Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Showtime at the Apollo' gives graphic-novel treatment to Harlem venue's unparalleled history

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'Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem's Legendary Theater.'
'Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem's Legendary Theater.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

You could read James Otis Smith's graphic-novel rendition of Ted Fox's book Showtime at the Apollo in one sitting, but you're going to want to take a breather. The sheer amount of African-American musical and cultural history swept up in the story of the Apollo is almost overwhelming.

Fox's history was originally published in 1983. There will never be another like it, because many of the author's sources are no longer alive to tell their stories. The book begins with his account of cold-calling Dionne Warwick, who introduced him to Sammy Davis Jr., and so on. Fox even talked with "Mr. Apollo," a man named Francis "Doll" Thomas who in 1980 was literally living in the theater. He'd been working in Harlem show business since — wait for it — 1914.

If you know anything about the Apollo, you know that it was the setting for James Brown's legendary live album, recorded in 1962 to such a tumult that the engineers had to minimize the crowd noise so listeners could hear the Godfather and his band. By that point, though, the Apollo was already three decades into its heyday.

The history of the Apollo is the history of African-American music, and the history of African-American music is the history of American popular music. After its opening as the Apollo in 1934, the theater became a hub and a crucible. It was a safe space for black musicians, but it also had the world's most demanding crowds. If you could make it at the Apollo, you could make it.

One of the book's most astonishing pages collects portraits of artists who prevailed at the Apollo's Amateur Night talent contents. Among them: James Brown, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight, Sarah Vaughn, Pearl Bailey, Dionne Warwick, and Frankie Lymon. And that was amateur night.

In its classic era, from the 1930s until 1980, the venue was owned and operated by a white Jewish family. Frank Schiffman, with his sons Bobby and Jack, kept their fingers on the pulse of popular music, doing whatever was necessary to be sure that the Apollo got the best acts and kept them. Fox points out that the heyday of the Apollo coincided with the heyday of Harlem as a hub of African-American culture in the years when the neighborhood wasn't a beacon for white audiences.

Earlier, in the years of the Harlem Renaissance, the neighborhood was such a profitable draw for white people who wanted to go out on the town that many venues, while employing blacks as entertainers, wouldn't even serve them. Starting in the '80s, Harlem gentrified, wearing its history proudly but not the heartbeat of black culture the way it once was.

At mid-century, though, the Apollo was full of black audiences appreciating black artists, with some whites interspersed. One white rock legend who was a hit at the Apollo was Buddy Holly — although, Fox relates, their first time out his Crickets weren't connecting with the audience until they covered the eponymous song by Apollo favorite Bo Diddley. "When we finished that song," remembered Crickets guitarist Niki Sullivan, "the people just went bananas."

When the Apollo first took its new name in the '30s, jazz was the order of the day. While white bandleaders like Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers got airplay with their interpretations of the black music, African-Americans like Duke Ellington and Count Basie would play the Apollo, with vocalists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Comedy was a big part of the Apollo scene, and comedic bandleaders like Cab Calloway fit right in. The elder Schiffman said the most moving thing he ever heard was Fitzgerald singing "My Buddy" at the casket of her collaborator Chick Webb, in 1939.

In the '40s, the Apollo hosted artists who were turning swing into bop and laying the foundations of rock and roll. That meant brilliant jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk alongside wild showmen like Lionel Hampton and Sammy Davis Jr.

In the '50s, the Orioles learned "Cryin' in the Chapel" backstage at the Apollo before putting it on record and charting the first R&B song to land on the pop charts. Elvis Presley went to school on Bo Diddley's shows, Screamin' Jay Hawkins did his "I Put a Spell On You" routine coming out of a coffin (once, the Drifters pranked him by locking the coffin), and there was even room for the late-decade mambo boom with the likes of Tito Puente.

That's all before the '60s, when the Apollo hosted legendary performances by Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles (who participated in the backstage gambling, an aide whispering to him what cards he held and had been played). Earnings from Jackie Wilson's Apollo-fueled hit "Lonely Teardrops" helped fund the launch of Motown Records. Marvin Gaye wowed the crowd...when he wasn't cancelling due to stage fright. On the comedy side, Richard Pryor tested the Apollo's tolerance for "blue" language.

By the '70s, the zeitgeist was moving on and the Apollo fell into disrepair. Despite continuing to host historic shows by the likes of Bob Marley, the Apollo struggled and ultimately closed after a 1980 show by George Clinton and P-Funk that represented the end of an era.

A new era dawned a few years later, as the Apollo was renovated and designated a historic landmark. Since the '80s, it's been a successful prestige space; when Paul McCartney made his Apollo debut in 2010, he called the theater "the Holy Grail" and said it was the first thing the Beatles wanted to see when they came to America.

It's still a Holy Grail, and its inspiring story is marvelously told in this engaging history, now rendered in dynamic graphic form. Ladies and gentlemen...


Book lovers: Don't miss the chance to see Marlon James, author of A Short History of Seven Killings and the new Black Leopard, Red Wolf live at the Fitzgerald Theater tonight, Feb. 13.

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