Misses 103 – Apollo Theater – I
I’ve held back from writing pieces like this one, because they’re mainly about things I did not do over the 10 years, + that I was active. Mostly I have tried to be grateful for that which I did accomplish (the “hits”) and not get too hung up on that which I didn’t/couldn’t do at the time (the “misses”). But nobody can be 100% successful in their endeavors! So here are some of those from the misses bag, many due to lack of “spare” funds or time or courage!
In NYC there were various shows at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in the 60s/70s that featured an occasional blues artist (B.B. King, Bobby Bland, a.o.), rare blues-based shows, as well as the gospel packages that played there. New York City has never been known as a blues town; jazz, on the other hand… . I did not take full advantage of what was on offer there as I was somewhat too specialized in what I listened to then. I did see/hear Ike & Tina Turner there one time, and I think James Brown. At that time I was not interested in the soul music that prevailed then on the radio, nor the gospel. But there were for a couple of years when full-on blues packages played The Apollo beginning in 1965. That venue is where I met B.B. King ([O&S 33, 56] in 1964) – he was often the headliner of such shows, but the likes of Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Wynonie Harris, Big Maybelle, Odetta, Brownie & Sonny (!), Jr. Parker, T-Bone Walker, a.o. were on the bills. I once spoke briefly with Parker in his dressing room at a show with Duke/Peacock roots – Mr. Lee & the Cherokees, O.V. Wright, and Bland among the performers – but took it no further than that. I was new to the game, so a brief conversation, a request or two, and a snap with my Minox 16mm “spy” cam, was all I did with him. Harris I was able to snap as he left the building after his performance for that show (Bob Porter used it on a Phoenix LP of his stuff)… I didn’t stay for another and try to interview him. He was constantly on the move! I saw Big Maybelle backstage in her dressing gown and took no pictures and didn’t venture to speak with her out of uncertainty – my mistake, for both Maybelle and Harris did not live too much longer. Such is life. Even though my experiences with B.B. had so far been good, I was still quite a shy and retiring sort, and held back from imposing myself into a situation in which I was the interloper and probably did not understand. Not many White guys around in those days.
What follows, thanks to Bob Eagle, is a piece I wrote for BLUES UNLIMITED No. 58 (pp. 9/10) back in 1968 regarding Apollo shows:
This, the third edition of the Apollo’s yearly blues show was a bit of a mixed bag. The first one in 1965 had B. B. King with Witherspoon, Jimmy Reed, Muddy, Bobby Bland and the Soul Stirrers and was a smash hit artistic-ally and at the box-office. This is where Stanley Dance ‘discovered’ B.B. and he covered the show in his JAZZ JOURNAL column. My own review of that is one of those “well… next week” affairs! I can still do it, since I taped the thing. The second one I missed due to not being in the country, but Mr. Dance covered it well in JJ. – King, Bland, ‘Spoon, T-Bone Walker, Brownie & Sonny, and Odetta(?). This most recent one was a failure financially and like I said, a mixed bag musically – I hope it doesn’t preclude another edition next fall!
This particular show led off with T-Bone again and he did “Woman, You Must be Crazy”, a good slow number with very fine guitar playing. A down beat critic recently wrote that Walker was his own worst accompanist at the Pacific Jazz Festival, but on a good night he’s hard to top. “Come on Home To Me” or “Every Night I Have to Cry” were among his additional numbers – slightly more sprightly in tempo and replete with some of his guitar tricks. Old age creeps on – he’s not doing splits any more!
Wynonie Harris followed and ripped off a couple of semi—salacious items – “Sally Zu Zazz” and “Wasn’t That Good?” – in tremendous form. Here is a singer of fine talent and humor, possessing a great voice, hoarse but powerful… and when was HE last in a recording studio? The down-home addicts will not agree, but Harris is one of the better straight singers about.
The Chambers Brothers came on next – they were not so good as their first album – less good blues. I guess California, and psychedelia, and “hippieness” have had their influence! Even so, they are quite capable as an R&B group and when the spirit moves them they can put out some good blues. Willie Chambers was especially good on guitar. Joe Turner followed them with “Well, oh Well!”and “Chains of Love” – even stoned this man comes on strong as hell and was well received.
The amazing Big Mama Thornton followed the comedy act and did she break it up! Leading off as expected with “Hound Dog”, followed by George Gershwin’s “Summertime”, she just swept up the audience with “Swing on Home” and some fantastically fine blues drumming and had a hard time getting off the stage! This was the first time I had seen her work and was I impressed! I disagree with the editors though and consider her more than a hell of an act; she’s a very fine blues artist. She had burned her lip that week and played no harp until the last show when she responded to my query with a “what the hell, it’s the last show…” and proceeded to do her version of Junior Parker’s “Mother-in-law” which had the audience gasping – that’s one hell of a lovely person and an immensely talented lady.
Jimmy Witherspoon had the unenviable task of following Thornton, but he managed to do just as well as far as the audience was concerned. Singing “Kansas City”, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” (a classic) and his recent song, “Past Forty”, ‘Spoon had the people in the palm of his hand. Here is a real stylist who can sell a lyric so well – probably the best of the straight singers around today (as opposed to those who also play an instrument, to let out B.B.) He was so good and ‘on’ that he pulled an impromptu encore that had the M.C. a bit flustered in the last show. Damn but that man can sing so well, it’s maddening!
Lastly came the show’s headliner – Odetta – and that was the big error to my mind. She’s a lovely voice and all, but didn’t belong in this company. After all who preceded had sung so well and meaningfully, she sounded wrong and hollow: The wrong female closed the show.
As mentioned before, this edition was not a smashing success – a point duly noted by M.C. Del Shields, who spoke at the end to the audience of blues and its position and meaning in the American Negro ethos and tradition. He also advised people not to ignore something that was unique and beautiful, for to do so might result in the loss of something very important. As an outsider, I can only agree completely. Types like us are an unimportant minority as far as the blues world and the music business are concerned. Truly the interest must come from the originators them-selves….the situation is not completely bleak, but could be considered a bit precarious. And we are relatively powerless to do little more than comment, document, and wonder!
Peter B. Lowry, New York, October 1st, 1968
Photos: Pete Lowry
I have noticed one mistake in my writing of this piece right off – regarding the first show that I mention from ’65, it says that the Soul Stirrers were one of the acts. That is incorrect and it should have been The Soul Sisters (“I Can’t Stand It”, a.o.), a pair of large women singers earlier known as The Two Tons of Fun. They later on had disco fame as The Weather Girls (of “It’s Raining Men”!). Whether or not that’s my mistake or Simon Napier’s, I cannot remember at this far distance in time who may have made that Freudian slip! Suffice it to say, there were NO gospel acts on any of the blues shows: those were celebrated in their own all-star collections of quartets, etc. that also played The Apollo a few times a year. And I never went to any of those productions because I was too blindered by blues that I was not interested back then. Such a fool was I!!!
The Apollo ran alternating musical shows (w. a “half-time” comedian in each show) with second run films – four or more shows a day. It was a hard slog with only the time of a film in between shows for relaxing, eating, sleeping, or socializing. I have covered my impressions of the fabled Amateur Night in O&S #56 – it was quite an audience-involved experience! At the end of each amateur show, it was the audience’s applause response to each performer that was used to adjudge the winner for that night. Repeat winners might later get hired for paying gigs there, or possibly a recording session… it varied. My recollection is that in the mid-sixties it was held late (ca. midnight), but I could be wrong, my aging mind being what it is. It was a tough audience, which is why many folks in the business say that they got their start through Amateur Night shows. And many notables did so besides Gladys Knight or Ella Fitzgerald. The latter was entered as a dancer who ended up singing out of stage fright… and won!! Success with Chick Webb’s big band followed her win, then a lengthy career as a jazz vocalist of note (no pun intended!). I suspect that there are also some who lay claim to winning there, but were not even on those shows at all, but liked the cachet saying it gave them*.
It was an interesting feeling being one of few stray White folks at the shows, or backstage. I was at first quite scared, but people were all nice to this funny looking Whitey from North Jersey that I eventually became reasonably well accepted and even almost blended in. My interest in the music was genuine and I was non-threatening (to the max!), so I was allowed free entry – Spain, the large gentleman on the stage door knew me rather well for some years. I am honored to have had that experience and wish that I had taken more advantage of my freedom there, but one does what one can do at the time that one can do it. Do I hear an “Amen” out there? It would have even been possible to have made a journalistic/folkloristic career simply of the theatre, the performers, the MCs, the comics, and the house band. It was important as a venue and as a community landmark for Harlem. End of sermon!
* Ted Fox’s book SHOWTIME AT THE APOLLO (paperbacked ca. 2003) is a good place to start, as is AIN’T NOTHING LIKE THE REAL THING: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment. Ed. by Richard Carlin and Kinshasha Holman Conwill. (2010) if one is interested in more of the story – it began in the 1930s and is still happening today, against all odds!
PETER B. LOWRY
Thanks to Bob Eagle for the copy of my old BU article.