Barry Saunders

Blind Idol hopefuls are visually impaired but overflowing with musical talent

Barry Saunders
Barry Saunders

Two distinct crowds converged in front of the Renaissance Raleigh hotel at North Hills on Saturday evening.

The group in sweats, yoga britches and tank tops was on its way to get a good workout in the nearby gym.

So was the other group, the one with people in suits, dresses and gowns. They just didn’t know it yet.

Instead of exercising in a gym, though – up and down, up and down – they were exercising in the hotel ballroom, where the semifinals of the National Blind Idol singing competition were being held. After about the 10th standing ovation – that’s when I stopped counting – the people inside the hotel ballroom probably wondered whether they’d wandered into the right place.

They were in the right place, all right. The 15 contestants from six states were all deserving of accolades, as were the special guests who performed – winners from the previous two years’ competition and Matthew Whitaker, a 16-year-old masterful musician who flew in from New Jersey.

Ellen DeGeneres, through the magic of video, “introduced” Matthew. He’d appeared on her show and performed in April, and on Saturday he performed three original pieces on the Renaissance ballroom stage. If you don’t know who Matthew Whitaker is, you should. You will.

I tried to avoid referring to him as a prodigy – so hackneyed, so cliched – but Matthew is a bona fide one. The dude puts one in the mind of a young Stevie Wonder, and not just because they’re both sightless. He has the same confidence and mastery of the piano – he’s been playing since he was 3, when his grandfather gave him a keyboard – and he even looks like young Stevie.

I’ll tell you what: If he’d started singing “My Cherie Amour,” I’d have had to run out of the joint.

He was, in a word, superb.

“Superb” also describes the fearless competitors vying to go to the Blind Idol finals in Winston-Salem on Aug. 12. They, along with their families and supporters, came from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Nevada and Utah, in addition to North Carolina.

The Blind Idol competition began modestly in 2015 when two employees of Winston-Salem’s Industries for the Blind – Anastasia Powell and Chris Flynt – came up with the idea for a competition for other blind individuals who possess musical talent. The winner receives, among other things, $1,000 and eight hours of studio time.

Monica Barrette, a friend and formerly a local hairstylist who now does ’dos on Broadway, returned to work with cosmetology students at the Paul Mitchell School, who helped beautify some of the contestants. “We did her hair,” Barrette said proudly each time a singer sporting the school’s handiwork appeared onstage.

There were, I’m pleased to report, no gratuitously snarky judges, such as those on the television show “American Idol,” who seem to get their kicks stomping on a dream.

There was no dream-stomping Saturday night, which isn’t to imply there was no stomping. There was, but it was included in the deservedly raucous ovations. The response from the audience seemed to send the singers floating off the stage. When the last winner was announced, the 10 contestants who weren’t selected cheered just as wildly as everyone else for those who did.

Tre’ Tailor, a former local radio personality now living in South Carolina, was one of the judges. She spoke after the show about how hard it was to select those who would go on to Winston-Salem.

“At least we got to pick five” of the 15, Tailor told me. “I can’t even imagine how hard it would’ve been to pick just one.”

Neither can I.

A hotel representative said there were about 325 people already inside to cheer on the singers when the show started Saturday, and workers scurried hither and yon shoehorning in more seats for late arrivals. If you weren’t among them, you missed a terrific workout – and show.

How terrific?

This terrific: It was only later, while driving home, that I thought about the contestants’ disability. As was everyone else there Saturday night, I was too focused on their abilities.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9