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

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The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

It’s Sunday morning and time again to embark on another eclectic music mini-journey. Somehow it doesn’t feel a week has gone by since the last published installment of The Sunday Six, but the calendar doesn’t lie. This time, my picks include some saxophone-driven jazz, rock, funk and country, touching the 1950s, ’70s, ’80s and 2021. I actually skipped one of my favorite decades, the ’60s, which is a rare occurrence!

Sonny Rollins/St. Thomas

This time, I’d like to start with some saxophone jazz by Sonny Rollins. I first featured the American tenor saxophonist, who is very influential in the jazz world, earlier this year in this Sunday Six installment from March. Over an incredible 70-year-plus career, Rollins has recorded more than 60 albums as a leader and appeared on many additional records as a sideman. He has played with the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach and Modern Jazz Quartet. St. Thomas is the lead track off his breakthrough album Saxophone Colossus from 1957. The title of his sixth record became Rollins’ nickname. Credited to Rollins, St. Thomas is based on a nursery song his mother sang to him when he was a child. On the recording, he was joined by Tommy Flanagan (piano), Doug Watkins (bass) and Max Roach (drums). Earlier this month, Rollins turned 91.

Dave Mason/Let It Go, Let It Flow

Dave Mason had been a familiar name to me in connection with Traffic, the English rock band he founded together with Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood in April 1967. Over the course of his 50-year-plus career, Mason also played and recorded with many other artists, such as Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and Leon Russell. Between 1993 and 1995, Mason was a member of Fleetwood Mac and appeared on their 16th studio album Time from October 1995. In addition to that, he launched a solo career in 1970 and has released 15 albums to date. Let It Go, Let It Flow, written by Mason, is from his seventh solo record Let It Flow that appeared in April 1977. This is a catchy tune – I love the singing and the harmony guitar action, as well as the organ (Mike Finnegan) and bass work (Gerald Johnson). Let It Go, Let It Flow also was released separately as a single and reached no. 45 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100.

Cold Chisel/When the War is Over

A recent post by Robert Horvat from Rearview Mirror about Cold Chisel reminded me of When the War is Over, another song by the Australian rock band. Not only do I love this tune, especially the vocals, but it also brings back memories of my years as a bassist in a band when I was in my early ’20s. In addition to originals written by the group’s leader, we also did some covers. And, yes, this included When the War is Over, a track from Cold Chisel’s fourth studio album Circus Animals that came out in March 1982. Written by the band’s drummer and backing vocalist Steve Prestwich, When the War is Over also became the album’s third single in July 1982, climbing to no. 25 on the Australian charts. The song has been covered by various other artists, including Little River Band and Scenic Drive. ‘Who the hell is Scenic Drive?’ you might wonder. Hint: A German band that focused on West Coast-oriented pop rock and existed between 1987 and 1989.

Stevie Wonder/Superstition

After a beautiful rock ballad, it’s time for something more groovy, something funky. Superstition by Stevie Wonder was the first track that came to my mind in this context. One of my all-time favorite tunes by Wonder, Superstition became the lead single of his 15th studio album Talking Book from October 1972. It also yielded his first no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since Fingertips – Part 2 from 1963 when he was still known as Little Stevie Wonder. Jeff Beck who participated in the recording sessions for Talking Book came up with the opening drum beat. Wonder improvised the guitar-like riff, playing a Hohner clavinet. They created a rough demo of the tune with the idea that Beck would record the song for his next album. However, by the time Beck did so, Wonder had recorded the tune for Talking Book, and at the insistence of Berry Gordy who saw a hit, it had been released as a single. Apparently, Beck wasn’t happy and made some comments to the press Wonder didn’t appreciate. Eventually, Beck released his version of Superstition on his 1973 eponymous debut album with Beck, Bogert & Appice.

Scott Hirsch/Dreamer

For this next pick, let’s jump to the present and beautiful music from a forthcoming album by producer and singer-songwriter Scott Hirsch. From his Facebook page: You’ve heard the sound of Scott Hirsch. You might not know it, but his audio production has lurked deep in the cut of many admired recordings from the late 1990s to the present. A founding member of Hiss Golden Messenger, he was integral to the band’s formative years in the studio and on the road. His sonic imprint remains on their productions; most recently mixing the forthcoming album Quietly Blowing It. He recorded and mixed a Grammy nominated record by the legendary folk-singer Alice Gerrard and has produced and played on records by William Tyler, Mikael Jorgensen, Orpheo McCord and Daniel Rossen. I’m completely new to Hirsch who released his solo debut Blue Rider Songs in 2016. Dreamer, which features folk and alt. country singer-songwriter Kelly McFarling, is a mellow country-oriented tune from Hirsch’s upcoming third solo album Windless Day scheduled for October 8. He released the tune upfront on August 13.

The Robbin Thompson Band/Brite Eyes

And once again, it’s time to wrap up this latest music zig-zag excursion. Let’s pick up the speed with a great tune by Robbin Thompson. Thompson was a member of Steel Mill, an early Bruce Springsteen band that existed from November 1969 to January 1971 and included three members of the future E Street Band: Vini Lopez, Danny Federici and Steve Van Zandt. Thompson also worked with Timothy B. Schmit, Phil Vassar, Butch Taylor and Carter Beauford. Between 1976 and 2013, he recorded a series of albums that appeared under his and other names. Thompson passed away from cancer in 2015 at the age of 66. Here’s Brite Eyes, a track from Two B’s Please, an album released in 1980 by The Robbin Thompson Band. The seductive rocker also became a single and a minor national hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 66 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s got a bit of a Jackson Browne flair, while the harmony singing is reminiscent of America. Also, check out that great bassline – what an awesome tune!

Sources: Wikipedia; Scott Hirsch Facebook page; YouTube