MOJO Time Machine: James Brown, George Michael, Little Richard And More Celebrate Harlem Apollo’s Birthday

On 5 May, 1985 star-studded Motown Returns To The Apollo marked NYC venues’ 50th anniversary


by Fred Dellar |
Published on

5 May, 1985

James Brown once claimed he would rather play for the ‘old folks’ at the Harlem Apollo than at the White House. Elvis during his first trip to New York, sat in the stalls there, transfixed as he watched Bo Diddley send the audience into a frenzy. The Beatles too placed it on their ‘must-visit’ list when they made it to the Big Apple.

Just a few of the reasons why on May 5th 1985, a large number of men wearing tuxedos, accompanied by an array of spectacularly dressed women, were to be found at the subway station at Rockefeller centre on New York’s 49th Street and Sixth Avenue. They were there to join in the theatre’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations and gala reopening with Motown Returns To The Apollo, a TV special with a host of the label’s stars. Guests duly piled aboard a special 1948 A-Train to Harlem’s 125th Street, where after being serenaded by Motown hits en route, they exited to walk two blocks of red carpet leading to the Apollo. “At that moment, 125th It must have been the safest place in the world,” filmmaker Charles J Dorkins told Jet magazine: “Thousands of cops with their gold braided top officers filled the blocked off street. Motown sure knows how to throw a party.”

The Apollo had been kicked around in its time. It had started life in 1913 as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, a ‘whites-only’ venue. When burlesque was banned by New York’s mayor in 1932, the venue closed and fell into disrepair until 1934, when it reopened as the 125th Street Apollo. For a while it became the Mecca of all things great in black music, helping to launch the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Dionne Warwick, the Jackson Five and scores of others. But by 1976 it was on the skids again - a seedy movie fleapit, one that was closed down following the death by shooting of an eight-year old boy. Following a series of further ups and downs, in 1983 it was bought by African-American media company Inner City Broadcasting, receiving federal and city landmark status that same year. The reopening of the theatre followed a multi-million dollar renovation.

James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Diana Ross On The Bill...

The Motown Returns To The Apollo show wasn’t short on glitz. Pop-soul singer El DeBarge was on first, singing his hit Rhythm Of The Night: The New York Times reported that his “vibrant, upbeat performance set the tone for a musical event that brought together such diverse talents as James Brown, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr., Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Sarah Vaughan and Stevie Wonder, along with white British singers associated with soul music like Rod Stewart and George Michael of the duo Wham!”

To that list can be added the names of such as Billy Preston, The Four Tops, Boy George, Luther Vandross, Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett Thelma Houston, Billy Eckstine and a huge array of major stars including Sarah Vaughan, who performed Body And Soul, the song that won her first prize at the Apollo’s fame Amateur Talent night many years before. Other past Apollo heroes such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Jimmie Lunceford and Moms Mabley appeared on screened archival footage. A young Sammy Davis Jr. also made his presence felt via filmed material, before returning in the flesh to lead an array of legendary dancers, including Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs and Harold Nicholas in what would prove one of the evening’s most memorable moments. The show closed with the whole cast assembling onstage for version of Foreigner’s I Wanna Know What Love Is.

Diana Ross had been appearing in Atlantic City that very day, but flew back in time to take part in the grand finale. She appeared leading the cast, standing out front and clutching a hand microphone. Then she made a fatal mistake, and handed the mic on to the next singer - who happened to be Patti LaBelle. LaBelle hadbeen involved in a grudge match with Miss Ross since Cindy Birdsong had quit Patti’s Bluebells in 1967 to become part of The Supremes. Given the opportunity to upstage Ross, she hit the power soul button with aplomb, raising cheers from the Apollo audience. “She gave me the mic and I used it,” said Patti. The two divas never spoke again until meeting at Oprah’s Legends Ball in 2005. “We sat at the same table,” LaBelle recalled. And, after years of ignoring each other, she and Ross started talking and eventually exchanged phone numbers.

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