
He started gigging Wednesday and Saturday nights at Touche when it opened in 1997, eventually farming himself out to Anthony's and the now-defunct Café New Yorker in Overland Park. When he had enough stage cred, he started moonlighting on the party circuit, working hotel convention rooms and suburban living rooms.
"He was looking for a place where he could hang his hat every night," says Touche owner Danny Accurso. "People would seek him out. It's not that big of a town, and word gets around quickly. He did get recruited."
One Saturday, after he had finished his set at Touche, a couple of men in dark suits with raspy voices -- "like they were choking on gunpowder," Latta says -- asked him to go for a ride.
It was nearly 3 a.m. when they climbed into a sedan and headed downtown to the Cigar Box. The place was empty except for one man. Seated at a table by himself was Louis Ribaste, who asked Latta if he wanted a full-time job.