A Family RTW Travel Adventure (2008-2009)
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A Night At The Apollo

Apollo Theater

On November 21, 1934, a 17-year-old girl named Ella signed up to dance in one of the first Amateur Night competitions at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. When she arrived she found out The Edwards Sisters, a popular local dance duo, were competing that night too. Feeling intimidated, she decided to sing instead.

Ella Fitzgerald sang two Hoagy Carmichael songs and won the $25 first prize that night. Soon after, she signed with Chick Webb and his band. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m not sure we saw the next Ella Fitzgerald at the Amateur Night competition we attended, but we did see an unforgettable show.

The Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night competitions have helped launch the careers of dozens of the world’s most famous performers: Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, James Brown, Dinah Ross & the Supremes, The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Mariah Carey, to name just a few.

The competition is far more entertaining – and brutal – than anything you’ll see on American Idol. Before the show begins, the audience is encouraged to judge the contestants while they are performing by either cheering them on or booing them off the stage.

If the boos get too loud, a character called “The Executioner” shows up and sweeps the performer off the stage with a broom.

If you’re going to perform at The Apollo, you’d better bring it – and bring it quick. The audience has no patience for a weak performance.

On the night we attended, we saw a “Top Dog” show – it included only winners of previous competitions. There was a wide range of talent: A jazz band, steppers, a hip-hop dance group and R&B and soul singers.

In the most dramatic performance of the night, a plus-sized African American woman took the stage in a clingy black silk dress. Laritta Adderly began to sing “I (Who Have Nothing)”.

Adderly had a powerful voice, but the audience, unfamiliar with the song, began to boo loudly. Adderly fought back, singing with total conviction, challenging the audience: “You are not going to boo me off this stage.”

By the time the song reached its dramatic climax, she had won over the audience, now cheering loudly.

When Adderly hit and held the final note, she fell to her knees, then collapsed in a heap on the stage. The audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation.

Def-Jam comedian Capone, the show’s emcee, called for the stage crew to come help Adderly off the stage. She was emotionally drained and could barely stand.

Capone could only shake his head: “Damn… I didn’t see that coming!”

Neither did we. But her performance alone was worth the trip to Harlem.

This video of Laritta Adderly was recorded at the first Amateur Night competition she won.

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