From the subway to Suffolk

Published 9:08 pm Tuesday, February 9, 2016

‘America’s Got Talent’ fave headlines Sunday show

By Frank Roberts

Special to the News-Herald

Heart and soul are the two ingredients found in every song performed by Alice Tan Ridley, who emerged from New York City’s underground — subways, that is — to become a second-place winner in 2010 on “America’s Got Talent.”


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Now, she is the one making the headlines, and she’ll be in concert with her seven-piece band in Suffolk at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, in a show sponsored by the Suffolk News-Herald.

Between AGT and Suffolk, there was the world. She wowed crowds in Morocco, Argentina, Germany, Uruguay, the Netherlands and in cities across the U.S. She visited her old favorite subway stations, where the “underground” singers are famously talented.

But Ridley has kept busy above ground, too, recently completing her first album, “Alice Tan Ridley Never Lost Her Way.” A release date will be announced later.

She sang “Amazing Grace” in the film “Rize,” performed “America the Beautiful” in the movie “Heights” and appeared on a FOX television talent competition, coming out a $25,000 winner. To top it off, she won an Emmy for her part in a documentary about military families — and, of course, she occupies a lot of YouTube space.

Eventually, when she and her band are done touring, it’s back to 42nd Street, 34th Street and Union Square, three of the subway system’s busiest stations.

But don’t get the wrong idea about that gig. The musicians are organized by MUNY (Music Under New York), and the Metropolitan Transit Authority holds auditions, selecting the musicians who will perform at 30 of the busiest stations in New York.

Ridley has been performing underground — busking as it’s known — for 20 years and loves it. Later this year, she will climb the stairs and perform at the prestigious Village Cafe. Her big dream is to perform at Carnegie Hall.

But she is not the only talent in the family. Her daughter, Gabourey Sidibe, garnered a lot of praise as the star of the 2009 film “Precious.”

Ridley attended an Academy Awards program as a guest of her daughter. “Suddenly,” she recalled recently, “I heard yelling. Someone came to me and grabbed me, and started talking to me. He remembered seeing me in the subway. He remembered what I sang.”

Ridley’s best-known songs are, “At Last,” popularized by Etta James; “Proud Mary,” from Creedence Clearwater, “I Have Nothing” from the Whitney Houston songbook and, most importantly, a song as done by Cissy Houston, “Midnight Train To Georgia.”

That’s her home state. Her hometown is Lumpkin. The gospel and R&B singer moved to Harlem working as a paraprofessional in the New York school system. That was her daytime job. At night, she sang in clubs.

But her favorite thing was working as a subway singer. “I always had a crowd,” she told the New York Daily News. “I miss the fact that I used to be able to get close to the people who were listening.”

She was so close to her audience that she gave some audience members the microphone to sing along with her.

One listener thought enough of her talent to sign her to a contract. Dvir Assouline got her out of the subway stations and onto some of the world’s larger stages. But she is still the Subway Idol. Those gigs fed her family for almost a quarter of a century. The gigs are free, of course but the “hat-passing” made them worthwhile, financially.

She began underground with brother, Roger. One day she was taking the train after working her day job. She passed through the 59th Street Station, saw him and waded through the crowd while rapping a song he was singing.

“The people around me started parting ways so I could get next to him,” Ridley remembered. “When he was finished, we got the biggest round of applause from across the platform, and on the platform I was standing on. That’s what got me to want to go out and do it again.”

“People coming from their jobs — they’re miserable in their jobs,” she said in a call from New York. “They rush to catch the train. They hear me — they slow down. The rush comes to a stop. Soon, they laugh and talk to other people. Frowns turn to smiles, and that warms my heart.”

I’m from Georgia, where we’re used to saying ‘hello’ to everyone,” she explained. “On the train, nobody talks to anyone. We’re there, and it makes people comfortable. I love life. I’m so happy.”

And she folks happy when they hear her — whether above ground or underground.

Tickets for Sunday’s show are $30 for adults and $25 for students and are available at or by calling 923-2900. Subway tokens aren’t necessary.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye on Suffolk and an ear on country music. Email him at