Who would turn a live microphone over to a stranger in Durham?
Brett Chambers, that’s who. He has been doing so every Wednesday evening for the past 21 years.
“No one’s more surprised than I am that this has lasted this long,” Chambers said to a standing-room only crowd inside the Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham.
Chambers, 59, was introducing his Open Mic act, which began on Main Street over two decades ago as a one-night stand at a club known as Talk of the Town.
“‘See you next week’. That’s how we did it every week,” Chambers said. “Our first rule is, ‘have fun.’”
Standing just a few feet from the stage was Anthony Wade Sr. of Raleigh. He had arrived early to get his name near the top of the open mic sign-in sheet. Wade Sr. said he has been singing at this open mic for over three years.
“I’m an old-school crooner,” Wade said.
About 20 minute later, Chambers called Wade to the stage, where he proceeded to sing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reason,” followed by Heat Wave’s '80s hit, “Always & Forever.”
The first person to present a poem that evening was Deborah Williams of Durham, aka Queen Prophet Sage.
“I was a little nervous because the energy was already high,” Williams said. “I didn’t want (my poem) to be too serious or sad.”
Gary Daugherty of Durham said he is a nine-year veteran of the open mic, following it from Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse in South Durham to the Beyu.
“It’s a warm, welcoming place for someone who’s never sung in public,” Daugherty said. “You can bring young people here to observe the older people, and vice-versa.”
Daugherty said his performances at the open mic have led to singing gigs at weddings and universities. “Most of these guys here are already professional,” Daugherty said.
Bill Beamon from Lillington plays a tenor sax at the open mic.
“Around 1970, I played in a group called the Paragons in upstate New York,” Beamon said. He then moved on to a group called The New Band before joining a government outfit known as the United States Air Force. After completing his tour of duty, Beamon returned to New York to learn that the New Band was history. “They had moved to California and changed their name to Atlantic Starr,” Beamon said.
Beamon was a star that evening at the open mic, road-racing on soprano sax between bassist Alfonzo Kee and guitarist Delany McQuaid, both seasoned session players and key components to Chambers’ open mic band, known as, “The Usual Suspects.” On keyboards was James “Coffee” Yourse, so-nicknamed because, according to open mic envoy Gary Messenger, “he grinds.”
And then there was the relative newcomer to the act, 29-year-old Rah Carnell of Fayetteville, sporting high-top hair and holding his own on tenor sax. “The feel that they have is more like … funk-soul,” Carnell said of The Usual Suspects. Carnell made a habit that night of taking his sax on the road, stepping offstage to strut around tables of listeners.
Among those in the audience was Carina Muehl, from downtown Durham. “I stumbled upon this back in November of 2016,” Muehl said. She and two friends had ventured into the Beyu following a tarot card reading. “We ended up staying two or three hours,” Muehl said.
What brings Muel back to the open mic is the live music.
“It flows,” Muehl said. “It just keeps rolling.”
Gary Daugherty of Durham started his set with “Don’t Look Any Farther” by the late Dennis Edwards, then proceeded to transform the café space into a dance floor by singing Rick James’ “Give it to me, Baby”, making it sound like his own.
“He’s smooth,” Muehl said. “I don’t know what he does in real life. He’s just smooth.”
When asked to spotlight a performance from the open mic’s 21 years, Chambers laughed and replied that there were “way too many”.
And then he took a moment to reconsider.
“I remember one guy who came up to me and told me it was his birthday, and that he wanted to sing,” Chambers said. “I told him to sign the list.” Chambers said the man signed up then sat back down with a table of women. Chambers said the man looked tense.
When his name was called to sing, he stepped up to the microphone, and that’s when the sun came out. “He was just incredible,” Chambers said. “There were guys who got up and threw money at his feet.”
At the end of his set, the man told Chambers that it had been his dream to sing in public. Chambers told him he was welcome back anytime. “He said, ‘Oh, no – I’m good. I’ve fulfilled my dream. I have a good job. I manage a bank.’”
Chambers said in the months afterward, he would run into the man walking or shopping alone in Durham. Chambers would ask him if he was singing anywhere. “I’m telling you, I’m good,” the man would reply. “I fulfilled my dream.”
Back inside the Beyu, a man with an acoustic guitar takes the stage and performs two songs to polite applause. The Usual Suspects return and dive into a funk instrumental that gets the crowd dancing again. Keeping it all rolling is Chambers.
“I stay focused, make sure everyone is comfortable, and that things run smoothly,” Chambers said. “And that’s why I think we’ve lasted 21 years: I stay in my lane.”
Open Mic nights are Wednesdays from 8 to 11 p.m. at Beyu Caffe, 341 W. Main St., Durham. Go to beyucaffe.com for details.