The APOLLO, 1966
It was in the fall of 1964 that I first timidly ventured backstage at the fabled Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem to meet B.B. King. A major (and successful) first attempt at connecting with a blues musician by this shy WASP guy from northern New Jersey! Over time, I managed to be accepted to some degree by the denizens there: being remembered by Spain on the back door being particularly useful for my entrées. I was able to blend in as well as one of my ilk was able and I treated one and all with deference and respect. I knew my place! (see O&S #73 and #74 for more.) For the first few years, I would show up whenever B.B. King was headlining; later I went for other shows besides B., but he was my main interest (see O&S #82) and linkage to that world.
In 1966 the management decided to take a risk and book what was essentially an all “blues” show, something that had not been done for some time, if ever. [My copy of Ted Fox’s Showtime at the Apollo is en route by sea here with multitudinous other books in my personal library – I recollect something about the origins of the show being in there. Stanley Dance makes reference further in his contemporary piece displayed below.] So, a chance was taken by the Apollo’s booking powers-that-be. And what a show it was… in order of appearance, The Soul Sisters, Jimmy Witherspoon, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King.
This was too good to be true and I had to do something extra because of its uniqueness, so I smuggled a tape recorder (back before the great cassette scourge or “smart phones”). I’ve forgotten any technical details (or even the brand name) about the machine except that I was able to bring it into the theater with no problem. I recorded the show with a single microphone (the one that came with the recorder) clipped to the lapel of my sport coat, as one still dressed well in those days in the big city! Especially in Harlem. I do remember one facet of the machine, though, which helped me amazingly. There was no need to turn the tape over to record on the other half of the tape. Just push a button and it reversed direction and began recording in the opposite direction via as second “record” head. So, no fumbling about in the dark to change “sides”! I set the thing at 3¾ ips and Bob’s your uncle.
Seated about 1/3 of the way up from the stage on the right-hand aisle, I had good audio “line-of-sight” with the theatre speakers and also got a decent room sound. It was actually my first venture into field recording, but I didn’t know that at the time! This may not sound like much technology and one could assume that the result would sound muddy – au contraire, mes amis! You must remember that this was well before Woodstock (’69) and the massive sound systems developed for outdoor show, not to mention Marshall stacks for the players. There were amplifiers for each guitar (probably unmic’d), but the few microphones on stage were for the vocals only. And there were two small stacks of theatre speakers that did double duty, as the standard Apollo format was a second-run film alternating with a musical review. This was recorded on a Thursday afternoon/evening… the second show of the day: the day of the week was the last in their show’s weekly run, as Mr. King mentions near the end of the show. The announced gospel program was to begin the next day!
Some months later I read about that very show in JAZZ JOURNAL as the subject of one of Stanley Dance’s monthly “Lightly & Politely” columns (June 1966, p.15: #1046, “Putting it in the Swamp”, in fact!). Stan was a great jazz writer, plus he was Duke Ellington’s long-time amanuensis, as it were. He had come up with the term “mainstream jazz” to counter other labels like bebop (which he did not care for too much) or traditional (which was too old fashioned), and give a tag to those of the generation musically after Louis Armstrong and before Charlie Parker. Stanley felt that there were rightly a whole bunch of such musicians who fit neither of those available categories and who should be honored, written about, and were still in top musical form. You know, those folks who peopled the big bands of the ’30s and ’40s! His piece from JJ is below, with its strong jazz perspective, thanks to British scholar Alan Balfour’s extensive archive:
So, a review from the POV of a jazz maven! I found it all overwhelming and wonderful from my inexperienced POV, and thought that it was fantastic. There was a band prelude (Reuben Phillips?), some announcements for the following week’s gospel show, and then “The King” came on with “How Blue Can You Get”, getting a great response from the packed house to the lyrics. The Soul Sisters I knew from listening to WNJR-AM* out of Newark, NJ, both at home and at college – the signal was strong enough to get that far. They had been known earlier in their careers as “The Two Tons of Fun” with Johnny Otis, and later as “The Weathergirls” of “It’s Raining Men” disco fame! Witherspoon came on next and suavely did three fine blues numbers of varying tempi, connecting well with the audience in his asides to them. He knew his audience and their shared cultural knowledge! After ‘Spoon, there was a comedy trio whose identity I’ve forgotten as I stopped recording, not knowing how much tape left and being conservative… my bad. Jimmy Reed came on after the comedians, doing two songs; “Big Boss Man” went on too long, but he, too, made audience connections with “Going to New York”. Black folks listened to blues lyrics from a different perspective to such as I (and most of you).
Muddy was next up, but his band came on first without him as would be the case in a club setting with James Cotton doing the recent Slim Harpo hit “Baby, Scratch My Back” as Mud’s preamble. After that, the man hit the stage with two songs from his repertoire that connected once again… even with “Mojo”! Bobby Bland then quietly slid onto the stage and riled up the ladies with five of his hits; as a friend of mine once said after another Bobby Bland show, there wasn’t a dry seat in the house! Hardly a matinee idol in looks, but he was one hell of a moving singer. Joe Hughes was his fine guitarist – I do not remember if Bobby had his full band or was using B’s – who hit the “Stormy Monday” breaks beautifully (n.b. – Stanley’s wife, Helen Oakley, has written the only bio of T-Bone Walker, a worthy read.), leading into one of my favorites of Bobby, “Too Far Gone to Turn Around”. Then came the headliner, Riley B. He played and sang at the peak of his abilities, and was as successful in his way at grabbing the folks’ attention as was Bobby in his. He had four more songs (after the show-opener), sliding his singing and playing into the skies, down to the ground, and way back to the cheap seats in the balconies! There was plenty of fantastic guitar playing (like Miles, he knew when NOT to play and had a tremendous sense of dynamics), and stunning melismatic singing. He, too, did one of my favorites, “All Over Again”, his then-current hit single. It all ended with a short finale along with some announcements – he praised George Benson who he first caught playing at Minton’s Playhouse in the evenings, a fact that Stan mentioned as well. To use a letter-day term, it was a blues love fest that actually made money for the management. Similar all star shows came along for a few years afterwards – I was usually there, sans machine, quite happy just to hear the music and go backstage and meet some greats of the genre^, maybe take some pictures. One lucky bastard, eh?**
Addendum: It has dawned on me that this was my first field recording, predating my 1970 trip down South by four years. I just never considered it as such!!
PETER B. LOWRY Sydney Nov 16, 2016
*It was a black radio station that played all sorts of stuff on its various shows, including Elmore James, Harmonica Joe, Jimmy Reed, as well as Bobby and B.B. WWRL-AM was a lesser musical alternative, but WNJR was “da bomb” for me in those days. (More on that another time!) It was a Rollins Broadcasting station at the time I was listening, a national chain of black oriented and owned stations.
**See O&S #73 and #74 for additional Apollo commentary!
^ APOLLO THEATRE: 24 March, 1966… second show
– play list –
Band fade in: “I May Be Wrong (But Think You’re Wonderful)” Henry Sullivan/Henry Ruskin (1929) – this song was apparently the go-to introductory number at The Apollo for decades played by the house band.
Intro: “Everyday I Have the Blues” – full cast A. Sparks/M. Sparks (1935)
B.B. King: “How Blue Can You Get” L. Feather/ J. Feather (1949)
The Soul Sisters: “I Can’t Stand It” Smokey McAllister (1964)
The Soul Sisters: “Foolish Dreamer” Gene Redd (1964)
Jimmy Witherspoon: “I Don’t Know” Willie Mabon (1952)/C. Lofton (1939)
Jimmy Witherspoon: “Ain’t Nobody’s Business (if I do)” P. Grainger/E. Robbins (1922)
Jimmy Witherspoon: “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” J. Witherspoon/J. McShann (1946)
Jimmy Reed: “I’m Goin’ to New York” J. Reed/M. Reed (1959)
Jimmy Reed: “Big Boss Man” L. Dixon/A. Smith (1960)
Muddy Waters Band: “Baby Scratch My Back” [James Cotton] J. Moore (1965)
Muddy Waters: “Five Long Years” E. Boyd (1952)
Muddy Waters: “Got My Mojo Working” P. Foster (1957)
Bobby “Blue” Bland: “Honey Child (Nobody But You)” D. Malone (1964)
Bobby “Blue” Bland: “The Feeling is Gone” D. Malone (1963) [segue to…]
Bobby “Blue” Bland: “(They Call it) Stormy Monday” A. Walker (1947)
Bobby “Blue” Bland: “With These Hands” D. Malone (1965)
Bobby “Blue” Bland: “Too Far Gone (to Turn Around)” C. Otis/Hendricks (1965)
B.B. King: “Why Must I be Tormented?” F. DiMartino (1947)
B.B. King: “Let Me Love You” Storch, Spencer/Houff, Kameron/Smith, Shaffer (? Rec. 1965)
B.B. King: “All Over Again” C. Adams/R. King (1966)
B.B. King: “Sweet Sixteen” R. King/J. Josea (1960)
B.B. King: announcements and finale.
Excellent piece, Peter! Please keep sending them out.