Little Steven Releases New Album Summer Of Sorcery

Van Zandt’s first studio record of new original material in 20 years features mighty backing band The Disciples of Soul

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Steven Van Zandt is back in full force on Summer of Sorcery, and he’s pulling all the stops on what is his first album of new original music in 20 years. The launch activities include record release shows this evening in Los Angeles and next Wednesday in Asbury Park, N.J. Since yesterday afternoon, Van Zandt has also “taken over” SiriusXM’s Classic Vinyl (Ch. 26), where he presents vintage and classic rock tracks, as well as songs from the new album throughout the weekend. Moreover, Summer of Sorcery will be supported with an extended tour through Europe and North America.

Little Steven clearly has been reenergized as a solo artist since the May 2017 release of predecessor Soulfire and that record’s supporting tour, which was also captured on last April’s Soulfire Live! album. He cut down the time between solo record releases from almost 20 to two years – Born Again Savage, the album prior to Soulfire, came out in 1999. And why not? With Bruce Springsteen’s previous Broadway engagement and his upcoming solo album Western Stars, the timing has been perfect for the E Street Band guitarist to focus on his own music.

Little Steven Tour Banner

In many ways, Summer of Sorcery represents a continuation of Soulfire. On both albums, Little Steven is backed by the impressive 14-piece band The Disciples of Soul, and both releases represent a musical journey back to the ’60s and ’70s. If one music artist can pull this off, it is Van Zandt, who frequently showcases his encyclopedic knowledge of music history on his SiriusXM program Underground Garage. He also did so when I saw him and the Disciples in September 2017 during the Soulfire tour.

The key difference between the two records is that Summer of Sorcery features new original music, whereas Soulfire includes songs Van Zandt wrote or co-wrote throughout his career. Most of the tracks on Soulfire also did not appear under his name but were released by other artists, such as Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the band Van Zandt co-founded with John Lyon (“Southside Johnny”) in the mid-70s and whose first three albums he produced, and Gary U.S. Bonds. You can read more about Soulfire here. Time to get to some new music!

Here’s the opener Communion, a brassy soul rocker and one of the 10 original tunes on the album.

Next up perhaps is a bit of a surprise, at least from my perspective: a Latin song called Party Mambo! I asked my wife who is from Puerto Rico about the tune. She expressed some doubts that fellow Hispanics will like it. While it may not 100 percent authentic, I think it’s groovy.

Vortex throws in blaxploitation, a genre that Little Steven clearly seems to like. Soulfire features a cool cover of Down And Out In New York City, which James Brown first recorded for the soundtrack album of the 1973 blaxploitation crime drama Black Cesar. Unlike that tune, Vortex is an original, which sounds like an homage to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. When I’m listening to the tune, I can literally hear the backing vocalists in Shaft.

The title of the next track I’d like to call out pretty much says it all: Soul Power Twist. Another original, the soul horns-meet rock tune could have appeared on an album by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. It has a Sam Cooke vibe to it.

How about some blues? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s I Visit The Blues.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track and closer. “The whole theme of the album is summed up in that song, that wizardry, that magic mixture of falling in love in the summer,” Van Zandt stated in a press release. With clocking in at over eight minutes, it’s perhaps not your typical love song.

“With this record I really wanted to travel back to a time when life was exciting, when unlimited possibilities were there every day,” Van Zandt further pointed out. “That was the feeling in the ’60s, the thrill of the unexpected coming at you. Our minds were blown every single day, one amazing thing after another, constantly lifting you up. So you kind of walked around six inches off the ground all the time, there was something that kept you buoyant in your spirit. I wanted to try and capture that first and foremost.”

Van Zandt seems to be a smart man, so I assume his above statement refers to the world of music, or he simply got carried away by excitement over his new album. The real world in America during the ’60s certainly was much more complicated, with racial segregation, the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War, to name some the events that happened during that period.

Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul in concert
Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul in concert (2017)

Summer of Sorcery, which was produced by Van Zandt and appears on Wicked Cool/UMe, is available on CD, digitally, and on vinyl as double LP on 180-gram black vinyl. There is also a limited edition double LP on 180-gram psychedelic swirl vinyl one can get exclusively via uDiscover. The album was mixed and mastered by veteran Bob Clearmountain, who has worked in various capacities with Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Toto and many other top music artists.

In my opinion, Summer of Sorcery is a fun listening experience, even though it’s perhaps not quite as compelling as Soulfire. Like on that album, the production is a bit massive, but The Disciples of Soul are a hell of a band. Directionally speaking, I also agree with American Songwriter, which wrote the tracks “are often little more than revitalized riffs, melodies and rhythms of already existing songs retrofitted with new words and creative, even complex, rearrangements” – a little harsh, in my opinion. They added the album pulls out “all the stops to make this sonic smorgasbord explode out of the speakers with passion and clout.” I don’t think Van Zandt would claim the music represents anything new; in fact, I would argue it was his clear intention to pay homage to artists and music of the past, so the album’s retro sound isn’t surprising and doesn’t bother me.

As noted above, Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul are going on the road. Following the above two album release gigs in the U.S., a 19-date European tour kicks off on May 16 in Liverpool, UK. Some of the other gigs include Berlin, Germany (May 28); Stockholm, Sweden (June 1); Brussels, Belgium (June 7) and Zurich, Switzerland (June 11), before that leg wraps up on June 23 in Paris, France. This is followed by 13 North American gigs, starting on June 29 in Syracuse, N.Y. and finishing on July 28 in Annapolis, Md. Then it’s back again to Europe until the beginning of September, before the band returns to North America with four shows in Las Vegas from September 5-8. There are plenty of additional dates during that second North American leg, including Tuscon, Ariz. (Sep 15); Austin, Texas (Sep 29); Birmingham, Ala. (Oct 3); Chicago (Oct 23); and New York City (Nov 6), the last listed gig. The current tour schedule is included in the above press release.

Sources: Wikipedia, UMe press release, Little Steven website, American Songwriter, YouTube

Aw, The ’80s (Part 2: 1985-1989)

A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade

Here is the second and final installment of my feature looking back at music and some related events in the ’80s. This part is focused on the second half of the decade. As noted in part 1, it isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review but instead a selection of things I find noteworthy.

1985

To me the key music event during this year and perhaps the entire decade was Live Aid. I was watching it on TV from Germany while simultaneously taping it on music cassette from the radio. Organized by Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure as a fundraiser to fight starvation in Ethiopia, Africa, the benefit concert was conducted on July 13 simultaneously in the U.K. at London’s Wembley Stadium and the U.S. at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Among others, it featured Status Quo, Queen, U2, David Bowie, The Who and Paul McCartney at Wembley, while some of the performers in Philly included Joan Baez, Madonna, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and, in a less-than-stellar appearance, a reunited Led Zeppelin featuring Phil Collins on drums. The concerts were watched by an estimated global TV audience of 1.9 billion across 150 countries and raised approximately 150 million British pounds.

Live Aid Wembley
The Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Stadium was attended by 72,000 people

Other events that year included the official launch of VH-1 on cable TV in the U.S. (Jan 1); recording of the charity single for Africa We Are The World (Jan 28), co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and performed by USA For Africa, who apart from Jackson and Ritchie featured Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Cindy Lauper, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and numerous other top artists; release of Dire Straits’ fifth studio album Brothers In Arms, their best-selling record that among others became known for its exceptional sound quality due to its all-digital recording (May 13); Michael Jackson’s purchase of the publishing rights for most of The Beatles’ catalog for $47 million, out-bidding former artistic collaborator McCartney whose success in music publishing had inspired Jackson to increase his activities in the business (Sep 6); and Roger Waters’ announced intention to leave Pink Floyd, which marked the start of a two-year legal battle over the rights to the band’s name and assets.

The biggest hit singles of 1985 were Shout (Tears For Fears), We Are The World (USA For Africa), Take On Me (a-ha), I Want To Know What Love Is (Foreigner) and Material Girl (Madonna). Following is Money For Nothing, the second single from Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms album, which they performed at Live Aid. Like on the studio recording, it featured Sting on backing vocals.

1986

On Jan 30, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony. The first batch of inductees included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. While over the years since, there has been much debate over who should be in the Rock Hall, the selection process, the award categories, etc., I think there is no doubt that the above artists all well-deserving inductees.

Rock Roll Hall of Fame 1986 Inductees
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 1986 inductees (left to right): upper row: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Fats Domino; lower row: The Everly Brothers, Buddy Hollie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley

Other events: Bob Geldorf’s knighthood award to recognize his work for Live Aid and other charity concerts for Africa (Jun 10); release of Madonna’s True Blue album, the best-selling record of year (Jun 30); and disbanding of The Clash, Electric Light Orchestra (revived by Jeff Lynne in 2000) and Men At Work.

The top-performing hit singles included Rock Me Amadeus (Falco) – the first German-language song to top the U.S. Billboard Hot 100Papa Don’t Preach (Madonna), The Final Countdown (Europe), Take My Breath Away (Berlin) and West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys). The 1986 tune I’d like to highlight is Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, which was first released as a single in April. It also appeared on his fifth studio album So that came out the following month. Here’s the song’s official video, which won multiple accolades in 1987, including a record nine awards at the MTV Music Video Music Awards and “Best British Video” at the Brit Awards. It’s definitely one of the most memorable music videos of the decade.

1987

Some of the events in music during that year included the induction of Aretha Franklin as the first woman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 3); release of U2’s fifth studio album The Joshua Tree (Mar 9), which topped the charts in 20-plus countries and became one of the world’s most commercially successful records, selling more than 25 million copies; Whitney Houston’s second studio album Whitney, the first record by a female artist to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 (Jun 27); launch of MTV Europe (Aug 1); and release of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, Pink Floyd’s first studio album after the departure of and legal battle with Roger Waters (Sep 7). Waters finally wrapped up his legal separation from the band later that year.

The highest-charting hit singles were La Bamba (Los Lobos), Never Gonna Give You Up (Rick Astley); I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me (Whitney Houston), It’s A Sin (Pet Shop Boys) and Who’s That Girl (Madonna) – I remember each of these songs like it was yesterday! Here’s Where The Streets Have No Name from my favorite U2 album The Joshua Tree. Credited to the band (music) and Bono (lyrics), the tune was released as the album’s third single in August 1987, five months after the record’s appearance.

1988

Some of the music events that year included the induction of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Drifters, Bob Dylan and The Supremes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 20); near-death experience for Alice Cooper on stage after one of the props, the Gallows, malfunctioned – yikes! (Apr 7); sale of legendary soul label Motown Records to MCA and financial firm Boston Ventures for $61 million (Jun 27); John Fogerty’s win of what sounds like a frivolous self-plagiarism lawsuit Fantasy Records had brought against him, claiming his 1985 comeback tune The Old Man Down The Road was too similar to Run Through The Jungle, which he had recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970 (Nov 7); and final concert by Roy Orbison in Akron, Ohio (Dec 4) prior to his death from a heart attack only two days thereafter.

Leading hit singles: A Groovy Kind Of Love (Phil Collins), Don’t Worry Be Happy (Bobby McFerrin), Always On My Mind (Pet Shop Boys),  Heaven Is A Place On Earth (Belinda Carlisle) and Take Me To Your Heart (Rick Astley). One 1988 song I like in particular is Under The Milky Way Tonight by Australian outfit The Church. Co-written by Steve Kilbey and Karin Jansson, it became the lead single to their excellent fifth studio album Starfish. Both were released in February that year. Here’s a clip.

1989

I can’t believe I made it to the last year of the decade! Some of the events I’d like to highlight are criticism of Madonna by religious groups worldwide over alleged blasphemous use of Christian imagery in her music video for Like A Prayer (Feb 23), which had premiered on MTV the day before; release of Bonnie Raitt’s 10th studio album Nick Of Time, one of my favorite records from her (Mar 21); release of Tom Petty’s excellent debut solo album Full Moon Fever (Apr 24); Ringo Starr’s formation of his All-Starr Band (Jul 23); opening of The Rolling Stones’ North American tour in Philadelphia to support their comeback album Steel Wheels (Aug 31), two days after the album had dropped; and release of Neil Young’s 17th studio album Freedom (Oct 2), best known for the epic Rockin’ In The Free World.

Key hit singles were Like A Prayer (Madonna), Eternal Flame (The Bangles), Another Day In Paradise (Phil Collins), The Look (Roxette) and Love Shack (The B-52s). The final ’80s tune I’d like to call out via clip is Down To London by Joe Jackson, an artist I’ve listened to for many years. He recorded the song for his 10th studio release Blaze Of Glory, which appeared in April 1989.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

“The Blues Is Alive And Well,” Sings Buddy Guy On New Release

After listening to the blues legend’s smoking hot 18h studio album, you actually believe the title

“Is your album wishful thinking or reality,” Billboard asked Buddy Guy about his new record. “Both,” replied Guy. “Truth is, I’m worried about the blues. When B.B. King was still alive, we had long talks about why, outside of satellite, the radio don’t play no blues. On the other hand, I got me some youngsters. My protégé Quinn Sullivan is 19, but I discovered him when he was 8. Cat named Kingfish Ingram from the [Mississippi] Delta, just out of high school, is also playing serious blues.” Frankly, the way Guy sings and plays guitar on his new album doesn’t make you feel he needs any young dude to keep the blues alive, since he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

The Blues Is Alive And Well, which appeared yesterday about three years after his last Grammy-awarded release Born To Play The Guitar, is nothing less but breathtaking. On his 18th studio album, the 81-year-old blues maestro sounds as great as ever. And with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, he has some pretty cool guests. There is also 27-year-old English singer-songwriter and guitarist James Bay.

Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards & Jeff Beck

Why the “Glimmer Twins” and Beck when Guy could have invited anyone to join him, asked Billboard. D’uh, why not? But Guy actually had answer that reflects his longtime sentiments. “Feel like I owed the British the respect they gave Muddy. In the ’60s, when our music was dying, the Stones and their English buddies woke up the world to the blues. They wouldn’t play if Muddy wasn’t on their show. They were shocked America was ignorant of the geniuses living right here in our own backyard. They saw where the gold was buried and they dug it up.”  Well, enough said for the upfront and time to get to some of that blues!

Frankly, I could highlight pretty much any of the record’s 15 tracks, since they are all terrific. Let’s kick if off with one called Guilty As Charged, which shuffles along nicely. According to Blues Blast Magazine, on this tune Guy is joined by producer and longtime collaborator Tom Hambridge (drums), Rob McNelley (rhythm guitar), Kevin MdKendree (keyboards) and Willie Weeks (bass). As also was the case on Guy’s more recent albums, Hambridge was also instrumental in the writing.

Cognac is one of the three tracks that had come out prior to the album. Featuring Richards and Beck, it’s definitely one of the album’s highlights. And even though I already wrote about it in my previous post, with these three dynamite guitarists trading solos, I just couldn’t resist including the song here as well – it’s just priceless!

Here’s the dynamite title track, which was co-written by Hambridge and Gary Nicholson. When I walked through the front door/I swear I heard the back door slam/I got a sneaky suspicion/You got another man/you’re doin’ me wrong, our love is dead and gone/But as far as I can tell/The blues is alive and well. One of tune’s distinct features are the great accents set by The Muscle Shoals Horns, including Charles Rose (trombone & horn arrangements), Steve Herrman (trumpet), Doug Moffet (tenor sax) and Jim Hoke (baritone sax) – gives me goose bumps!

Bad Day is another terrific mid-tempo blues shuffle that makes you want to grab a guitar and groove right along – not that I’m trying to imply that I could contribute anything meaningful here – just daydreaming a little! Blues Blast Magazine notes that the great blues harp fills are provided by Emil Justian, who once was the frontman for Matt “Guitar” Murphy’s band – good company!

On the next track I’d like to call out, Whiskey For Sale, things get funky – yeah, baby! I can hear a little bit of a Stevie Wonder groove in here. I can also picture James Brown shouting out a few ‘uh’s’ as you listen to the track. The beautiful backing vocals by Regina & Ann McCrary of the gospel music quartet The McCrary Sisters add a nice soul touch. I really dig that tune. Check it out!

The last track I’d like to highlight, You Did The Crime, is the song featuring Jagger. Intriguingly, you don’t hear him on vocals, but instead Jagger reminds us that he is a pretty decent blues harpist – something that was also vividly on display on Blue & Lonesome, the Stones’ all blues cover album from December 2016.

I’m really excited about this record – in fact, I predict it’s going to win Guy another Grammy in the blues category. I mean, seriously, how could you top this? In addition to being an ace guitarist, who still plays 150 shows a year, Guy once again shows us that music in order to be truly great needs one critical ingredient: the love to perform it!

Prompted by Billboard’s observation that throughout the album Guy’s joy seems to outweigh his worry about the future of the blues, he said: “Hell yes, the music is shot through with joy. Always has been. When I left the Louisiana farm on Sept. 27, 1957, for Chicago, I was looking for joy. And I found it. Joy went by the name of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy [Williamson], Howlin’ Wolf. One thing those guys told me never left my mind: ‘Keep these blues, alive, Buddy. Don’t you ever let them die.'”

 

Sources: Wikipedia, Billboard, Blues Blast Magazine, YouTube

Little Steven Captures 2017 Tour In Great Live Album

“Soulfire Live!” is a journey through rock history

Today, I coincidentally came across this great new live album from Steven Van Zandt and his excellent Disciples Of Soul backing band in Apple Music. I had completely missed Soulfire Live! when it appeared on April 27 on digital platforms for streaming and downloading. According to an announcement, the “surprise release” came just before Little Steven and the band embarked on a new tour through the U.S. in late April, which will last through May and be followed by dates in Europe in late June and July.

Recorded at 2017 shows in Europe and North America, the 24-track collection features original tunes by Little Steven and covers. It includes various tracks from his excellent last studio album Soulfire from May 2017, his first new record in nearly 18 years and one of my favorite albums from last year. I previously wrote about it here. And since I really dig the music, I also decided to catch Little Steven and The Disciples at one of their U.S. gigs in September last year. I also had something to say about that show here.

Soulfire Live! nicely captures the concert atmosphere. At least as intriguing as the music are some of Little Steven’s announcements, during which he provides his perspective on music and shares anecdotes from the past, reminiscent to what he does on his excellent Underground Garage radio show. But the highlight of the talking undoubtedly is Mike Stoller, who the introduced the band at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles last October – yep, The Mike Stoller who together with Jerry Leiber wrote numerous legendary tunes for artists like Big Mama Thornton (Hound Dog), The Drifters (Fools Fall In Love), Ben E. King (Stand By Me) and of course Elvis Presley (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Treat Me Nice, etc.).

Stoller notes he was an usher at the theatre 67 years ago until got into an argument with his boss and was fired. After that he says he decided to team up with his friend Jerry Leiber to write songs, dryly adding it worked out pretty good. Listen for yourself – it’s priceless!

On to some music. Here is one of my favorite covers from this collection, which also appeared on the Soulfire studio album: Blues Is My Business, a tune co-written by Kevin Bowe and Todd Cerney and sung by Etta James on her 2003 blues record Let’s Roll. The band is just killing it!

One of the original Little Steven tunes is Angel Eyes, which he recorded for his 1982 solo debut record Men Without Women. That tune has a nice soul groove.

Standing In The Line Of Fire is another song by Little Steven. He wrote it for Gary U.S. Bonds, and it became the title track of a studio album Bonds released in September 1984. Little Steven also co-produced the record. I like the song’s Hank Marvin-style guitar intro.

Another superb cover is the blaxploitation tune Down And Out In New York City. It was written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon, and recorded by James Brown for Black Caesar, a soundtrack album for the motion picture of the same name, which appeared in February 1973. The track was also included on Soulfire, though the live version is extended.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is another cover, Groovin’ Is Easy, by American blues rock and soul band The Electric Flag. The song was written by the band’s guitarist Nick Gravenites and appeared on their debut album A Long Time Comin’ from March 1968. Based on some of their music I’ve heard, I have to check out these guys more closely.

Soulfire Live! was produced and arranged by Van Zandt, and appears on his rock and roll label Wicked Cool Records. It was mixed by heavy hitter Bob Clearmountain, who has worked with artists like Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and The Who, among many others. The album will also become available on CD, Blu-ray and vinyl editions this summer.

Sources: Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) press release, NJArts.net, Wikipedia, YouTube

Making Your Christmas Groove

A list to get you into the mood for that most wonderful time of the year

When I was looking back at previous posts on the blog, I came across a list of Christmas rock, soul, rap and pop tunes I had put together last year. For the most part, I still stand behind it and thought it would be fitting to publish a slightly updated version.

One of the things I liked to do during the Christmas holiday while growing up in Germany many moons ago was to listen to my favorite radio station, which was then called SWF III. At that time of the year, the DJs would frequently play song requests from listeners. Not surprisingly, Christmas pop and rock songs were high in demand. Some of these tunes became seasonal anthems, such as Wham’s Last Christmas, Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas. Okay, maybe these are not the most compelling examples, but these tunes come to mind first when I think about those times.

Some folks may cringe about the thought of pop and rock artists dressing up as Santa and performing Christmas songs, whether they are covers of traditional tunes or new songs with holiday themes. Others may get cynical about music artists and record companies all for a sudden discovering Jesus and Santa when people conveniently are willing to spend insane amounts of money on Christmas presents. I get all of that and being cynical about it is not unfounded.

Christmas Rocks

I still think there are some great Christmas rock and pop songs that have come out over the years – in fact, make that over the decades! Plus, let’s be honest, while many traditional Christmas tunes have beautiful melodies, they don’t exactly groove. I don’t know about you, but I like listening to music that makes me want to get up and move – by the way, probably not such a bad thing during the holiday season when many folks like to indulge on food and drink. So how about rockin’ and rollin’ off that of these extra calories!

Below are some clips of some of my favorite Christmas rock and pop tunes in no particular order: From John Lennon’s haunting Happy Xmas, to Chuck Berry’s rockin’ & rollin’ Run Rudolph Run, to Run-D.M.C.’s cool rap Christmas in Hollis, to AC/DC’s hard-charging Mistress For Christmas, to a fantastic live version of Feliz Navidad with José Feliciano and Daryl Hall, to the unforgettable James Brown and his funky Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto, these tunes come in many different genres!

John Lennon/Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (1971)

Chuck Berry/Run Rudolph Run (1958)

The Pogues/Fairytale Of New York (1987)

Run-D.M.C./Christmas In Hollis (1987)

AC/DC/Mistress For Christmas (1990)

José Feliciano/Feliz Navidad (2010)

James Brown/Santa Claus, Go Straight To The Ghetto (1968)

Otis Redding/Merry Christmas Baby (posthumous, 1968)

The Ravers/(It’s Gonna Be) A Punk Rock Christmas (1978)

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band/Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (2007

Happy Holiday season!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

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