By Walter Rutledge
The annual Apollo Gala has become one of the premiere uptown events. The star studded casts and celebrity laden audience recalls the glamor of the original Harlem Renaissance. This year the format was slightly different; instead of paying homage to a music legend, we were invited to honor the legendary Apollo Theater on the concert hall’s 80th anniversary.
Like many “grandams” the Apollo has had it’s share of highs and lows, but it is now enjoying the recognition it so rightfully deserves. Presenter Darren Walker fittingly said, “This is more than a concert hall, it is a cathedral”. And in true Apollo style the evening began with the 26 piece Ray Chew Orchestra performing a medley by jazz royalty; Count Basie’s April in Paris and Duke Ellington’s Take The A Train.
Returning host Wayne Brady cajoled the audience of Apollo well wishers before introducing the incomparable Natalie Cole. The statuesque and svelte chanteuse donned a form fitting silver gown, and serenaded the crowd with the smooth sounds of divas (and a divo) from yesteryear Mr. Paganini and What A Difference a Day Makes were homages to Jazz and Apollo legends Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. Cole brought down the house with Let There Be Love, a song made popular by her father Nat King Cole.
This segued into Gladys Knight’s powerful and stirring medley of The Man I love, Stormy Weather and Somebody to Watch Over Me. Knight made us think, “If only these walls could talk!” Theses two ladies both expressed how humbling it was to be on the same stage as the legends the honored in song.
Joss Stone’s soul charged rendition of James Brown’s iconic It’s A Man’s World and the Australian quartet Human Nature’s tribute to Motown were examples of the transcendental power of American R&B music. It also reinforced the enormous role the Apollo Theater has played in bring the music to the world stage; living up to the moniker as the place “Where Stars Are Born and Legends Are Made”.
Host Wayne Brady was the consummate host. His talent as a natural “think in your feet” host, allowed him to roll with the punches. Whether singing with newcomer pianist Matthew Whitaker or rapping to Hip- Hop great Doug E Fresh’s human beat box rhythms this charismatic and versatile performer wowed the crowd.
Savion Glover followed a clip of the Nicholas Brothers in the finale of Stormy Weather. He acknowledged the dance legends that called the Apollo home. Later Glover joined Fresh on stage to tap dance with his human beat box.
Gospel innovator Edwin Hawkins closed the show with the Hawkins Family groundbreaking Oh Happy Day. A youth chorus from P.S. 22 joined him onstage, and the joy and exuberance was clearly evident. It was also a reminder of the Apollo’s rich gospel pedigree. Immediately following the performance patrons were treated to a reception in a tent erected directly behind the theater.
On Wednesday evening the Apollo was a cathedral, a venerable edifice for the arts. Over the last 80 years the Apollo has been not only Harlem’s, but also America’s epicenter for African American culture. Happy 80th anniversary Apollo!
Shahar Azran Photographer