by Ralph Cooper with Steve Dougherty

A fixture of Harlem nightlife for almost 60 years, the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street in Manhattan has helped launch such performers as Sarah Vaughan, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Even now, in debt and in danger of being closed, the theater still enjoys its reputation as a vital showcase for emerging black talent.

As much an institution as the theater itself, the Apollo's weekly Amateur Night has been guided from its inception by emcee extraordinaire Ralph Cooper. With PEOPLE senior writer Steve Dougherty, Cooper has constructed a congenial, gossip-laden history of the venerable venue.

Once half of a dance team, Cooper has also been a choreographer, actor and film producer. But serving as Apollo host has been his foremost gig.

He begins his book with the controversy surrounding the theater's opening in an all-white area and follows the Apollo through its heyday into its demise in 1977 and rebirth in 1983.

Through the years, Cooper witnessed the rise of such stars as Millie Holiday, whom Cooper says he discovered in 1935 in a Harlem spaghetti joint called Hot Cha's, and bebop vocalist Vaughan, who made her Apollo debut in 1942. (Cooper says she "looked like the kind of girl you'd see in a small country church choir.") In the '50s and '60s, soul men Jackie Wilson and James Brown wowed the tough Apollo audiences, and by the '70s it was the effervescent Jackson Five whom every other act was looking to top.

Whether he was introducing a soon-to-be-famous singer such as Gladys Knight or a group going nowhere like Doctor Sausage and the Five Pork-chops, Cooper has always had a word for them all and an eye for talent.

It was at the Apollo in 1955, while watching Bo Diddley, writes Cooper, that Elvis Presley "got his pelvis" and where Michael Jackson later learned to moonwalk, copying James Brown.

And Cooper also recalls a 15-year-old amateur who "came out onstage all jumpy and unnerved." Sensing the house about to explode with disapproval, Cooper stepped out to calm the teenager, Ella Fitzgerald, who went on to win the night's competition.

Chatty and timely, Cooper celebrates himself, but he also celebrates an American landmark that would be nothing short of a shame to lose. (HarperCollins. $25)

by Barry Hannah

Southern writer Hannah (The Tennis Handsome) turns to the old West in this depravedly dark fable. A thorough cad named Nitburg becomes a judge, builds up a dreary town in Texas and names it after himself. Odd characters orbit Nitburg, including a murderous dwarf and a retired sea captain who keeps a pet monkey. When a college-educated pistolero, Fernando Muré, drunkenly torches the Nitburg courthouse, the judge hires a band of gunslingers to track the arsonist down and administer justice, which is to say, put his head on a fence post.

Hannah's prose is compact yet lyrical, as in this passage in which the dwarf predicts how Fernando will fare after kneecapping, one of the book's first violent events: " 'He will go to places slower or have less places to go. I predict he will get back on the whisky full time and stare at sparrows for an indeterminate period. Will collapse from spite and self-pity.' "

The book meanders at first. But by Hannah's brutal climax, he has achieved remarkable control over the tale. The story is so cruel and violent, however, it seems less as if Hannah wrote this slender volume than that he rode shotgun over it. (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95)

by Shere Hite and Kate Colleran

Hite has gotten into trouble for the methodology employed in her "reports" on sexuality and relationships between the sexes. Widely accused of being unscientific, anecdotal and generally lightweight, a lesser ego might have turned her talents to writing, say, romance novels.

But not Hite: Her fourth book (written with Colleran, actress Lee Remick's daughter and Hite's assistant on two other books) is another unscientific, anecdotal and lightweight compilation of quotes from anonymous men and women about their relationships, their sex lives, their feelings on independence and intimacy. Only Hite didn't call this book a report.

The dirty little secret about most self-help books is that if you're of a mind to, you can usually find yourself represented. Like newspaper horoscopes, self-help material is oil en general enough to be vaguely applicable to most everyone; it can be comforting, for example, to read that other couples argue as frequently and viciously as you do, that other women have the same doubts about their mates.

But is there a woman alive who will actually "list the qualities you want...in your relationship. Make another list of what you don't want. Compare the two lists" and then decide whether to end the relationship?

This is typical, simpleminded psychobabble, despite Hite and Colleran's promise that "you might find some answers here about what's going on in love." Mostly what you'll find are whole passages lifted from previous Hite books; dopey questionnaires; faux hearty admonitions: "Of course, we can't mistrust everyone who has a penis!" and such observations as, "It is a wonderful thing to find a relationship that works for you."

Thanks, girls. We needed that. (Carroll & Graf, $18.95)

>DAVE BARRY TURNS 40 BABY BOOMER LAUREATE AND SYNDICATED wit Dave Barry faces middle age fearing he and his peers haven't "acquired the wisdom and maturity needed to run the world, or even necessarily power tools." (Fawcett)

WILDLIFE

A collapse of intimacy propels Richard Ford's discordant fourth novel about a Montana family—teenage narrator Joe and his parents—pursuing an emotionally threadbare life. (Vintage)

YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND Does she nag? Is he uncommunicative? Maybe, suggests linguist Deborah Tannen in her engaging study of gender, language and relationships, you are not even speaking the same dialect. (Ballantine)

  • Contributors:
  • Lisa Shea,
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Sara Nelson.