NEW YORK — Few American stages have produced as many music legends as Harlem’s landmark Apollo Theater, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary, and not many people know more about its rich past than its long-time historian Billy Mitchell.
Since 1934, the Apollo has launched the careers of many of America’s greatest black artists — legends of blues, jazz and soul, swing, gospel, Motown, funk and hip-hop.
“Before they had success, they started here and went on to become legends,” said Mitchell, 64, who was 13 when he began working there, running errands for performers.
Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald was a teenager when she won an Apollo amateur night contest in 1934. And, 30 years later, guitarist Jimi Hendrix won one at 22.
In between, the Apollo has showcased jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, singers Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, composer and bandleader Duke Ellington, singers James Brown and Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and many more.
Mitchell’s own history is deeply entwined with the Apollo and the legends it has produced. Over the years, he worked as an usher, coordinated amateur nights, guided tours and eventually became the theater historian in the early 1990s.
One of his fondest Apollo memories is the day in 1967 when The Jackson 5 first performed.
“They rocked this stage,” he said, recalling with wonder how 9-year-old Michael Jackson brought the house down.
“That man was a gift, by God,” Mitchell said. “I’ve never seen anyone, before or after, anywhere else, do what Michael did,” he added.
The “Godfather of Soul” James Brown performed at the Apollo more than 200 times and, along with Motown legend Marvin Gaye, helped put Mitchell through college with their generous tips. Brown was always pushing him to read and study hard, he recalls.
Mitchell’s tasks involved doing a bit of everything. He made sure B.B. King had a hot meal waiting after each performance. He took food orders, pressed clothes and shined shoes for Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson.
For all the Apollo has given him, Mitchell is intent that he and his family give back. His daughter is currently working part time in the gift shop and over the years his brothers, nephews and grandson have all been employed there.
On Tuesday night the Apollo celebrated its glorious history with a gala celebration and performances by Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole, The Isley Brothers, Doug E. Fresh, Joss Stone and others.
“This place is more than a concert hall or a performance space,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a theater supporter. “It is a grand cathedral.”
As Knight appeared on the stage she looked out at the crowd and summed up the sentiment of many of the artists who performed there, and its historian.
“It’s good to be home,” she said.