Smokey Robinson has an indelible memory of the time he and his band first traveled from Detroit to play the legendary Apollo Theater, in Harlem, in 1959. “When we got to the Apollo, the granddaddy of all places for Black musicians, there was a mural going down the wall – and it had all these wonderful artists on it, people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Harry Belafonte, and Jackie Wilson. I looked at The Miracles and I said, ‘I would love to be on that mural one day.’”
The defining cultural movement of our time
“The story of the Apollo is the story of the evolution of Black American identity and how it grew to become the defining cultural movement of our time,” said Emmy winner Roger Ross Williams, who directed a documentary on the venue.
Though the Apollo has a seminal role in the history of Black America – Barack Obama chose it for a presidential campaign stop once, even singing an Al Green song on the stage where titans such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday had performed – when it started out as a burlesque theatre, it was restricted solely for white entertainers and customers.
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 was only when Sydney S. Cohen purchased the venue in 1932, the year burlesque was banned by New York’s mayor, that the Apollo began to take on its defining atmosphere. Cohen decided to adopt the name for the Greek god of music and the Apollo Theater officially re-opened on January 26, 1934. The first night was a Jazz A La Carte show, headlined by Benny Carter And His Orchestra, including Teddy Wilson.
Discovering the greatest stars of the age
The Apollo Theater quickly became the premiere showplace for live theatrical entertainment in Harlem, with comedians, dancers, and singers eager to perform there. In the 30s, some of the greatest jazz stars of the age played the Apollo, including Louis Armstrong, Smith, Holiday, Lena Horne, and Duke Ellington.
The lasting innovation from 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 master of ceremonies 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 40s, the Apollo set aside 35 tickets every day for soldiers. Among the acts to make their Harlem debuts were Dinah Washington and Sammy Davis, Jr, with Sarah Vaughn being a notable winner of Amateur Night. Things were starting to change and it was also an era in which comedians at the Apollo finally stopped using blackface make-up.
Showtime At The Apollo
The big innovation of the 50s, when The Detective Story, with Sidney Poitier, became the first play to be shown on the stage, was the introduction of Showtime At The Apollo. This was first broadcast in 1955, with shows taped before 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 future reality-television talent programs from the venue.
In the 50s, winners of Amateur Night included James Brown, Dionne Warwick, and Joe Tex. Brown, The Godfather Of Soul, ended performing at the Apollo more than 200 times and the stage became like a spiritual home to the singer. He recorded Live At The Apollo there in 1962, a career-defining album that helped establish him as a superstar. His body lay in state at the Apollo before his funeral. When U2 played a gig at the Apollo in 2018, Bono described the venue as the heart of New York’s musical soul. “To finally be playing our songs on the same stage where James Brown begged ‘Please, Please, Please’ is not only a bucket-list moment, it’s an incredible honor,” said Bono.
The year Brown recorded his live album, the Motortown Revue made its debut at the Apollo, with The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Four Tops, Gladys Knight And The Pips, Commodores, and “Little” Stevie Wonder performing. The venue also hosted soul nights and blues nights 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 that featured Ray Brown on bass.
“The true proving ground of an artist”
The Apollo was a daunting stage for newcomers. Dionne Warwick, who performed on Amateur Night with her group The Gospel-Aires, described it “as the true proving ground of an artist.” The crowd’s reputation for booing acts offstage was so fearsome that Robinson said many acts were truly scared of the audience.
In the 50s and 60s, the Apollo was a haven for Black performers. “They appeared there because they didn’t have any other place to go,” says Jonelle Procope, the current chief executive of The Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. “They weren’t allowed in mainstream establishments. And so when they were on the Apollo stage, they weren’t legends. So 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 numerous times when he came to New York for his television appearances, and The Beatles stopped there during their first American tour. Paul McCartney has called the place “the whole Holy Grail” of music.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, many African-American artists became known for their Apollo concerts. The marquee for one Aretha Franklin concert in 1961 read simply “She’s Home.” Franklin was born in Memphis and lived in Detroit, but this atmospheric place on 125th Street was where she felt most comfortable.
By the mid-70s, the Apollo was looking run down, affected by the rise of rival nightclubs and in serious financial trouble. New owner Bobby Schiffman reluctantly closed the venue in January 1976. Though it briefly re-opened in 1978 (when Bob Marley played there), it was not until it was bought by private investors in the early 80s that its revival began.
Returning to the Apollo
On May 5, 1985, the building’s renovation was celebrated with a 50th Anniversary grand reopening and television special, Motown Returns To The Apollo, which featured Wonder, Robinson, Little Richard, Diana Ross, and Wilson Pickett. Rod Stewart, George Michael, and Al Green made guest appearances. On Christmas Eve that year, the Apollo relaunched Amateur Night.
The future of the Apollo Theater seemed safer from 1991, after the state of New York acquired the site and handed a 99-year lease, at a cost of $1 per year, to a non-profit foundation that was organized to run it. That non-profit status has allowed the Apollo Theater Foundation to focus on supporting the local community through education and outreach programs.
“There is no place on earth like the Apollo,” said Tony Bennett, and the future looks bright for the venue. The main 1,500 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, another with 199 – as part of the redevelopment of the neighboring Victoria Theatre.
One of the reasons for the expansion, says Kamilah Forbes, the executive producer of the Apollo, is that these smaller spaces allow them “to support artists at 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 venue that billed itself as “the place where stars are born and legends are made.”