May-June 2011

World at His Strings

At the historic Apollo Theater, a 16-year-old Silver Spring student finds the key to a tough crowd's heart.

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All 1,500 red velvet seats were taken when 16-year-old Nathan Foley strode onto the Apollo Theater stage in New York City, a Les Paul electric guitar tucked neatly under his arm. Foley, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, peered out from beneath his porkpie hat and flashed the crowd a shy smile.

So many musical greats had stood on this spot. Seventeen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald took to the stage here in 1934, the first year of Amateur Night competition, determined to win over a tough crowd that doesn’t hesitate to boo performers. Jimi Hendrix followed her to a first-place finish 30 years later, with a host of greats in between. And now, Nathan Foley.

No stranger to the pressures of performing, Nathan had posted four wins in the Apollo’s Child Stars of Tomorrow contest, starting at age 13. He had knocked off adult competitors in three earlier rounds of Amateur Night. But on this October evening in 2010, he was pitted against the best of the best in a final “Super Top Dog” competition. A victory would give him a record-setting eighth consecutive win on the Apollo stage.

British-born Ayanna Witter-Johnson already had whipped the crowd into a frenzy, singing a bluesy “Ain’t I a Woman?” by Sojourner Truth, while accompanying herself on cello.

Last in the lineup, Nathan knew what he had to do. He tore into a spellbinding version of “Maggot Brain,” a guitar solo made famous by the ’70s rock band Funkadelic. As the last chord reverberated all the way to the rafters, the crowd exploded. A throng of Blair fans in the balcony bellowed: “Na-than! Na-than! Na-than!”

And for the first time in Apollo history, the producers declared a tie: Witter-Johnson and Nathan would split the $10,000 prize.

Months later, Nathan remembers that night with a humility rare in someone his age. “If I had to thank someone,” he says, “God would be first, then my family, my guitar teacher and all the people who supported me by going to New York.”

The youngest of three kids, Nathan learned his love of music from his parents, Maurice, a judge on the U.S. Tax Court, and Sandy, a legal expert with the Library of Congress. He got his first guitar, an entry-level Fender, when he was about 8 years old.

“We were at my sister’s 50th birthday party, listening to songs like ‘Soul Man’ and ‘Mr. Big Stuff,’” Maurice Foley recalls, “and Nathan got out his guitar and started playing right along with the record. At that point we knew he had some talent.”

Soon, Nathan was studying with Eric Ulreich of Washington, D.C.’s Levine School of Music. A guitarist who has played with national acts such as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Ulreich has taught hundreds of guitarists. But he knew Nathan was special. “What sets him apart is an intangible knack for communicating,” he says.

At the Apollo, you need to communicate to win. To help get the crowd on their son’s side, the Foleys rented a bus and filled it with members of their church, the Sharon Bible Fellowship in Lanham. A second bus ferried 80 kids and teachers from Blair. “It took a village, all right,” one church member says.

Nathan plans to ride the Apollo wave as long as it lasts. Last November he appeared on the Apollo’s 75th Anniversary float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Gladys Knight. “I saw Kanye West, too,” Nathan says. “He was on the float behind me.”

In February, Nathan performed at the “Celebration of the Guitar” at the Music Center at Strathmore, where he released his debut CD.

Financed by his Apollo winnings, the CD includes a wide range of tunes, from the spiritual “Amazing Grace” to the soul jazz standard “Backat the Chicken Shack.”

After graduation, Nathan hopes to study contemporary music at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles. And after that? “I just want to be able to support myself playing music,” he says.

Sandra Moore is a freelance writer living in Silver Spring.