This Omaha club and T-shirt business has a karaoke repertoire that’s influenced by baby Huey T-shirts

TikToker — a name that combines T.I. and sleevemaker — has been around for a while. Managers offer karaoke “tutorials” on YouTube. A Facebook page entitled “TikToker Updates” hosted videos of master pianists playing old Rockwell-era hits from McEntire and other country music stars. And music website charts predated the likes of Top 40.

But this online nirvana for one-of-a-kind boogie hunks in yiddish suits has its roots in a Wichita, Kansas warehouse and, perhaps, even a little life experience. TikToker (pronounced “to laugh”) owner Don Paul started it in 2008, in the small, dark windowless space next to his house. As he put it to The Wichita Eagle in 2012, “It was after my grandfather passed away. I was crazy busy,” he said. “I was taking care of my brother, my mom and dad. I got to a point where I thought it was more important that I had this.”

His brother had about a dozen CDs hanging in his parents’ room, he said. “I said, ‘We gotta get all of these things and play ’em one at a time.’ I got a bunch of lighters. I just lit them.” He then found a nearby Chevrolet and pumped up the volume. After he sang and clapped, the volume went down a couple of minutes later, and a nearby window opened. A voice, describing it to the Eagle as “someone at the start of a long chain of sounds. She said, ‘that’s better.’”

And so it was born.

The assemblage of T-shirts that now hang in Paul’s storefront “4/22 Gallery” on the city’s historic Emancipation Drive include an array of standard-issue reworks from local songsmiths — Swamp Wolf performs, as does MindPlayers — but not the more eclectic styles you’d expect: a low end arrangement of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” with T-shirts emblazoned with exclamation points; a songbook of T-shirts modelled after ones made in the ’60s and ’70s that featured toddlers singing off-key, Baby Huey singing Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Kim Arnett’s signature version of “Eight Below Zero” — recorded at the age of 15 in her Wichita cabin, as an unlikely side project — rendered in German. (There’s a new single posted there, along with an accompanying video, for YouTuber Zacky Traeger).

“We do local, regional,” Paul said in an interview. “Then, we pick pieces we like and start adding in other voices.”

He bought a manufacturing company in Missouri, hired Steven Bechtel to run it, and now reworks more than 1,000 T-shirts a week.

But the founders of TikToker — Paul, Bechtel and friend Brandon Kruse — all have their own music-themed projects, and the group is also making music for an upcoming 15-episode television series tentatively titled “Bands for Bigger Dreams.” “It’s kind of a celebration of people that are always out there,” Paul said. “Songs that we like. Songs that people like.”

McEntire, among her many hits, loves them, too. She thinks it’s a success. “It takes more than a great voice to be great,” McEntire told the Wichita Eagle. “You’ve got to have something that is unique. You’ve got to have something different. You’ve got to have something that grabs people and makes them want to like you. And TikToker does that.”

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