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A History of the Apollo Theater

Smoky Robinson has an indelible memory of when he and his band first traveled down from Detroit in 1959 to play Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater down the wall — and it had all these wonderful artists on it, people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Harry Belafonte and Jackie Wilson. I watched The wonders and I said, ‘I’d like to be on this 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 became the defining cultural movement of our time,” said Emmy-winner Roger Ross Williams, who directed a documentary about the venue.

Although the Apollo plays a seminal role in the history of Black America – Barack Obama once chose it for a presidential campaign stop and even sang an Al Green song on stage where titans such as Bessy Smith and Billy Holiday performed – when it started out as burlesque theater it was strictly for white entertainers and patrons.

The building was designed by George Keister and opened in 1913 by Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon as The New Burlesque Theatre. It was later renamed The 125th Street Theater. 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 take the name for the Greek god of music, and the Apollo Theater officially reopened on January 26, 1934. The first night was a jazz a la carte show led by Benny Carter and his orchestra, including Teddy Wilson.

Discover the biggest stars of the time

The Apollo Theater quickly became Harlem’s premier venue for live theatrical entertainment, with comedians, dancers and singers eager to perform there. In the 1930’s some of the biggest jazz stars of the time played at the Apollo, including Louis ArmstrongSmith, Holiday, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington.

The enduring innovation of this period was the amateur night competition, which provided opportunities for unknown artists. 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 1940s, the Apollo provided 35 tickets a day for soldiers. Acts making their debut in Harlem included Diana Washington and Sammy Davis, Jr., with Sarah Vaughn being a notable winner of Amateur Night. Things started to change and it was also an era when comedians at the Apollo finally stopped using blackface makeup.

Showtime at the Apollo

The great innovation of the 50s when The detective storywith Sidney Poitier, the first play to be performed on stage was the introduction of Showtime at the Apollo. This was first broadcast in 1955, with the shows being taped in front of a ‘live’ studio audience. Cast members included “Big” Joe Turner and the Count Basie Orchestra. The show was hosted by Willie Bryant – and laid the groundwork for future reality TV talent programs from the venue.

In the 50s there were winners of the amateur night James Brown, Dionne Warwick and Joe Tex. Brown, The Godfather Of Soul, has performed more than 200 times at the Apollo and the stage has become a spiritual home for the singer. He recorded Live in the Apollo A career-defining album was released there in 1962, which helped him establish himself as a superstar. His body was laid out in the Apollo before burial. When U2 Playing a gig at the Apollo in 2018, Bono described the venue as the heart of New York’s musical soul. “Finally playing our songs on the same stage James Brown begged ‘Please, Please, Please’ is not just a bucket list moment, it’s an incredible honor,” said Bono.

The year Brown recorded his live album, Motortown Revue made its debut at the Apollo The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The temptations, Four tipsgladys knight and the pips, commodore, and “small” Stevie Wonder execute. The venue also hosted soul and blues nights in the ’60s BB king, T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Witherspoon played the Apollo. King returned there in 1991 to record a Grammy-winning live album with Ray Brown on bass.

“The True Proving Grounds of an Artist”

The Apollo was a daunting stage for newcomers. Dionne Warwick, who performed at Amateur Night with her group The Gospel-Aires, described it as “a true artist’s proving ground”. The crowd’s reputation for booing acts backstage was so frightening that Robinson said many acts were genuinely scared of the audience.

In the 50’s and 60’s the Apollo was a paradise for black artists. “They performed there because they had nowhere else to go,” says Jonelle Procope, current executive director of the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. “They weren’t allowed in mainstream establishments. 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 appearing on the Apollo stage.”

The Apollo Theater also became a place where white musicians wanted to rehearse. Elvis Presley visited several times when he came to New York for his television appearances, and The Beatles stopped there during their first American tour. Paul McCartney has dubbed the place “the whole Holy Grail” of music.

In the ’60s and ’70s, many African American artists became known for their Apollo concerts. The marquee for an Aretha Franklin concert in 1961 read simply “She’s Home”. Born in Memphis and living in Detroit, Franklin felt most at home in this atmospheric spot on 125th Street.

In the mid-’70s, the Apollo was looking run down, having been hit by the rise of rival nightclubs and facing serious financial difficulties. New owner Bobby Schiffman reluctantly closed the venue in January 1976. Although it reopened briefly in 1978 (when Bob Marley played there), its revival only began when it was bought by private investors in the early 1980s.

Return to the Apollo

On May 5, 1985, the building’s renovation was celebrated with a grand 50th anniversary reopening and a television special. Motown returns to the Apollowith Wonder, Robinson, Little Richard, dianaross, and Wilson Pickett. Rod Stewart, GeorgeMichael, and Al Green made a guest appearance. On Christmas Eve that year, the Apollo restarted Amateur Night.

The future of the Apollo Theater seemed more secure starting in 1991, after New York State acquired the site and gave a 99-year lease at a rate of $1 a year to a charitable foundation organized to run it. This nonprofit status has allowed the Apollo Theater Foundation to focus on supporting the local community through educational and outreach programs.

“There’s no place on earth like the Apollo,” said Tony Bennett, and the future for the venue looks bright. The 1,500-seat main auditorium is still frequently overcrowded, and in 2020 the Apollo Theater expanded its footprint for the first time since 1934. It opened two new concert halls – one seating 99, another seating 199 – as part of the redevelopment of neighboring Victoria Theatre.

One of the reasons for the expansion, says Kamilah Forbes, the 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 sang at the life-changing Amateur Night Just for a Bet, would certainly applaud. After all, it’s the place that has billed itself as “the place where stars are born and legends made.”

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uDiscover Music is operated by Universal Music Group (UMG). Some artists included in uDiscover Music articles are affiliated with UMG.

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