Monday, 24 October 2011

Harlem's Apollo Theatre - An Interview with historian and curator Billy Mitchell by Jim Emery

"Welcome to the Apollo Theatre!"
Billy Mitchell delivers the history of Harlem's legendary venue for the umpteenth time but you would never guess from his enthusiastically youthful delivery. The aluminium walking stick he leans on from time to time belies this sparky demeanour and he is unstoppable.
At the end of our time together I notice he has been holding court for over two hours. Not only has he given the official Apollo tour to a group of thirty tourists from five different countries, he has also been juggling many calls to his Blackberry, selling his book, giving private extended tours and dealing with his nephew who has dropped by but is happy to join the tour and listen to his uncle in full flow. Billy has seemingly inherited the title of the Hardest Working Man in Show-business from his friend and sponsor James Brown.
Fortunately for me the coach of German sightseers expected is late giving me a golden opportunity to roam the legendary stage and breathe in its history. It is a moment I have thought about for many years and the shivers did not stop racing up and down my spine for the duration. The seating and the stage may have all been replaced just ten years ago but the gold friezes and cut glass chandeliers are dripping with songs and stories, many stretching back nearly a century.

Billy Mitchell
Starting out as a burlesque house in 1914 it took a further twenty years to become the place where the cities black talent would brave the boos of their brothers and sisters every Wednesday for Amateur Night. The advent of this key decision was decisive in the theatre's fortunes but Billy was keen to put it in the correct historical perspective.
"Harlem was a Dutch and Irish neighbourhood at the turn of the century," he said in unusually sombre mode. "My African brothers built Manhattan and these slaves lived around Wall Street and what is now the financial district. They were buried there too. Thankfully their bodies got repatriated to their homeland."

Over the next few decades the majority of Harlem's inhabitants would be black and it was their Renaissance that helped lift this grand theatre above its rivals. Soon enough the household names that emanate from our stereo and iPod speakers today filled the Apollo with the sound of their first nervous footsteps in the entertainment world up the steps and onto the stage.
The smile returns to Billy's face as he reels off a list of the early winners of the Amateur Night: Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Frankie Lymon, The Isley Brothers, Bobby Darin and Dionne Warwick. Each name is accompanied by Billy singing a snippet of one of their best known songs in a beautifully understated tenor and when he says the name possibly most associated with the theatre, James Brown, he also does a little funky shuffle before steadying himself with his walking stick.

Our host joins the story in 1965. "I started out as an errand boy running around getting anything the acts wanted; sandwiches, dry cleaning, you name it." it was soon after he started that he met the two stars that would change his life in more ways than one. Marvin Gaye and James Brown paid for the young gofer to go to college. He must have made some impact on the Godfather of Soul as Mr. Brown supplemented Billy's income for the rest of his life.
"I don't tell too many people that. He was a kind, kind man. He was a real friend." Billy says in a hushed voice.

Another legend in Billy's circle is his best friend Denzel Washington. Friends since childhood this revelation comes as no surprise since he has already shown me a picture taken on his ever present Blackberry of him with his arm around the current First Lady. “She’s a real nice lady, so sincere." Billy beams.
With such regular access and interaction with the world's most famous people it is rare for Billy to ever get starstruck but it does happen. The last time was last December when Sir Paul McCartney played here as part of his unofficial never ending tour of famous venues (100 Club) and once in a lifetime gigs (The White House).
"He asked me to introduce him on stage. He took a real interest in the history of the place and he wanted me rather than his regular introduction."
There is an eternal modesty about 'Mr. Apollo' that is undeniable.
"He asked me to pray with him before the show and then I went on the stage that I love and introduced Paul McCartney. Man, what a night."
As he talked about 'Mick and the boys' and how he was with Maxine Brown 'two weeks ago' and then casually remarked that American radio legend Hal Jackson is his daughter's godfather the myth that well connected people live the life too was shattered.

McCartney, Sting & Springsteen autographs
Billy doesn't struggle now like he did as a kid when he had rocks hurled at his head and endured the racial abuse that was so common on the streets of America then, but he is still not living the life he thinks he deserves. It's not down to ego, it's down to politics.
"Affordable housing? That's just a phrase dreamed up by the bureaucrats." Once more the smile disappears and the walking stick trembles slightly in a disillusioned hand. "Sure it's affordable to somebody. Everything's affordable to someone but affordable housing ain't affordable to those that in reality are going to live in those brownstones in Harlem." And that includes Billy after a fashion. Sure, he can afford to live in Harlem if he and his wife are willing to downsize (studios start at around 1700 dollars a month) but he would rather have the nice home outside of the neighbourhood he loves so much. That is the paradox of New York City.

However, people still flock to the Apollo from Harlem as well as farther afield as the current management team will not let the Nationally Registered building fall from its pedestal and continues it's Amateur Night every Wednesday (they were setting up the stage for one the day I was there among some loud hip hop hip beats punctuated by the odd profanity). It also draws the top names in the music industry who want to tick it off their bucket list. Recent performers that have also scribbled their name on the walls back stage are Bruce Springsteen, Sting and a returning Stevie Wonder.

The Tree of Hope
Another part of the ritual is the rubbing of the Tree of Hope, a portion of tree trunk mounted on a small column that every act has helped rub smooth with nervous sweat for luck before stepping out under the spotlights. I spent a good two minutes stroking its surface that has been touched by everyone from the first female winner back in the mid-thirties, Ella Fitzgerald to the unknowns of a network pilot being filmed the night before my visit.
The Apollo still does all it can to help talent from all areas of the arts. If it's deemed too underground for the big stage they use an area backstage six months a year to showcase these acts. Seats are fifteen dollars and the place heaves with appreciative audiences warming to the originality during the winter months in freezing New York City.

If you can make it go along to one, or if you're up for a night in the main auditorium Billy recommends the first three rows in the centre section on the upper mezzanine.
"The cheap seats, the bleachers. Man, they have the best time in these seats. I can get you tickets if you want."
Would that I could but I am flying back to London that night. I will wait to see them playing the half time show at the Superbowl in the not too distant future.
"Well you are welcome any time brother." Billy reassures me.
And so are you. Get in touch, he'll look after you and he'll gladly tell you everything he told me and more. And it'll sound like the first time he's ever told anybody.

Jim Emery 2011

Many thanks to Jim for contributing the great feature and photos.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely article and Billy Mitchell sounds like an absolute diamond. Cheers for sharing!