by Sandy Moore
Opening his arms wide to welcome the Amateur Night crowd at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater, the emcee shouts towards the gilded balconies, “Tonight a dream comes true — YOU!”
As legendary performers James Brown and Marvin Gaye once did, Blair high school junior Nathan Foley strode onto the Apollo Stage, the last of the competitors, his cherry sunburst Les Paul tucked firmly under his arm. Peering out from under his pork pie hat, he flashed the audience a shy smile, and then dug into “Maggot Brain,” a guitar solo by the ’70s era-band Funkadelic, sounding anything but amateur. As his last note reverberated, his fans, which included a bus of students from Blair High School, exploded.
He was the man, and the man was on.
But cellist and singer Ayanna Witter-Johnson was on too, and got an equally strong response from the crowd. That’s what determines the winner at the Apollo, and judges were clearly torn. For the first time in the history of the competition, they declared it a tie: Nathan and Ayanna both took first place.
“They asked us whether we’d be okay splitting the prize money ($10,000) down the middle,” said Nathan. “I told them, hey, it’s great, I am happy to share it with someone else.”
Climbing to the top
Sixteen-year-old Nathan, a junior in Blair High School’s Communication Arts Program (CAP), first picked up a guitar at 9. “He’s always been passionate about it,” said his mother, Sandy.
Nathan began lessons at the Levine School of Music, and played with his church choir in Lanham. The usual stuff. However Nathan’s guitar teacher at Levine, Eric Ulreich, saw something unusual.
“It was clear from the beginning that he was gifted. What sets him apart is an intangible knack for communicating,” said Ulreich.
Nathan’s first foray into music competition was at the Apollo’s “Child Star of Tomorrow” contest, which he won four times. Nathan’s church, the Sharon Bible Fellowship Church in Lanham, began to run bus trips to the Apollo to support him. He posted his first win in the adult competition this past June. By the time he reached the “Super Top Dog” level in October, both he and his fans were part of a well-oiled machine.
One Maryland fan on the bus to New York last month was 33-year-old musician David Tauler, a sax player from Montrose, Maryland who competed against Nathan, but was knocked out before the finals.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the Apollo can be frightening, because in the early rounds, you can get booed off the stage,” said Tauler. “James Brown and Luther Vandross got booed at the Apollo! But Nathan qualified for the finals by hitting the first note as hard as a ROCK. Suddenly, he was everybody’s hometown hero.”
We’ve come this far by faith
Another part of Nathan’s success has to do with faith.
“If I had to thank someone, God would be first, then my family, then Eric, and all the people who supported me by going to New York,” said Nathan.
That wouldn’t come as a surprise to Donald “Butch” DeVille, a minister at Nathan’s church, who made the October bus trip, his 6th trip in support of Nathan. “His commitment to the Lord keeps him level headed and focused, ” said Butch.
The experience of making the bus trips to New York in support of Nathan has been a blessing to many in the congregation, DeVille said.
It takes a village, some say, and Nathan’s village is diverse. African American professionals and retirees, recent Caribbean immigrants, a policeman, a college student, a female judge were all on the church bus.
With a little help from my friends
Nathan’s peers from school are a vital part of his support network. One of Nathan’s close friends, David Chow, was one of many 11th graders on the bus to New York.
“He doesn’t sound like anyone else you’ve ever heard. He’s original. Nathan is Nathan,”said Chow.
The trip to the fabled Apollo Theater was a thrill for many.
“I don’t know much about the Apollo . . . except Michael Jackson played there. And now Nathan,” said Robert Millai, who said his English teacher encouraged him to come.
The lure of the Big Apple was a thrill for some. “This is a great experience – to see how New Yorkers live. It’s awesome to be here at the Apollo,” said 9th grader Napoli Nguyen.
When Nathan is asked about the future, he doesn’t hesitate: “I want to go to college and get a degree in music.” He’s thinking about the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.
And after that?
Nathan’s fans can hardly wait to see.