Legends of the Apollo

For more than 75 years, some of the world’s greatest entertainers have performed at the famous Harlem theater

James Brown Apollo Theater
James Brown recorded three live performances at the Apollo Theater, in 1962, 1967 and 1971. Courtesy Smtihsonian Books

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Ella Fitzgerald Apollo Theater
(Maura McCarthy)
On November 21, 1934, a timid teenager stood paralyzed before the demonstrative Apollo Theater audience during amateur night competition. She had rehearsed a dance routine but was preceded by a duo that lived up to its reputation as the best dancers in town. “Do something!” the stage manager urged, so she sang “The Object of My Affection.” Someone in the crowd yelled, “Hey, that little girl can sing!” That girl, 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald, won first prize and soon was hired by bandleader Chick Webb (on drums), who played New York City’s famous Savoy Ballroom. When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald led the band for three years before launching a solo career that would earn her a reputation as one the world’s most extraordinary jazz vocalists, as well as the moniker “The First Lady of Song.”

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Sam Cooke Apollo Theater
(Maura McCarthy)
Sam Cooke, a handsome gospel singer who made girls swoon at the Apollo, crossed over to secular music in the 1950s and soon became one of the architects of soul, a gospel-infused style of rhythm and blues. “Cooke was also a visionary who understood how to market black music to white audiences, while grounding it in the African-American tradition,” says music scholar Craig Werner. “He took the sex out of it,” and he allayed the fears of white parents concerned about interracial relationships.

Werner believes the crooner and songwriter was equally astute at marketing a black political agenda. Cooke refused to play segregated venues, fought injustices within the music industry and established his own publishing and recording firms. His timeless hit “A Change Is Gonna Come” was recorded in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was signed. “It is performed in an unabashedly gospel style, and its content may be interpreted as a reflection of Cooke’s social consciousness and his expression of faith,” says musicologist Portia Maultsby.

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James Brown Apollo Theater
(Maura McCarthy)
“James Brown was just flatly genius,” says Werner of the musician who recorded three live performances at the Apollo Theater, in 1962, 1967 and 1971. Werner rates Brown among America’s top half-dozen musical geniuses for his showmanship, abilities as a bandleader and musical innovation. “He gave to his audiences without any holding back,” says Werner, who says Brown also “was an absolutely tight bandleader.” When Brown moved his arms, he gave signals to his band to hit rhythmic accents, which underscored everything he did during his high-energy performances.

Brown’s emphasis on rhythm was as enthralling as his showmanship and well-rehearsed band. “He took the center of the music away from melody and harmony and put it dead in the middle of the rhythm,” says Werner. “Call and response is the basic principle in African-American music and James Brown’s audiences always responded to his call.”

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Aretha Franklin Apollo Theater
(Maura McCarthy)
Still an Apollo Theater favorite, Aretha Franklin generated a string of hits in the 1960s and 1970s that came to epitomize the very essence of the soul music genre. “Franklin’s fullthroated voice, highly melismatic runs, blue notes, hums, moans and groans make her responsible, probably more than any singer in history, for bringing the mechanics of gospel into mainstream music,” says Guthrie Ramsey, co-curator of an exhibition about the Apollo currently on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. They also earned her the sobriquet “The Queen of Soul.” Yet Franklin’s gifts are not limited to a single musical category or to vocals. Though praised for her singing, Franklin is underrated as a piano player and songwriter, says Werner. “She’s right up there with Carole King as a songwriter and one of the best pianists that ever lived,” he says. “She took jazz, gospel and blues and made them her own, defining the period between 1967 and 1975.”

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Michael Jackson and Jackson Five
(Maura McCarthy)
In 1967, nine-year-old Michael Jackson debuted at the Apollo Theater as the youngest member and lead singer of the band of brothers soon to become known as the Jackson Five. Before long, Motown Records signed the group and four consecutive hits followed. But it was as a solo artist that Michael Jackson would become the biggest crossover star to take the stage at the Apollo. “Michael collapsed and coalesced the large idea of what it meant to be an entertainer into an eclectic bundle,” says Ramsey. “He knew the history of old movies, he understood the history of dance.” Indeed, Jackson, whose 1982 release “Thriller” remains the best-selling album in history, is equally remembered for his mesmerizing dance moves. “The integration of dance and the visual dimension was as important as the music,” says Maultsby. “Michael made music videos that were mini-movies. He created dances and costumes and used props and groups of people behind him to produce theatrical effects,” she says. “He put on musicals.”

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Flip Wilson Apollo Theater
(Maura McCarthy)
Flip Wilson, one of the most beloved comedians to play the Apollo Theater, appeared there regularly during the 1960s. From 1970 to 1974, he starred in the Emmy Award-winning “Flip Wilson Show;” in 1971, he also won a Golden Globe for best actor in a television series. Although Apollo audiences famously employed boos and derision to dismiss any act that failed their acid talent test, they served for many entertainers, including Wilson, as a source of inspiration and a gauge of success. “It sounded as if the whole world was going to explode with laughter and any second the balconies would fall,” Wilson recalled. “It’s a sound I’ve never heard anywhere else, and it made such an impression that I compare the sound of every audience to that sound.”