Nathan Elmore is a celebrity at Schatze's Bar and Grill in Belleville, especially now that he has performed his 1,000th karaoke song.
The 26-year-old Belleville man reached the goal last week, when he got up on stage and sang the Christina Perri hit "A Thousand Years."
"There were a lot of people here for him, cheering him on," said bartender Melissa Stevens, 39, of Scott Air Force Base. "They got him a cookie cake and balloons and all kinds of stuff."
It was a big accomplishment for someone who was painfully shy as a child and faced plenty of challenges in school.
Elmore has Klinefelter syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that can affect physical and intellectual development in men and boys.
"It's kind of like Asperger's," he said. "I was born with an extra chromosome. Instead of XY, I have XXY. In academics, I do poorly at some subjects, and I excel at others. I failed in writing and science, but I excelled at English, grammar, spelling and math."
Elmore has a slight speech impediment, and he's a big guy, standing at 6-foot-1 and weighing about 300 pounds. That has made him a target of bullies, who don't take time to appreciate his upbeat personality and quick wit.
"I tell him he's a 'gentle giant,'" said his mother, Stephanie Elmore, 45, of Belleville, a custodian at St. Paul United Church of Christ.
Nathan Elmore has been singing karaoke about five years, mostly in English but occasionally in German and Spanish. On May 23, 2017, he launched his "quest" to perform 1,000 different songs, starting with "Popular" from the Broadway musical "Wicked."
DJs at Schatze's kept a running total, and customers rooted for him.
"He's not the greatest singer, but he sings with the most heart," said friend Nancy Vanover, 54, of Belleville, another karaoke regular and Elmore's co-worker at Jimmy John's. "We just love him."
Overcoming shyness and joining choir
Elmore couldn't talk until he was 3 1/2 because of weak tongue muscles, but speech therapy worked wonders, according to his mother. As a toddler, he used sign language and wrote on a chalkboard in the living room.
Elmore gradually overcame shyness and discovered music. He sang in choirs at St. George's Episcopal Church, Belleville East High School and Southwestern Illinois College.
"He always did good in school," his mother said. "Spelling was one of his main strengths. He would always go to the spelling bee or he would be an alternate in first through fifth grade."
Elmore graduated in 2010 from Belleville East, where he was captain of the chess club. He attended SWIC for two years before deciding to take a break.
Today, Elmore lives with his mom and 9-year-old sister, Phoenix. He went through driver's education but hasn't had the nerve to get his license. He can walk to Schatze's, which is two blocks from his house.
When not singing karaoke, Elmore works at the Jimmy John's restaurant across from SWIC, and he volunteers each year at St. George's chili cookoff. He likes to read and color.
"I'm proud of him for everything he does," his mother said. "He's had his share of struggles, but he's come a long way."
Vanover has seen Elmore build more confidence since he became a karaoke singer. Some at Schatze's even describe him as a "social butterfly."
The Facebook page for "King Nathan Elmore" lists his occupations as "Drive-Thru Specialist at Jimmy John's" and "CEO & President at King of Chess."
Schatze's hosts karaoke Sunday through Thursday, and Elmore generally shows up three of the five nights. He"ll drink a Redds apple ale now and then, but mostly he sticks with soda.
"He's part of the fabric there," said Kurt Schlosser, 56, of Belleville, a real-estate appraiser and vocalist and keyboard player for the band AmberFade. "He's a super guy."
A 'remarkably magnificent' performance
Elmore's fans include Schatze's two DJs, Mike "DJ XX" Martin and John "DJ Johnny B" Berryman.
When Elmore took the stage Tuesday, Martin introduced him as the "king of karaoke" and "Mr. 1,000." Neon lights reflected in his black glasses and illuminated the raspberry-colored highlights in his black hair.
"I can't remember the last time he missed a karaoke night when I was working," said Martin, 36, of Belleville. "Even when we had all that snow and nobody else was here, he still came up for karaoke."
"Rain, sleet, snow, zombie apocalypse -- I'm here," Elmore quipped.
Elmore keeps track of his karaoke performances in a notebook that he takes to Schatze's. He had an ulterior motive for wanting to sing 1,000 different songs. His sister bet him $1 that he couldn't do it.
March 6 was D-Day, and the crowd gave Elmore a standing ovation before he even opened his mouth. He sang his 999th song, the Carole King classic "You've Got a Friend," then he made history with "A Thousand Years."
"It was very festive," said Berryman, 51, of Waterloo. "People were tearing down the house. ... I've never heard of anybody ever doing that before -- singing 1,000 different songs."
Vanover was particularly impressed by Elmore's rendition of "A Thousand Years" because his voice went up an octave at one point instead of staying at its usual monotone.
Over the years, Vanover has noticed a few customers at Schatze's reacting to Elmore's performances in unkind ways, and that has caused her protective instincts to kick in.
"I'll say, 'We appreciate Nate, and if you don't, maybe you need to find somewhere else to go,'" she said.
Elmore's favorite songs are from the Broadway musical "Mamma Mia," but he enjoys all genres, ranging from pop and rock to jazz and blues. "A Thousand Years" seemed an obvious choice for his 1,000th song.
"I was nervous, but I just practiced the song one more time before I sang it, and I actually did remarkably magnificent," Elmore said. "I almost cried at the end, knowing I had achieved 1,000 songs. It was a good night."