When we visited New York City in May 2007, my wife and daughters proposed a shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s. We agreed that everyone would have a better time if I did something else instead, and there was something I very much wanted to do. I’m a huge fan of music, and much of the music I love is by African-American artists. I was thrilled to learn that you could visit and tour the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, so I took a yellow taxi to West 125th Street.
A charming fellow called Billy Mitchell welcomed the guests on the tour, with shout-outs for those of us who had travelled from overseas. He showed a montage of photos on the wall of many of the stars who had appeared there: the famous names just kept on coming. There was a large party of black schoolchildren, a few adult black Americans, and just one other white person – like me, an Englishman. As we filed in to our seats, I found myself in line behind him. I took my seat in a different row, not wishing to create a tiny white ghetto.
Billy is a fascinating character. One of fourteen children, he had a tough upbringing, spending much time in foster care away from his parents. I suspect, like many other small guys, he learned to live on his wits and his sense of humour. Hard work and a likeable and engaging personality probably helped too. He first got involved with the Apollo in 1965 at the age of 15: his mother had sent him to borrow some money from his aunt, who lived near the theater, and he was waiting outside when owner Frank Schiffman said “Hey kid, you want to make some money?” The job turned out to be running errands for Berry Gordy, who had brought his Motown show to the Apollo.
The show that night featured the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Billy has been associated with the Apollo in some or other capacity ever since, and is now the official Apollo historian and tour guide.
Billy filled us in on the history of the theater. It opened in 1913 as Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. Surprisingly, in view of the building’s later history, there was a strict “Whites Only” policy: in the past Harlem (formerly New Haarlem) had been largely a Dutch and Jewish quarter. After Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned burlesque in New York, the theater reopened as the Apollo in 1934, catering to the black community. In 1983 the theater was protected by the conferral of state and city landmark status.
Billy told the story of the famous Tree of Hope. When this landmark Harlem tree was felled in 1934 as part of the widening of 7th Avenue, the owner of the Apollo bought a piece of the stump and had it set on a pedestal onstage. Performers would touch the tree as they went on stage for good luck, a tradition which continues to this day.
Billy’s history with the place was fascinating. “I started meeting all the stars that were performing here. Imagine, I saw Stevie Wonder when he was 15. Eventually, I saw Michael Jackson and his brothers. Michael was nine years old when they first came and performed on the Amateur Night.”
If the Apollo Theater had a king, it was James Brown. He played there more than any other performer, and recorded his legendary, thrilling album Live at the Apollo there in October 1962. Brown lay in state there after his death in December 2006. Mitchell said that Brown took a keen interest in his schooling:
“I met James Brown who convinced me the importance of getting a good education. He kept asking how my grades were going. He would give me money if the grades were taking off. He convinced me to raise my hand in class if there was a time the teacher was teaching something I didn’t understand.”
That evening was Amateur Night, and a group of the children would be attending. Billy told us how it worked. The audience was famously demanding: if they’d seen enough of an act, they would start booing, and a fellow known as “the executioner” would appear with a broom from the side and sweep them off the stage. Vaudeville tap dancer “Sandman” Sims played this role, from the 1950s until 2000. The unfortunate performer might also be chased offstage by a man with a cap pistol, accompanied by the sound of a siren. Billy explained the rules to the people who would be in the audience that night. “If the act’s no good, you gotta boo. I don’t care if it’s your grandma, if she’s no good, you boo her ass right off that stage!”
Then came the opportunity to sing in our own miniature Amateur Night. I was tempted by the chance to perform on that legendary stage, but lack any talent to do it justice, and stayed in my seat. Billy had a stern warning for young rap artists. “I do not want to hear the N-word on this stage. That word has been used to oppress, hurt and humiliate black people for many years. If I hear it today, I will test your jaw.”
The show was charming. Several of the children sang beautifully, while others recited poetry. My compatriot had a decent stab at Tracks of My Tears.
I had enjoyed my visit so much that when we visited NYC again in April 2022, I wanted to repeat it, and this time I persuaded my family to join me. I emailed ahead to request that we could be added to a scheduled tour: a visit was arranged for 11 am on Tuesday, and we took the subway to Harlem.
Billy greeted me like an old friend, although I’m pretty sure I remembered him better than he remembered me. Once again there were introductions and shout-outs for each party. The main group of children were shiny, bright, well-behaved and enthusiastic, putting me in mind of the kids Jack Black leads astray in School of Rock. We were the only British representatives: otherwise there were families from Florida, Ireland, France and Spain.
Once again, I was struck by the absence of white Americans at this special place. Of course, on a Wednesday morning many would be working. But given the history of the Apollo, many of the potential visitors would, like me, be of retirement age – and, New York, like London, has plenty of domestic tourism. Were these Americans nervous of visiting Harlem? Or less interested in celebrating the huge contribution of African-Americans to American music? It recalled for me the British Invasion of the 1960s, when it took bands like The Rolling Stones and The Animals to bring an appreciation of rhythm and blues music to a mainstream American audience.
After Billy had taken us through the history of the Apollo, he again offered us the opportunity to perform. We were told that you didn’t have to be good, just take to take your chance to be there: and that although booing was part of the deal at Amateur Night, it was not allowed in our little show unless a performer walked past the Tree of Hope without touching it. That disappointed one of the boys who complained “But we want to be booed!” This time I had come prepared, so that when Billy motioned to me that I might like to join the volunteers on stage, I was able to gesture expansively to Alice, who as our talented singer had been delegated to represent the family, and was already up there.
The first man to perform sang some lines of gospel so beautifully that the volunteers waiting their turn suddenly looked twice as nervous. Was this going to be the standard? But Billy helped set their minds at rest by getting him to confirm that he was a professional singer. Everyone did their bit – the French fellow sang us Frère Jacques – and was warmly received. Alice elected to sing Gershwin’s Summertime, a song she had often heard as a lullaby many years ago, and which she sang in a school concert when she was eleven.
The word “historic” hardly does the Apollo justice – Billy Mitchell even showed Michelle Obama and her daughters round in 2010. Here is the astonishing list of some of the acts who have performed at the Apollo. While by far the biggest contribution has come from African-American artists, all communities have been part of the story, and the Apollo’s reputation has made it a bucket list venue for leading white performers like Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift. Quite a few acts had their first big break at the Apollo’s legendary Amateur Night:
- Aretha Franklin
- Art Blakey
- B.B. King
- Ben E. King
- Bill Cosby
- Billie Holiday
- Bob Marley and The Wailers
- Buddy Holly and the Crickets (courted the audience by playing more blues-style material – recreated here for The Buddy Holly Story (1978))
- Buddy Rich
- Count Basie
- Dave Brubeck
- Diana Ross & The Supremes
- Dionne Warwick (performed and won at Amateur Night)
- Dizzy Gillespie
- Duane Eddy
- Duke Ellington
- Ella Fitzgerald (made her singing debut in 1934 aged 17 at the Apollo, and later won the Amateur Night first prize of $25)
- Elvis Costello (recorded his excellent TV music series Spectacle at the Apollo)
- The Four Tops
- Gladys Knight (performed at Amateur Night) and the Pips
- Guns N’ Roses
- Harry James
- The Isley Brothers
- James Brown (performed at Amateur Night)
- Jimi Hendrix (won an amateur musician contest in 1964)
- Joe Tex (performed at Amateur Night)
- Big Joe Turner
- Keith Richards (played Gimme Shelter at a benefit concert in 2015)
- King Curtis (performed at Amateur Night)
- Lauryn Hill (had to contend with booing after a shaky start in her Amateur Night performance in 1987 at the age of thirteen – but persevered and won the crowd over)
- Little Richard
- Luther Vandross
- Mahalia Jackson
- Marvin Gaye
- Mary J. Blige
- Michael Jackson (performed at nine years old at Amateur Night in 1967 as one of the Jackson Brothers. Jackson played a free concert at the Apollo on April 24, 2002, said to be his final on-stage performance before his death in 2009)
- Mick Jagger: “I came to watch James Brown…I was sitting down at the back. He asked me to come onstage and I tried to run out…and they forced me to come onstage.”
- Otis Redding (here singing Pain in my Heart from 1964 – a woman in the audience calls out “Sing it pretty!” – and he does, he does)
- Pearl Bailey (performed at Amateur Night)
- Patti LaBelle
- Paul McCartney (played there in 2010. He described it as “the Holy Grail”, adding that he “dreamed of playing here for many a year” On arriving at the theater, he asked to see Billy Mitchell, and asked Mitchell to introduce him on stage.)
- Quincy Jones
- Ray Charles
- Richard Prior
- Ronnie Spector (performed at Amateur Night)
- Ruth Brown (performed at Amateur Night)
- Sam Cooke
- Sammy Davis Jr.
- Sarah Vaughan (performed at Amateur Night)
- Sister Rosetta Tharpe
- Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (here in 1963 singing You Really Got a Hold on Me)
- Stan Getz
- The Staple Singers
- Stevie Wonder
- Taylor Swift
- The Temptations
- Tony Bennett
- Wilson Pickett (here singing In the Midnight Hour, introduced by Rod Stewart)
- Woody Herman
On many tourist experiences the punters are herded like cattle and milked for cash at every opportunity, and ticking off the big sights can be dispiriting. But our visit to the Apollo was intimate and joyful. Billy Mitchell’s knowledge and enthusiasm was infectious, and it was a privilege to hear those stories and walk on that stage. If you love your music and find yourself in New York City, be sure to visit the Apollo Theater, Harlem.