Black History Month Special: 20 Stars Born From The Apollo Theater's 'Amateur Night'
The theater, itself, opened in 1934. And that same year, at Amateur Night, 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald brought down the house in a performance that launched her career, as well as the Apollo, into unwavering stardom.
During its seventy-six years, Wednesday nights at the Apollo (the official Amateur Night) became the breeding ground for countless legendary performers, including Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Celia Cruz, Gladys Knight, Tito Puente, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson among many others.
Last night, Robinson, a Motown Records legend, returned to the famed Harlem venue and shared what it was like when he and his Detroit-reared labelmates first played the Apollo in the 1960s. "I did not see one person in the audience, but I knew everything that was on that back wall right there," he said to the crowd of his sold-out show. "I was so afraid to look out in the audience because we heard about the Apollo Theater and how the guy came out on stage and hooked you. And we didn't know if it was going to happen to us."
Robinson was referring to the days of yore when Howard "Sandman" Sims, the famed Vaudeville tap dancer, who dressed like a clown (sometimes complete with bozo shoes) used canes, hooks, brooms -or whatever he could get his hand on- to usher musically challenged contestants off the stage after they were booed by the audience.
While today's televised talent competitions have a more diplomatic approach to doing away with aspiring singers who cannot hold a note, the Apollo's comical brush-off became legendary, leaving its own imprint on black music history.
"[Our] audience has proven to be 'brutally honest' about their assessment of talent and if you were to get that approval from the audience you can take your act or talent anywhere and do well," explained Billy Mitchell, the theater's resident historian. He currently gives tours of the venue (which still hosts the weekly showcase) offering patrons a closer look at the famed theater.
"Amateur Night continues to be the barometer that judges raw talent because it's based on the decision of the people. You know how they say if you make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. The same is true for that Apollo stage. If you can wow this audience, you can definitely conquer the music industry and the Apollo has bred music legends and icons.
"As our slogan says," continued Mitchell, "this is 'Where Stars Are Born & Legends Are Made.'"
Recalls Wylcef Jean: "I came here as an immigrant, and was well aware of the Apollo's legacy-so I knew how important it would be to get a gig there and to do well," Grammy Award winning hip hop musician once shared. "I first played the Apollo at 15 with my band, The Fugees, and after we didn't get booed, they didn't throw eggs, we felt we had a chance, and that we could get anywhere.
"Needless to say, the Apollo has been tremendously important in my career, and in the careers of so many others." From the Apollo stage, the trio went on to become one of the best-selling groups in music history.
Indeed. For Black History Month, BlackVoices takes a look at the top 20 amateurs whose talent made the Apollo's motto 'Where Stars Are Born & Legends Are Made,' a reality.