Showtime! The Apollo Tale, Retold
A GRAPHIC NOVEL DEPICTS HIGHS AND LOWS; WHO’S LOU?
Almost every Motown principal has an Apollo Theatre story.
In his autobiography, Smokey Robinson recalled how poorly prepared in 1958 were the Miracles for their debut at the historic New York venue. “We weren’t ready,” he wrote. “Weren’t nearly ready. We had our one little hit, but our routine was still raggedy. Didn’t even have real arrangements for the house band.” Headliner Ray Charles stepped in to help the group. “Never will forget that week ’cause in spite of Ray’s arrangements, we bombed,” Smokey admitted. His inability to dance didn’t help.
Berry Gordy confirmed those miserable circumstances in his own book, while the Motown monarch’s second spouse, “Miss Ray,” told of another awkward occasion. The couple accompanied Marv Johnson to New York – in a 1959 Volkswagen bus driven from Detroit by musician Popcorn Wylie – for the singer’s Apollo debut. “I don’t give a damn who you are and who you are managing,” she recalled the theatre doorman saying when they walked up to the back door. “Marv Johnson, who the hell is that? Nope, can’t let you in. Go buy a ticket and come in the front like everybody else.” Eventually, he was instructed to admit them.
Five years later, Motown stars were receiving a warmer welcome, although the no-frills nature of the Apollo dressing rooms was apparent in the now-iconic photograph taken there of Robinson teaching a new song to the Temptations. This was, of course, “My Girl,” introduced to the quintet when they, and the Miracles, were performing at the theatre in early October 1964.
A less-familiar tale is one from June 1969, when the Temptations were playing the venue once more. This time, the action was in the office of Apollo top dog Bob Schiffman, where he and his PR man, Frank Long, were in the company of Don Foster, personal assistant to Berry Gordy. Joining them were three men associated with a New York-based organisation called the Fair Play for Black Citizens Committee. This trio, fronted by Clarence “Mookie” Jackson, was not happy, accusing Motown of failing to support black causes while being all too ready to back Jewish and other white agencies. The atmosphere was ugly.
“I understand, from Mr. Bob Schiffman, [that] they have intimidated other artists and disc jockeys in the New York and Miami areas,” wrote a Motown security official in an internal memorandum of June 17 that year. He promised that an effort would be made to find out more about the Fair Play Committee. “According to Don Foster,” the memo concluded, “he has mentioned [the incident] to the Tempts.”
Subsequently, Motown learned that the “committee” had crime connections, and was seeking to infiltrate R&B-formatted radio stations to extort money from record companies. Then, as now, showbiz had its seamy side. One of the disc jockeys celebrated for his role in Apollo history, Tommy (“Dr. Jive”) Smalls, was caught up in the payola scandal of the early ’60s, and convicted. Smalls was one of many characters – there’s no better word – who populated Ted Fox’s definitive 1983 account of the Harlem theatre, Showtime at the Apollo. (I trust that Bono read the book before U2 played their show there this past Monday, June 11.)
Fox painted a fascinating picture with his prose, from the venue’s beginnings in the 1930s to its enduring reign as a showcase for the best in African-American music over the decades: swing, bebop, rhythm & blues, gospel, soul, funk and hip-hop, as well as dance and comedy. This arc included the theatre’s several declines and rebirths. Moreover, it was evident that Fox had done exhaustive research; he interviewed, among others, Sammy Davis, Jr., Billy Eckstine, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Otis, John Hammond, Ahmet Ertegun, Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight. (Also, the book was dedicated to Detroit’s Little Willie John.)
“The Motown operation became a major supplier of acts for the Apollo because they had so many,” Schiffman told Fox in one account related to the rise of Gordy’s enterprise. “They had a young fellow named Lou Zito who became the emissary and controlled the destinies of all the Motown acts.” Fox added an anecdote about Zito’s failure to be announced by the receptionist when he once arrived at the Apollo, and how this caused a ruckus with Bobby’s father, Frank Schiffman. (Given the credentials which Fox assigned to Zito, it’s curious that he is a little-known player in Hitsville history; the credits in Gordy’s autobiography only name one Zito – Margaret, presumably Lou’s widow.)
Anyway, the good news is that Showtime at the Apollo is to be republished early next year as a graphic novel, with the stories of Motown performers – and many, many more – told anew with the help of imagery by artist James Otis Smith, inspired by Fox’s original text. This shrewdly identifies the stars and stories which exemplify the Apollo’s unique place in American culture, while creating a fresh, visual dimension to attract younger readers with its striking series of two-colour graphics. “I hope it reads like an epic tale,” Fox told me recently, “complete with compelling figures and events that I doubt much of the audience will be familiar with – but should be. For my part, I was able to describe these scenes that have been in my head for nearly 40 years, and guide the artist to get the art done right.”
In one segment describing how the Apollo booked the first Motor Town Revue in 1962, Bobby Schiffman is depicted recalling the day when Berry Gordy and sister Esther Edwards visited him in New York – and how he was entirely unfamiliar with the artists being pitched. “I’ve never heard of any of them,” Schiffman said. Nevertheless, as history confirms, the Revue was booked into the 1,600-seat venue that December, near the end of its 15-state itinerary which began in October. “The package cost the Apollo $7,000 for the week,” revealed Schiffman, “and soon most of those people were getting $40,000 to $50,000 a night, each.”
Not everything is as upbeat and uplifting. Just as in Fox’s original book, the graphic edition illustrates the prejudice and conflicts which impacted the Apollo and uptown New York. These include the Harlem riots of 1943, sparked by an incident at the Braddock Hotel, a favourite hangout for Apollo entertainers; they are brought dramatically to life by Smith’s art. Another life-threatening moment occurred in December 1975, when a gun-toting teenager was killed in the theatre during a performance by a Motown superstar. “Like a pro, Smokey Robinson finishes out a successful week,” runs the caption to Smith’s graphic depiction, “but says he won’t come back.”
To those accustomed to the deep detail and insightful minutiae of the original Showtime at the Apollo, the new edition is lighter, literally and metaphorically. “My aim,” explained Fox, “is primarily to tell the story to a younger audience – under 50, actually – who are comfortable with, and enjoy, this format. My challenge was to hone my comprehensive book into a compelling, focused narrative.” Many colleges and high schools are using graphic novels to teach history, he added.
If this approach is what’s required to celebrate and sustain cultural institutions such as the Apollo, so much the better. Fox and Smith are to be commended, as are U2, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, Guns N’ Roses, Bruno Mars and others for keeping the palace on West 125th Street in the public eye in recent times. Showtime at the Apollo will be available in this new form in January 2019, published by Abrams ComicArts to coincide with the Apollo’s 85th anniversary that month.
To conclude with a bit more drama – albeit sketched by words, not pictures – let’s return to that June ’69 meeting in Bob Schiffman’s office. According to the Motown memo, the conversation also covered “the incident in 1967 or 1968 with Marvin Gaye, which was perpetrated by Mookie Jackson.”
“The incident”? The few who were involved with that and who are still living are unlikely to recall the detail, even if they cared to. In telling his life story to David Ritz for Divided Soul, Marvin mentioned one occasion which might be related. “The only time I ever came up against anything resembling the mob was at the Apollo,” the singer said. “Some guys came into my dressing room saying they wanted to manage me and mentioning something about an ice pick. I treated it like a joke, told them to get out and never heard from them again.”
During the past 84 years, showtime at the Apollo was undeniably memorable for hundreds of thousands in the audience – but evidently not always entertaining or joyful for those backstage.
Music notes: Crudely recorded though it was, Motor Town Revue Vol. 1 is authentic and exciting to this day, with the line-up of artists as illustrated above. The LP was released soon after the package tour's ten-day run at the Apollo in December 1962, and made its Billboard chart debut 55 years ago this month. It was reissued on CD in 2005 as part of The Motortown Revue Collection, which is how you can hear the music on streaming services today. Enjoy.