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 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