Smoke Robinson has an indelible memory of when he and his band first left Detroit to play at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1959. “When we arrived at the Apollo, the grandfather of all musicians black, there was a mural on the wall – and there were all these wonderful artists on it, people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Harry Belafonte and Jackie Wilson. I watched The Miracles and I said, ‘I would like to be on that mural one day.’
The defining cultural movement of our time
“The Apollo story is the story of the evolution of black American identity and how it became the defining cultural movement of our time,” said Emmy winner Roger Ross Williams. , who made a documentary about the place.
Although the Apollo was instrumental in black American history, Barack Obama once chose it for a presidential campaign, even singing an Al Green song on the stage where titans such as Bessie Smith and billie holiday had played – when it started out as a burlesque theater it was restricted to white performers and patrons only.
The building was designed by George Keister and opened by Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon as the New Burlesque Theater in 1913. It was later renamed The 125th Street Theatre. It wasn’t until Sydney S. Cohen purchased the venue in 1932, the year burlesque was banned by the Mayor of New York, that the Apollo began to take on its defining atmosphere. Cohen decided to adopt the name of the Greek god of music, and the Apollo Theater officially reopened on January 26, 1934. The first night was a pay-per-view jazz show, headlined by Benny Carter and his orchestra, including Teddy Wilson .
Discovering the biggest stars of the time
The Apollo Theater quickly became the premier venue for live theatrical entertainment in Harlem, with comedians, dancers and singers eager to perform there. In the 1930s, some of the biggest jazz stars of the day played the Apollo, including Louis ArmstrongSmith, Holiday, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington.
The lasting innovation of this period was the Amateur Night competition, which gave opportunities to unknown performers. On November 21, 1934, 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald won a singing contest at one of the Wednesday night contests, claiming the $25 prize. The emcee was Bardu Ali, a talent scout, and he recommended the singer to bandleader Chick Webb. She never looked back. Three decades later, a 22-year-old guitarist called jimi hendrix won the same Amateur Night contest.
In the 1940s, the Apollo reserved 35 tickets for soldiers every day. Among the acts to make their Harlem debut were Dinah Washington and Sammy Davis, Jr, with Sarah Vaughn being a notable Amateur Night winner. Things were starting to change and it was also a time when the Apollo comedians finally stopped using blackface makeup.
Showtime at the Apollon
The great innovation of the 1950s, when The detective’s storywith Sidney Poitier, becomes the first piece to be performed on stage, it is the introduction of Showtime at the Apollon. This was first broadcast in 1955, with broadcasts recorded in front of a “live” studio audience. Performers included “Big” Joe Turner and the Count Basie Orchestra. The show was hosted by Willie Bryant – and laid the groundwork for the venue’s future reality talent shows.
In the 1950s, Amateur Night winners included James Brown, Dionne Warwick and Joe Tex. Brown, The Godfather Of Soul, have finished performing at the Apollo more than 200 times and the stage has become like a spiritual home for the singer. He recorded Living at the Apollo there in 1962, a career-defining album that helped him become a superstar. His body was displayed at the Apollo before his funeral. When U2 performed a concert at the Apollo in 2018, Bono described the venue as the heart of New York’s musical soul. “Finally performing our songs on the same stage where James Brown begged ‘Please, please, please’ is not only a moment to remember, it’s an incredible honor,” Bono said.
The year Brown recorded his live album, the Motortown Revue made its Apollo debut, with The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, temptations, four peaksGladys Knight and the pips, Commodores, and “Small” Stevie Wonder efficient. The venue also hosted soul parties and blues parties in the 60s, when BB King, T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Witherspoon played the Apollo. King returned there in 1991 to make a Grammy-winning live album featuring Ray Brown on bass.
“An Artist’s True Proving Ground”
The Apollo was an intimidating stopover for newcomers. Dionne Warwick, who performed on Amateur Night with her band The Gospel-Aires, described it “as an artist’s true proving ground”. The crowd’s reputation for off-stage boos was so creepy that Robinson said many performers were genuinely scared of the audience.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Apollo was a paradise for black artists. “They showed up there because they had nowhere else to go,” says Jonelle Procope, the current executive director of the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. “They weren’t allowed in the traditional establishments. And so when they were on the Apollo Stage, they weren’t legends. That’s why I call it a place of opportunity. They became legends after they appeared on the Apollo Stage.
The Apollo Theater also became a place that white musicians wanted to sample. Elvis Presley visited many times when he came to New York for his television appearances, and The Beatles stopped there on their first American tour. Paul McCartney called the place “the whole holy grail” of music.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many African American artists rose to prominence for their Apollo concerts. The marquee for an Aretha Franklin concert in 1961 simply read “She’s Home.” Franklin was born in Memphis and lived in Detroit, but this atmospheric location on 125th Street was where she felt most at home.
By the mid-1970s, the Apollo looked run-down, affected by the rise of rival nightclubs and in dire financial straits. New owner Bobby Schiffman reluctantly closed the venue in January 1976. Although it briefly reopened in 1978 (when Bob Marley played there), it was not until it was bought out by private investors in the early 1980s that its revival began.
Back to Apollo
On May 5, 1985, the renovation of the building was celebrated with a grand 50th anniversary reopening and a television special, Motown returns to the Apollowhich featured Wonder, Robinson, Little Richard, Diana Ross, and Wilson Picket. Rod Stewart, george michael, and Al Green made appearances. On Christmas Eve that year, the Apollo revived Amateur Night.
The Apollo Theater’s future seemed more secure starting in 1991, after New York State acquired the site and granted a 99-year lease, at a cost of $1 a year, to a nonprofit foundation. profit that has been organized to manage it. This nonprofit status has allowed the Apollo Theater Foundation to focus on supporting the local community through education and outreach programs.
“There’s no place on earth like the Apollo,” said Tony Bennett, and the future looks bright for the site. The 1,500-seat main auditorium is still frequently packed, and in 2020 the Apollo Theater expanded its space for the first time since 1934. It opened two new concert halls – one with 99 seats, the another of 199 – as part of the redevelopment of neighboring Victoria. Theater.
One of the reasons for the expansion, says Kamilah Forbes, Apollo’s executive producer, is that these smaller spaces allow them “to support artists in the early stages of development.” The late, great Ella Fitzgerald, who only sang at the life-changing amateur night for a bet, would surely applaud. It is, after all, the place that has billed itself as “the place where stars are born and legends are formed”.
Find out more about the world’s most iconic concert halls.
For the latest music news and exclusive features, check out uDiscover music.
uDiscover Music is operated by Universal Music Group (UMG). Some recording artists included in uDiscover Music articles are affiliated with UMG.