Tina Turner, the “Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll,” says she first appeared at the Apollo in 1960 as part of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. Wearing microscopic skirts and stiletto heels, she exuded raw sex appeal on stage long before Madonna and Beyoncé ever drew attention for risqué displays.
The Apollo, previously a burlesque house for whites only, opened in 1934 to racially integrated audiences. Its reputation as a stage on which performers sweat to win the affection of a notoriously critical audience and an “executioner” shoos unpopular acts away can be traced to Ralph Cooper, the actor, radio host and longtime Apollo emcee. It was he who created the amateur-night contest, a Wednesday fixture and audience favorite that aired on local radio.
Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher, who bought the theater in 1935, adopted a variety-show format; promoted the amateur-night contest, eventually heard on 21 radio stations; and spotlighted big bands. In May 1940, the New York Amsterdam News reported, the theater turned nearly 1,000 people away from a sold-out Count Basie show that the paper called “the greatest jam session in swing history.”
“During its first 16 years of existence, the Apollo presented almost every notable African-American jazz band, singer, dancer and comedian of the era,” co-curator Tuliza Fleming writes in the exhibition’s companion book.
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