The most famous club for popular music in the US is the Apollo Theater in Harlem, at 253 West and 125th Street. This is where many of the great African American acts including Nat King Cole Trio, Aretha Franklin, and Duke Ellington have all appeared. It first opened its doors in the mid 1860s as a dance hall and ballroom but in 1913 the new Apollo was relocated and ran as a burlesque venue (Hurtig and Seamon’s (New) Burlesque Theater) until 1928.
The new Apollo had a white audience policy despite Harlem being a mainly black residential and commercial area. Sidney Cohen bought the Apollo in 1932 and two years later, the doors were open to African American patrons. The change of policy was driven by simple economics and African American entertainers were cheaper to hire. When burlesque become too vulgar for polite society Cohen introduced variety. Whilst the Apollo featured old-time vaudevillefavourites it was their Wednesday night Amateur Night Shows that inevitably brought the Apollo, international recognition. The talent show launched the careers of many artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and James Brown.
Indeed the late, great James Brown was so important to the Apollo and its audience, his body was laid there in state so devoted fans could pay their last respects to “the Godfather of Sole.”
If ever a set of lyrics were true, Fred Ebb's New York New York’s “if I can make it there, I can make it, anywhere, ” then this was the Apollo. For the audiences were notoriously, ferocious and considered to be the "world's toughest.” They had the power to make or break an act and frequently booed artists off the stage only minutes into their performances. If there was pandemonium in the theatre on Wednesday night then it spilled out into the streets with fights and mayhem resulting. It was often commented there was more noise in Harlem at midnight on a Wednesday night than some parts of Midtown New York during the day. In 1934 a young dancer-turned-vocalist made her Amateur Night debut, her name was Ella Fitzgerald. In the thirties the Apollo became a premier venue for Jazz and the 1935 New Year’s Eve Concert featured Bessie Smith.
Two years later Count Basie made his Apollo debut and introduced a gorgeous vocalist who because of stage fright, nearly did not appear. Fortunately once she was in the spotlight, Billie Holiday regained her complete composure and dazzled the audience with her wonderful voice.
During the war years the Apollo became the centre where Zoot Suits and GIs clambered to be at to hear the latest and greatest in live music. Sarah Vaughan won Amateur Night in 1943 and was quickly signed as vocalist for Earl Hines’ orchestra. Nat “King” Cole and his trio sold out the Apollo Theater for two straight weeks in 1945 and a year later Lionel Hampton’s band were so popular they had to play seven shows a day for seven days.
The Apollo was the premier venue of the “Chitlin circuit” which catered for African American artist with safe places to perform; other theatres included the Regal Theater in Chicago and the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. The Chitlin Circuit was well known to many Jazz and Blues performers. The term ’chitlin” derives from the "soul food" of chitterlings (fried pig intestines) that was a staple at early performances. Sammy Davis, Jr., made his debut on the Apollo stage dancing with the Will Matsin Trio in 1947.
By the fifties some white acts, notably Buddy Holly and the Crickets (1957), had been booked to appear at the Apollo. Apparently Buddy was booked because it was assumed by management they were a black act. Needless to say Buddy Holly and the Crickets did very well with the Apollo audiences.
Berry Gordy Jnr brought his Motown Revue to the Apollo which featured Motown’s young emerging stars including: Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Contours. Now that would have been a show.
A year later when The Beatles made their first trip to New York City, the first place the fab four wanted to visit the Apollo Theater.
To make as much money as possible the management maintained a policy of alternating live stage shows with B movies (allegedly to clear the house) but also guaranteed more punters through their doors. During the Harlem riots in the mid sixties, the Apollo Theater was left untouched as a mark of respect. In 1969, The Jackson Five, won the Amateur Night when Michael Jackson was only ten years old.
As the seventies progressed despite the array of now international artists appearing at the Apollo, financial mismanagement caused the Apollo to go bankrupt forcing it to close its doors (1978). Then in 1981 the theatre was bought by a group of private investors and recognised as a building of interest. Harlem’s oldest functioning theater reopened in 1985. The Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc., now manages the affairs as a nonprofit organization, dedicated to fund, and program the theater. The Apollo Theatre continues to introduce new acts to its mixed audience and provides a premier venue for mega stars like the late, Prince (1993) and Tony Bennett (1997) among many, many others.
Worth a listen:
Nat King Cole
In a sentimental mood (1935)
When I get low I get high (1936)
Serenata Sarah Vaughan (1960)
(I got you) I feel good (1965)
I can give you anything but love (1936)
Swinging the blues (1938)
Piano man (1935)
That’ll be the day
Tracks of my tears
For once in my life
When Doves Cry
Let the good times roll