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Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem has a long, illustrious history going back to the discovery of Ella Fitzgerald there in 1934, up through Billie Holiday, Dionne Warwick, Luther Vandross and beyond. This week, in front of a capacity crowd, performers appeared in an event billed as “Harlem versus Hackney”, a contest that would have had slightly more impact if anyone in the room knew what Hackney was.
Still, it was a joyous occasion. The contestants were competing for the chance to perform at the Hackney Empire in London in July, against British entrants, with the grand finale to be staged in New York at the end of the year. Unlike the usual Amateur Night, when booing is as much of a feature as cheering, there were instructions from the host to be charitable: “if you don’t like something, boo deep inside.”
Hackney will have to dig deep to compete. The contestants I saw last night were winners of previous heats and were all very good – or rather, in this era of Idol and X-Factor, were what we understand to be good in the currency of the talent show: a 12-year-old singing and doing Piaf-like gestures to an age-inappropriate song. A woman in white sequins channelling Celine Dion in a voice that sawed through one’s nerves like a metal ruler.
It might have seemed foolhardy to attempt a Whitney Houston number when they are all so fresh in our minds, but a shouty version of I Will Always Love You, by a New Jersey contestant who blinded the first three rows of the audience with the flare from her lipgloss, was greeted with shouts of “she’s going to London!” and was the eventual winner.
Personally, I was rooting for a woman called Danyelle, a powerhouse of a singer with none of the usual affectations. But no matter how good a performance, there are certain hair styles that are just never going to be rewarded.
Post-Susan Boyle, it is understood that, generally, the more polished a performer looks, the less good the performance is likely to be and vice versa. When a contestant from New York steps on stage looking like an angry member of a congressional sub-committee, expectations rise. Sure enough, she’s the best so far and hurls out a version of Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman as if trying to start a war.
By comparison, most of the male vocalists are a drippy bunch, turning out R Kelly covers and guitar solos and invariably, before starting, adjusting the microphone to a lower altitude.
The real star of the night of course was the Apollo itself, a grand old institution of Harlem and promoter of black talent at a time when it wasn’t welcome on Broadway. On a tour of the Apollo before the event, Billy Mitchell, the resident historian who has been connected to the place for 48 years said drily: “To listen to some people, you’d think Harlem only came alive when Bill Clinton moved here.”
He gave a potted history of the theatre and its neighbourhood; how in the 1920s, Harlem was populated mainly by communities of Irish, Italian and East European immigrants, a pattern that held until the 1930s and early 40s.
“Is that when the black people took over?” asked a German guest with unintentionally infelicitous phrasing.
“I wouldn’t say took over,” said Mitchell kindly, “so much as a few of us moved in.”
The theatre has been thriving for almost 100 years, and last night, the crystal chandeliers swayed in their sockets, while the crowd jumped out of its seats and yelled at the stage. The last performer of the evening was from Hawaii, a slight, fey-looking young man in jeans and a waistcoat who looked as if he might crumple in such a pumped up environment. Then he opened his mouth and finally, there it was: as he sang Someone Like You, swear to god, close your eyes and it could have been Adele. The crowd went wild. Talent won out.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010