The History of 20th Century Black Music Lies in Harlem at the Iconic Apollo Theater


May 31, 2024

It’s not just a landmark of Harlem, but a cornerstone of Black musical performance. 

On Harlem‘s legendary 125th Street sits a pillar of Black music history: the Apollo Theater. More than just a venue, the Apollo has been a launchpad for legends, a testing ground for rising stars, and a vibrant showcase of Black artistic expression for over a century.

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According to the theater’s website, The Apollo’s story began in 1914 as a burlesque theater. However, a shift occurred in 1935 when Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher took over. Recognizing the limited opportunities Black performers faced elsewhere, they transformed the Apollo into a haven for Black artistry. This decision proved pivotal. Singers like Ella Fitzgerald (who famously won Amateur Night at only 17), dancers like Josephine Baker, and musicians like Duke Ellington all graced the Apollo stage, solidifying its reputation as a premier destination for Black talent.

Perhaps the Apollo’s most enduring legacy lies in its legendary Amateur Night, a tradition dating back to 1934. This weekly competition became a breeding ground for raw talent. Aspiring singers, comedians, and dancers faced the notoriously demanding, yet ultimately supportive, Apollo audience. Winning an Amateur Night wasn’t just a trophy; it was a springboard to stardom. Icons like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and The Jackson 5 all launched their careers under the Apollo spotlight, forever etching their names in the theater’s history.

In 1987, Showtime at the Apollo debuted, forever changing the landscape of American television. Hosted by the likes of Steve Harvey and later, Mo’Nique, the show captured the electrifying energy of Amateur Night and introduced a national audience to the unbridled talent and infectious spirit of Black music. Viewers across the country witnessed the power of gospel singers, the smooth moves of soul dancers, and the fierce energy of R&B groups. Showtime at the Apollo was a celebration of Black culture broadcasted into living rooms nationwide.The Apollo Theater’s impact on Black music is undeniable. It has fostered a community for Black artists, provided a platform for their voices to be heard, and helped propel them to national and international stardom. Even today, the Apollo continues to be a vibrant center for Black music, hosting renowned artists, emerging talents, and of course, the ever-thrilling Amateur Night.


Because of the Apollo Theater, we can!

Cover photo: The History of 20th Century Black Music Lies in Harlem at the Iconic Apollo Theater / Credit: Kate Glicksburg

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