June 9 – 12, 1968
The English weekly music newspapers Record Mirror, New Musical Express and Melody Maker reported about the British invasion in USA in 1964-65. Artists were given a chance to fulfill a dream – to go to The Apollo Theatre. The Rolling Stones were completely ecstatic and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards allegedly said these famous words after seeing the Hardest Working Man in Show business, “You can put Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard on one half of the stage. No one is going to notice them when James Brown comes out on the other half.”
Elvis visited The Apollo Theatre, with Bo Diddley headlining, at his first time in New York when signing a contract with RCA Records.
Then the Beatles arrived and when exiting the airplane in England, George Harrison carried a Major Lance album under his arm while John Lennon praised soul singer Timmy Shaw’s “Gonna Send You Back To Georgia” when the group was a guest with Swedish Radio host Klas Burling.
George Harrison was a true soul-connoisseur and voted for Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle as Record” of the Year in Record Mirror’s yearly poll (1964/65). At the same time Tom Jones (in the audience) was invited by Chuck Jackson to join him at the Apollo stage. Lennon had to wait until 1971 to debut there.
On June 9th, a Sunday morning, the plane landed at Kennedy Airport. It was two hours late and through a student counsellor I got the address to a cheap hotel – The Times Square Motor Hotel on 8th Avenue and 43rd Street. Despite very little sleep I didn’t stay there long. I soon found myself walking in the direction of Harlem.
I stopped outside Jack Dempsey’s bar in Times Square. The champ had not yet turned up to welcome his patrons. The early summer sun was filtering through the glass windows on a few guests.
I passed by Madison Square Garden.The debris from a huge boxing gala lay in droves on the sidewalk. As an avid reader of boxing oracle Nat Fleischer’s columns in Swedish newspapers and his book 50 Years at Ringside I stopped again for a minute of silence and reflection before I continued to Central Park.
The sun was at its zenith and the park was full of people.The notes from the Intruders’ “Cowboys to Girls” (a Gamble and Huff song) found its way from a transistor radio.The wind and the distance prolonged the interval between voices and accompaniment into a cosmic back beat. Everyone there; cyclists, thick girls and baseball players of different skin colours merged into it. I loved it – and soon found myself on the other side of the park.
Robert Kennedy had been shot a few days before, and was buried today. Three months earlier, Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
Many sad and hungover people were in a state of shock on Lenox Avenue. Nobody cared that a white guy was moving in on prohibited territory. Water hydrants had been opened and acted as public showers. A single luxury sports car slid slowly by.
Eighty blocks and a couple of hours later, I passed through people standing outside the Apollo on the sidewalk all the way up to the corner. Many were half asleep and stood perfectly still except that their heads nodded occasionally, at this meeting place for junkies.
I was in front of the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. Time was around three o’clock in the afternoon. I read the following names on the classic marquee outside:
Jive Five, Jean Wells, The Spinners, the Delfonics and topping the bill: JERRY BUTLER.
I quickly hurried in, past this week’s artist’s publicity pictures, and bought the cheapest ticket at $2. I had had already spent $14.75 for the hotel and given 50 cents to a beggar. Not to mention the bus and taxi from the airport. It was expensive in America. (A freelance reporter for English soul magazines with a combined circulation of maybe 2000 copies did not get paid.)
In the hall there were also larger lobby cards with popular artists from the R&B and Soul Hall Of Fame. I ran up the stairs to the second row balcony. It was a very steep balcony – Stories exist about ecstatic spectators standing on the railing to the tunes of “One O’Clock Jump” or “Flying Home.” Earl Hines Second Balcony Jump was based on a real event, it was said …
I had timed my entrance perfectly in the middle of the opening act’s first song.
On stage were the Jive Five. But they were only four, and these four men were moving in beautiful, intricate, synchronized movements poetically emphasizing the content of the lyrics. Their lead singer was Eugene Pitt. He was one of the founders of the group. They had lost the fifth member during their journey.
When they performed their last hit “Cry Like A Baby” (Musicor) they moved their arms tenderly from side to side, as if cradling/rocking a baby, without standing still for a moment.
A young man, with a clean shaven, polished and shiny head (probably second lead singer Richard Fisher) was given more room on “Sugar (Don’t Take My Candy Away)” or “Strawberry Kisses” as I first thought it was called – after a prominent line. This was a very strong opening act. They had started as a doo-wop group but now moved into soul.
Jean Wells, a rather short, young lady made her debut at the Apollo with two great songs “Try Me And See” and “Have A Little Mercy.” The latter was perhaps the highlight of the whole show. It contained dramatic lines such as the opening “I never ever thought I’d live to see the day.” Her performance was even better than the recording. She walked from one side of the stage to the other with the microphone cord hanging behind her. What an afternoon! All fatigue was blown away.
The next group on stage were The Delfonics. They were on the rise and very popular among girls who screamed their hearts out. They sang in falsetto, which in Africa can be seen as an expression of masculinity. They started with “I’m Sorry” which was a sequel to their biggest hit “La La Means I Love You” that followed. It was a polished group with a rather feminine appearance. The choreography was very elaborate but felt powerless compared to the Jive Five. Despite their newly found popularity they were the weakest act on the show. Over the next years, they became one of the bigger groups in the United States. They recorded in Philadelphia where soul was polished to a musically complex but often rather lifeless product. I felt that this was an attack on the true soul music of the 1960s.
Then came the comedian Arnold Dover. His main function was to give the Reuben Phillips Orchestra a well deserved and needed break to leave the stage and stretch their legs. His repertoire consisted of a fairly predictable mix of sex and race relation jokes. He imitated John Wayne, Billy Eckstine and Robert Mitchum and showed how a country boy who came to a big city dance hall behaved.
Time for The Spinners. They started with a rather weak version of “I Got Rhythm.” Everyone stood around the same microphone and sang in unison. It was barbershop and sounded like the Four Freshmen. Then came their showstopper – the Motown Impressions. They caricatured other Motown acts and performed some of their biggest successes: Four Tops: “Reach Out For Me, Temptations,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg;” Contours: “Do You Love Me;” Marvelettes: “Don’t Mess With Bill;” Miracles: “Mickey’s Monkey;” Supremes: “Stop in The Name of Love.” The potpourri seemed to be a few years old but it was greatly appreciated by the audience, especially their imitations of the girl-groups. They used the same number of singers as the groups had; five for the Temptations imitation and four for the Contours, the Four Tops and the Miracles and three men for the Marvelettes and the Supremes.
But they had saved the best for last: Stevie Wonder and Finger Tips. That must have been right on the dot. The crowd nearly fell out of their chairs in delight. My original notes suggest that after a while they continued with “Uptight.”
The Spinners had not had a hit in a while, and it would take a few years before they had a second breakthrough. They were a highly skilled, professional and polished group, but I was a little surprised at their later successes as the show indicated that they wanted to take a place on the oldies and perhaps nightclub market. In 1968 the Spinners, whose first major success was winning the the Apollo Amateur Contest, was more like a local act that Apollo hired when they had no other in store.
Gladys Knight had been in the same situation a few years ago. These groups always did well and the Apollo kept them under their arms when they had no hits. When things were well again Apollo could always count on them performing at the Apollo, despite that they had better paid assignments waiting for them. In the early 1970s The Spinners and The Temptations broke the attendance records at the Apollo.
Jerry Butler was the main attraction and his set was longer. He did six songs on stage. He was a cool guy and had gotten the nick name “The Iceman” (hopefully before it had a connotation to hired assassins). He seemed to be on top of things and was later to engage in business activities. But despite being such as cool singer he spread a warm atmosphere in the audience.
After a long period of success at Vee Jay Records, he had made a comeback at Mercury with the Gamble and Huff team. His wonderful baritone voice can be heard on the Mercury successes “I Dig You Baby” and “Mr Dream Merchant;” “Never Gonna Give You Up” had just entered the charts.
Today he made an outstanding version of “For Your Precious Love” with a fine guitar solo and good versions of “The Look Of Love” and “Let It Be Me” and a great version of “He Will Break Your Heart.” Jerry had brought his own guitarist who also served as musical director for the Reuben Phillips Orchestra during his set.
This was black singing and a crystal-clear diction with a very talented singer who only on one occasion lost control. When Jerry sang the sentence “When you said you’ll be my girl” from “For Your Precious Love” a young woman from the audience shouted out an ambiguous “When you sock it to me!” Then Jerry could not keep from laughing like the rest of the audience.
Before he started singing, he pointed out that it was now ten years and a day since he and The Impressions had started on the road to success with “For Your Precious Love” at this very stage. Then he sang to the reflecting light of a discotheque ball spinning around.
One can only criticize him for what he left out. Everything would have been perfect if he had sung “Moon River” and “I Stand Accused.”
The order of the songs could change a bit but the first show was like this: “I Dig You Baby” / “Let It Be Me” / “The Look Of Love” / “For Your Precious Love” / “He Will Break Your Heart” / “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
Orchestra leader Reuben Phillips with his orchestra was in charge of the accompaniment of all singers. It was evident, but still OK, that the band had their musical background in jazz music. (I never counted the members but I think it was around fifteen.)
It was time for a movie break. Jack Schiffman has said about the Apollo films that they should simply be so bad that the audience cannot stand to sit and wait for the next show. The better the music, the worse the movie. Otherwise, the spectators could sit there all day on the same ticket.
When James Brown appeared they showed “The River,” a more than one hour long film about water. Oceans with waves and rivers that flowed and sparked even the weakest of bladder reflexes so that those who were waiting in queues could take the places of those who went to the toilet.
Today’s film was about a Swede on a ski holiday in Austria. Long ski scenes alternated with boring shots from the breakfast table at the hotel. It took a long time for the Swede to eat his breakfast and read the Huvudstadsbladet – the Swedish speaking newspaper from Finland.
It was a travel agency and tourist film that used to be shown for free back home. After seeing the movie twice I can’t help thinking of this film whenever I see the Huvudstadsbladet. Which is not that often, luckily, as the paper is printed and read in Finland.
The second row balcony was an eagle’s nest or rather a ledge for vultures. Here sat the theater’s most critical spectators. The poor artist who did not find favour here was eaten up. Not one speck of flesh remained of his career, at least that day. But nothing happened when I was there. My focus was the stage. I don’t remember what the crowd was doing. I saw the show twice. In principle, the shows were completely identical.
Suddenly I was back on the street again. The show was over. It had been a fantastic day but in the cool evening air, I regained my wit and senses. It was after eleven at night and dark and the atmosphere felt much more threatening than in the glorious sunshine in the afternoon.
Why had I not deposited my cash in the hotel safe? How could I be so stupid that I found myself in the middle of Harlem, after dark with all my funds, passport and tickets? I looked around … Was there a metro sign somewhere? (But I did not even know then how it looked like.)
Who could I ask? To stand and wait at a bus stop might only make things worse …
I started walking up 125th street but only after half a block I was hit on the back and one arm and heard a crazy scream in one ear. Half paralyzed with fear, I almost sank through the asphalt, when I saw an oddly dressed, middle-aged black, small woman with a big hat and the jerky movements of a mentally ill person, hurry past me. She disappeared in the dark. From Bobby’s Records, on the other side of the street, I heard James Brown’s latest hit “There Was A Time.” Then I discovered a sign saying “Metro” in the next street corner and paid 20 cents for the ticket. I was saved!
On Tuesday I bought a small transistor radio ($13.50) from one of Times Square’s radio businesses which have a continuous sale sign in the window.
I looked around in record shops and saw an almost complete range of all Atlantic LPs in mono (Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, Clovers and Joe Turner, etc.) on sale for 1-2 dollars each. Mono LPs were purged from the US record stores. I decided to buy them all when I came back again, so I did not have to carry them around the USA.
I walked to Atlantic Records. I was unannounced but managed to have a brief chat with Bob Rolontz, the head of promotion. I booked a round-trip air ticket with stops in nine cities for $317 (Chicago-Memphis-Atlanta-Miami-New Orleans-Houston-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Detroit and back to New York).
On Wednesday I went back to the Apollo. I wanted to see the legendary Amateur Night show. It was packed and I paid $3 for a seat on the parquet. Audience reactions would decide who won. The names of past winners were presented on the screen – Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Inkspots, Sonny Til & The Orioles, Joe Tex, King Curtis, Chuck Jackson, Little Willie John, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Shep and the Limelites, The Clovers, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, The Five Keys, James Brown and a few others who made it big later.
Many male and female sex-workers and transvestites had taken their seats and lodges in the first and second row. A forest of blond wigs were seen there. Not so visible were many representatives from record companies.
Honi Coles was the master of Ceremonies. He debuted in 1931 at Frank Schiffman’s Lafayette Theatre, and was a tall, skinny dancer. He met Cholly Atkins (later Motown choreographer) when he toured with Cab Calloway’s Orchestra (1940-43). They formed a dance team.
Honi Coles had been responsible for hundreds of amateur nights. They were first called the Harlem Amateur Hour, at the Lafayette Theatre between 11 and 12 pm every Wednesday evening; starting already in 1933.
(Readers may remember that Honi was portrayed in a TV dance program in the 1980s where Sandman Sims also demonstrated his sand-dance).
Honi and comedian Junkie Jones pulled a few bad jokes to get the audience in the right mood. It was election year (Humphrey against Nixon) and Junkie promised that if he was elected president, he would ensure not only “one chicken in every pot, but also some pot (= hashish) in every chicken!”
On the usually sparsely decorated stage a stump of wood was placed. It was the remains of the Tree of Hope that was planted outside the Lafayette Theatre. Nervous and superstitious competitors could “knock on wood” here.
The competition started, and Honi said that the Apollo audience had the reputation of being the very toughest, but if you won their heart, you could win everywhere.
First on stage was a young lady called “Timpy Lince” (all names in this section are phonetically spelled). She sang Aretha Franklin’s Ain’t No Way. She had not sung many lines when the audience began to applaud. Her voice was a fine mix between Aretha and Tina Turner. Definitely my favourite of the evening.
Next came Mark Liggins. With a very weak voice he started singing “I Believe,” perhaps best known in Roy Hamilton’s version. The audience started booing and he could not continue. Honi gave him another chance but after a while the booing was so loud that Junkie Jones rushed in with a gun wildly firing blanks. His costume was indescribable – he wore several brassieres outside a dress with floral pattern plus a bunch of rags in different colours. Mark stood frozen as a statue on stage, but when walking out he began to dance the mashed potatoes a la James Brown in protest. It looked really funny and the crowd started laughing and gave him their loud support again.
Next gentleman, Charles Holiday sang “For Your Precious Love.” It was of course stupid to follow the Jerry Butler original version in less than an hour. Charles tried to be different by adding kneeling, crying and screaming at the end. But the audience saw only the exaggerated and grotesque in this added James Brown drama. They had probably seen hundreds of James Brown imitators before. I thought it was good though.
Connie Singleton entered. She sang Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love You.” Towards the end she lost her voice and became hoarse. But then the booing was loud too. It was a failure.
John Swan sang Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny,” in the wrong key. The Reuben Phillips orchestra had to start again. The audience – of all ages – was disappointed.
A fool on the right side in the first balcony honked his horn (a trombone) when the singing or stage performance, in his opinion, became intolerable. The rest of the audience might shout and applaud or laugh, though. This was a big happening.
Janet Coleman, a roundish lady from Harlem, attacked Linda Jones “Hypnotized” but the audience was unimpressed.
The next participant, Richard Brooks, looked like a winner when he nonchalantly danced around the stage. But as soon as he opened his mouth he was lost. The gunslinger rushed out on stage and scared him off with a burst of shots.
Jimmy McClinton from New Jersey sang “I Wish You Love” in a very professional manner, just like Nat King Cole. He looked very relaxed with one hand in his pocket, and silenced all the laughter and booing, which had grown to a hurricane during the latest performances. He received thunderous applause at the end.
Then it was time for the dancer Barbara Galloway. During her performance two wildly fighting men fell in from the side of the stage. A young boy called Little Jesse (12-13 years old) knocked on wood and danced very well for his age.
Charlie Henderson from Florida based his performance on James Brown’s “There Was A Time.” He began by saying “I may not be like James Brown, but at least I’m on stage!” Unfortunately, he could not dance but was a good singer.
The final act had won last week’s tournament. The group of four singers were appropriately named The Apollos. They had brought their own guitarist and drummer and did two numbers: “I Dig You Baby” – was almost on par with Jerry Butler’s version, and a falsetto ballad was highly appreciated too.
Then the poll took place. The contestants getting the most applause won. These were the winners and in this order:
1) The Apollos
2) Jimmy McClinton
3) “Timpy Lince”
4) Little Jessie.
The lucky ones, who won four times in a row, got a one-week engagement at the Apollo. The Apollos were already well underway. Despite what appeared to be chaotic and spontaneous, all involved in the Amateur Night followed a predetermined pattern that of course was difficult for the first first-time visitor to grasp. Everything seemed unpredictable and overwhelming. Alongside Honi Coles, who offered a brief dance number at the beginning, the most important roles were played by Junkie Jones and Sandman Sims.
The legendary Porto Rico, who first drove away the unsuccessful contestants by firing blanks, was a sound engineer. It is logical that the man with the most sensitive ears would object first. Eventually this part was taken over by Junkie Jones in the early 1960s.
The dancer Sandman Sims, with a trombone and wearing a sombrero, was sitting in one of the low set lodges to the right of the stage. He summarized the audience’s reaction and alerted Junkie Jones.
Many big stars had their first breakthrough at Apollo’s amateur night. This evening was perhaps an exception. I never saw any of tonight’s contestants become superstars in the 1970s and 1980s. The show ended around half past twelve. Dazed and sweaty we streamed out into the humid Harlem night. The streets were full of people. It had been a very enjoyable night. There was so much happening – it is hard to imagine that the show only lasted a little over an hour.
It was time to go home and pack and leave for Chicago tomorrow. The Regal Theatre in Chicago was my second stop at the Theatre Circuit. Jive Five and Jean Wells were going there as well. Stevie Wonder, Shelley Fisher, Maurice and Mac and Detroit Emeralds joined them.