The Apollo Theatre is a legendary, and legendarily notorious, live music venue. Home to some of the greatest performances of all time from the likes of James Brown, Bob Marley, and Richard Pryor, the hall represents an important home for the proliferation of Black art in Harlem and New York City as a whole. It also became known as the home of one of the most infamously difficult showcases in America: Amateur Night.
Every Wednesday since the 1950s, The Apollo holds a competition among aspiring performers for a cash prize. The event, known as “Amateur Night”, has become fabled for the audience reactions that dictate whether a performer succeeds or fails. Crowds often loudly boo if they dislike a performer, with a stagehand unceremoniously shooing a performer off stage if the audience has fully turned against them. Amateur Night has, in turn, become a watermark for young talent in their nascent careers: if you can impress The Apollo crowd, you can impress anyone.
After all, “Amateur Night” has been the impetus for a number of legendary performers. Ella Fitzgerald was initially slated to appear as a dancer, but changed her talent choice at the last minute to singing after being intimidated by other dancers backstage. She won, and her career as a singer was launched. Jimi Hendrix won Amateur Night in 1964, as did Billie Holliday, the Isley Brothers, and the Jackson 5. Their performances were greeted with enthusiasm and warm applause.
But the audience doesn’t always get it right. Case in point: in 1987, a young aspiring singer by the name of Ms. Lauryn Hill was on the bill for Amateur Night. She chose to perform a past winner’s song, ‘Who’s Lovin’ You’ by the Jackson 5. Hill is obviously intimidated by the audience, and her initial slow start is greeted with a chorus of boos from the merciless audience.
But then, something changes. With nowhere left to go but up, Hill gains confidence and begins to resemble the powerful presence she would later become known for. Initially cascaded with jeers, Hill continues to work the crowd until they begin to clap and sing along. By the time the final notes fade, her resolve and undeniable talent earn massive cheers from the once-bloodthirsty crowd. Hill didn’t win that night, but the audience was treated to a preview of what was to be a legendary artist.
Only a few short years later, during her freshman year of high school, Hill connected with Prakazrel “Pras” Michel and started what would eventually become The Fugees.