Watched an amazing documentary on the Apollo theater on HBO last week. The history of that venue never ceases to amaze me and I am honored to have performed there three times in my lifetime. The first two times were in 1999. I went to Harlem, NY with a group of friends I had met at local karaoke spots and open mics in the DC area. Black karaoke is different than regular karaoke. At these karaoke spots, people SANG! You had people get paid gigs based on performances at these karaoke and open mic spots. Some of my hang spots were the Channel Inn on the waterfront in DC, the hotel In Oxon Hill, md (near the National Harbor that used to be a Ramada Hotel and then a Best Western), and Antonio’s in New Carrollton, Md. A group of us from these spots traveled to the Apollo on a bus with a woman who would scout for talent for their Wednesday Amateur Night show.
I remember this very clearly. This was not for the tv show. The Apollo would have a Wednesday night amateur night show hosted by Doug E Fresh where first, second and third place winners would win money.
I remember rehearsing with the Ray Chew band and not feeling comfortable with how my song had been amended. I remember the lady who scouted us telling me she didn’t think I had what it takes to be on the stage and that my rehearsal performance was awful. I didn’t cuss her out, but I remember cursing her in my mind and going to my dressing room to get my mind right. The Apollo was raggedy then, in bad condition. It felt like they hadn’t renovated since the 60”s. But, I felt like musical ancestors were in that creaky cold dressing room with me. I prayed, did some deep breathing and changed my clothes.
When it came to showtime, I sang my face off. I didn’t get booed off, in fact, I won second place, tying with one of my friends I had traveled there with. A good friend of mine at the time had been booed off stage before my performance and didn’t speak to me the whole bus ride home after I got my little $75 check for tying for second place. I went up there again a few weeks later to compete against winners from past weeks and didn’t win again, but, didn’t get booed, so, that was a win!
Two years later, a work friend and I decided to audition at Howard University for the tv show Showtime at the Apollo. We waited in a crazy long line and I made it through to the show. I traveled to New York with my mom and two youngest sisters who were in middle school. This was a few weeks before the tragedy 9/11.
This time, I didn’t get a dressing room. All of us performing were piled into the green room in the basement and had two minutes to go over our song with Ray Chew and the band for a rehearsal. I was so nervous because the song was modified in a way I was not familiar with. I remember sitting next to this quiet white guy the whole three or four hours we were there. I didn’t know what he was going to do. Other acts kept making fun of him because he was dressed in a suit and looked inappropriately formal. Ironically, two of the acts making fun of him got booed off stage.
It was my turn. I was so nervous but got through my song. One man in the front tried to boo me but the audience started clapping for me to shut him the hell up. I made it to the end without getting booed off. The picture below is from that performance.
The white guy I had been sitting next to went near last. He performed “it wAsn’t me” by Shaggy, doing both the rapping and singing part, dressed like Bill Clinton. You might recall the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal he was re-enacting.
He won that day and the following week.
There is so much I remember from that day. I found out later that day that the singer Aaliyah had died while we were taping the show.
This memory will stay with me always.