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Updated: 2:12 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009 | Posted: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009

Apollo Amateur Night auditions come to Atlanta



By Nedra Rhone

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Long before Michael Jackson was an internationally recognized superstar, he and his brothers were the Jackson Brothers competing in Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1967.

“They were so young and talented. It was one of those things where you say, ‘whew,’” said Apollo Ambassador Billy Mitchell, who at the time was a 17-year-old errand boy fetching food, coffee and clothing for acts such as Flip Wilson, Moms Mabley and Smokey Robinson.

The Jackson Brothers became the Jackson 5 and are now counted among the many famous acts that first graced the legendary stage on Amateur Night.

On Saturday, for the first time in its 75-year history, Apollo’s Amateur Night will hold auditions in Atlanta. “Over the last 10 years or so, Atlanta has become an East Coast hub of music. It has carved itself a real niche for producing good music, and talent follows good music,” said Marion J. Caffey, executive producer of Apollo Amateur Night.

Caffey was brought in last year to revamp the famed Wednesday Amateur Night for the 21st century. In addition to upgrades to the building facade, marquee and stage, new corporate sponsorship from Coca-Cola Co. has enabled the Apollo to increase the prize for the Amateur Night final winner from $1,000 to $10,000.

Though the theater has had some trying times — it was closed from 1977 through 1983 — Caffey said Amateur Night continues to offer artists an important live performance platform that relies on true talent, instead of digital enhancements often heard in today’s popular music.

The theater itself is on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1991, it has been run by a non-profit foundation and owned by New York State under the Empire State Development Corporation. In addition to Amateur Night, the venue hosts shows for a diverse roster of well-known musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow.

A taped and televised version of Amateur Night, “Showtime at the Apollo,” ran for 21 years, attracting acts from around the country who sent in tapes for review, said Mitchell.

“Most people thought the show was the Amateur Night,” he said. But the live Amateur Night was still taking place on Wednesday with artists such as rapper Fat Joe, Luther Vandross and Lauryn Hill, standing up to the audience test.

Vandross was part of a singing group that lost to another group, said Mitchell, while Hill, who would later gain fame with the Fugees, was booed by the audience. “The louder they booed, the louder she sang,” he said. “There was a battle going on. She was [13] and she wouldn’t give up. She ended up winning.”

That’s the kind of indomitable spirit it takes to make it with Apollo’s tough audience, Caffey said. Already, they’ve seen new talent rising to the challenge. Recently, 13-year-old Zaccheus from Toledo, Ohio, sang “Who’s Loving You,” (the same song Jackson sang in the ‘60s and Hill sang in the ‘80s) for his first Apollo performance. He earned a standing ovation, three wins and later, after his first professional audition, a space on the world tour of “Thriller Live,” the West End production showcasing the life and career of Michael Jackson.

“That is our claim to fame. People walk on that stage and prove themselves to be different, and that is what we are looking for in Atlanta,” Caffey said. “People are always fascinated by music and that is what the Apollo lives and dies on.”

Event Preview

Apollo Theater Amateur Night Auditions

10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Saturday (only the first 300 acts will be seen). The Rialto Center for the Arts, Georgia State University, 80 Forsyth Street NW. For details and information call 212-531-5370 or visit www.apollotheater.org.

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