From its inception 80 years ago this Sunday, the Apollo Theater probably exerted a greater influence on popular culture than any other entertainment venue in the world. Throughout the years the Apollo, and the thousands of great entertainers who have performed there, have led the way in the presentation of swing, bebop, rhythm and blues, modern jazz, commercially presented gospel, soul, funk and hip-hop. The Apollo also introduced and showcased the latest in dance and comedy. There has never been another cultural institution that has been so influential in so many different fields for so many years.
The legacy is alive and thriving today on 125th Street in New York City’s Harlem at a renovated and re-energized Apollo. The Apollo continues to be the focus of the African-American community and the locus of the world’s attention toward that community, as it has been throughout its illustrious history.
President Barack Obama made headlines at the theater, serenading Al Green with his own words. The outpouring of grief over the death of James Brown was international in scope. But it was at Brown’s Apollo memorial service that the emotion was most viscerally expressed. It was also the place where thousands flocked in a genuine and spontaneous feeling and need for community after Michael Jackson’s untimely death. Surely millions around the world who watched this unfold must have wondered: Why there? Why the Apollo? Why now?
Apollo was the Greek god of music, poetry and the arts, and his temple at Delphi was a place of purification, as was the one that bears his name at 253 W. 125th St., Harlem, New York City. Nearly every African-American entertainer I spoke to for my book Showtime at the Apollo: The Story of Harlem’s World Famous Theater told me that “the Apollo was home.” It was home for them as well as for the people of Harlem. It has also been a uniquely important conduit for African-American culture, expressivity and aesthetics into the mainstream of international popular culture. It is not an exaggeration to say that the history of this amazing theater and the panoramic history of African-American music, dance and comedy are one and the same.
The Apollo Theater has been called many things: an “Uptown Met,” a “black Grand Ole Opry” and “the black equivalent of the Palace.” Surely it has been all of these, but much more. Yet it is not entirely accurate to say that the Apollo Theater was a fomenter of cultural revolutions; rather, it was often a legitimizer—the Apollo was the establishment. As revolutionaries, groundbreaking African-American artists fought creative battles in various places around the country, but they all knew that the ultimate battle was to conquer the Apollo.
As new offerings came along, the Apollo seized them and brought them into the theater. The ability to do this for decades while retaining its old clientele is an achievement that has not been matched. During any given season, the Apollo would offer all types of shows for all types of audiences. Modern jazz, gospel, big bands, rhythm and blues, star vocalists, traditional blues and novelty acts would be interspersed. But the Apollo’s flexibility was also a product of harsh economic realities, as well as a shrewd and calculated attempt to get the most out of the community whose support it needed to survive.
The Apollo put on a show week after week, through good times and bad, despite changes in taste and style, for many decades—and it believed in and lived by the old show business adage: “The show must go on.” To ensure that the show not only would go on but also would keep going on in the future, the Apollo nurtured new and untried talents who would later become the stars who kept the theater packed, generation after generation.
The Apollo’s Wednesday amateur-night show became world-renowned. This showcase has been responsible for boosting the careers of hundreds of important stars, from Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots to Sarah Vaughan to the Isley Brothers to Dionne Warwick and so many others. Apollo shows also always featured new and unknown professional talent with promise—whether it was Sammy Davis Jr. splitting $650 a week with his father and uncle, or local kids Gladys Knight and the Pips filling out the bottom of a bill.
For performers, the work was difficult—right up to the 1960s, the Apollo did 31 shows a week—and the theater, like Harlem itself, could be rough. But it was the center of the world for the performers who played there, and even when conditions were tough, everyone looked forward to coming home to the Apollo. As Warwick told me, “The theater was terrible: drafty, dirty, smelly—awful. And we loved every minute of it.”