Two visits to the Apollo Theater, Harlem

With Debbie

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.

Alice and the Tree of Hope in 2022

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.

Billy Mitchell published his entertaining autobiography in 2010

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.

With “Mr Apollo” Billy Mitchell

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.

Alice Edwards of The People Versus sings Summertime

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.”
  • Ne-Yo
  • 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.

The Golden Tree of St Francis

 

 

What the fuck was that? 

A woman was screaming.  Pitched halfway between fear and anger, loud and sustained. An adult woman, Dan thought, yet there was a note of petulance, the suggestion of a toddler tantrum.  It came abruptly to a halt.

He looked around as he spooned the last of the pistachio ice cream into his mouth.  The couple at the next table hadn’t reacted.  Dan looked down the street to where the sound seemed to have come from.  Seven people walked up together, chatting and laughing, three generations of a family.  Had no-one else heard?

 
 
*************
 

Dan had travelled with his family to Tuscany for a week in August to join his brother-in-law’s 50th birthday celebrations.  There were nine of them, plus the two dogs, staying in a beautiful villa near Arezzo.  A few days passed pleasantly, eating, drinking, swimming, reading and chatting, but soon he had become restless.

So after breakfast he had set out to explore the nearby town of Lucignano, parking just outside the city wall.  The morning was spent seeking the shady side of the ancient paved streets, sometimes finding relief in the air conditioning of the souvenir shops. He wandered into the rather faded Church of San Michele, where a dusty old funeral carriage was on display, accompanied by a hooded female figure in black.

His ancient travel guide proclaimed that the Golden Tree of St Francis or Albero d’Oro was “a masterpiece produced in Sienese goldsmith’s shops during the 14C-15C” and worth a detour so he navigated his way to the municipal museum.  As he waited to buy his entry ticket he had that sense of a chore to be completed which always accompanied his visits to museums and galleries.  So much information to be taken in, sifted, so many things competing for his attention, how could he be worthy to choose between them?

If history and art were so exciting, he mused, why did he feel this weight, this dull foreboding?  He would thrill at the rise of the curtain in the theatre, at the opera: hearing the referee’s starting whistle, signalling a tiny, unpredictable new chapter for his team, his chest would tighten.  When the lights went down and the cheers rose at a rock concert, Dan felt sixteen again.  Back in the day, even the old Pearl and Dean theme, for god’s sake, stirred anticipation.  Maybe museums just weren’t his thing: still, what else had he expected to find in the town?  Anyway, he was here now.

Before long he was standing in front of the famous reliquary: round boxes of irregular size hung from spindly curved branches.  He felt instant revulsion.  It was no doubt a superb example of the goldsmith’s art, but it seemed horribly ugly: over-ornate, and at the same time slightly shabby.  According to the descriptive plaque it no longer contained any holy relics.  Apparently it had taken 120 years to make it: expert craftsmen had spent years, decades of their lives working on it, knowing they would never see it completed.  Was that wonderful or was it ridiculous?  Dan was no Christian, but he knew that Christ had embraced poverty, simplicity.  How many of the people of Lucignano, of Siena, had died of malnutrition, had seen their children taken away for want of clean water, while on the orders of the Church the goldsmiths plied their patient and costly craft?  Slightly to his surprise he heard himself mutter a curse under his breath, hypocritical bastards.

Eventually he emerged from the gloomy museum, greeting the scorching sun in the square with relief.  It was half past one, and he was hungry.  He chose a narrow street at random, and after a few turns came to a trattoria with a couple of small tables in the shade, where he sat down and ordered a pasta dish and a glass of rosé.

 
 
***************
 

Dan had already settled his bill, so he picked up his bag and strode briskly up the street from where the cry had seemed to come.  He didn’t know if he was motivated by chivalry or curiosity as he climbed the steep cobbles, now in full afternoon sun.  There was no-one in view, but he thought he saw something dark disappearing up a narrow turning to the left, halfway up the hill.

He quickened his pace as he followed the shape up a flight of stone steps, once more just catching a glimpse of a figure in the distance.  Dan wiped his brow: all shade seemed to have disappeared from the town, but his curiosity intensified.  He had the impression of light, furtive movement ahead. The figure might be quite innocuous, but Dan wanted to see it for himself.

The chase was on. Whenever he turned a corner, he just caught sight of something vanishing, never a clear view.  The heat reflected mercilessly from the pavement.  He took turn after turn in pursuit, in frustration breaking into a run, the sweat now dripping from his forehead.  But it made no difference: he was no closer.  As if he was being taunted.  Once the figure took a turning just a few metres ahead of him, but when Dan turned the same corner it was already disappearing from few, seventy metres ahead.  How could that be…

He was the pursuer, yet he sensed perhaps he was being hunted…or led into a trap? This thing could have easily shaken him off, but no, at every corner it lingered just long enough to show him the way.  But Dan was not thinking clearly: he had started this game and he would finish it.  He felt his pulse thudding in his temple as he came back on to a main street: the sun now seemed to be directly overhead and he was surprised to notice that the streets and cafes were deserted.  As he ran, he realised he had lost his quarry: as he turned the corner this time there been no glimpse.

He slowed to a walk, then stopped and closed his eyes as he tried to regain his breath. He found himself laughing: this was ridiculous, a trick of his imagination.  How strange he must have looked, running through the scorching streets, chasing some ghost…he looked up and saw that he was once more by the Church of San Michele, and moved inside to escape the sun.  He wandered around exploring it again, trying to compose himself.

He looked at the funeral carriage again.  Wait, hadn’t there been a figure next to it?  Yes, there, to the left of the carriage, he could make out faint marks on the floor where the feet had been.  In a playful spirit, he planted his feet in the marks…

 

 
*****************
 
 

Signore, posso prendere questa sedia? 

Dan surfaced abruptly and waved the chair away, Si, Si. The ice cream dish was still in front of him. He was no longer seated in the shade.  The relaxed bustle and chatter of the trattoria resumed.  What a strange dream…but…

But now he was standing again…his vision constrained by something dark…he tried to turn his head, move his feet, but he could not.  He stared out passively at the dusty church…he tried to scream but no sound came back to him.