It was 1934, and a former burlesque theater in New York had just been repurposed to become the Apollo Theater, allowing African-Americans for the first time to grace its stage.
One of the very first performers of the new club’s “Amateur Night” was a then 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald. She brought the house down, and the rest was history.
Over the years, Prince, Michael Jackson, Louis Armstrong and Lauryn Hill would launch careers at the famed theater. Now, that New York legacy has for the first time come to New Orleans, during a special audition held in conjunction with the New Orleans’ Essence Festival.
Called “Making a Star,” the campaign was launched to find big-talent, big-personality singers to perform at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome as part of Essence Fest’s lineup. A single winner will then get all-expenses paid trip to New York to perform at the Apollo Theater.
Essence Fest in New Orleans was an “obvious” place for the Apollo to seek out talent for the forthcoming special event competition in New York, according to Nina Flowers, the theater’s director of communications.
Known as the premier showcase for contemporary African American music and culture, this year’s Essence Fest lineup includes Mariah Carey, six Grammy-nominee Tyrese, Puff Daddy, Cyrille Neville, Kendrick Lamar and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
“New Orleans is just such a special city, and it’s known for it’s music,” Flowers said as she oversaw auditions at the Ernest M. Morial Convention Center. “So there’s kind of this synergy in terms of us coming here.”
Friday’s audition was open to singers who didn’t already have a recording contract with a major studio. Two contestants selected from those auditions were slated to advance to a semi-final round on Saturday evening, where they were to perform alongside eleven-time Grammy nominee Charlie Wilson at the festival’s main stage.
The winner of that competition – the performer who gets the most favorable reaction from the audience – would be picked to go to New York.
The second phase of the competition will start July 11, and will be open to people from around the country. It will take place online via the competition’s website, with online voting concluding Aug. 5.
In total, five contestants will be chosen to perform and compete at the legendary Apollo Theater during a special edition of Amateur Night on Sept. 21.
By 1 p.m. on Friday, about 50 contestants had showed up to audition at the Convention Center, and the event’s producers said they expected that number to reach into the hundreds by the end of the day.
Among those auditioning was 27-year-old Jabari Thomas, the entertainment reporter for WGNO’s “News With a Twist.”
Like the other competitors, Thomas rubbed the “tree of hope,” a good-luck charm that lives on the stage of the Apollo theater, and had been brought down to New Orleans especially for the auditions. Then, wearing a black velvet jacket, he gave a heartfelt rendition of “Rolling in the Deep,” a song recorded by English singer Adele for her second studio album, “21.”
In an interview afterward, Thomas said he auditioned in part because his idol, James Brown, got his start at the Apollo.“The Apollo is such a big thing for African-Americans,” Thomas said. “I mean, it was really the first American Idol.”
Dawn Harris, a 33-year-old singer from Philadelphia, was among dozens of other competitors who made spur-of-the moment decisions to audition after seeing a sign for the competition while wandering around Essence Fest.
For most young performers who advance in the auditions for Amateur Night, performing at the Apollo will be the highlight of their career, according to the show’s producer, Marion Caffey.
He also said it was usually a learning experience for young artists. On Friday, he laughed about the show’s notoriously tough crowd, mentioning that even James Brown and Luther Vandross were booed off the stage when they performed at the Apollo as amateurs.
But regardless of what happens at Amateur Night, Caffey said, the experience can only be described as transformative.
“It’s a highlight no matter what,” Caffey said. “Even if they get booed off the stage, they’re still in good company.”