Musings of the Past

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

It’s already been more than a month since the last installment of this irregular feature, so I thought this would be a good time to unearth another previously published post. This one, about the storied Apollo Theater in New York City, first appeared in November 2017, about one and a half years into my blogging journey. It has been slightly edited.

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 FitzgeraldBillie HolidayCount Basie OrchestraSarah VaughanSammy Davis Jr.James BrownGladys 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 DavisAretha FranklinB.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.

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.

The theater reopened under new management in 1978, 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 Merry 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, music remains at the core of the Apollo Theater’s offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. In fact, the current schedule lists Amateur Night at the Apollo Quarterfinal for tomorrow night (May 25), the first time the competition returns after being dark for nearly two years. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.

– End –

Pre-COVID, the Apollo Theater attracted an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. I imagine it is going to take some time to restore this kind of visitor traffic. But the level of activity seems to be picking up.

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

Clips & Pix: The Rolling Stones/Gimme Shelter

And they just keep on rockin’. This live performance of Gimme Shelter is from The Rolling Stones’ final show of their No Filter Tour. It happened last night at Hard Rock Live, a 7,000-seat casino amphitheater venue at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla. While it’s obvious they’re no longer 20-year-olds, the Stones still sound pretty amazing, and 78-year-old Mick Jagger remains a compelling frontman with an enviable amount of energy.

Gimme Shelter, credited to Jagger and Keith Richards as usual, was mostly written by Richards. According to Songfacts, the tune is about the political and social unrest at the time. There was the war in Vietnam, race riots, and Charles Manson. Mick Jagger sings of needing shelter from this “Storm.” The song first appeared on the Stones’ studio album Let It Bleed from December 1969. Interestingly, Gimme Shelter wasn’t released as a single.

“That song was written during the Vietnam War and so it’s very much about the awareness that war is always present,” Songfacts quotes Mick Jagger. “It was very present in life at that point. Mary Clayton who did the backing vocals, was a background singer who was known to one of the producers. Suddenly, we wanted someone to sing in the middle of the night. And she was around. She came with her curlers in, straight from bed, and had to sing this really odd lyric. For her it was a little odd – for anyone, in the middle of the night, to sing this one verse I would have been odd. She was great.”

Gimme Shelter is a favorite among Stones fans. In 2021, it was ranked at no. 13 in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time – a remarkable showing, given the significant changes the magazine’s lists have seen.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This week was a bit of a drag, so I’m not unhappy it’s over. Of course, this also means it’s time to take another look at newly released music. Between an unusual but great sounding bluesy country trio, gospel from an amazing singer who is primarily known as a backing vocalist, as well as some alternative and indie rock, I think I’ve put together a pretty solid collection of songs. Unless noted otherwise, all music appeared yesterday, April 9. Let’s get to it!

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band/Too Cool to Dance

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band (this has got to be one of the coolest band names!) are an American country blues trio from Brown County, Ind. and have been around since 2003. Their members include Josh “The Reverend” Peyton (guitar, lead vocals), his wife “Washboard” Breezy Peyton (washboard) and Max Senteney (drums). According to Apple Music, the band’s sound is characterized by thick, bass-heavy, blues-based guitar figures and growling vocals accompanied by muscular but minimal drumming and the metallic percussive scratch of a washboard (making them one of the first rock bands to regularly feature the latter instrument since Black Oak Arkansas). Their style is informed by rural blues, honky-tonk country, and the rebellious spirit of rock & roll, as Reverend Peyton’s raw and wiry guitar figures add texture to their straightforward melodies. To date, they have released 10 full-length albums and one EP. Too Cool to Dance is from their new album Dance Songs for Hard Times, which addresses the hopes and fears of life during this seemingly never-ending pandemic. But, as the band’s website notes, don’t expect to hear depressing music. “I like songs that sound happy but are actually very sad,” Peyton says. “I don’t know why it is, but I just do.” Well, he isn’t kidding – check this out!

Merry Clayton/A Song For You

American soul and gospel singer Merry Clayton, who began her recording career in 1962, is best known for providing killer backing vocals on Gimme Shelter, the 1969 tune by The Rolling Stones. Moreover, Clayton sang backing vocals on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama and recorded with Elvis Presley, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt and Carole King, among others. In addition, Clayton was a member of Charles’ vocal backing group The Raelettes from 1966-1968. In 1963, her solo debut single When the Doorbell Rings appeared. Clayton has also released various solo albums since 1970. In the ’80s, she did some acting as well. A Song for You, which was written by Leon Russell and included on his eponymous debut solo album from March 1970, is a track from Clayton’s new album Beautiful Scars. She first covered the tune on her eponymous third solo album released in 1971. This may be an old tune and “only” a cover, but I just love Clayton’s singing!

The Natvral/New Moon

According to his Bandcamp profile, The Natvral is the new project of Kip Berman, who previously founded American indie rock band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and was their main songwriter. Between 2009 and 2017, the New York group released four studio albums. As reported by Paste, in November 2019, Berman announced the band had dissolved and that he intended to focus on his new project The Natvral. Well, he did, and the result is Tethers, Berman’s debut album under his new name, which came out on April 2nd. Call me crazy, I seem to hear some Bob Dylan in this tune! Regardless, it sounds great to me!

Major Murphy/In the Meantime

Let wrap things up with Major Murphy, an indie rock from Grand Rapids, Mich. According to their artist profile on Apple Music, they were formed in 2015 behind the songwriting of singer/multi-instrumentalist Jacob Bullard. Jacki Warren (synth, bass, vocals) and Brian Voortman (drums) rounded out the lineup. A home-recorded debut EP called Future Release was issued by Winspear later in 2015, and the trio soon committed to performing live regularly and went on their first tours. Winspear released the follow-up EP On & Off Again in July 2017. That November, Major Murphy previewed a more vibrant sound with “Mary,” the lead track off their full-length debut. Recorded mostly live in the studio with producer/mixer Mike Bridavsky, No. 1 arrived on Winspear in March 2018. That same year, Chad Houseman joined Major Murphy on guitar, keyboards and percussion. He is on the band’s new sophomore album Access, which came out on April 2nd. Here’s In the Meantime, written by Bullard. It’s a catchy tune that has a bit of a Tom Petty vibe.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band website; YouTube

Performing Live From Their Homes

A selection of artists who don’t allow the coronavirus to stop the music

By now it’s safe to assume everybody is getting tired to read about COVID-19, so I’ll keep it light. Obviously, one of the many industries that have been hit hard by the coronavirus is the concert business. Painfully but rightly, shows are being canceled or rescheduled all over the place. It simply would be irresponsible to do anything else. The good news is this doesn’t mean live performances have come to a standstill.

For example, if you follow the “right” pages on Facebook, you can receive plenty of notifications about live gigs streamed online. Sure, in nearly all cases, these performances are low key and improvised, and the majority of artists who pop up aren’t necessarily well-known. Still, there is plenty of great live music you can enjoy over the internet these days. I would also argue that low tech and improvised gigs have their own charm.

Following are some recent performances captured by Rolling Stone as part of their In My Room series. I realize these gigs are not 100 percent comparable to concerts that are live-streamed. It’s also safe to assume there was some post-production done to these clips, but the footage still conveys a good deal of spontaneity to me. It’s all about the spirit to keep the music going but doing so in a responsible way, so let’s get to some of it!

Graham Nash/Our House, 4+20 & Teach Your Children

I simply love everything about this clip. To start, Graham Nash remains a compelling artist. Let’s not forget the man is 78 years old. I also like how he is weaving in public service announcements throughout this little concert performed at his home. To me, he comes across as very genuine. All of the tunes are from Déjà Vu, the sophomore album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Undoubtedly, it’s one of the greatest albums that have ever been recorded. Our House and Teach Your Children are Nash compositions, while 4+20 was written by Stephen Stills. Obviously, much of CSNY’s magic was in their incredible harmony vocals, which is impossible for Nash to replicate, but none of this really matters. Just watching the man perform makes me happy. You can see his passion. That’s what it’s all about!

John Fogerty/Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Bad Moon Rising & Long As I Can See the Light

John Fogerty is another rock & roll hero in my book. If I recall it correctly, Have You Ever Seen the Rain was the first Creedence Clearwater Revival song I ever heard as a young kid back my sister. My sister had that tune on vinyl as a 45 single. I’ve loved Fogerty and this band ever since! Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Bad Moon Rising and Long As I Can See the Light were all written by Fogerty. They appeared on CCR’s Pendulum, Green River and Cosmo’s Factory studio albums from December 1970, August 1969 and July 1970, respectively. My personal highlight in the above series is Fogerty’s performance of the third tune on the piano.

Angélique Kidjo/Gimme Shelter, The Overload & Move On Up

‘Damn, damn and damn’ is all I can say watching Angélique Kidjo, a Beninese singer-songwriter, actress, and activist of Nigerian descent, sing the above tunes. Have you ever heard such a funky rendition of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic Gimme Shelter? Or how ’bout Move On Up, one my favorite songs by Curtis Mayfield from his 1970 solo debut album, which she turns into some African liberation song? Her version of The Overload, a tune by Talking Heads from their fourth studio album Remain in Light from October 1980, is almost more haunting than the original. This is some really cool stuff – check it out!

Yola and Birds of Chicago/At Last, It Ain’t Easier & Second Cousin

Let’s do one more and keep the best for last. I had neither been aware of English musician and singer-songwriter Yola nor Birds of Chicago, an Americana/folk band from the Windy City led by husband and wife JT Nero and Allison Russell. But after I had watched that clip, I was simply blown away – passionate and all-out beautiful singing simply doesn’t get much better. And the songs they selected are terrific! At Last, co-written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, was the title of the debut album by Etta James, released in November 1960. This a capella version of the tune is the highlight of the series. It Ain’t Easier was written by Yola and appeared on her debut album Walk Through Fire from February 2019. Last but not least is Second Cousin, which appears to be a tune by Birds of Chicago.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube