In the words of Michael Jackson, the theme of the Apollo's 80th anniversary on June 10, 2014 was "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," and Michael would have been proud of the unforgettable celebration at the iconic theater on 125th street in the heart of Harlem where he entertained many times as lead singer of The Jackson Five. The Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight, and Natalie Cole headlined a tribute to the historic venue’s rich 80-year musical legacy for the annual Apollo Spring Gala which raised a record $2.3 million.
Ray Chew ("Dancing With The Stars" musical director) and his orchestra kicked off the party with two legendary compositions, Count Basie's "April In Paris" and Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train," setting the tone for a magical evening encompassing the history of black music during the past eight decades at the Apollo.
Cole was the epitome of grace and elegance as she performed the music of "Auntie Ella," Ella Fitzgerald, singing "Mr. Paganini,” as well as Dinah Washington's "What A Difference A Day Makes," and a song her father Nat King Cole often closed his shows with, "Let There Be Love."
It was an night of classic music heard since 1934 at The Apollo, and Gladys Knight took the baton from Cole, offering her very special interpretations of Lena Horne's "Stormy Weather" and Fitzgerald's "Someone To Watch Over Me.”
From the mellow mood of these jazz standards, British soul singer Joss Stone turned up the heat, breathing fire as she passionately belted James Brown's "This Is A Man's World" in tribute to the Godfather of Soul who brought the house down at the Apollo over 200 times.
As host Wayne Brady remarked about how the music of the Apollo traveled across the world, Australia's four man vocal group Human Nature followed Stone and continued to demonstrate the international impact with a stellar rendition of Motown hits that would have delighted Berry Gordy Jr. Presenting an excerpt of their Las Vegas show produced by Smokey Robinson, Human Nature brought Vegas to Harlem and wowed the VIP crowd with the tunes of Smokey and The Miracles ("Ooo Baby Baby"), Diana Ross ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough"), The Temptations ("My Girl" and "I Can't Get Next To You"), The Jackson Five ("ABC"), and Stevie Wonder ("Uptight").
Ronald and Ernie Isley, who were inducted the following day into the Apollo Walk Of Fame, turned the clock back to the 60s, 70s, and 80s with hits from each decade: "It's Your Thing" (1969), "That Lady" (1973), and "Between The Sheets" (1983).
Known as primarily as a music hall, the Apollo has been a showcase for a wide variety of arts, including comedy and dance. Brady remembered some of the great comedians who appeared on the great stage, including Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, Slappy White, Nipsey Russell, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor. Savion Glover acknowledged many of the amazing hoofers, following a breathtaking movie clip of The Nicholas Brothers’ astounding dance acrobatics in the 1943 film "Stormy Weather." Fred Astaire called their "Jumpin' Jive" dance number the greatest movie musical sequence he had ever seen.
Brady hosted the gala for the second consecutive year, and he remarked, "My heart is so filled to be able to be here at the historic Apollo stage, and to be able to be here for 80 years of excellence.” He added, “This is a piece of American history. This incredible institution has been a symbol of hope, pride, and African-American achievement.”
From comedy and dance, the next segment of this entertaining and educational Apollo history experience was led by "The World's Greatest Entertainer," Doug E. Fresh. He took the audience through the early history of hip-hop with several rap standards, as well as serving as a human beatbox for Brady's freestyle rap. Of course, Fresh performed his signature song, "The Show" from 1985, and culminated his appearance with a truly unique collaboration, providing human percussion for Glover's freestyle tapping.
It was also an evening to appreciate the legendary Apollo Amateur Night, represented by 13-year-old blind piano wizard Matthew Whitaker who brought back memories of Little Stevie Wonder. He demonstrated his keyboard prowess accompanying Brady as he sang Ray Charles' “Georgia On My Mind."
The grand event ended perfectly with a gospel classic that captured the essence of the gala as Edwin Hawkins was joined by a youth choir from P.S. 22 for his 1967 classic, "Oh Happy Day."
Earlier in the evening, Gerald L. Hassell, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, BNY Mellon, received The Apollo Corporate Award. Apollo Chairman of the Board Richard D. Parsons, who has led the board of directors since 2001, was presented with the Leadership Award. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker introduced Parsons, calling The Apollo a "cathedral," and praising Parsons as "the cathedral's patron saint."
“In our nation’s heritage, the Apollo is a brilliant, multi-faceted gem, a bedrock institution in the vibrant history of Harlem, a spiritual force driving artistic creativity and innovation, and a powerful cultural influence in the United States and the entire world,” said Parsons. “To say that it has been a source of enormous pride to the African- American community would be massively to understate the case. That is why I am committed to not only honoring its legacy, but also to perpetuating its unique capacity to contribute to the advancement of global art and culture in the 21st Century.”
Apollo Theater Foundation President and CEO Jonelle Procope, said, “It is humbling to think about the impact the Apollo Theater has had on the development of our culture for eight decades." She added, "The Apollo of today stands at the threshold of an exciting new era. The theater is on the path to becoming one of the nation’s leading performing arts institutions fueled by a dynamic, new artistic vision that celebrates and re-envisions its legacy in a more forward-looking and contemporary way. A place where new artists continue to be awed.”
"Oh Happy Day" it was as the Apollo turned 80 years old, and looks forward to many more decades of excellence.