H.E.R. Photo: Shahar Azran
The Apollo Theater is not just Harlem’s most famous historic landmark—it’s also the birthplace for the careers of many household names. Opened as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater in 1914, the venue did not initially allow Black patrons. After the space changed ownership and became the Apollo in 1934, it began to host programming that celebrated, served and reflected Harlem’s Black community. Around the time of this shift, actor-producer Ralph Cooper founded Wednesday’s Amateur Night at the Apollo—which, with a few years’ exceptions, has been held ever since.
The talent competition welcomes many types of performers, including singers, rappers and comedians, who must audition before being selected to perform in front of a live and highly interactive audience that decides their fate—with $20,000 in first-prize money at stake. In 1987, the theater began a televised version of Amateur Night, called Showtime at the Apollo, which was hosted by comedians including Sinbad, Steve Harvey and Mo’Nique, and featured musical performances from artists such as James Brown, D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill.
The night’s traditions have always kept viewers engaged—like the presence of the “tree of hope,” a preserved tree trunk that performers are required to rub for luck before getting onstage. And then there's so-called Executioner—a role played by Norman Miller, aka Porto Rico; vaudeville actor Howard “Sandman” Sims; and more recently C.P. Lacey—who would usher amateurs off the stage (in the old days, with a hook or broom) for a less-than-satisfactory performance.
Over nearly nine decades, Amateur Night has attracted hopefuls from around the world and launched the careers of stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Lena Horne. In honor of the latest season of Amateur Night, which kicked off this month, we’re looking back at five impressive contest entrants who got their start on the Apollo stage.
Jazmine Sullivan. Photo: Shahar Azran
In 1998, at the age of 11, Jazmine Sullivan performed a soulful rendition of the gospel song “Accept What God Allows” during Amateur Night competition. The Philadelphia native’s brief but heartfelt performance received loud cheers from the crowd. Fast-forward more than 20 years and Sullivan is a Grammy-winning artist and R&B powerhouse with four studio albums, including 2021’s Heaux Tales. With lyrics that can be described as no-nonsense, sensual and relatable, Sullivan’s music has developed a loyal following. Sullivan recently returned to the Apollo to perform as part of a YouTube Advertising Week showcase alongside Mary J. Blige and Yung Baby Tate.
H.E.R. Photo: Shahar Azran
H.E.R. (an acronym for “Having Everything Revealed”) was born Gabriella Sarmient Wilson. Wilson’s career exploded in 2016 with the release of her self-titled EP, but it began as far back as the age of 10, when she sang Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” on the Apollo stage during Amateur Night. She was already a published poet by that time; more recently, she won an Oscar for her song “Fight For You,” which was featured in the film Judas and the Black Messiah, as well as four Grammy Awards including Song of the Year in 2021.
Azumi Takahashi. Photo: Shahar Azran
Winner of the 2019 Apollo Amateur Night, at which she claimed the title of Super Top Dog (winner of the $20,000 cash prize), Azumi Takahashi wowed the audience with her powerful rendition of Jennifer Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The Japanese singer was born in Matsumoto City, in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, and went on to study music in Tokyo with a focus on gospel, soul and R&B.
Grammy-winning R&B vocalist Ne-Yo first hit the Apollo stage with his band, Envy, in 1997. His group performed their track “Players in the Hood” and were met with some polite clapping and some loud boos from the notoriously critical Apollo audience. After the group broke up a few years later, Ne-Yo became a solo act and has had several singles reach the top of Billboard charts over the years. He also writes for other artists and has contributed lyrics to songs for some of the biggest names in the industry including Mario, Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Evoking the sounds of 1990s R&B, Omar Wilson has worked with major artists such as Sisqó, Raheem DeVaughn, Angie Stone and the late DMX. Wilson grew up in a nearby Connecticut town and has performed in the City for over a decade. Some of those early shows came as a three-time Amateur Night champion in 2007; he followed that by being named winner of the Underground Music Awards’ Best R&B Male of the Year in 2008 and 2009.