Apollo Theater Gets New Amateur Night Musical Director

By Jeff Mays | July 3, 2011 10:23am | Updated on July 4, 2011 10:08am

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — As a kid visiting the Apollo Theater Onreé Gill didn't want to be a performer singing on stage. Instead, he fantasized about being the person who provided the music, the musical director.

"It was the responsibility of being in charge and delivering the music and taking care of the artists and making sure everything goes right. This is the person who makes it happen on stage and is the captain," Gill told DNAinfo. "To command the stage of the world famous Apollo Theater is amazing."

Now, years later, Gill, 40, will have a chance to do so as he steps into the role of musical director of the Apollo's famed Amateur Night competition. Gill will replace highly regarded Ray Chew, who is now the musical director for "American Idol."

The Apollo Theater's marquee memorializes pop star Michael Jackson as crowds of fans gather outside to remember him on June 25, 2009.
The Apollo Theater's marquee memorializes pop star Michael Jackson as crowds of fans gather outside to remember him on June 25, 2009.
View Full Caption
Cory Schwartz/Getty Images

"It was a dream and I thought it was near impossible because so many musicians would be honored to receive this position. But I felt I had the determination and the confidence that I could get that job. I believed in myself," Gill said.

In addition to determination, the job requires talent and Gill has some of the top names in the music industry to vouch for him. Gill is currently the musical director for Alicia Keys but he has worked with Bono, Jay-Z, Jennifer Hudson, Prince, Missy Elliott, John Mayer, Beyonce, Paul Simon, Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder just to name a few.

He has also worked in musical genres ranging from Gospel, to hip-hop and jazz and is also a producer, composer and arranger.

"Gill's vast experience and creativity as a musical director will ensure that Amateur Night continues to be one of New York City’s most popular entertainment experiences, and that it remains an important launching pad for up-and-coming artists," said Apollo Theater President and CEO Jonelle Procope.

Amateur Night, where the audience is able to jeer those who they deem lack talent, has been a feature at the Harlem venue since 1934 and has launched the careers of artists like Lauryn Hill and the Jackson Five.

The son of a musician, Gill taught himself how to play drums, bass and keyboard. Working in the production company of R&B singer Christopher Williams, Gill found that he could make more money if he played piano. His career took off and he worked with Diddy, Missy Elliott and others.

Then Chew, a good friend, called him up and told him about a young performer named Alicia Keys who was in need of a musical director.

Working with artists of different generations and musical styles has given him a true appreciation of all genres that he hopes to pass on to the Apollo audience.

"It's all artistry. You have to respect new school and old school. We need to respect new school hip-hop and old school hip-hop," Gill said.

"The younger generation needs to respect and realize that if it wasn't for Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle and Smokey Robinson we wouldn't have the music of today because it's built on the music of yesterday. Young people need to know Usher is cool and Jay-Z is cool but listening to Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder is also cool."

That's why Gill said he will be focusing on giving the Apollo audience "the flavor of today" while still respecting the "flavors of yesterday."

Joining Gill as part of the new house band will be bassist Alex Evans, drummer Ralph Rolle, and Matt Oestreicher on keyboard and guitar.

Gill said the thought of being on the Apollo stage on a regular basis is exciting.

"Every time I sit on the stage I get chills because I realize all these legends performed here and some of them were groomed here," he said.

"There are going to be some stars that come out of this stage and I'm going to give them the courage and encouragement to go out and perform. It's more than a dream come true."