From off the streets to a shot at 'Idol'

Anthony Riley, performing on Market Street, reached a settlement after his 2007 disorderly-conduct arrest for singing in Rittenhouse Square was deemed wrong. On Tuesday, he will audition for "American Idol."
Anthony Riley, performing on Market Street, reached a settlement after his 2007 disorderly-conduct arrest for singing in Rittenhouse Square was deemed wrong. On Tuesday, he will audition for "American Idol."
Posted: July 29, 2010

Anthony Riley is not that guy - he promises you.

He is not the wide-eyed crooner out to share his message - hope, change, and all that - with the world, not one of the talentless masses harboring little but a passion, a prayer, and a voice that breaks glass.

He is, first and last, a Philadelphian, he says - and, by extension, a realist.

"I may not win American Idol," he acknowledges between sets at - well, near - the Convention Center. "Just top 12, and I'll be cool."

By the end of the summer, roughly 100,000 people across the country will have vied for a spot on the 10th season of America's longest singing audition. None of the others, Riley wagers, ever has taken on City Hall.

And won.

Indeed, to droves of residents and passersby in Center City and beyond, 23-year-old Anthony Riley is precisely "that guy" they remember from the news - the baby-faced street performer arrested for disorderly conduct while singing in Rittenhouse Square on March 27, 2007 (midway through Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"), jailed overnight and well into the next day for his alleged transgressions, and awarded $27,500 in a settlement that year after Municipal Judge Karen Simmons deemed him innocent.

"It was the trial of the century in community court," says Evan Shingles, the lawyer who represented Riley - and a handful of other street musicians - during a period of acute police scrutiny over public performances that crested with Riley's arrest.

For a street performer used to receiving spare change, the settlement amounted to the tip of a lifetime for Riley, who has used the payout to invest in his singing career - now the sole source of income for him and fiancee Charlene Cobb, 23, also his "business partner."

Raised by his grandmother in West Philadelphia - "a classy lady who paid for her house in cash in the '70s and wore minks" - Riley had often been praised for his voice in school and church, but never thought of singing as more than a hobby.

In 2006, his father, a SEPTA conductor, suggested he join the performers holding court in Suburban Station, coaxing Riley to convert his arsenal of Motown, classic rock, and contemporary pop into a full-time gig.

"I fell in love with it because I was free," Riley says. "But I was also raw."

The settlement afforded Riley and Cobb the opportunity to migrate to Las Vegas for nearly all of 2008, in hopes of polishing Riley's showmanship. By day, he sang on the Strip for blackjack bettors and Botoxed bridesmaids. By night, he and Cobb took in every show they could - Celine Dion, impersonators of the Beatles and the Rat Pack, even Cirque du Soleil - mining each for elements Riley could include in his own act.

"I saw what it meant to be an entertainer - singing, a little comedy, a little dancing," he says. "Being in Vegas shaped what I wanted to become."

It also shaped what his shape became. Riley put on nearly 100 pounds, with an assist from the $3.99 all-you-can-eat buffets. He has shed the weight since returning to Philadelphia more than 18 months ago.

"I'd seen him on YouTube and was like, 'Damn!' " says Francis Bell, 20, a Michael Jackson impersonator who often collaborates with Riley. "He got big."

Aided, no doubt, by the 70 or so pounds of equipment he must lug around each day, Riley has mastered the "Idol look," his fans attest, to go along with the barbershop quartet-style shuffles, playful between-song banter, and Temptations-inspired falsettos.

"He's got the whole package, puts on a dynamite show," says Camden native Carl Green, 75, who estimates he has seen Riley perform at least a dozen times in the last three years at some of the singer's regular spots: Rittenhouse, the Convention Center, Independence Hall, and Penn's Landing.

"And the honeys all love him," Green adds. "You can't tell them he ain't singing about them."

Followers especially admire the ease with which Riley can switch octaves to deliver a song's climactic high note. Watching his soprano flourishes on the Supremes' "Stop! In the Name of Love," Joanna Deimum, a tourist from the Netherlands, is convinced Riley could have bested the latest winner of the Dutch Idol.

"Much better," Deimum concludes. "Sounds like recording."

Since the Vegas sabbatical, Riley has used any leftover cash to invest in higher-quality amps and songbooks. The improvements have lent his act a measure of professional credibility, he says - an investment that seems to be paying off.

While Riley's open carrying case has been known to attract everything from buttons to Canadian nickels to $20 bills, it also lands the occasional business card.

"He's got a gift," says Joseph Donatucci of South Philadelphia, who hired Riley to play his son's wedding after seeing him perform in Rittenhouse Square. "Everybody was just enthralled by him."

While he still provokes the occasional noise complaint - "Doesn't he know he's bothering people?" one Rittenhouse Square resident grumbles, stomping out of the park with a cell phone to his ear - most tensions seem to have eased since Riley's return to the city.

Police often leave tips, Riley says, and even the officer who arrested him will offer a smile and a brief greeting now and again.

"A lot of people out there are just making noise," says Capt. Dennis Wilson of the Ninth District, which includes Rittenhouse Square. "He actually sounds good."

Riley smirks when told of the support, unpacking his equipment near the spot of the arrest. He is proud to have helped hasten the city's relaxed stance, he says. He's even more grateful that the message - of course there's a message, Riley admits - in tunes like "A Change Is Gonna Come" can continue to reach city residents.

"You have to be the change you want to see in the world," says Riley, who plans to sing the Cooke tune at his Idol audition Tuesday in East Rutherford, N.J. "I want to be Bono."

There's also, Riley realizes, this small matter: If he has grown talented enough to have Philadelphia in his corner - and persuade cops to leave him be in the Rittenhouse corner - how could he fear a few stone-faced Idol judges?

"It's like a guy told me after a show once: 'We booed Santa Claus,' " he recalls.

Preparing to begin another set, Riley surveys his Rittenhouse space - benches filling, grass seating dwindling - and approaches the microphone.

"If you make it in this city," he says, eyes widening just a little, "you're golden."


Contact staff writer Matt Flegenheimer at 215-854-5614 or mflegenheimer@phillynews.com.

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