- Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment ed. by Richard Carlin and Kinshasha Holman Conwill
The recent untimely passing of Soul Train godfather and the show’s founder Don Cornelius offers us another painful reminder that our musical icons are precious and must be preserved for future generations. That is why the book Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment is a welcome addition to this scholarship.
Edited by Carlin and Holman Conwill, and published by the National Museum of African American History and Culture through Smithsonian Books, we are treated to 264 pages of black music treasures in 200 photos and texts, including a forward by singing legend Smokey Robinson. This volume is the companion book to the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibition of the same name, in collaboration with the Apollo Theater Foundation, mounted to note the seventy-fifth anniversary of the famed Harlem landmark on 125th Street.
The editors write that this theater in Harlem was once”the singular proving ground for performers like no other,” perhaps until Cornelius made his Saturday morning music show a rival in the 1960s and early ’70s.
Reading Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing helped me to relive my high school years growing up in Harlem in the early 1960s, when my brother use to treat me to a weekly ticket to the Apollo’s Wednesday-night amateur hour. This weekly feature at the theater was later made into an equally popular television show that was eventually syndicated around the world. My sister Eleanor sang in an all-girl doo-wop group called the Delphines who were on the bill one Wednesday night, but after fierce competition they lost to an older man who won with a rousing rendition of “St. Louis Blues.” But every Wednesday night for more than seven decades, the Apollo helped to launch the careers of such notables as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Mathis, and the Jackson Five. This same house became center-stage for comic actors like Lincoln Perry, whose stage name in the 1930s was “Stepin Fetchit,” Eddie Rochester Anderson, who later became sidekick to comic Jack Benny, and in later years, comics Jackie “Moms” Mabley and Redd Foxx, noted in later years for his portrayal of Fred Sanford in the television series Sanford and Son. [End Page 490]
Smokey’s first-person narrative sets the tone for this engaging book and injects the keen eye of an observer to history when he relives his first rehearsal in 1958 with singer Ray Charles. The book hosts the writings of twenty-five others, including historians, music critics, performers and critics, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis; Mel Watkins, a former editor of the New York Times Sunday Book Review; and Christopher Washburne, founding director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia University. Together, these essays document the contribution made by this iconic theater to American history and culture, and demonstrate the Apollo’s significant influence on popular entertainment. [End Page 491]