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.

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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

The Hump Day Picker-Upper

Cheering you up for a dreadful Wednesday, one song at a time

For those of us taking care of business during the regular workweek, I guess it’s safe to assume we’ve all felt that dreadful Wednesday blues. Sometimes, that middle point of the workweek can be a true drag. But help is on the way!

Today’s proposed remedy to chase the clouds away is Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder. While Wonder wrote that song as a tribute to musicians he loves, especially Duke Ellington, to me, it has a very happy feel that always lifts my mood instantly. And it’s also really groovy.

Sir Duke first appeared on Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder’s 18th studio album from September 1976, and a true masterpiece. The tune also became the record’s third single in March 1977. In the U.S., it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and Best Selling Soul Singles (now called Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) charts. Among ex-U.S. chart placements, it also hit no. 1 in Canada and climbed to no. 2 in the UK.

In addition to Ellington, Sir Duke celebrates Louis Armstrong (“Satchmo”), Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Sodarisa Miller. “I knew the title from the beginning but wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us,” Wonder said, according to Songfacts. “So soon they are forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation. They gave us something that is supposed to be forever. That’s the basic idea of what we do and how we hook it up.”

Happy Hump Day, and always remember the wise words of George Harrison: All things must pass!

The Hump Day Picker-Upper will go on a short hiatus for the holidays and be back on Wednesday, January 5.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 22

Today, my recurring music history feature is hitting a bit of a milestone with the 50th installment. While 50 sounds like an impressive number, it means I still have 315 dates left to cover! The music nerd in me tells me that’s actually not a bad thing! Plus, it turns out there’s lots of fodder for March 22, so let’s get to it.

1963: Please Please Me, the debut studio album by The Beatles, appeared in the UK. According to The Beatles Bible, the record was rush-released to capitalize on the success of the singles Love Me Do and Please Please Me. Both singles were on the album, along with their b-sides P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why, respectively. The remaining 10 tracks were recorded during a marathon session on February 11, 1963, which lasted just under 10 hours. The other fun fact about the record is that George Martin initially had planned to call it Off The Beatle Track – kind of clever, though he obviously abandoned the idea. Naming it after a successful single probably was also part of the plan to maximize sales. As was common on the early Beatles albums, Please Please Me featured various covers. Here’s one of my favorites: Twist and Shout, co-written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns, and first recorded by U.S. R&B vocal group The Top Notes in 1961.

1965: Robert Allen Zimmerman, the genius known as Bob Dylan, released his fifth studio album Bringing It All Back Home. It marked his first top 10 record in the U.S., climbing to no. 6 on the Billboard 200, and his second no. 1 studio release in the UK, following The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from May 1963. Perhaps more significantly, Bringing It All Back Home was also Dylan’s first album to feature recordings with electric instruments; in fact, on the entire A-side, he was backed by an electric band. The b-side was acoustic. Four months later, on July 25, the electric controversy turned into a firestorm with Dylan’s appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. Here’s Maggie’s Farm. It was the much faster and more aggressive performance of that song at Newport, which caused most of the controversy there.

1971: John Lennon released his fifth solo single Power to the People in the U.S., 10 days after its debut in the UK. Credited to Lennon and Plastic Ono Band, the non-album tune peaked at no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, marking Lennon’s second most successful single to date. In the UK, the song climbed to no. 6. It performed best in Norway where it hit no. 3. Power to the People was recorded at Ascot Sound Studios in Berkshire, England as part of sessions that also yielded tunes for Lennon’s second solo album Imagine. “I wrote ‘Power to the People’ the same way I wrote ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ as something for the people to sing,” Lennon reportedly said. “I make singles like broadsheets. It was another quickie, done at Ascot.” Quickie or not, I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t his best tune.

1974: The Eagles dropped their third studio album On the Border. After two country-rock records, the band decided they wanted a more rock-oriented sound. Therefore, most of the album was produced by Bill Szymczyk, who had previously worked with then-future Eagles member Joe Walsh and The James Gang, among others. It also marked the band’s first record with rock guitarist Don Felder. Here’s Already Gone, featuring Felder on lead guitar and Glenn Frey on lead vocals. Co-written by Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund, the tune also appeared separately as the album’s lead single. It’s one of my favorite rockers by the Eagles.

1975: Led Zeppelin hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 with their sixth studio album Physical Graffiti. The double LP, which includes recordings spanning from January 1970 to February 1974, maintained the top spot for 6 weeks and marked Zeppelin’s fourth no. 1 record in the U.S. The album also topped the charts in the UK and Canada. Viewed as one of the band’s strongest albums, Physical Graffiti was certified 16x Platinum in the U.S. in 2006, which means sales of more than eight million copies – unreal from today’s perspective! Here’s the bombastic Kashmir, co-written by Jon Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. It’s one of the most unusual rock songs I know; frankly, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight for me, though over the years, I’ve come to dig it.

1977: Stevie Wonder released Sir Duke, the third single off his 18th studio gem Songs in the Key of Life. Both are long-time favorites in my book. The tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington marked Wonder’s fifth and last no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 during the ’70s. It also topped the R&B chart and became a hit internationally, reaching no.1 in Canada and top 10 positions in Germany, Switzerland and the UK. I just love the groove of this tune. The horn work is outstanding – take it away, Stevie!

1980: Pink Floyd scored their only no. 1 hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), where it would stay for four weeks. Given the Roger Waters song, off Floyd’s 11th studio album The Wall, was their most pop-oriented, radio-friendly tune, perhaps that’s not exactly a surprise. It also became a chart-topper in the UK, Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand. I can confirm firsthand that it was played to death on the radio in Germany. On a lighter note, I also recall a funny incident at a school party when I was in seventh grade. For some reason, which I can’t remember, we had a little get-together in our classroom. When our English and homeroom teacher walked in, the song was blasting out of a boom box. He couldn’t suppress a brief smile before looking serious again. What happens when you think you don’t need no education is now vividly on display among some young people in the U.S. and other countries, who continue to hang out in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as if nothing had happened.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day In Music; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube