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The Apollo Kid

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; W18

HARLEM, N.Y. --It's another glorious Wednesday evening on 125th Street in Harlem. The setting sun glints off the names hammered into the sidewalk in bronze: Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight. The marquee glows: "Welcome to the World Famous Apollo Theater." People with tickets dine on fried catfish and smothered chicken at Sylvia's soul food restaurant, around the corner on Lenox Avenue, then hurry to the line forming under the marquee.

Tonight's show is sold out, all 1,526 red-cushioned seats snapped up for $18 to $40.

One level down, below the storied stage, the mirrored walls of the Green Room enclose a different kind of frenzy. The Green Room is where the performers wait before they go on. The people in this room are unknown, their names unbronzed. Wednesday is Amateur Night, a tradition inaugurated in 1934 and continued with few interruptions since. It is when the maybe-talented and the wanna-be-famous compete before one of the toughest audiences in the land. Fitzgerald, Knight, Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughan, the Jackson 5, Dionne Warwick and many others soared to stardom from Amateur Night.

Performers deemed unworthy are mercilessly booed. Brown, Lauryn Hill, Luther Vandross and Dave Chappelle were booed. C.P. Lacey, the tap-dancing "Executioner" in a pin-striped suit, drives the most reviled contenders from the stage with a siren blast.

Contestants primp at mirrors in the Green Room, warble harmonies in the corridor. A 32-year-old female poet from Harlem, dressed like Michael Jackson, twitches and twirls. A dance troupe from Japan does impossible contortions. A 25-year-old music graduate student from London lugs in her cello.

Trying to hear himself in the rising din, a thin young man in black slacks and a black T-shirt restlessly picks staccato scales on his unplugged electric guitar. His iridescent gray sport coat hangs nearby. His black fedora is on the floor beside his guitar case.

He is Nathan Foley, 16, of Rockville, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School.

Foley has been making history at the Apollo. He has finished first on Amateur Night seven straight times over two years. This has never been done in the theater's 76-year history, according to producers and resident historian Billy Mitchell.

On this October Wednesday, Foley's eighth appearance, he is competing for "Super Top Dog," the best of the best of 2010. First prize is $10,000. There is no second prize.

"If I have the resources after tonight, I'm definitely getting a new guitar," Foley says to his guitar teacher, Eric Ulreich of the Levine School of Music.

Foley pays for all his equipment out of savings from infrequent gigs. But for Foley, it's not all about the money. The Apollo is not an end; it is a hallowed gateway to a seemingly limitless future.

***

On a Wednesday night in November 1934, a nervous 17-year-old girl with skinny legs stood in the wings waiting to go on.

Ella Fitzgerald had signed up to compete as a dancer. When she saw that an act ahead of her consisted of two sisters known as the best child dancers in town, she decided to sing. She was frozen with stage fright. The stage manager hissed, "Do something!"

"I looked and saw all those people, and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, what am I gonna do out here?' " Fitzgerald recalled in a 1989 interview with the Smithsonian Institution, quoted in "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment," published this year.

"Everybody started laughing, saying, 'What is she gonna do?' " Fitzgerald continued. "I couldn't think of nothing else to do, so I tried to sing 'The Object of My Affection.' "

A voice in the audience hollered, "Hey, that little girl can sing!"

Fitzgerald won the competition, landed a place in Chick Webb's band, and became the "First Lady of Song."

That first year of Amateur Night was a good one. Pearl Bailey also was discovered.

The Apollo had just opened in what had been a whites-only burlesque theater. The Apollo catered to all races. Amateur Night was a canny strategy to fill seats midweek and give the community a sense of ownership. For black performers, the Apollo became the most prestigious destination on a circuit with the Howard Theatre in Washington, the Royal in Baltimore, the Uptown in Philadelphia and the Regal in Chicago.

Financial woes in the late 1970s forced the theater to close for several years. Now operated by the nonprofit Apollo Theater Foundation, it continues to present professional performances along with the Wednesday amateurs.

To get on Amateur Night, performers have just 90 seconds to impress the talent scouts. Foley, then 13, auditioned in early 2008 during a regional tryout at the Warner Theatre in Washington. He threw together a medley of instrumental excerpts from "Soul Man," "Affirmation" (inspired by George Benson's version) and another he can no longer remember.

It was quite a riffy mashup. The Apollo scouts were dumbstruck.

"There was this awkward silence after I played," Foley recalls. "They said, 'Uh, how many songs was that?' "

He was urged to start over and play just one. He tore into "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix.

The Apollo people let him jam for well over 90 seconds.

"I played the beginning, I played the verse, then I played the solo," Foley recalls. "That was my blow-away song. I learned that when I was 10."

***

Nathan is the youngest of Maurice and Sandy Foley's three children. He didn't speak for his first 2 years, then spoke in full sentences. Among his earlier phrases: "I want to play the guitar."

The origins of this singular desire are mysterious to his parents and even to Nathan. "I don't know if we could really say what creates that passion in us," Sandy says. "That was God's gift to him."

His parents never played instruments, but music often filled the house and car. Sandy, a law librarian at the Library of Congress, loved gospel and contemporary Christian music. Maurice, a federal judge, dug the soul and R&B of the 1970s, especially the Isley Brothers, with those sizzling guitar solos by Ernie Isley. The Isleys had played on Amateur Night.

On Christmas Day 2001, when Nathan was 7, a guitar was waiting for him under the tree. It was a mini six-string acoustic model that cost about $30 at Toys R Us. "It was awesome," Nathan recalls.

He played it almost every day, with no formal instruction, building chords note by note. The day he played a simple version of the Isleys' "Harvest for the World" was the day his father decided to enroll him in guitar lessons, which began on his eighth birthday.

He got his first electric guitar for Christmas when he was 9. At 12, he joined the gospel band at Sharon Bible Fellowship Church in Lanham.

"I saw this hunger in his eyes and this excitement about playing," says Tangie Rowe, minister of music at the time. "He's one of those quiet-storm guys. You walk up to him and you could never tell, but once he gets on that instrument, he's a beast."

Nathan bought his next two guitars himself, steadily upgrading as his savings allowed, until he could afford an Epiphone Les Paul for about $500.

"He deserves better," says Bill Brooks, guitar salesman at Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center in Wheaton. "He would come in usually on a Saturday. He would sit down and play, do some Hendrix things. He always got everybody's attention."

But Nathan was shy about his playing -- and reluctant to try out for the Apollo. His parents urged him to give it a shot. They believed Nathan had something special -- divine, even -- to share.

"We're not crazy enough to think that this is something that just happens," Maurice Foley says.

***

In 1971, a brilliant but troubled funk-metal guitar player named Eddie Hazel was in a studio with the band Funkadelic, psyching himself up to record what would become his legacy solo.

According to rock legend, bandleader George Clinton told Hazel to imagine receiving the worst news in the world, the death of his mother, then learning that the news wasn't true. The result was a 10-minute instrumental epic -- wailing, frenetic, fuzzed-out. It was called "Maggot Brain."

The band took the song on the road. At the old Capital Centre in Landover, Clinton emerged from a coffin as Hazel jammed on "Maggot Brain." When the 42-year-old Hazel died of liver disease in 1992, "Maggot Brain" receded into the mists of outrageous psychedelia.

Foley's instincts told him that "Purple Haze," his successful audition song, was not the right piece to present on Amateur Night. It had become a cliche among guitar-stars-in-training. He needed something titanic, yet overlooked. His father found "Maggot Brain" on the Internet.

On May 7, 2008, a few dozen parishioners took a bus from Sharon Bible to Harlem. They were going to cheer their favorite gospel guitar protege's Apollo debut. Spotlights pierced the smoke-machine vapors, focusing on a slight figure fingering a guitar that looked too big for him.

"Everyone assumed his performance was going to be a gospel performance," recalls Pastor Victor O. Kirk Sr. of Sharon Bible. "When he started to play an old 1971 Funkadelic song, it really took us by surprise. Not in a bad way."

Successful Amateur Night performers advance through a winnowing process, with the top finishers qualifying for three playoff rounds. Foley's "Maggot Brain" triumphed, making him the children's 2008 "Super Top Dog."

He took a year off from competition to focus on high school. Among his courses this semester are three Advanced Placement classes, including music theory.

The prize his eyes are on is getting admitted to the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, where he would like to earn a bachelor's in pop music. "I want to be performing and recording for the rest of my life," he says. "But I'm going to have to have another job so I can get health care and stuff."

He says that, to him, playing the guitar, is, simply: "Freedom."

"The fretboard is just endless possibilities. I can do anything I want, and it's not dangerous or illegal. I can recover from mistakes, or I can build on mistakes. I don't want to be perfect when I play. Because if I'm perfect, I'm not pushing myself hard enough. Every time, I want to push myself to a point where I might mess up, but not to the point where I know I'm going to mess up. I have to be right on the edge all the time."

On a recent Friday, Foley is recording at Recording Arts studio in Fairfax for a demo CD he hopes to present to college admission officers. He has already laid down "That Lady" by the Isleys, and now he runs through "Affirmation" and "Amazing Grace."

Ulreich, a guitar ace himself with the local band Junkyard Saints, hasn't heard his pupil do these songs in a while. In lessons, they have moved on to jazz and classical techniques to make Foley a more complete guitar player. Now he hears new colors in Foley's interpretations.

"A couple moments there, it sounded a little bit like Jeff Beck," the teacher says.

Now Foley prepares to play "Maggot Brain." He has decided to bring it back for the adult competition. He turns intense, focused. He slathers on hand-sanitizer to dry his skin for a more precise grip. He removes the flannel long-sleeve shirt that is over his T-shirt, to free his arms.

He has revised his version considerably, made it harder, faster, more of a "narrative," he says. "It's the most soulful song I know."

After trying "Maggot Brain" once, Foley tells sound engineer Marco Delmar that he needs to rest his fingers and collect himself before trying it again. While he's resting, he noodles a bit of Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." After "Maggot Brain," Hendrix is relaxation.

***

Two buses and a van pull up to the Apollo carrying about 100 Foley fans -- relatives and family friends; students, teachers and parents from Blair.

Winners are declared by who gets the loudest applause. In a theater of 1,500 seats, it would be hard to swing the vote, but every set of vocal cords helps. The other competitors also have brought cheering sections.

David Tauler, a saxophone player and music teacher at the Montrose Christian School in Rockville, hops off one of the buses. He was eliminated in an earlier round. "I'm here to support Nathan and the friends I made," Tauler says.

At the sound check, Foley pays attention to one Ayanna Witter-Johnson and her cello. She advanced through a different bracket, so he has never seen her.

Witter-Johnson, 25, raised in London, is a master's student in classical composition at the Manhattan School of Music. She wrote a song based on Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, which she sings and accompanies with an earthy jazz-blues cello part.

The ornate hall begins to fill with a racially mixed audience. Foley's parents take seats six rows back.

Down in the Green Room, one of the last rituals is the speech in which executive producer Marion Caffey passes on Apollo wisdom and history. "Know that this is but one dot on your journey," Caffey says, "as it was for Ella Fitzgerald. As it was for James Brown. As it was for -- "

"Michael!" chimes in Kathy Jordan Sharpton, the Amateur Night coordinator.

"It does not define your tomorrow, win or lose," Caffey says.

The competitors hold hands in a circle for a prayer lead by Tauler. "God is on the stage," he says, "God is in the audience."

Separately Tauler says to Foley, "Leave no prisoners. Have fun."

"How could it not be fun?" Foley replies.

Showtime. The emcee, a comedian known as Capone, riles up the audience. He tells folks to cheer or boo as though they really mean it.

The nine performances proceed in turn. Singers, dancers, a ukulele player. Several are booed but survive without being terminated by Lacey, the Executioner. A female vocalist is less fortunate. Lacey prances gleefully from stage left and the singer flees stage right, as the siren blares.

Witter-Johnson and her cello earn roaring approval.

Foley performs last.

He stands almost still as he plays. The slow opening chords of "Maggot Brain" draw a few impatient boos. The boos die and the cheers swell as he conjures screaming tragedy and keening solace with violently bent strings and electronic overdrive. He looks down at his fingers, then off into the Apollo's invisible dimensions, posing questions with his gaze to which his guitar might hold answers.

But something is wrong. The sound is muffled. The sound check was perfect, but now some mysterious ghost in the sound system undermines the moment.

The performers are called onstage to receive applause in turn, for the sake of comparison. It's clear that Witter-Johnson and Foley are the favorites. Capone invites the cellist and the guitar player to center stage for an applause show-down.

When Witter-Johnson's name is called, people filling the front and rear of the orchestra section rise in a deafening ovation.

When it's Foley's turn, those in the middle leap to deliver their own thunderous acclaim, reinforced by the Blair students going crazy in the balcony.

Hmmm. The producers confer. The roof is about to blow off.

"Na-than! Na-than! Na-than!"

"Ay-an-na! Ay-an-na! Ay-an-na!"

Witter-Johnson stands in a white gown and bare feet. She closes her eyes.

Foley spots his father and points to him. Then father and son both point upward.

The producers huddle with the contestants, after which Foley and Witter-Johnson smile and take each other's hand. Capone announces:

"First time in 'Super Top Dog' history. ... Both of them together have decided that they will split the grand prize! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tie for Super Top Dog 2010!"

The whole audience erupts. Not all approve of this solution -- but the cheers drown the boos.

Later -- after hugs and hallelujahs, and the hoarse lionization by his classmates on the bus -- Foley stands alone on the sidewalk. None of those names in bronze ever achieved quite what he has at the Apollo.

The future beckons. He was just asked to audition for a children's television network. He was invited to return for a special appearance at the Apollo -- this time as a paid professional -- and also to ride on the Apollo float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade -- with Gladys Knight.

The other day he saw a guitar that he likes. It's a custom model, used, a bargain at $1,400. Now he can afford it.

"I'm going to save the rest for college," he says.

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