Amateur Night at the Apollo launched the careers of iconic singers like Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder, and one senior is hoping to gain some of that enchantment.
Ryan Thornton performed twice in Harlem, New York at the legendary theater, beating out hundreds of contestants to show off his R&B style.
After placing third earlier in the month, Thornton moved on to a show-off amateur night Wednesday, which featured the top three performers from each amateur night of the month. From this pool, three winners are chosen to progress to the semi-finals in May, in which a cash prize of $10,000 awaits the most popular performer. Thornton did not place in his second competition, but he said he relished the rare experience.
“Apollo producers told me I have the talent, the voice and the style. I’m a singer but it’s about making myself a performer,” Thornton said.
Thornton had a rough road to get to the Apollo after missing last year's competition because of illness.
“[The first year] I ended up getting sick the week of auditions and just didn’t do it. So I was like, 'Now I’m determined, in my last year at GW, to do this,' " Thornton said. "And I got sick again and did it anyway, and it worked out."
Thornton, a former president of the GW Vibes, began playing the piano at age 8 and the trumpet at age 10. It was not until entering GW that Thornton started singing. He said he was always humming and singing to himself, and he simply wanted to try something new.
“I remember being surprised that he had never really sung before. He has a beautiful voice, and I was excited that he had decided to get training for it," voice professor Millicent Scarlett, Thornton’s vocal coach of over three years, said. "He has an R&B sound that had a natural, raw quality, but I knew he could learn to manage it better by taking lessons."
Thornton worked with Scarlett for more than a month to prepare for his audition. He went to an open call, lining up at 5 a.m., and endured rounds of try outs before landing a call back at a theater famed not only for the talent it furnished, but for its notoriously rowdy and opinionated crowds.
Unlike many commercialized talent searches, amateur night does not base its winning selection on an elite panel of judges; it relies on the audience to determine each night’s winner. Show-goers are encouraged to respond to performances with either raucous cheers or thunderous boos.
“It is rough at the Apollo. You have to win over the audience, and if they don’t like you, I really feel sorry for you, because they will boo you off of the stage,” Scarlett said.
GW Vibes president Matt Hellman, who described Thornton as an “indispensable member” of the a cappella group, was in the audience for Thornton’s Apollo debut.
“[Thornton] came on, and within the first few bars, he was able to capture everyone in the room. There was complete silence. There wasn’t a single boo. By the end, people we didn’t even know were cheering for him and singing along,” Hellman said.
Thornton said he has always felt comfortable performing in a familiar territory for warmly receptive GW crowds, but his recent accomplishments have further propelled his growing confidence.
“For me to go to not only New York City, but the Apollo Theater, and to do that well, does a lot for me in terms of being sure of myself,” Thornton said.