The Apollo Theater, Harlem
“Where Stars are born – and Legends are made,” boasts the sign at the Apollo Theater, Harlem. And for once, the marketers have not overhyped: the list of careers that started at this most iconic of venues is as long as it is impressive.
Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson were just some of the greats who got their start at the venue on 125th Street in New York City. This would be achievement enough, but even greater than the showcase the famous stage provided was the symbol of black pride and achievement that it offered throughout the 20th century.
In 1914, Hurtig and Seamon’s New (Burlesque) Theatre opened at 253 125th Street, named after its proprietors, the burlesque impresarios Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon. It changed hands several times over the next couple of decades. But blacks were not allowed in the audience.
During the 1910s, blacks migrated in great numbers up from the South, fleeing the Jim Crow laws and the lynchings and seeking work in the great cities of the North – which was more and more plentiful with the onset of World War I. The Afro-American Realty Company bought up countless blocks and tenements in the area and Harlem became a common destination for migrant blacks. As they moved in, the whites moved away: between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white people left Harlem and 87,417 black people arrived.
Harlem was the cauldron of the country’s black artistic and intellectual development – the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Hubert Harrison, the intellectual and newspaper publisher, set up The Voice paper there and was a vital figure in the new movement. The author James Weldon Johnson and poet Claude McKay wrote about the new urban black America in strident, militant voices. The hothouse atmosphere of the smallish Harlem neighbourhood meant that high culture and the intelligentsia mingled easily with entertainment and popular culture. And that, of course, meant music: the Savoy Ballroom, a noted jazz venue on nearby Lennox Street, and, especially, the Apollo became a focus for the new black consciousness.
As burlesque fell out of fashion, The Apollo Theater began to put on more revues. And given that the area was full of black people, a lot of them with money to spend, the owners graciously saw beyond black to see green and the building admitted black punters for the first time on January 26, 1934. The black acts were often cheaper to book, too, which probably helped persuade the powers-that-were.
The long-running weekly Amateur Night At The Apollo, compeered by Ralph Cooper, was born that year, and Ella Fitzgerald was one of the early winners. She originally intended to go on stage and dance, but opted to sing instead at the last moment. She did Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Judy’ and ‘The Object of My Affection’, which had been recorded by the Boswell Sisters. Needless to say, she won.
The Apollo Theater changed hands a few times during the Twenties and Thirties, eventually bought by Frank Schiffman, who gave it the 125th Street Apollo name and reopened it in 1936. Benny Carter and his 16 Gorgeous Hot Steppers wowed audiences the same year.
Its Wednesday amateur night became an institution: Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Mariah Carey, The Isley Brothers and Lauryn Hill all followed in Ella’s footsteps.
Not everyone enjoyed so much success: the Apollo Crowd was famously rowdy and many a substandard act was driven from the stage with boos and catcalls. For years, a man dubbed “the executioner” would sweep, literally, the unfortunate failures off the stage. This raucous interplay between performer and crowd lead to some brilliant live recordings – BB King and James Brown both released awesome live records of stands on 125th Street. It was a must on the tour schedule of any black act.
It is said that Buddy Holly was the first white act to play there, and further that white rockers were often booked under the misapprehension that they were black. Dale Hawkins, (cousin of The Band’s Ronnie Hawkins) the swamp rock pioneer who recorded ‘Susie Q’, says he played there in July 1957, a month before Buddy; while Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers claim to have performed there in December 1956.
Either way, the legend of the Harlem Apollo is due to its black musicians and place in Black American history. In the race riots of the Sixties, the building remained untouched. A few notable non-black acts to have played there were John and Yoko – there are two tracks live from the Apollo on John Lennon Anthology and the song ‘New York City’ features the lines “Well we did the Staten Island Ferry /Making movies for the telly / Played the Fillmore and Apollo for freedom”. Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, The Strokes and Bjork have also performed.
The Apollo’s pull declined throughout the sixties and seventies and it was converted, unsuccessfully, into a cinema in 1975. It was reopened in 1987 – Hall & Oates were the first act – and it was bought by the City in 1991. With the Bill Clinton-lead regeneration of Harlem over the last dozen years or so, it had received a great deal of funding, including a 65 million dollar refurb.
The body of James Brown laid in state there in December 2006 and, most recently, the Apollo has been a focal point for mourning Michael Jackson fans. The Jackson 5 won an Amateur Night there in August 1967, of course, and the attention of Gladys Knight and then Berry Gordy that propelled them. The Reverend Al Sharpton lead mourners in a ceremony at the end of June this year, proving that, even in sad times, the Apollo remains an iconic place of pilgrimage for music fans and a vital location in the history of black America.