Misses 104 – Apollo, bis
We all tout our “hits”, and rightly so, for from them our knowledge and appreciation of the music grows. What we seldom mention is our many “misses” out of embarrassment or some such similar feeling. This is a series of pieces on mine – I make no apology for them, save being only one person in a world of the 70s where nobody seemed to give a damn! Money and time have to be rationed, and there came a time when I did not have much of either to spare; therefore not EVERYthing could be done, no matter how hard I wished it could have been.
One experience that I DID have at The Apollo when visiting B.B. King backstage was to be there when he had a visitation by Redd Foxx, then the most popular Black comic on that level. He had not yet made the transition over to the mass market of television with “Sanford & Son” and was at the pinnacle of the Black circuits (along with the likes of Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, a.o.) many unheard, or unheard of by White folks. Foxx did something about that when his series was a commercial success and brought many of the older chitlin’ circuit comedians onto the show in bit parts. Foxx entered B’s dressing room and proceeded to regale all and sundry for at least a half an hour. And then he left. I can vouch that it is possible to laugh so hard for so long that your ribs are sore… it happened to me that day at The Apollo! Painful, but funny as hell and quite an experience.
– THE JEWEL BOX REVIEW:
Not all shows at The Apollo were of African American music; one was The Jewel Box Review, which was an unique drag show that would play the house for a month at a time! Billed as “25 Men & a Girl” with an addendum that you cannot tell one from the other or who’s who (or what). Apparently the one female member often appeared in drag as well, seemingly the one “male” performer in the troupe. Cross-dressing was nothing new in African American theatre – Black vaudeville had many such acts, most little known to “us” today. Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon was a short (barely over 5’ tall) singer/dancer who often worked shows as a female impersonator (as well as being one of the first Black disc jockeys on radio). “Classic” blues artist Gladys Bentley mainly worked in male attire on stage: Bessie Smith even worked in drag early in her career. Such presentation was acceptable, at least on T.O.B.A. stages and the like, to Black audiences and sexual predilections were often paid little attention. The talent was what was appreciated, not the gender. That leads into The Jewel Box Review.
One favorite spot for the Jewel Box was the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. For most of the 1960’s the show was a favorite there. Just about every year for the entire month of February, the Jewel Box would play three times a day. Jewel Box was a big hit! It was profitable for everyone involved, and it kept the staff of the Apollo Theater fully employed during a month that in the past had been notoriously “slow”.
The show was a lavish revue that always had three big production numbers: an opening, a middle, and finale. In between there was a non-stop parade of comedy, impressions, song and dance.
Unfortunately a local [Black] nationalist group made threats against the Apollo. This group claimed that presenting the Jewel Box Revue at the Apollo was glorifying the gay lifestyle, plus a threat to black culture and the black family. This all came down in 1968, and Apollo management buckled under the pressure.*
Unfortunately, this was one of the repeated annual shows that I never went to out of my disinterest at the time. Rather a long way from upper middle class New Jersey, although I spent summers on “Fire Island”, a location renowned at that time for its one gay town/settlement, Cherry Grove. [Jack Parr once said on The Tonight Show that it was easy to get there – butterflies left Times Square every half hour.] I remember going through “The Grove” one time with some other kids and seeing a sign in front of a house that said “Trespassers Will Be Violated”. The inspiration for Mr. Clean summered there – we’d see him walking on the beach! Now I realize that it might have been amusing, entertaining, and educational! Such is life.
– THE GOSPEL CARAVAN:
In 1955 Thurman Ruth, leader of The Selah Jubilee Singers/The Larks, suggested to the Schiffman brothers who owned and ran The Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem that they allow him to put on a show of top gospel groups. These Gospel Caravans became an annual, often biannual, affair on that stage. Over time, various local gospel radio DJs like Fred Barr & Doc Wheeler from radio station WWRL, or Joe Bostic of WLIB would compère the show, usually mainly a series of quartets, with occasional solo singers. Choirs were a later development in gospel music’s development and James Cleveland was greatly responsible for that rise in popularity. He would often MC later shows there. My recollection of the ’60s is that the gospel singers would play the usual week’s shows, but some references indicate that it was only on Friday nights – maybe someone out there can edify me?! That may be a latter-day scheduling thing, long after I stopped going up to Harlem.
Basically there was “church” in the form of a gospel “program” of singing (as opposed to a full-fledged worship service) on the stage of the Apollo Theatre. I did attend one such “program” in later years (the early1980s) while in Philadelphia; it was an anniversary celebration for the The Caravans held in some local auditorium. Current and past members of the group were there and performed as the closing “act” to the show, while a ream of other groups preceded them in a salute to their history and importance. As with the Apollo shows, the show began with local groups, then those of lesser national status up to those with acknowledged “star” status in the field.
I regret not going to any of those gospel shows, but my interest in African American music hadn’t blossomed that far yet. As I have indicated, one does what one can do and is interested in doing at the time! But I did get to shows a bit later that were world-class and non-blues: James Brown, for one, and Ike & Tina Turner. Still, had I lived in Manhattan I might have partaken of more of the musical riches that trod the boards of The Apollo Theater, but 20:20 hindsight is always crystal clear and frustrating, isn’t it.
It was interesting to be me and going to places like The Apollo. As a minority there, I at first felt scared and uncomfortable for I had no idea how I would be received on site. But I was respectful, showing interest in the music along with some degree of knowledge, and that was enough to get me through the backstage door and past Spain, the doorman. While I was limited in my scope of interest at that time and therefore missed out on what would have been some other wonderful shows (Isaac Hayes in his Black Moses period, anyone!), it was always a fascinating and educational experience. To be accepted there, even at the no-doubt superficial level on which it took place, was a great honor to me for which I am eternally grateful.
To say that the place is important historically for African American musical culture is a gross understatement. That it is still or once again active is something of a miracle, for I do believe that most such theatres are literally long gone – the demise of The Regal Theatre in Chicago being just one example. There were once strings of venues (theatres and clubs) often known semi-derogatively as “The Chitlin’ Circuit”. (A recent book has been published with that title, subtitled “And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll”, written by Preston Lauterbach and published by W.W. Norton (2011) NYC. Generally well-received by reviewers, I found it lacking in many ways.) It’s a topic that deserves greater investigation. There are a few decent books that are specifically about The Apollo… that is the best known of the locales in this world?
“Over Thirty Years On The Road…The Jewel Box Revue”
PETER B. LOWRY