10 Legendary Apollo Theater Performances You Can Watch Online


On Sunday, the Apollo celebrated its 80th anniversary. While the space has been dedicated to the performing arts since 1914, it was only when the 125th Street Apollo Theatre opened 20 years later that the venue shifted from whites-only burlesque to variety shows geared towards the African-American community in Harlem. With musical legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, and Luther Vandross getting their start at the Apollo (and that’s just the tiniest sampling), it is impossible to list all of the important performances that have occurred at 253 W. 125th Street. But here is a sampling of some iconic Apollo performances that you can experience without leaving your computer.

Bill Bailey (1955)

Years before Michael Jackson was born, tap dancer Bill Bailey was the first person ever recorded doing the moonwalk, in the 1944 film Cabin In the Sky. You can see Pearl Bailey’s brother doing his signature “backslide” dance movie at the Apollo Theater here.

Big Joe Turner (1955)

“Boss of the Blues” Big Joe Turner was one of the first artists to mix R&B and boogie-woogie, resulting in jump blues, a precursor to rhythm and blues and rock and roll. “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was released on Atlantic Records in 1954, and this performance of the song is glorious to watch.

The Supremes (1962)

The iconic girl group first played at the Apollo as part of Berry Gordy’s Motown Revue in December of 1962, with their Smokey Robinson-penned “My Heart Belongs to You.”

James Brown (March 1968)

James Brown recorded an entire album, the legendary Live at the Apollo, in 1962. Six years later, he returned to record its sequel, Live at the Apollo, Volume II. While the first live album was recorded at Brown’s expense, its later iteration was broadcast as an hour-long syndicated television special — which was also one of the first times James Brown appeared on screen in color.

Bill Cosby (1968)

A young, 30-something Bill Cosby made his first Apollo appearance doing standup in the late 1960s, but it wouldn’t be his last. The comedian would go on to host the first Apollo Theatre Hall of Fame and the Apollo’s 75th anniversary gala, among other events.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1971)

At a benefit for the families of the victims of the Attica State Prison riots, John Lennon and Yoko Ono performed “Attica State” at the Apollo. It was a song they penned in response to the Attica prison takeover, a brutal four-day affair that was largely characterized by the government’s unnecessarily violent response.

Lauryn Hill (1987)

The Apollo’s audience is a notoriously tough crowd. But anybody who’s been booed on stage should take consolation in the fact that even Lauryn Hill had a rocky debut. When the 13-year-old performed “Who’s Lovin’ You,” the audience jeered. It sounds like the stuff of a traumatic teen talent show, amplified tenfold, but Hill really pulls through, to raucous applause.

Mariah Carey (1990)

Before Mariah Carey was Mariah, she performed her debut single “Vision of Love” on Showtime at the Apollo, the television show that ran from 1987 to 2008 and featured live performances from the Apollo Theater. Even then, she already screamed diva.

Michael Jackson (2002)

Before going on a long hiatus in the years prior to his death, Michael Jackson’s last full performance was at a private fundraiser at the Apollo. While this may not be his most memorable appearance performance-wise, Jackson’s history with the venue goes all the way back to the start of his career when he performed at an Amateur Night with his siblings as the Jackson 5, a moment that was dramatized in a VH1 Special in 1992.

President Obama (2012)

Barack Obama campaigned for his first run as President at the Apollo Theater in 2007, but it was only during his run for a second term that he (appropriately) sang a few bars of the Al Green song, “Let’s Stay Together.”