Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

The history of the Apollo Theater and a list of artists who performed at the legendary venue


The Apollo Theater has fascinated me for a long time. At around 2003 or so, I watched a great show there, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire and The Temptations. According to its website, the storied venue in New York’s Harlem neighborhood “has played a major role in the emergence of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues and soul.” When you take a look at the artists who are associated with the performance venue, I guess the claim is not an exaggeration.

To start with, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Count Basie Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Gladys Night and “Little” Stevie Wonder are some of the artists whose journey to stardom began at the Apollo. Countless other major artists, such as Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Bob Marley, have performed there. Oh, and in February 1964, a 21-year-old guitarist won first place in the Amateur Night contest. His name? Jimi Hendrix.

Apollo Theater Historic Image

The long history of the venue starts with the construction of the building in 1913 to 1914, which would later become the Apollo Theater. Designed by architect George Keister, it was first called the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater after its initial producers  Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon. As was sadly common during those times, they enforced a strict “Whites Only” policy until the theater closed its doors in 1928. In 1933, the property was purchased by businessman Sidney Cohen and following extensive renovations reopened as the Apollo Theater in January 1934. Cohen and his business partner Morris Susman adopted a variety revue show format and targeted Harlem’s local African-American community. They also introduced Amateur Night, which quickly became one of New York’s most popular entertainment events.

After Cohen’s death, the Apollo merged with the Harlem Opera House in 1935. This transaction also changed its ownership to Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher whose families operated the theater until the late ’70s. From 1975 to 1982, the Apollo was owned by Guy Fisher, the venue’s first black owner. Unfortunately, Fisher was also part of African-American crime syndicate The Council that controlled the heroin trade in Harlem during the ’70s. He has been serving a life sentence at a New York federal prison since 1984. Following the death of an 18-year-old due to a shooting, the Apollo was closed in 1976.

Aretha Franklin at Apollo Theater

The theater reopened under new management in 1978 and before shutting down again in November 1979. In 1983, Percy Sutton purchased the venue. Under the ownership of the prominent lawyer, politician and media and technology executive, the Apollo was equipped with a recording and TV studio. It also obtained federal and city landmark status. In 1991, the State of New York purchased the theater and created the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation, which runs the venue to this day. The years 2001 and 2005 saw restorations of the building’s interior and exterior, respectively. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Apollo established a historical archive during 2009-10 season, and started an oral history project in collaboration with Columbia University.

Now comes the part of the post I enjoy the most: clips capturing performances of some of the artists who have performed at the Apollo Theater. First up: Count Basie Orchestra playing One O’ Clock Jump and He Plays Bass In The Basie Band. Apparently, this footage is from a 1955 show. I just get a kick out of watching these guys and the obvious fun they had on stage.

Sarah Vaughan was one of the many artists who won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1942. According to Wikipedia, her prize was $10 and a promised engagement at the venue for one week. The latter materialized in the spring of 1943 when she opened for Ella Fitzgerald. Here’s a clip of a tune called You’re Not The Kind Of A Boy, which apparently was captured in 1956.

Perhaps the artist who is best known for his legendary shows at the Apollo is James Brown. Various of his gigs there were recorded and published as live albums, such as 1963’s Live At The Apollo and 1968’s Live At Apollo, Volume II, both with The Famous Flames, and Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Volume III (1971). Here’s a clip of a medley including It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and a few other songs. The footage is from James Brown: Man To Man, a concert film recorded live at the Apollo in March 1968 and broadcast as an hour-long TV special. The intensity of Brown is just unreal. No wonder they called him Mr. Dynamite and The Hardest Man Working In Show Business.

In 1985, the Apollo celebrated a renovation with a 50th anniversary grand reopening and a TV special called Motown Salutes the Apollo. Very fittingly, one of the performers included Stevie Wonder. While I wish he would have played Sir Duke in its full length, I just find Wonder’s tribute to the great Duke Ellington beautiful and inspirational.

The Apollo is mostly known to focus on African-American acts, but white artists have performed there as well throughout its history. More recent examples include Guns N’ Roses, who were there in July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 studio album Appetite For Destruction. In October 2015, Keith Richards played at the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual benefit concert. Here’s a great clip of Gimme Shelter, which he performed in honor of Mary Clayton. The American soul and gospel singer sang on the original studio version. Richards was backed by Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville (keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums), his solo band also known as the X-Pensive Winos, as well as Sarah Dash (vocals), and longtime Rolling Stones backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler.

Today, the Apollo Theater continues to be a important cultural institution, attracting an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. Music remains at the core of its offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apollo Theater website, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Eagles Release Hotel California 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

Collection includes original remastered studio album and 10 live tracks from 1976 show

The first Eagles tune I ever heard must have been Hotel California sometime in the late ’70s when I started listening to music on the radio. In my opinion, the song and the album count among the absolute highlights of ’70s rock. Today, the band released a 40th anniversary deluxe edition of their landmark album – almost one year after the actual anniversary.

The original album appeared on December 8, 1976. Recently asked about the timing by the Los Angeles Times, Don Henley noted, “Actually, it came out in December of 1976, but nothing really hit the charts until ’77, so we’re not really that late. We’re fudging it a little bit.”

I suppose it depends on how you look at it. The same LA Times story notes the album’s first single New Kid In Town entered the Billboard Hot 100 on December 18, 1976. But it took until Feb 28, 1977 before the song peaked at no. 1. The record’s two other singles, Hotel California and Life In The Fast Lane, were released in February and May that year, respectively. Hotel California became another no. 1 hit on the chart.

Eagles 1976
The Eagles in 1976. From left to right: Don Felder, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner

Since the studio versions of the original album are well-known and not new, I’m highlighting some of the live tracks, which are released for the first time. According to an official Eagles announcement, they were recorded prior to the album’s release during the band’s three-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum in October 1976. Among others, the tracks feature one of the first live performances of Hotel California and New Kid In Town.

The live collection kicks off with Take It Easy. Written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey, the song was included on the band eponymous debut album, which appeared in June 1972. It was also released separately as the record’s first single in May that year.

Good Day In Hell is a great rocker written by Frey and Henley, and my kind of tune. It is from On The Border, the Eagles’ third studio album released in March 1974. Compared to their earlier more country rock-oriented music, the song has an edgier rock sound. Asked about that during a Rolling Stone interview last year, Henley explained, “Although Glenn was fascinated by the new “country rock” movement, and though he never forgot his Motown roots, his first love was rock & roll. Possibly through the influence of his friend and mentor, Bob Seger.”

Another excellent rock tune from the live set is Funk #49. Co-written by Joe Walsh, Jim Fox and Dale Peters, the track was first recorded in 1970 by James Gang, one of the bands in which Walsh played before joining the Eagles in December 1975.

As one of my favorite ’70s rock songs, of course, I must highlight the live version of Hotel California. The song was written by Don Felder, Henley and Frey. The epic guitar part at the end is played by Felder and Walsh.

The last song I’d like to call out from the live set is the excellent closer Already Gone. Written by Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund, it’s another tune from the On The Border album, which also appeared as the record’s lead single in April 1974.

According to Wikipedia, Hotel California became the Eagles second best-selling album after Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), with sales of over 32 million copies worldwide, of which the U.S. accounts for half. The album was ranked at no. 37 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time. The title track was ranked at no. 49 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and best of the Top 100 Guitar Solos of All Time in a January 1998 Guitar Magazine readers poll.

Listening to the live set reminds me of a great Eagles show in Atlantic City in July 2015 – the only time I saw the band. The gig was part of the History of the Eagles Tour and one of the last concerts with Frey prior to his untimely death in January 2016 at the age of 67. On Tuesday, the Eagles announced initial dates for a 2018 North American Tour. As during their most recent performances, Vince Gill and Deacon Frey will share responsibilities for singing Glenn’s parts.

The tour is set to kick off in Chicago on March 14. The last current date is Philadelphia on July 28. On some of the dates, the Eagles will play together with Jimmy Buffet and the Coral Reefer Band, James Taylor & His All-Star Band and Chris Stapelton. Philly, one of the dates where the band plays with Taylor who is another artist I admire, is only a 1.5-hour drive from my house. I went there to see John Mellencamp. I’m very tempted…

Sources: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Billboard Eagles chart history, Eagles website, Rolling Stone, Guitar Magazine, You Tube


Clips & Pix: U2/The Blackout

The Blackout is from U2’s upcoming 14th studio album Songs Of Experience, which after multiple delays is now set to appear next Friday, December 1. According to NME, the band also released a limited edition 12-inch vinyl single of the tune in the U.S. today to coincide with Record Store Day Black Friday.

Initially released in August as the first track from the forthcoming album, The Blackout “started off its life about a more personal apocalypse, some events in my life that more than reminded me of my mortality, but then segued into the political dystopia that we’re heading towards now,” Bono told Rolling Stone in September. The first part of the statement refers to a bad bicycle accident the U2 singer had in November 2014, while the second part alludes to political changes in Europe and the US in late 2016. The latter were one of several reasons why U2 decided to delay the release of their new album.

Sources: NME, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Clips & Pix: The Beatles/Boys

The above clip, which shows The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in LA in August 1964, is taken from The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years. The documentary by Ron Howard was first released in select movie theaters on Sep 15 and 16, 2016 in the U.K. and U.S., respectively. According to Variety, it will premiere on U.S. television this Saturday on PBS at 8:00 pm E.T.

The film illustrates both the excitement The Beatles generated during their live shows and the sheer insanity of “Beatlemania.” The conditions at the gigs became increasingly chaotic. Oftentimes, John, Paul, George and Ringo couldn’t hear themselves while playing on stage, which took a toll on their performances. Eventually, they grew tired of the madness and decided to stop touring after four years of almost constantly being on the road. On August 29, 1966, The Beatles gave their last commercial show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

The Ron Howard film will be followed by another Beatles documentary at 10:30 pm E.T., Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution. Directed by Francis Hanly, the film was first shown on PBS in early June to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the corresponding Beatles studio album. Looking forward to an exciting night of Beatles binge watching!

Sources: Variety, Wikipedia, YouTube

Greta Van Fleet Continues To Rock Like Early Zeppelin On Sophomore Album

Michigan rockers deliver more hard-edged ’70s style rock

When I told a colleague yesterday I was going to see Led Zeppelin tribute band Get The Led Out last night (see previous post), he asked me whether I had ever heard of Greta Van Fleet. The name somehow sounded familiar, and just a little while ago, I finally remembered – I had first read about these Michigan rockers in a previous post from fellow blogger Music Enthusiast.  On November 10, the band released their second studio album From The Fires – close enough to put it into the “new music” category.

The record actually is a double EP, combining the four tracks from Greta Van Fleet’s debut EP Black Smoke Rising with four newly recorded tunes. I have to say I really dig their music, which almost sounds like a reincarnation of early Zep. Exactly because of that, I could see some people might dismiss them.

Greta Van Fleet

I also recall previously reading that Lenny Kravitz in his early years was accused of sounding too retro, too ’60s, too much like Jimi Hendrix; or that blues rock guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd essentially was a Stevie Ray Vaughan knockoff. The reality is great musicians listen to other great musicians, and in certain genres this inevitably leads to some repetition. Plus, last time I checked, Hendrix, Vaughan and Zeppelin recorded some of the best rock in music history, so I don’t mind if others embrace their sound. With that being out of the way, let’s take a look at From The Fires.

The record’s opener Safari Song is one of the four tracks from the first EP. Credited to all four members of the band – brothers Joshua Kiszka (lead vocals), Samuel Kiszka (bass guitar, keyboards) and Jacob Kiszka (guitar) and drummer Daniel Wagner – this rocker sounds like a tune that could have been included on Led Zeppelin IV. Here’s a cool clip of a live performance, which was captured in June at a music venue in Chicago. While at first sight these guys may look like a high school band, they certainly don’t sound like one!

Next up: Edge Of Darkness, one of the newly recorded tunes.

The album includes two covers: Meet On The Ledge, the second single from Fairport Convention, released in December 1968 and written by Richard Thompson; and the great Sam Cooke tune A Change Is Gonna Come, from his 1964 studio album Ain’t That Good News. I find this rock version intriguing, so here’s a clip.

The last track I’d like to call out is Talk On The Street, another new song.

According to their Facebook page, Greta Van Fleet was formed in 2012 in Frakenmuth, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, where 20 year-old twin brothers Josh and Jake Kiszka began playing shows with their 17 year-old younger brother, Sam, and 17 year-old family friend Danny Wagner. Their name is derived from a local resident called Gretna Van Fleet and used with her permission. Apparently, one of band’s members had heard it mentioned by a relative.

Wikipedia notes various remarkable accomplishments of the young band, especially in the past couple of years. In January 2016, their song Highway Tune was featured on an episode of Showtime comedy series Shameless. This April 21, Greta Van Fleet was named Apple’s new music artist of the week, and in October they won Best New Artist at the Loudwire Music Awards. The new album currently tops the Billboard Hard Rock Albums chart. Based on all the band’s success, it doesn’t appear their retro Zeppelinesque sound is hurting them, which is great to see. I certainly look forward to hearing more from these guys.

Sources: Wikipedia, Greta Van Fleet Facebook page, Billboard, YouTube

Rocking Thanksgiving Eve With Music Of The Mighty Zep

Get The Led Out Bring A Whole Lotta Love to New Brunswick Debut

What could be a greater way to kick off a long Thanksgiving weekend than with a rock & roll party featuring the music of Led Zeppelin? As a longtime fan of the band, I can’t think of any! Last night, I got exactly that with Get The Led Out bringing the music of the mighty Zep to State Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) in New Brunswick. My one word to sum it all up? Damn!

I’ve known about this terrific band from Philly for some time. When I saw a few weeks ago they were gonna groove right in my backyard, I instantly decided to see them. Calling themselves The American Led Zeppelin, Get The Led Out or GTLO doesn’t want to look like or impersonate their heroes in any other way on stage. Instead, the band wants “to bring the studio recordings of Led Zeppelin to life in concert,” according to their website. And since Zep like many other bands relied on overdubbing to enrich their recordings with multiple instrumental and vocal tracks layered on top of each other, it takes more than four musicians to replicate this sound on stage: Six in GTLO’s case.

Get The Led Out on Stage

With Zep’s fairly sizable catalog, GTLO has plenty of material to choose from. In fact, they make it a point to never repeat the same set back-to-back to keep things fresh. That way they can also perform more of the band’s songs. So what did they play last night? In case you haven’t noticed yet, the above photo collage includes an image with the line-up of tracks, which I shamelessly grabbed from the band’s Facebook page, along with a cool shot of the audience. The 2.5-hour spectacle included two sets divided by a short intermission and a terrific three-track encore – really can’t complain about that!

After all this introduction, it’s finally time to get to some music. And how better to do this than by featuring some YouTube clips. First up: The mighty Rock And Roll from Zep’s fourth studio album Led Zeppelin IV, released in 1971. The tune is credited to all four members, John Bonham, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, and was a perfect opener to last night’s show.

GTLO did a great job mixing some of Zep’s furious rockers with acoustic gems. Among the latter, I thought the highlight was The Battle Of Evermore, another track from Led Zeppelin IV, written by Page and Plant. For this tune, the band brought out their terrific special guest vocalist Diana DeSantis.

With so many great songs GTLO performed last night and fortunately plenty of clips available on YouTube, it’s hard to decide what to include in this post. After kicking off the second set with a strong rendition of In The Evening, the time had come to feature the band’s kick-ass drummer Adam Ferraioli. Playing the parts of Bonham, who undoubtedly was one of the best drummers in rock history, must be pretty daunting. How did he do? Check out this clip of Moby Dick, the furious instrumental credited to Bonham, Page and Jones, which appeared on Led Zeppelin II in 1969.

Another highlight from the second set was Kashmir, the bombastic 8.5-minute tune from Physical Graffiti, Zeppelin’s sixth studio album from 1975. I will openly admit this track was an acquired taste for me, as was Zeppelin overall – somewhat hard to believe from today’s perspective! Initially, I felt Kashmir was way over the top and completely overproduced. But over the years I’ve come to dig this song, which was written by Bonham, Page and Plant. So here’s GTLO’s rendition. It was the final tune of their second set, which of course begged for more!

The three-track encore started with Over The Hills And Far Away. Written by Page and Plant, the tune appeared on Houses Of The Holy, Zep’s fifth studio album from 1973.

At that point, the show was well beyond the two-hour mark, and the time had come for GTLO to play the big enchilada I’m sure many fans had been waiting for: Stairway To Heaven, yet another tune from Zeppelin IV, credited to Page and Plant.

And since it is so much fun listening to these guys, I’m throwing in yet another clip: The final song of the night, Whole Lotta Love, the iconic opener to Led Zeppelin II. As Zep did on various occasions, parts of the song were adapted from another tune, in this case Willie Dixon’s You Need Love, recorded by Muddy Waters in 1962. Unfortunately, it took a lawsuit that was settled in 1985 to have Dixon being added to the credits, which also list Bonham, Jones, Page and Plant.

Founded in the fall of 2003, GTLO went through some changes in their early years before their current line-up: In addition to the previously mentioned drummer and percussionist Ferraiolo and guest vocalist DeSantis, the band’s members include Paul Sinclair (lead vocals, harmonica), Paul Hammond (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin), Jimmy Marchiano (electric and acoustic guitars), Phil D’Agostino (bass, vocals) and Andrew Lipke (keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars, vocals, percussion).

A look at their bios reveals, these guys are not only true Zeppelin fans, but bring a substantial amount of talent and experience to the band. Listening to them also makes it obvious they have played together for a long time. The attention to detail is really incredible. But after all these years, the band still strives to get even closer to perfection in replicating the sound of Zep’s oftentimes complex studio recordings.

Get The Led Out Members
From left to right: Paul Hammond, Andrew Lipke, Paul Sinclair, Adam Ferraioli, Phil D’Agostino and Jimmy Marchiano

During a recent podcast with STNJ, Lipke talked about GTLO’s meticulous approach. “It’s a constant process of refining and distilling.” The following excerpt nicely illustrates his point. Referring to Stairway To Heaven, which he said the band has performed more than 600 times, Lipke added, “but even a year ago, we were listening again…and realized, ‘Wait a second, that’s not a single 12-string playing that part, it’s a double 12-string. Now let’s figure out who’s gonna play that other 12-string.”

GTLO has a heavy tour schedule that’s posted on their website. Between their next gig in Lakewood, N.J. this Sat, Nov 25 and the end of March, the band is scheduled for some 40 shows in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and ten additional US states, and even Mississauga, Ontario, which is close to Toronto. That’s great news to all Zep fans out there!

Sources: Get The Led Out website and Facebook page, NJST “All Access” podcast, Wikipedia, YouTube

Clips & Pix: AC/DC/Back In Black

The above clip of Back In Black is from a show AC/DC performed on December 4, 2009 at River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina during their Black Ice World Tour. Yesterday, Malcolm Young, the band’s original rhythm guitarist who played a key role in writing the riff to this and many other AC/DC classics, passed away at the age of 64. He had fought an extended battle with dementia, which had forced his official retirement from the band in September 2014.

Malcolm Young

Malcolm co-founded AC/DC together with his younger brother Angus Young in November 1973. While he always gladly left the limelight to Angus and singer Bon Scott and later Brian Johnson, Malcolm had a major influence on AC/DC’s songwriting and sound. He is co-credited on pretty much all of their tunes together with Angus, Scott and later Johnson. An official statement on the AC/DC website highlights his “enormous dedication and commitment,” calling him “the driving force behind the band.”

Back In Black was the title track to AC/DC’s seventh studio album, which appeared in July 1980. Not only did the record bring unprecedented success to the band, but with an estimated 50 million copies sold worldwide, it became the second-highest selling album in music history behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Sources: Wikipedia, AC/DC website, YouTube