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


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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