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Amateur Night at the Apollo
May 3, 2006

Written by Hunter Gorinson
Photos Courtesy of the Apollo Theater

Amateur night was a tradition at the Apollo Theater for many years; it was one of the lynchpins of the Apollo’s mystique, right up there with Billie Holiday and the Temptations. Unfortunately during the economic doldrums of the 90s it was allowed to fall dormant. But now in the age of American Idol, Amateur Night is enjoying a much deserved revival. Since the Apollo’s production is constantly treading the line between brilliance and cringe-inducing failure, the Idol comparison is an easy one to draw. Except the Apollo attracts about twice as much talent and a thousand times more soul. Pray to the gods of rhythm and they will smile upon thee. For talent, the Apollo is a church.

Its been more than forty years since a young James Brown took home the title, and while the marquee outside may now be digital, the M.O. of Amateur Night remains the same: clap for your favorites, boo everyone else. Those who win are showered with cheers; those who fail can expect the heckling to begin in under thirty seconds, with the legendary executioner on hand to unceremoniously whisk the losers off stage. Recall the big cane that used to yank bad acts off the Vaudeville stage, well this “cane” is a guy wearing big sunglasses and a gaudy outfit break dancing towards the offending act like a bullet train. It can get down right brutal to watch. Especially when a performer: (a) doesn’t believe the audience’s reaction (usually with a hearty “Naw man. Quit playing,” sputtered into the mic) or (b) wears an outfit so trifling that it completely undermines his or her whole performance (i.e., anyone in a white suit).

Once the houselights go down, it isn’t glamorous up there on stage and it certainly ain’t easy. To make a mark on a crowd that’s seemingly seen and heard it all before, you not only have to have talent, but also some huge cajones. Case in point: the winning act of the evening wasn’t a diva, a crooner, or an underage rap trio (although there were two of those). It was a guitar-playing teenage queen who would have given Chuck Berry cause to rise. Sixteen-year-old Harlem native Carmella Williams strutted around the stage in high heels, wielding her Stratocaster like a hellcat, as she belted through instrumental versions of “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix and “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne. She even got an audience filled with Japanese tourists and sixty plus types to do the “aie-aie-aie” in the chorus. Rock.

So to both the uninitiated and music aficionados alike, Amateur Night is solid bet for a Wednesday evening. You’ll listen to some soul chestnuts, laugh at the jokes, and maybe even do the side-to-side. And I’ll be damned if you don’t clap so hard your hands hurt.

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