Berklee Student a Finalist in Apollo Theater Theme Song Contest

Berklee student Clifton Williams's song might replace the tune the theater has used for 80 years on amateur night. 

April 24, 2014

For as long as those at the Apollo Theater can remember, the same song has played before artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Michael Jackson took the stage at amateur night. But next month that changes, and the new theme song could come from a Berklee student.

Music education and contemporary writing and production major Clifton Williams, of Washington, D.C., is one of two finalists in the theater's Amateur Night Songwriting Competition. If he wins, not only will he get $5,000, but his song will play before the famed competition—known on television as Showtime at the Apollo—every week.

“This is bigger than me just sitting down and writing some song,” Williams, who graduates this May, said. “This is legit. People from all over the world will come to the Apollo Theater and they will hear this song. It's an incredible opportunity.”

His competitor, Daryl Brown, is a friend from Boston entered the competition at Williams's urging. “And he did, and here we are, now both of us are finalists,” Williams said with a laugh.

The Apollo was looking for a song that's “up-tempo with a funky, soulful, or R&B beat and must be written for a singer to perform.” Williams said he drew his inspiration from “the essence of black people, really. When you listen to certain songs, like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Al Green … you can't help but move to those songs. And I wanted something like that.”

Williams wrote the song on a Sunday in February and then went about contacting Berklee friends to see who could perform it and who could hook him up with studio time. By Monday morning he had a full band, and at 2:00 a.m. Tuesday they were in a recording studio on campus with a video team.

The two men, along with dozens of other contestants, submitted videos of their songs in February and were notified in early March that they were semifinalists. (Williams was also notified in March that he is one of two semifinalists in the gospel category for the John Lennon Scholarship songwriting contest.) Later that month, the Apollo sent both of them to New York City to rework and record their songs, using Apollo session musicians.

Both songs were posted on the internet for a public vote. The voting started April 7 and will continue through April 30, at 7:00 p.m., when the Apollo Band performs both songs before a live audience, which will vote for its favorite song. Both the crowd vote and the internet votes are worth one point each. In the case of a tie, a score given by a panel of judges will determine the winner.

So far, Williams and Brown are in a very tight race for the internet vote, but Williams's morale remains high. "I am very confident in my piece and by the end of this competition I hope to gain a better idea of what the public thinks of my music!"