No time at the Apollo
Berkeley’s Golden Overtones make it to the finals at the venerable talent show,

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

05 February 2003 |

The competition was tough, the audience even tougher.

That’s what the Golden Overtones, Berkeley’s female a cappella singing group, found out during their brief appearance at the Apollo Amateur Night last Friday night in Zellerbach Hall. The nine young women were on stage barely 30 seconds before the audience unanimously and loudly booed them off the stage.

“They started pretty much right after we blew our pitch pipe,” says Amy Merrill, a junior English and music major who serves as the group’s manager. “It’s too bad the audience didn’t even give us a chance. I think they would have been impressed.”

While some talent shows use judges to determine winners and losers, the Apollo puts that power in the hands (and vocal cords) of audience members, who are asked to clap, whistle, and yell for performers they like, and boo those who don’t make the grade.

The Overtones weren’t the only ones to suffer the wrath of the sold-out crowd. Local dancer and actor George Ashworth had barely finished his impressions of Wolfman Jack and Louis Armstrong before “the executioner” — a sort of a human gong, costumed like an evil clown — shooed him off the stage. A similar fate awaited both Derique the Electronic Body Drummer, who wore an electronic body suit and hit himself in strategic spots to generate various sound samples, and comedienne Sumana Harihareswara, a Berkeley alum.

Even the Cal Jazz Choir, invited to warm up the crowd with some a cappella scatting, was booed, prompting the show’s producer to stop the performance and admonish the audience over the public-address system. “These folks are not part of the competition,” scolded Vanessa Brown, “so I would appreciate it if you showed them some respect.”

The audience was divided in its response to several performers — including a puppet-toting vocal duet, a hip-hop dance troupe, and a gospel rapper — with supporters and detractors trying to drown each other out with their boos and cheers. But without an overwhelming majority, these performers limped to the final vote at the end of the show.

It was there that San Francisco singer and law-office receptionist Cherelle Fortiér — whose vocally acrobatic rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You” brought down the house — was declared the winner. She’ll receive $1,000 and a free trip to New York City, where she will get a chance to compete at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Even though their bid for glory was cut painfully short, the members of the Golden Overtones don’t regret participating in the Apollo’s notoriously ruthless talent show — which, during its nearly 70-year history, spawned the careers of Sarah Vaughan, the Jackson Five, and Lauryn Hill, among others.

“We were so excited about making it through the audition in December,” says Corinne Reich-Weiser. “We didn’t know what to expect at the final performance, so our plan was to just do the best we can and see what happens. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to do that.”

Several members said that if they had to do it over again, they would have selected a louder, faster-paced song (they tried to perform the sultry Lieber and Stoller classic “I’m a Woman”), worn “edgier” costumes, and added some dance steps. One Overtone said, with a hint of bitterness in her voice, that the audience wasn’t musically educated enough to appreciate their style of singing.

After the show, the Overtones said they planned to drown their sorrows by hooking up with the Jazz Choir at a party and singing the night away, hopefully to a more appreciative audience.

“We’ll just chalk this up to experience,” said senior Danielle Tenner wistfully. “At least we got the chance to get booed off the stage at an Apollo talent show. There aren’t too many people who can make that claim.”