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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: STAGES OF THE APOLLO (PART ONE)

1.

James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, recorded in October 1962, qualifies as one of the most thrilling concert albums ever made. J.B. was known as “the hardest-working man in show business” for a reason: No other performer could outshine the dips, microphone flips, sweat-soaked splits and screams for which he was famous. And he knew it.

So, in a brilliantly strategic move meant to translate the live experience of a James Brown concert to the widest possible audience (the record-buying public), he fronted the money to record a Wednesday-night show with his Famous Flames at the legendary Apollo Theater.

Rolling Stone regards Live at the Apollo as the greatest live album in history. It resides in both the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress and the Grammy Hall of Fame. After its May 1963 release, many DJs played the album uninterrupted on their radio programs, inserting commercials only to cover the flip to side two.

As intended, Live at the Apollo communicates the tremendous energy and excitement of a 29-year-old James Brown bewitching an electrified audience of African Americans in the heart of Harlem.

The Apollo was gossiped about in my household like an extended member of the family. An uncle worked there as an usher in the late ’70s, always telling tales of the shows he’d see for free (after directing Harlem’s finest to their seats): Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. My parents were Harlem natives. My dad felt like he’d grown up at the Apollo.

As a teenager, he’d managed to meet Roosevelt “Bucky” Smith, the valet for The Temptations. From 1966 to 1969, whenever Motown’s prized soul-stirrers would hit the world-famous theater, Dad would be backstage, enlisted as a gofer to dash out to the corner store for Coca-Colas and comic books.

The Apollo meant something in my family. Because of that, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo didn’t introduce me to James Brown live at the Apollo.

My first visit to 253 West 125th St. 
came in the summer of 1988, when my father bought us tickets to see the Godfather of Soul. I was 17. J.B., at 55, was riding high on the charts for the last time in his career, with his final R&B hit, “Static,” and an album, I’m Real, produced by R&B hitmakers Full Force. His Grammy-winning “Living in America” still felt fresh, barely three years old.

But J.B.’s real relevance at that time came from hip-hop’s resurrection of his grunts, squeals and funk breakbeats. Hip-hop made Brown’s 18-year-old “Funky Drummer” as essential to my generation as any newly released single. As a hardcore fan of both rap and Prince, I was also well aware of the Minneapolis genius’ jamming on J.B. chestnuts like “Bodyheat” during soundcheck. Prince’s “Housequake” made clear that J.B.’s DNA ran all the way through him.

Walking into the Apollo, my first impression of the music hall was how small it seemed. I’d seen Prince, New Edition and Michael Jackson downtown at Madison Square Garden (capacity: 20,789). The Apollo seats 1,506. Based on everything I’d heard, I expected something far larger. As we filed in, I glimpsed the Wall of Legends collage, full of faces I largely didn’t recognize back then, but I knew a few: Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, comedians Richard Pryor and Nipsey Russell, the sultry Eartha Kitt (she’d played Catwoman on Batman, after all). As I was led upstairs to a balcony, what I’d heard over and over became my own revelation: The Apollo really doesn’t have a bad seat. We weren’t on the floor, but our view looked just fine.

My father’s first time at the Apollo, in 1965 when he was 14, was also to see James Brown. “I was excited to see him because of his performance in the T.A.M.I. Show,” Darryl Lewis (aka Dad) recalls, referencing the 1964 concert film shot at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (by most accounts, the letters stood for “Teen Age Music International”). “He always brought his own revue: Bobby Byrd, TV Mama, the J.B.s… He’d rent the Apollo for the week, clear the house and outfit the ushers in tuxedos. Women risked their lives walking down the fire escape from the balconies in high heels.”

My own James Brown live-at-the-Apollo experience is a bit blurry now, 34 years later. I remember two drummers onstage, something I’d never seen before (and haven’t seen since), pounding out funk standards like “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” Thankfully, Dad didn’t dance.

There was an obligatory rendition of “Living in America,” but as far as I can recall, no songs from I’m Real—no “Static,” no nothing. And even then I recognized the opportunity that had been lost by not including in his setlist the songs rappers like KRS-One, Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane were sampling: “The Grunt,” “Escape-ism,” “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.”

What’s more, by then in his mid-50s, J.B. didn’t get on the good foot like he used to. I’d never seen the T.A.M.I. Show (YouTube didn’t exist), but 
I’d seen Michael Jackson. And James Brown was my grandma’s age. His celebrated moves had faded.

But the Apollo? This might’ve been only the 10th or so concert of my life, but I’d never seen a call-and-response crowd as spiritually invested in a performer onstage outside of the Baptist churches my mother would drag me to. Some of the more rambunctious fans were as sweaty as J.B. (and perhaps even more aromatic). It felt like community. Because of TV’s Showtime at the Apollo, the theater—with its cranberry seats and golden railings—already felt familiar. But being there beside my father and my people, seeing James Brown, no less, felt historic.

2.

The Apollo Theater—an official New York City landmark, enshrined in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places—opened in 1914 as the whites-only Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. (A club called Joe Wood’s Coconut Grove operated in the basement.) After the building tumbled into disrepair, it changed hands. Targeting an African American clientele, new owner Sidney Cohen reopened it as the Apollo Theater in January 1934. (Apollo is, among other things, the Greek god of music.) Thus reinvented, the Apollo went head to head with the biggest venues of the day: the Harlem Opera House, further down the block, and the Lafayette Theatre, on 132nd Street.

Apollo co-owner Frank Schiffman handled the talent, a list of luminaries that seems unbelievable in retrospect: Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Moms Mabley and The Nicholas Brothers, to name but a few. When he was the manager of the Lafayette, Schiffman had launched the Harlem Amateur Hour, hosted by Ralph Cooper, a Black actor known informally as Dark Gable. He’d choreographed Shirley Temple’s Poor Little Rich Girl and appeared opposite Lena Horne in The Duke Is Tops. Ruggedly handsome and eminently debonair, Cooper in 1935 kicked off the Apollo’s Amateur Night competition—a notorious Wednesday-evening contest that achieved worldwide renown.

The conceit of Amateur Night was simply to let Harlem be Harlem. Know this: The call-and-response tradition runs deep in African American communities. From field songs in the era of enslavement to patterns in gospel songs sung in church, Black folks responding to a main theme is intrinsic to our culture. Carnegie Hall audiences are expected to wait patiently for the pauses reserved for applause. Black spaces don’t operate that way.

Down the block and around the corner from the modern-day Apollo sits the AMC Magic Johnson multiplex, where the moviegoing experience frequently includes the crowd itself (audiences heckling the screen, some hilariously interjecting themselves into the movies’ goings-on). So, too, did it go at the Apollo during Amateur Night, going back decades. The theater allowed—encouraged—booing like no talent competition heretofore seen. If singers, tap dancers and performers of all stripes weren’t capable of bringing their A game, the Apollo audience was more than prepared to let them know with everything short of ripe tomatoes.

Boos are one thing. Another staple of Amateur Night arrived in the person of tap dancer Howard “Sandman” Sims. A vaudeville performer known for tapping out his steps on a wooden box sprinkled with sand (which amplified the sound), he conquered Amateur Night a record-breaking 25 times. In the mid-’50s, the Apollo hired Sandman Sims as Amateur Night executioner—he’d usher performers the crowd disapproved of off the stage with a broom or shepherd’s hook. President Barack Obama, visiting the Apollo during a 2012 fundraiser, famously sang the opening lines of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at the podium before remarking, “The sandman did not come out!” The legacy built by Sims, who passed away in 2003, speaks for itself.

When the Apollo was owned by Schiffman and Leo Brecher, the former serving as manager, it grew into the epicenter of African American show business. Amateur Night was won by the likes of Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, Sarah Vaughan, Frankie Lymon, King Curtis and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And during the Swing Era, the Apollo was as popular with jazz fans as clubs like Birdland—with a marquee boasting such names as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. But from its earliest days, the theater was as crucial to showcasing the Black community’s best and brightest for interracial audiences as it was to discovering future legends.

And legends are what the place is made of. Without the Apollo, Queen of Jazz Ella Fitzgerald might never have developed her signature scat. At 17, competing in an autumn Amateur Night in 1934, the Virginia native talked herself out of dancing—Fitzgerald began her performance career as a dancer—at the last minute, given how stiff the competition was. Instead, she sang “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection” off the cuff. Beset by nerves, she forgot the words and started improvising, imitating the Apollo backing band’s instruments. She won $25—and her scat style would become among the most imitated in the world.

A 19-year-old Billie Holiday made her Apollo debut in 1935 in the first of more than two dozen performances. Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith headlined the theater’s New Year’s Eve concert that year. Josephine Baker, already a superstar in Paris, showed up to shimmy and shake in 1951. Come 1956, James Brown won Amateur Night at the age of 22. Jimi Hendrix won in 1964, three years before Are You Experienced made him a rock god.

“The Apollo was the mecca of Black music for my generation,” says my dad (who, having attended the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, appears as a talking head in Questlove’s 2021 documentary, Summer of Soul). “No doubt it was equally true in the ’40s and ’50s. All styles of Black music rotated. There would be gospel revues, jazz weeks, revues headed by major artists who brought in their own crews, the Jewel Box Revue [of gender impersonators], blues week, combinations of all types. Until the late ’60s, Black venues were limited. So there’d be four or five shows a day at the Apollo, a holdover from vaudeville and burlesque. There was always a long line outside because, among other reasons, they didn’t empty the house between shows.”

In addition to Sandman Sims and the boisterous audiences of Amateur Night, another piece of Apollo lore that’s come down through the ages is the Tree of Hope. Anyone who’s seen Showtime at the Apollo—the syndicated variety show debuted in 1987—knows the shellacked log that contestants used to rub on the Apollo stage for luck before competing.

Its history reaches back to when the tree it came from stood tall blocks away on 132nd Street. Harlem residents had long considered the elm a good luck charm before it was chopped down in 1934. Said Bobby Schiffman, owner/manager of the Apollo from 1961-74, in the Emmy-winning 2019 HBO documentary The Apollo, “[The Tree of Hope is] a cutout of a piece of wood that came out of a tree in front of the Lafayette Theatre, which my father operated before they moved to 125th Street. Performers used to hang out on the island on Seventh Avenue [which intersected 132nd Street at the tree], hoping that my father, Frank Schiffman, would come out and give them a job.”

Up next: The author in the spotlight, a period of decline and a resurrection

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