Picks and Pans Review: Amateur Night at the Apollo
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)
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