The Tragic Last Days of The Voice’s Anthony Riley

The story seemed like something out of a movie: a Philadelphia street performer suddenly catapulting to national fame on a reality show. But the truth about Anthony Riley’s life — and tragic death — turned out to be much darker.

Anthony Riley at the Reading Terminal Market in February, one day after leaving rehab. Photograph by Robby Parsons

Anthony Riley at the Reading Terminal Market in February, one day after leaving rehab. Photograph by Robby Parsons

Anthony Riley had been off the map for weeks when, by some random act of providence, I bumped into him outside a greasy-slice pizza joint at Broad and South. It was one of those unseasonably chilly April evenings, the kind you complain about in spring and dream about in summer. Anthony was dressed in an olive green jacket that melted into his dark skin; his cheeks rose into a handsome smile when I said hello.

I might not even have remembered our encounter, except that it would be the second-to-last time we ever spoke.

A month before, Anthony had been a front-runner on season eight of NBC’s talent show The Voice. The judges were awestruck by his vocal range, his footwork, his charisma. It was like the second coming of James Brown had leapt onto the stage. The panel — a collective 19 Grammys among them — applauded him with a standing ovation. His story reminded us why we love reality TV in the first place. A Philadelphia street performer rising to sudden stardom — it was the stuff of picaresque fairy tales. Until it fell apart. Fast.

Anthony abruptly disappeared midway through the competition “for personal reasons,” as The Voice judge Pharrell Williams explained on-air, rather opaquely and matter-of-factly. Four days later, Anthony’s former personal assistant issued a series of bizarre tweets that included pictures of the singer’s alleged crack cocaine paraphernalia. The grotesque spectacle didn’t stop there. Anthony retweeted these pictures, seemingly stoking the fires of his own career demise.

The fall from grace was very strange, very quick, like some sort of avant-garde-theater tragedy or a Kafkaesque nightmare. That same day, Anthony seemed to put an end to Internet rumors about those vague “personal reasons,” saying he’d left The Voice to enter a rehab facility in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

Could this all be some well-orchestrated charade, I wondered? I wasn’t the only one caught off-guard. Anthony’s best friend later told me, “When Anthony asked me to pick him up at rehab, I thought it was a joke.”

But when I saw Anthony that night outside the pizza shop, he assured me it wasn’t any joke. “I’m getting back on my feet,” he said. Then he started listing the facets of his comeback: He was recording a new album at the Academy of Music. A photographer was taking his stills. He’d already spoken to the editor of this magazine about doing a story. While he told me this, his eyes grew big and dodgy, as if he was only half convinced that everything he’d just told me was true.

We’d been friends for a year. Or, rather, friendly acquaintances. Anthony made me — and a lot of people — feel closer to him than I really was. He showered optimism and energy and compassion. I’d reached out to him after he announced he’d gone to rehab, empathizing, having struggled with addiction myself. I offered then — and I was offering now — to take him to AA or NA.

“Do you want to go to a meeting?” I asked him on South Street.

“Yes. Yes. I’d love to go to a meeting,” Anthony said. But he didn’t have a cell phone right then; I’d have to email his manager.

We embraced, then split. Five weeks later, Anthony hanged himself in the basement of a Washington Square apartment building. He was 28 years old. Nobody found him for three days, until residents started complaining about the smell.

Anthony’s final few months were a torturous, delusional and at times erratic sprint. He was consumed by depression, skipping doctor appointments, going on drug binges. All the while, he was recording the best music of his life.

IT WAS A SMALL funeral service, in the realm of 50 people, at Second Nazareth Missionary Church in Point Breeze. Anthony’s ashes lay in front of a podium with a black-and-white headshot beside them. No open casket; his body was beyond fixing by any undertaker.

For the past several months, friends had worried that Anthony was exhibiting the symptoms of schizophrenia. He sounded hopeless and paranoid, saying the Illuminati were out to kill him, people were spying on him, his destiny was sealed. That’s why he never had a cell phone. He destroyed phones, hid phones, sold phones — probably two dozen of them in the last year — driven by the delusion that he was being watched.

Mental illness rarely appears in a vacuum. For Anthony, it wasn’t the stress of The Voice that triggered it; the seeds were planted early in life. He grew up in a house nestled between two drug-ridden projects at 47th and Haverford in West Philadelphia. His mother, a crack addict, was in and out of prison for most of his childhood. The matriarch of the household was his old-school firecracker of a grandmother, who taught him to swallow his problems: “The whole thing of ‘Smile when you go outside and dress it up and look good,’” says Anthony’s half-sister, Halima. For Anthony, that meant singing all day, every day. It could be Whitney Houston at home, then Motown in the neighborhood. Shy never entered the kid’s vocabulary. “I always described Anthony as rainbows, unicorns and gumdrops,” Halima says. “He would just break out singing, no hesitation at all.”

But the hardscrabble environment was formative in developing unaddressed issues in Anthony’s psyche, relatives say, although those were hidden away. The family preferred it that way. “We were taught, ‘No, no, we’re not going to have these doctors come into our house and talk to us about certain things,’” says Halima.

Anthony was bullied as he grew up, just as he was discovering his sexual identity. He’d struggle with defining that identity the rest of his life. When he came out as gay on Facebook last year, he was actively in a relationship with a woman named Marie Morando. When she asked him for some clarification, he told her that he “still liked women, too,” Morando says.

Accepting who he was and where he came from was stressful. That was especially true of his mother’s absence. Morando’s best guess is that Anthony started using crack a couple of years ago, to cope with his feelings about his mother — why she felt crack was “more important than her children and family,” as he told Morando after leaving a hospital last year.

The mental slide that preceded his suicide was simultaneously unique to Anthony and common among black Americans. Blacks are much more likely than whites to report experiencing depression, but they’re only half as likely to seek mental health treatment. Historically, blacks are more mistrustful of the medical system than the larger population, and that has engendered a sense of self-reliance in solving mental problems. In fact, many in the black community don’t even consider such problems to be mental illnesses.

That was what Anthony believed. “I think Anthony always thought everybody dealt with these issues,” says Robby Parsons, his best friend. “For whatever reason, he was beyond help.”

ALMOST EVERYONE HAS a different version of the same story about first meeting Anthony Riley. They heard his transcendent voice — at Suburban Station, Reading Terminal, Rittenhouse Square — and couldn’t believe what they heard.

I thought he was lip-synching.

I had to walk across Broad Street to believe that was his voice.

What was that amazing sound in the concourse?

Anthony’s lawyer and friend, Evan Shingles, had a very different introduction. “I received a phone call from a friend who was in Rittenhouse Square, half-screaming on the phone: ‘Hey, my friend just got arrested for singing in the park. Can they do that?’” Shingles remembers.

It was the spring of 2007 when a police officer started barking at Anthony and the ensemble he was playing with, telling them to shut up and stop singing. At one point, when the officer wouldn’t relent, someone asked: Isn’t this America? The cop replied, “No. This is Afghanistan.” Soon enough, Anthony was holding out his arms for the handcuffs while belting out Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” With all the city’s problems, the cops were arresting street performers in the park?

Anthony was jailed overnight, then got the disorderly-conduct charges thrown out in court weeks later. Afterward, the ordinances for musicians performing on the street in Philly were relaxed.

By the end of the summer, this 20-year-old kid from West Philly was on the front page of the Daily News (“Send him to Sing Sing,” the headline read) and on NBC 10 and NPR.

It would be Anthony’s first 15 minutes of fame. It was also the beginning of his troubles, at least with money and the limelight. Following his arrest, he sued the city and netted a $27,500 settlement — enough to kick-start his career, he told Shingles.

Instead, he ran off to Las Vegas with a man his friends now refer to as a swindler. Busking wasn’t the same out there — the laws were stricter, the competition was fiercer — and they both lived off Anthony’s dime. Within a year, Anthony was flat broke. He called up Parsons, who got him on a bus to West Virginia, where Parsons lived. “That was the first huge example of somebody taking advantage of Anthony,” Parsons says. “There were many smaller ones, too.”

Those included his personal assistant. As it turns out, that entire post-The Voice escapade on Twitter earlier this year wasn’t an act of self-sabotage after all. Anthony’s disgruntled assistant was leaking the damaging details of drug use on his own account, then retweeting them on Anthony’s. Further, according to Shingles, the assistant threatened to go to the press about Anthony’s drug use.

Anthony didn’t retaliate. Instead, he talked his lawyer down from cease-and-desist orders and a potential lawsuit. That’s how he handled problems: He swallowed them and kept on singing.

WHEN HE WALKED ONSTAGE, Anthony pulled his gray sports jacket taut against a tight red shirt and took his pose with a shimmy of his feet. The judges, their backs turned so that they looked at the crowd, perked up in anticipation. Adam Levine asked, “What — who just came out there?” even before Anthony hit a single note of “I Got You (I Feel Good).” It only took seven seconds for all four The Voice judges to hit their buzzers — the fastest “four-chair turnaround” in the history of the show. Anthony was in total control.

It wasn’t the first time he’d had an audience by a string. When he appeared on Weekend Edition back in 2007, the host, Scott Simon, asked him for an impromptu performance. “I think it’s only a matter of time before you’d get handsomely rewarded for a beautiful voice like that,” Simon said at the end.

And Anthony was rewarded. Even when he was a street singer, there were days when he made thousands of dollars, more than many white-collar workers downtown, performing on the same slab of concrete where he’d been arrested years earlier. He also sang at weddings and private parties, though often the money was gone within a few days.

When he needed extra work, he was a cashier at Tootsie’s Salad Express at Reading Terminal. “He was just a wonderful talent, but a regular job wasn’t good enough for him,” says Tootsie Iovine-D’Ambrosio, his boss there. “And I thought he wasn’t happy unless he was a superstar. But he didn’t want to climb the ladder; he just wanted to jet up it.”

For a long time, the closer Anthony got to fame, the more he grew fearful of it. He got through one round of auditions for American Idol in 2007 but didn’t show up for a second. He took first place at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last summer, and was named “Best Street Performer” by this magazine. But friends say he obsessed over whether he was “ready” for success. If he really became famous, people would inevitably ask questions about who Anthony was. And he wasn’t ready to share.

“His main worry was about the things he’d done coming out if he became famous,” says Halima. He was guarded about his depression, his family history, being bisexual, and having been diagnosed with HIV. But he desperately wanted to be successful, and come across as successful, so he covered up his vulnerabilities.

Drugs, cameras, pressure: They were all readily available in Los Angeles, where The Voice is produced. When the show rolled onward to the “battle rounds,” celebrity singing coaches came to work with the contestants. There was a Jonas brother with one group, and pop singer Meghan Trainor with another. Anthony got four-time Grammy award-winner Lionel Richie, a singer he idolized. It seemed too good to be true.

But Anthony was less than excited to meet Richie. “He made mention of the fact that the Illuminati had sent Lionel Richie to him,” says Parsons. “If you [look at the video], Anthony is sweating profusely. He looks terrified.”

Another time in the course of the show, Anthony collapsed on the floor of his hotel room, purposely, to test whether cameras were cued in to his every movement. Someone was at the door within five minutes, checking on him. That proved he was being spied on, Anthony told a friend.

In between tapings, he’d return to Philly, strung out and seemingly unhinged. “They’re trying to buy and sell me,” he told Tootsie, speaking of the producers. And he had second thoughts about the show, saying, “The Voice never produced a superstar. The Voice isn’t good enough for me.”

Anthony spent two weeks in rehab. When he returned to Philly, his mental well-being plummeted. Bouts of depression alternated with delusions of grandeur. Anthony asked his lawyer to call a press conference with Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Ramsey to address the rogue tweets sent from his account. “He had no connections. Nobody even really cared about that,” Shingles says. “I think he had this realization that he could have been such a star and that he, for whatever reason, was so self-destructive.”

The frequency — and potency — of his drug use only escalated after rehab. Anthony was self-medicating with street drugs in lieu of the bottled antidepressants (including Wellbutrin) he’d been prescribed in the past. “I think either the meds weren’t working and he gave up on them, or he didn’t like the idea that he needed medication because that meant he wasn’t in total control,” says Morando. “Anthony was not a controlling person toward other people, but he always felt he needed to be in complete control of his own life.”

He started talking about his comeback plans once his contract with The Voice expired — actually, several sets of plans. It was hard to tell truth from fiction. He told some people that he was signing with Pharrell. There was talk of a deal with Capitol Records. He was also recording two separate albums, one in Pittsburgh and one in Philly. With the former, he’d drop singles on iTunes, capitalize on the exposure from The Voice, and propel the hype for the album. With the latter, he’d go on tour with just a guitar player, sell out 300-to-500-person clubs, and prove his merits as an original performer.

“Anthony could be very focused or very scattered on any particular night. When he was focused, he could be almost herculean,” says Bob Loy, who was writing words and music for the Philly album. Then Anthony started missing rehearsals with no call, no nothing.

The same polar extremes were evident in Pittsburgh. “One time he kept singing for six hours, even though he probably had it right in the first few takes,” says Hollis Greathouse, Anthony’s sound engineer and studio producer there. “He said that he’d heard his voice for the very first time. We just let him keep singing. It seemed to be nurturing his soul.”

Before his last session with Greathouse, Anthony had been on a binge. He was very ill, sleeping in between takes, not getting words right. “I took him to a hospital and went and filed mental hygiene papers on him to have him committed,” says Parsons, who was in his band. Within a couple of days, Anthony called from the hospital. He said he needed to get his clothes and head back to Philadelphia to seek more treatment. “He came to my house and got his stuff, I gave him a big hug, and that was the last time Anthony and I were face-to-face.”

AT THE END OF MAY, I ran into Anthony again. He still didn’t have a cell phone. It was five days before he hanged himself. This time, he ran up to me in Rittenhouse, asked how I was, wondered when we’d hit that meeting. His soft voice was strained. He looked haggard, as if for once his outsides mirrored his insides.

That night I tried emailing Morando — Anthony had given me her address — only to get a response a few days later: “Sorry, I haven’t been able to get a hold of him. I’m not sure where he’s staying either.”

During the last few weeks of his life, he was sleeping at the home of his friend Robert Iovine, Tootsie’s brother, with whom he’d grown close over the past few years. Leading up to that, he’d stayed on other friends’ couches, in a rehab facility, in a psychiatric ward, at a Quality Inn in Bensalem — hopping around, caught in a web of both asking for help and shunning it. On the day he died, a city social worker emailed him about a vacancy in a support program run by the Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corporation. It lingered in the inbox, unread.

His final conversations with friends revealed a man stubbornly trying to maintain his image and finances, unwilling to surrender his pride or his drug habits, and often displaying an irrational sense of destiny. (“I’m my own god,” he told one friend.)

Right up until the last moment, he tried to keep a semblance of elegance and control. Before he hanged himself, he took his sneakers off and tucked them very neatly in the corner.

Originally published as “The Voice” in the August 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.