COME TOGETHER: Celebrating The Beatles at The Apollo
February 9, 2014
Anyone who has ever been to The Apollo for amateur night, a show or concert knows there is something very, very different about this legendary venue. No one knows why exactly, but an outstanding performance here can launch a career. On the other hand, a poor performance can prove to be a harsh experience.
Wikipedia lists some artistic giants whose career started here. "Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown & The Famous Flames, King Curtis, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Wilson Pickett, The Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Rush Brown, Stephanie Mills, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Short, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye,Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Mariah Carey, The Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill, Sarah Vaughan, Jazmine Sullivan, Ne-Yo, and Machine Gun Kelly."
So when New York City decided to celebrate 50 Years of The Beatles' music with a concert series, it seemed only fitting to kick it off at The Apollo. After all, The Beatles revolutionized the industry. Its music influenced several genres of music. And more importantly, The Beatles pushed the boundaries of songwriting and performing.
In the songs they sang, the tempo of their music, the clothes they wore and even their hair, they remained true to themselves. It is always much easier to attain success by following convention; it is much more difficult to establish a high standard for something that hasn't been done before. The latter is what John, Paul, Ringo and George did. And despite being, well, effectively regarded weird at the time, they didn't come off to their audience as strange at all. In fact, many related to their music and spirit. They did so then and they still do so now.
I am always trepidatious of tributes, especially musical tributes. I find it tends to be either really good, boring or downright torturous. Versions of famous songs that survive generations are classics that tend to be engraved in our minds. Even if we don't consciously seek to do so, we measure every other artist's cover of the song with the original. And just like nothing is ever better than the cake your mom used to make or your grandma's pasta sauce, the same is true with music. The connections with our memories run deep, and that's hard to overcome.
The Apollo has seen countless rough starts to performances. Amateur artists are told to rub the The Tree of Hope for good luck (it's really a stump from the original tree that once stood in front of Harlem's Lafayette Theater on 131st Street). Perhaps the tree wasn't quite ready to give its blessings early Thursday evening. Several snowstorms had pounded the northeast U.S., so chances were it was going to be a hard day's night anyway.
Of course, that is not to say that the first set of performances were not good, they would have been hugely applauded in any other venue. But on this night, a night celebrating legends of music by legends of music, in this hallowed theater, a good performance simply was not going to be good enough.
Unlike amateur night when the audience can easily turn and show their displeasure (an Apollo tradition that tests the commitment of even the most serious performers), this audience was quite courteous. After all, the net proceeds from the show would benefit the Food Bank of New York City. Plus the audience seemed to understand that Twist & Shout, both the evening's and music's title implies that fun must come from within anyhow. A majority was simply determined to make that happen.
Samantha Landrum's Don't Let Me Down was entertaining enough. Roseanna Vitro's Here Comes the Sun was appropriate if tame. And although quite good, Ms. Vitro's rendition of In My Life fell a bit flat. One couldn't help but appreciate how Bette Midler's cover was really quite extraordinary in its sincerity and simplicity. The divine Ms M. told a story, she didn't just sing it well.
The warm up really started with Margaret Ross Williams who sang her hit song Chains, also covered by The Beatles. At The Apollo, it is important to make a decision to have fun before one leaves the wings to take center stage. It was clear that the lead singer of The Cookies did so, and it showed.
Still if Margaret Ross Williams is a much needed tall Starbucks coffee, Barbara Harris is an exhilarating triple shot venti. One might imagine that Harris, a seasoned performer, could feel the politeness of the audience from behind the stage and wasn't going to have any of it. With Ms. Ross Williams supplying wind to her sail, Ms. Harris shot out like fireworks from the start, simply wowing the audience. It was she who first showed what it takes to succeed at The Apollo. It is not enough to do your "thing" here, you have to do it with attitude. Ms. Harris's delivery of her hit "Lover's Concerto" was full of that and it brought down the house. That's how it's done people. She delivers the first standing ovation of the evening.
Some other highlights include Here, There & Everywhere delicately performed solo on the piano by Roger Kellaway. Barrence Whitfield's Little Richard-esque cover of I'm Down was high energy and amazing to watch and to listen to. Graham Alexander, who played Sir Paul McCartney on Broadway was engaging (though one wonders why he left the stage so abruptly, as if he had left his iPhone in a cab). This Throwback Thursday also took a wonderful turn during Frankie Previte's I've Had The Time of My Life the song he wrote for Dirty Dancing and for which he won an Academy Award. One could almost see the late Patrick Swayze snapping his fingers, cross stepping as he made his way to the stage.
Danny Aiello teamed up with Hasan to do an interesting twist on Let it Be, interspersing rap with the original arrangement. It was somewhat disconcerting to see Mr. Aiello swagger a bit like a rapper, but perhaps he was just getting into the groove naturally. Meghan Linsey of the winning duo Steel Magnolias (Can You Duet) served notice, belting her heart out in Something. Kitoto Von Hebb honored her father with an understandably nervous performance of Bobby Hebb's unfailingly catchy hit, Sunny.
But of especially delightful note was Emily West who sauntered onto the stage like a Hollywood female icon during the golden years of black and white movies. Her cover of Golden Slumbers was brilliantly haunting. Ms. West's powerful maple voice soared and ebbed seamlessly, seeming to glide up to the rafters of the theater then effortlessly back down burying deep in its core. She threw herself into the song and for a few minutes and a mere few bars that seemed to extend to infinity, she seemed alone in the dark, singing poetic words. We were voyeurs stunned into silence, careful not to move or breathe so as not to disturb the magic. She did the same with a rather comical but oddly morose Why Do Lover's Leave that left the audience feeling confused whether to laugh or cry. Ms. West was simply mystifying.
The old guard (no pun intended) truly brought this baby home. Lloyd Price was priceless with Stagger Lee, though he did get rather lost in a chorus of Hey Jude. Gary US Bonds for whom The Beatles used to open, was wildly entertaining, performing his Springsteen hit This Little Girl. Both men showed whythey are legends. They possess an ease on stage that can only come from wisdom developed through decades of tirelessly performing.
Bettye LaVette took Eleanor Rigby to a dark place I've never heard it go before. Her spunky, soulful delivery leaves one lamenting, "Yes. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Where do they all come from?".
Mary Wilson. What can we say? She's a Supreme in its truest sense. All Ms. Wilson had to do was walk on stage looking sultry, and one could see why The Supremes are legendary. She also threw the evening's funniest line, explaining before singing The Beatles song she picked, that she had to approach the lyric stand closely to read the words. "You know, I only sang OOOH, AAAH, OOH, AHH with Diana before," she quipped to people's laughter. "Yeah, you laugh... I OOOh, AHHH'ed my way to the bank!" Her honest rendition of Imagine was pure and unforgetable, daring us to envision a world exactly as John Lennon had described. It was gospel in a figurative sense.
The initial buzz of the evening was interestingly about the British pop icon Lulu. Even before the concert started, some in the audience were guessing what she would and would not be performing, hoping she would sing at least one of her hit songs. Needless to say, the audience was thrilled when she came out looking funkylicious dressed in black with a matching black hat, singing To Sir With Love. It's a song that's crossed generations, one she sang in a movie in which she also starred with Sidney Poitier. From thrill to ecstasy. That's what happened. Lulu followed it up with her other enormous hit, SHOUT, and the audience was on fire. When Lulu sings, yes, it still feels like a catered party. But that is because she invites the entire audience to join in. She has a way of making people feel like she is someone they know well. And it works.
It was 11:30 p.m and the band that had been playing for four hours now prepared to leave. No one was left on stage but a pianist when Leslie Uggams took the stage and was welcomed with warm cheers. She explained that she practically grew up at The Apollo, when Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and and other greats still graced its stage regularly. She had learned her craft from them. Additionally the exposure allowed her to get to know great artists like The Beatles along the way.
She recounted their first meeting when at the night of the closing of The Paramount Theater, she and the quartet were part of the lineup of performers. At the end of the evening she was introduced to the young musical phenomena. What did they say? Messrs. Lennon and McCartney thought she looked like Shirley Bassey. She didn't know who that was. The only body of water she had crossed then was the Hudson River on the way to Jersey. Although, she was pleased to say she has since become friends with the Dame.
Ms. Uggams sang Yesterday, a song we'd already heard done earlier in the evening by Previte. But Ms. Uggams's interpretation was a mashup with Jerome Kern's Yesterdays. The result was simply decadent and divine. It was so enchantingly rendered that, looking around, one could find a grin of admiration on a lot of faces. Wow, wow, wow, kept going through your head. You were watching a master at work.
The performance reminded one why New York City is an amazing city for those who appreciate true talent. This is why its residents love it. It is why The Apollo is legendary. It doesn't laud good enough. Its spirit thrives in excellence, it reverberates from without to within. It captures moments like these, like fireflies in a magical jar, fleeting beauty but moving, inspiring.
"You're in my house," Uggams now a board member of the Apollo said. And indeed we were. Then the rest of our hosts came together once again for the final and ultimate song. "All You Need is Love," they sang.
True. But what is love without music?
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