By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN – When AlexAnndrea Yohontas Simpson takes the stage at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York, on July 10, she could win the respect of the audience.
In fact the 11-year-old will sing “RESPECT,” Aretha Franklin’s signature hit song from the 1960s, and “put her own spin on it,” said Katrina Whitfield, AlexAnndrea’s mother.
“She will be creative. She will make the song her own,” she said.
Whitfield will be front and center at the Apollo Theatre for the Amateur Night competition to cheer on AlexAnndrea when she belts out her version of “RESPECT.” She’s her daughter’s most ardent supporter.
AlexAnndrea nevertheless remains confident using her voice to relate to the audience, to garner their respect, to kindle their emotions and to keep The Executioner from sweeping her off the stage.
“Being on stage gives me the confidence,” she said. “When you can take over the stage, you feel strong with emotions…and it makes me feel kind of powerful.”
AlexAnndrea will need that power to convince the tough and no-holds-barred audience that she is just that good. In fact, she has to “Be Good or Be Gone,” an edict of sort from the audience signaling who stays and who leaves.
Undaunted by the competition, AlexAnndrea plans to perform her very best under the circumstances. She’s not planning on getting swept off the stage. Instead, she said, “I want to take it to another level.”
The emerging singer, dancer and actress first auditioned in April in the Child Star category for Amateur Night at the Apollo. If she makes it past the curt audience on July 10, she’ll move to the third and final round on Sept. 27 for an opportunity to be the Grand Finale Winner and collect a cash prize of $5,000.
“Right now she’s on vocal rest,” said Whitfield, and added that AlexAnndrea’s diet has been changed to maximize her voice in order to beat the competition and win the audience’s approval.
“She’s ready,” her mother said.
Whitfield noted that AlexAnndrea has been ready for an opportunity of this magnitude since she first arrived in the world.
“She was born with it (innate talent),” she said. “She was humming songs before she started talking. I knew it before she came out because she had the cry of a six-month-old baby.”
It was a “soprano cry,” she added.
The household was conducive for AlexAnndrea’s arrival and her inclination to sing. “That’s all we do is play music. We don’t watch TV,” said Whitfield, mother of six daughters, all of whom are talented, and a son, James Whitfield, 27.
For example, Mariah Simpson, 21, sings, acts and dances; Jamesha Whitfield, 29, writes poetry; and Andrea Simpson, 17, will play Dorothy; and Shamiah Simpson, 19, will play Evilene in “The Whiz” on July 25 at the University of Memphis Rose Theater.
The sisters are behind AlexAnndrea 100 percent, said Whitfield, and added that Andrea Simpson will audition at the Apollo in September.
“She’s (AlexAnndrea) a natural. When I first met her at eight, I told her she was going to be a star,” said Chrysti Chandler, founder and artistic director of the Young Actors Guild (YAG), a nonprofit dance and theatre academy.
AlexAnndrea is one of Chandler’s prized students. “We provided vocal training,” she said. “I’ve worked with her for three years. She’s real good. She has a powerful voice…that raspy soul voice.”
Chandler also taught her about the importance of stage presence.
“I feel lucky to be there (at YAG),” said AlexAnndrea. “Ms. Chrysti puts me on the spot and I thank her. She pushes me to sing and sing out on stage.”
Whitfield said her daughter has an old spirit. “She listens to Aretha Franklin, Frank Murphy, Yolanda Adams, Fantasia, and, of course, Beyoncé. But she is drawn to ‘Old School’ music.”
If AlexAnndrea’s voice were compared to another singer, it would be the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, a gifted jazz singer once referred to as the First Lady of Song and the Queen of Jazz.
“I like her voice; I like her music,” said AlexAnndrea, who has an affinity as well for gospel music, up-tempo songs and the classics.
While AlexAnndrea is honing her skills as a singer, she hasn’t neglected school. She had a 4.0 GPA at Vision Preparatory Charter School in South Memphis and will start the 2019-2020 school year as a sixth-grader.
Before graduating Vision Prep, AlexAnndrea had divided her time between school and practice. “I’d go to school, come home and do my homework, and practice my singing from seven to nine.”
Memphis is known for its hotbed of talent the world over and now serves as a launching pad for AlexAnndrea. Born in Alabama, the family moved to the Bluff City from Detroit in 2011.
Now Memphis is home.
“My mom and dad moved to Memphis in 2008,” said Whitfield. “He was diagnosed with Parkinson in 2010. So I came here to help them out.”
She fell in love with Memphis and found the right people at the right time to help prepare AlexAnndrea for the big stage.
“It’s the rich history, the ‘Old School’ music, and the weather,” said Whitfield, confident that her daughter’s talent will lead to the caviar of entertainment success some day.
Amateur Night at the Apollo could be that barometer – if The Executioner doesn’t sweep her off the stage.