The Apollo Theatre, on West 125th Street in NYC is a legendary venue known for “breaking” lots of huge talent over the years. It started as “Apollo Hall” in the mid 1800’s.
It was always the pre-emiment showcase for African-American talent, which was definitely not a term that was used back in the 1930’s!
The great Ella Fitzgerald made her singing debut there at 17 on November 21, 1934, which was the year it introduced it’s regular Amateur Night shows hosted by a performer named Ralph Cooper.
Other stars that graced that stage at the beginning of their careers, as well as after they had made it, were Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Mariah Carey, The Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill, Sarah Vaughan, and Machine Gun Kelly (rapper).
Comedy was also a big feature at The Apollo, and it spotlighted the performances of old-time vaudeville favorites like Tim Moore, Stepin Fetchit, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, and younger comics like Godfrey Cambridge, who some of my readers may never have even heard of. Jimi Hendrix won the first place prize in an amateur musician contest at the Apollo in 1964, but one thing The Apollo was always known for was how they rated the talent.
In the early days, they had a guy they called “the executioner”. Audiences were encouraged to let the performers know how they felt about their performance either by applause or by the loudest booing you ever heard. If it was boos, the executioner would come on stage with a broom, and literally sweep the performers off their feet.
Things haven’t changed much over the years. This Monday, July 9th was the debut of Apollo Live, Jamie Foxx’s remake of “Showtime At The Apollo” where aspiring singers put their self-esteem on the line, and come out to perform for audiences that have no qualms in standing up and booing, effectively drowning out the performance, while waving their arms motioning the performer to get off stage.
Tony Rock was chosen personally by Jamie Foxx as the host of this new show, to air on Centric, which is a spin-off cable TV channel of BET (Black Entertainment Television). I wanted to be at the first one, cause generally I like to go to the first one and the last one and see how it changes during that timespan. They will be shooting for two weeks.
At this first show, Rob Stapleton was the warm-up comic and he is always great. Warming up the crowd is a specific talent in itself. Not every comic can do it. You not only need material, but you have to be really personable, and excellent at crowd work, which Rob is. I’ve seen him host several shows already and he’s always strong.
The judges were also fantastic and very right on the money with their decisions, even though the final decisions were left up to the audience. Michael Bivins from Bell, Biv, Devoe was one judge, Doug E. Fresh the rapper/beatboxer and inventor of “The Dougie” was a second judge, and the third judge, Gladys Knight, (without her “Pips”), got a standing ovation when she came into the theatre. She sat right near me and waved hello, ’cause everyone always thinks I’m in the music business.
Many years ago, I attended a black tie event in the music business with a girl I was dating at the time who was a singer, and one after the other, Billy Joel, Paul Anka and then Keith Richards all stopped off at my table to say hello to me personally, and shake my hand, to the great astonishment of the other people at my table, and the girl I was with, but no one was more astonished than ME! I guess they thought I was some music executive, and they didn’t want to take a chance and “brush me”!! (LOL)
Anyway, Apollo Live is a really fun show. The audience was out for blood, and started booing some singers almost as soon as they started. Some of them made it through their song anyway. The guy who won for the evening was really the best, and Gladys Knight for one said he touched her heart with his voice.
For a comedy break they had another Tony, Tony Roberts who I had seen recently with Cipha Sounds. Hot 97 was in the house, and after Tony’s spot he came backstage to shoot a promo for them. Seeing me in the dressing room, he pulled me on camera and introduced me as his real Dad! It was hilarious! Here’s the clip!
Tony Rock was a fantastic host. He looked slim and trim in a suit, and the crowd loved him. I went backstage afterwards with his youngest brother Jordan, who’s 21, and also a comic. Jordan performs at The Comic Strip the same way that Tony Rock, and Chris Rock did all those years ago.
When Tony Roberts came back to say hi to Tony Rock he was shocked to see me there. He was like, “Dude,you’re everywhere!” I was like, and when you get home, I’ll be waiting in your apartment! I think he was afraid to go home! (LOL)
I was excited for Tony, but almost even more excited for comic/actor Sherrod Small because he and Tony are like brothers, … even closer. They’ve been friends since early childhood, and started performing on the exact same night in July of 1998. And when they passed at The Comic Strip on the exact same night they hugged each other and cried on the corner, because they were so happy. It was great to see the honest joy that Sherrod had seeing Tony onstage hosting a major show like Apollo Live.
I think this show will be a hit. Make sure to tune in, and check it out!