This is a story of one night at the Apollo Theater told from the perspective of a performer.
"The Apollo developed an aura of its own and myths of its own. It was the apex of black entertainment. It represented getting out of the limitations of being a black entertainer...You had to play the Apollo, and once you did play it, you had made it" (Fox 4).
It was September 19th, 1965 at 8:00 PM as we rolled past the front entrance of the theater up on 125th street in Harlem. The bulbs of the Apollo were glowin' against the nights sky backdrop. Our car rolled around to the back entrance where we were to enter with the rest of the backstage crew.
It wasn't my first time performing at the Apollo but my nerves were still jerkin' me. My leg was bouncing up and down and I couldn't keep my eyes off of the streets. It was a hard time for us. Our music was blowing up, people were still loving the smooth sounds of jazz but our struggle was still a struggle. We had to be careful about where we played and who we played for - the last thing we wanted was to ruffle any feathers. One bad word about ya and they'd kick ya to the curb; but not at the Apollo.
Musicians, black or white wanted to know what was goin' on inside the doors of the Apollo - it was a curiosity of sorts. They say that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones got their inspiration from black music, and the only place they could really get in touch with that inspiration was right here, at the Apollo (Fox 4).
Word on the street is that just last week Mr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself sent Mr. Schiffman, the owner of the Apollo, a letter thankin' him for letting us play at his venue and supporting our sound through the good times and bad.
Now look at here, what a guy that Bobby Schiffman, posting the letter right in the doorway for all of us to see,
It was buzzing in the place. Crowd was lined up around the corner and inside people were waiting to buy pop and candy from Mary Johnson's concession stand. People were dressed to the nines - slick and sleek and in their finest garments to enjoy a night of music. From in here, you wouldn't be able to tell that blacks and whites didn't see eye to eye - the thing about the Apollo was that people weren't there to start a fight they were there because they all wanted to get down to the music. The music brought them together and everythin' else got left at the door.
Every time I walked down this hallway I swear I found somethin' new to look at. The walls were cluttered with frames of performers from the past and present. We had the queen of soul herself, Ms. Aretha Franklin. You could see my dear old friend Duke Ellington, Mrs. Fitzgerald, and even Elvis Presley himself.
The halls would echo with the sounds from the past, all those famous faces would light it up every time they came back. I once heard a story that Sammy Davis Jr. was so tired from a show he was passing out back here in between sets! Ha, it was a crazy life. Things are starting to change though. The people are starting to get restless. The buzz is that it's time for a change to come. The renaissance started the process ya know, but it has been decades since then and the times are a changin' once again.
Posted on the back door of each changin' room was the same note:
This was the truest piece of paper in the buildin' and somethin' to be thankful for - without The Apollo who knows if Jazz woulda made it hows its done tday.
Show is about to start...the Hortense Allen dancers just left the stage and the crowd just got quiet, the microphone made an echo and from here I can hear Dr. Jive take the stage - this will be one of my last time on stage at The Apollo and I can't wait another minute,
"Ladiessss and Gentlemennnnn, do you know what time it is? It's showtime at the Apollo!...Please welcome Mr. Dynamite and the amazing Mr. 'Please Please' himself - the star of the show, James Brown and the Famous Flames!" (Fox 7 239).
Fox, Ted. Showtime at the Apollo. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983. Print. http://google.com
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