Apollo Theater Gave Rise to Black Stars for 85 Years Including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Snoop Dogg and Beyoncé

HBO just produced a film about the legendary Apollo Theater whose 85-year history boasts of famous Black artists who rose from its stage and had memorable performances there. 

In light of HBO’s groundbreaking film, “The Apollo” about the 85-year-old iconic theater in Harlem, new attention is being directed toward what was and continues to be a platform for many Black stars.  

“It’s always been the jewel in the crown of the theaters on 125th Street..."

Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams who was tasked to direct the HBO documentary was surprised to learn that there has been no documentary about the famous theater until today.

“It's got 85 glorious years of the history of black entertainment and all the incredible talent that was birthed on that stage and [the fact that] there hasn't been a documentary was shocking,” he told Fortune.

Having survived a near-bankruptcy in 1981 and the threat of new theaters, the Apollo Theater remains an icon and has been immortalized as part of the National Museum of American History. 

Thus, it was important for Williams to develop a film that would not only focus on the theater’s history but would also establish its role in the present day.

A BREEDING GROUND FOR FAMOUS BLACK ARTISTS

Not known to many of today’s generation, the Apollo Theater gave rise to most famous Black artists they’ve heard of in many decades. This includes the likes of Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, and Ray Charles, to Michael Jackson, Destiny’s Child, Jay-Z and Nas. 

Located in the heart of Harlem on West 125thStreet, the Apollo Theater became the home of Black performers since it opened in 1934 and Ella Fitzgerald won its famed Amateur Night. 

In June, Lady Gaga graced the theater's stage in leather, the same stage where Sam Smith sang opposite Mary J. Blige for the first time. 

“The theatre’s story is really the story of how black America lifted itself out of oppression through music and art,” Williams explained to The Guardian. “The artists who performed at the Apollo paved the way for everything we have now.”

Patti LaBelle got her start in the theater and James Brown considered it his second home that his funeral was held there.  

THE STAGE FOR MANY FAMOUS PERFORMANCES

Among the artists who had memorable performances in the famous landmark were Beyonce with Destiny’s Child in 2000 and Michael Jackson who opened for the Democratic National Committee benefit concert in 2002. 

In memory of the late Michael Jackson, the Apollo Theater's marquee paid tribute to him following his death in June 2009. | Photo: Getty Images

In memory of the late Michael Jackson, the Apollo Theater's marquee paid tribute to him following his death in June 2009. | Photo: Getty Images

In 2006, Aretha Franklin marked her return to the famous theater after 20 years with an unforgettable show. 

Jay-Z and Nas hit the theater’s stage in 2007 while Bruno Mars chose to stage his “24K Magic" concert on the theater’s iconic marquee in 2017. 

In June, Lady Gaga graced the theater's stage in leather, the same stage where Sam Smith sang opposite Mary J. Blige for the first time. 

WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE APOLLO

Having survived a near-bankruptcy in 1981 and the threat of new theaters, the Apollo Theater remains an icon and has been immortalized as part of the National Museum of American History. 

Theater president and CEO Jonelle Procope reveals there are plans for expansion. 

“It’s always been the jewel in the crown of the theaters on 125th Street and right now, we are about to expand for the first time in our 85-year history,” he announces

Two more theaters will reportedly be built, a 199 and 99-seater, as well as condominiums, a hotel, and a cultural space. 

“There really is no performing arts center in the country that focuses on the African-American narrative, so that's who we want to be,” Procope says as he assures that Amateur Night, the Music Café for rising musicians and the comedy club will continue. 

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