Columbia’s Brittany Turnipseed, a belting singer, took home the top honor at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night in New York on Wednesday. The victory puts her one step closer to taking home the big one in the Apollo’s 2018 amateur season.
Turnipseed, 31, walloped out a rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s ubiquitous disco hit “I Will Survive” for the audience at the historically black performance hall in Harlem. Her pipes were enough to win over what the Apollo calls its “notoriously ‘tough’ audience.”
It wasn’t Turnipseed’s first time at the Apollo. In June she took 2nd place at the theater’s amateur night. Her performance prompted the venue to have her back in July. The stint of performances aren’t done yet. Turnipseed was invited to sing again on the famous Harlem stage in August. She now has a crowd funding campaign to help pay for the trip and a new album she’ll be recording.
The feeling of winning on such a revered stage, Turnipseed says, is “pretty amazing.”
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“I was highly surprised with each win,” she says. “I really didn’t think I’d get this far.”
Turnipseed went to Keenan High School and graduated from Columbia College with a degree in Child and Family Studies. When she was young she heard “a lot of albums,” she says. Her mother and whole family were music lovers. Turnipseed would hear R&B funk acts like Earth, Wind and Fire coming from the speakers in her family’s home. The silken voices of Anita Baker and Barry White played in the car. She took in gospel singers like James Cleveland and Edwin Hawkins. She admires neo-soul queen Jill Scott — “that’s my best friend,” in a musical sense Turnipseed says.
The one influence that rose above the others was early blues singer Bessie Smith, who in her young days busked the streets of Chattanooga and would later become one of the highest paid black entertainers of her day despite being considered too rough of a singer for some audiences.
“I enjoy her confidence and the story of her life is amazing and inspiring,” Turnipseed says.
Turnipseed sings around Columbia, but, as she says, “not as often as I’d like.” She’s performed at places like Chayz Lounge, a hopping jazz spot in the Vista. She plays with a show band, Emerald Empire, that mostly does private gigs. Around town you could see her with her band, Actual Proof. The 31-year-old singer is about to release a single called “Love Drug” which she describes as “sexy funk.” A new album is in her future as well.
In a video posted to social media while in the Apollo greenroom before her July 11 performance, Turnipseed thanked those who donated to her crowd funding campaign and her mom, dad and her Grandma Magdalene, as well as her band and their spouses.
“I wouldn’t have been able to get here without your support — legit,” Turnipseed said. “This is surreal and so much fun — meeting new people, making new friends, I’m just excited about the prospect.”
Ella Fitzgerald, the noted jazz singer whose career began in the 1930s, famously made her singing debut at the Apollo’s amateur night. The Harlem theater helped launch the careers of other renown performers, old and new, such as Gladys Knight, Lauryn Hill, Billie Holiday, Jazmine Sullivan and many others. Jimi Hendrix won amateur night at the Apollo in 1964. James Brown recorded his groundbreaking Live at the Apollo at the titular concert hall, an album that’s often cited by critics. as one of the greatest live recordings in history.
If Turnipseed wins the August amateur night, she could take the grand prize as the Apollo’s amateur season winner. She would have to come out on top at a final performance that is set for November.
To have sung and been recognized at the Apollo means, in a way, she’s already won, Turnipseed says.
“I can say I performed on the same stage that Ella Fitzgerald performed,” she says. “I can say I’ve been on a stage that I watched as a kid on Showtime at the Apollo ... Either way, it’s been a success, and it’s been an amazing journey.”