Amateur Night at the Apollo, one of America's most beloved musical institutions, is world famous for being one of the first places untapped talent emerges before evolving into superstardom. It was there when you could breathe the word "amateur" around people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frankie Lymon, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Jackson 5, Lauryn Hill and more. Rolling Stone got a rare look behind the scenes on the opening night of their 81st season.
Tonight's special guest, R&B star Jazmine Sullivan, is an Apollo veteran. Her mother, Pamela, says Jazmine performed here when she was nine years old.
"It's amazing to be back as my own artist now. And having 'made it," Jazmine says. "It's definitely a trip down memory lane, coming back here and remembering how I was back then. All the nerves that I had, just being new."
The walls off-stage behind stage right feature years of history in signature form, from the Jackson 5 to Barack and Michelle Obama.
Amateur night producer Marion J. Caffey watches the crowd filter in from behind the soundboard. Since taking the job six years ago (his first day of work was the morning after President Obama was elected), Caffey has updated the show with a digital media division, a DJ-assisted party feel and some video content."But," he says, "the meat and potatoes is still those amateurs coming out and rolling the dice, as it were, for better or for worse"
Breakdancer Omaree, a.k.a. Ozone, part of tonight's Child Stars of Tomorrow segment, gets interviewed on the red carpet. He would emerge the night's winner.
The Amateur Night at the Apollo production coordinator leads a prayer circle with tonight's contestants.
While the contestants prepare downstairs, Joe Gray and the Apollo Band warm up the crowd.
Ozone practices his moves in the green room.
MarissaAnn, 17, gets ready to face the Amateur Night audience. "It's such a legendary place to even step foot on," she says. "I'm so attracted to the energy of the crowd and how they're so honest… Hopefully it's a good energy. The legends that have performed and the legendary crowd — that's why I'm here."
Natalie Imani, one of Jazmine Sullivan's background singers catches a quick snapshot in front of the Apollo logo in the green room.
MarissaAnn sings Beyoncé's "Best Thing I Never Had." "Singing Beyoncé at the Apollo just seemed like the right choice," she says.
Mahiro, who performs "animation dance" before he hits the stage. From Saitama City, Japan, this is his second visit to New York ever.
C.P. Lacey, the Executioner, waits in the wings. He's the one person that none of tonight's contestants want to meet. "Merciful feelings for them?" says the man who dances off the booed, week after week. "I have to say yes."
"But," he adds, "gotta get 'em off! Somebody will be in my shoes the next week."
Marian Merriweather, 33, belts through Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady." "It's been a long journey," she says. "I'm from Philadelphia. I came for the auditions in September. In the midst of that, I lost a lot of people. I came up for funerals and then, it just so happens, I head about the audition. And I auditioned just to take a chance, and I'm here."
Tonight's final contestant, Anthony Quarterman, sings Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe."
From left: First place winner Jairon Jackson, second place winner Anthony Quarterman, third place winner Marian Merriweather and host Capone.