One of the perks of being an entertainment attorney is actually attending events in Art & Entertainment. While these opportunities don’t cross my desk everyday, when they do, I truly look forward to enjoying them, especially when they are happening in my own backyard. Last night I attended the Apollo’s 2018 Spring Gala, held at the historic Apollo Theater in my hometown of Harlem, NYC. For those who are not aware, Harlem has been called home by some of the most influential and talented people in the world: Alexander Hamilton, George and Ira Gershwin, Burt Lancaster, The Marx Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Tito Puente, Harry Houdini, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Billy Holiday, Joe Louis, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr. Arthur Sulzberger, Al Pacino, ASAP Mob, Jim Jones, Diddy, DJ Red Alert, Angela Bassett, Marcus Samuelsson… the list of legends and pioneers is endless!
Another perk of being an entertainment attorney? Dating talented, professional musicians like my honey, Yeissonn Villamar (emphasis on professional… I’m a bit too old for the starving ones, plus we have a one year old!). Looking forward to our first date night in a long time (it’s called a new baby), we met up around 5:30 PM on the corner of 125th St. and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. While Yeissonn quickly ran into Portabella’s and H&M to handle a fashion emergency, I took a walk to Manna’s on 126th St. and snacked on some sweet candied yams, rice and peas, sweet and spicy chicken, and a small kale salad. By 6:30, I was a little full, ready for a cocktail, and making my way to the Apollo’s main entrance.
I arrived to a lobby filled with well-dressed patrons, guests, and theater staff walking around with bags of fresh popcorn and pink strawberry-basil cocktails, sponsored by Belvedere. I took in the sights (after grabbing a Belvedere cocktail) and began admiring all the amazing outfits, just enjoying all the fun energy and excitement in the air from the plethora of guests ready to enjoy a great show. I also soon learned that this magnificent event successfully raised over $2 million! The Apollo has previously surpassed this threshold, most notably in 2014, 2015, and 2017.
After showing my ticket to the usher, I was in my seat by 7pm sharp. Third row, orchestra section (not bad babe!), I quickly introduced myself and became fast friends with those in my row. To the right of me was a young lady named Lawrence, who came to see her uncle: respected bass player, Artie Reynolds, perform. He was joining the evening’s stellar band (as was Yeissonn, on keys), led by none other than renowned musical director to the stars, Mr. Ray Chew. Yeissonn had been in rehearsals with Mr. Chew and his crew for two straight days, plus soundchecks on the day of the show.
To my left was a fun and charming couple, Richard and Donna Soloway, whom I later learned were also members of the Benefit Committee and quite the socialites. They gracefully welcomed me and advised me that I was in for a treat, having attended the gala last year. Having greeted my neighbors and taken my seat, popcorn and program in hand, I was finally ready for the show to begin!
The gala rightfully kicked off with a beautiful performance by two previous winners of the Apollo’s signature Amateur Night competition. Sarah Ikumu and Aidan Doran, both singers merely in their teens, blew us away with their renditions of classic songs by Ben E. King and Gladys Knight. The show continued with a little humor by none other than our host for the evening, actor and comedian, David Alan Grier.
Kicking off the evening’s celebrity performances were R&B 90’s sensations and hitmakers Tony! Toni! Tone! (“It’s Our Anniversary” and “It Feels Good”) and “Moesha” herself, Brandy (“I Want To Be Down” and “What About Us”). Both performances had me and at least half the audience nostalgic and missing the days of soulful, wonderfully romantic 90’s R&B. I was personally taken back to my grade school years ordering music from The Box and watching BET’s Midnight Love. Tony! Toni! Tone!’s performance also featured a live organ on stage, while Brandy’s performance included a short medley of early hits by the Queen, the late Whitney Houston.
One of my favorites segments of the Gala was seeing LL Cool J up close and personal (well, technically from the third row of the orchestra section, but the point is that we were in the same room.). Both LL and one of my favorite former MTV VJ’s, from back in the day, Sway Calloway, greeted the crowd and lent support to their hosts and gala honoree, Sirius XM radio, who were this year’s recipient of the Apollo’s Corporate Award. Accepting the award on Sirius XM’s behalf was its CCO, Scott Greenstein, who gave thanks and announced that the band of all bands, U2, will be performing a first -time ever concert at the Apollo Theater, on June 11. Note: it’s a subscriber-only event! (So U2 fans, mark your calendars!).
LL Cool J and Sway also gave us the quick lowdown on their new radio shows exclusively at Sirius XM. LL hosts “Rock the Bells” on XM Channel 43, while Sway hosts “Sway’s Universe” on XM Channel XL. Both “lifestyle channels” are nuance, very influential radio shows that are actively engaging listeners and revolutionizing the way in which they are exposed to and interact with urban and hip-hop music and culture as a whole.
David Greer soon returned to the stage, got us laughing again, and got us donating money on our phones. We then braced ourselves for one of the best performances of the night: Salt-N-Pepa! Appearing with their lifelong DJ, Spinderella, these ladies gave an electrifying performance and literally had the entire theater on their feet. Dancers and fun, retro choreography keep the energy high and Salt-n-Pepa we’re nothing short of amazing. It was a tough act to follow, but the night still continued with amazing performances by teen boy-band, 4th Ave, and a stellar closing performance by classic 90’s favorites, Bell Biv Devoe (“Do Me!” and “I Do Need You”), who closed the show with their timeless party hit, “Poison”.
While the show portion of the gala was undoubtedly a hit, the Apollo took the extra step of recognizing and celebrating those employees and other folks who make it possible for the organization to function and continue to thrive. Through a series of short videos, they introduced us to these amazing people, from the audio techs, to the facility managers, to Mr. Apollo himself, the organization’s resident historian (or as he and others refer to him, “THE man around here.”). We were also greeted by two, impressive young ladies who previously interned at the Apollo, and were now college-bound. Their testimonials moved the crowd and spoke to the positive work the Apollo organization is doing, both in the community and among our young students of color in various parts of the country. There was a constant reference to the word “family” all night, and as a mere guest of this great event, I felt as if I was part of that “family”, too!
Lucky for us, the night was far from over! As I stood up from my seat and agreed to see my new friends Lawrence, Richard, and Donna, at the after party, I walked over to the stage and gave Yeissonn, who was bending down to greet me, a big hug and congratulatory kiss! This was a big night for him and I had personally witnessed how hard he worked up until this point. Any working musician worth his salt will tell you that in New York City, working with a legend like Ray Chew is not only an honor, but a respected rite of passage for many professional touring musicians and celebrity musical directors. I agreed to meet Yeissonn by the theater’s rear exit, where most of the celebrity acts had been exiting, and took advantage of those few minutes to grab photos with Sway and the young gentlemen of 4th Ave. Once Yeissonn arrived, we walked down the block to the afterparty, along with some of the evening’s backup singers. The party was held on the outdoor plaza of the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Building.
As we made our way to security, we were already enthralled by the sound of party music vibrating in the streets, the smell of delicious food in the air, and the bright red strobe lights illuminating the walls of the large white tents arranged at the building’s exterior base. Once we entered the tents, we were in immediately captivated by large, hanging, gold fringe chandeliers, the animated light shows on the tent walls, and aerial, silk rope performers at the center of the space. On the right and left of the silk rope aerialists were fully-stocked and staffed bars decorated with lit bottles of Belvedere vodka, and tables covered with delicious, upscale food, ranging from grilled salmon, to bacon and cheese stuffed mini potatoes, to creamed spinach and deliciously fried onion rings, to barbecue steak and fresh salad. Don’t even get me started on the hors d’oeuvres! We had everything from pineapple/shrimp seafood bites, to pulled pork sliders, to mini pizza slices and other delicacies, some of which we didn’t even get to try! Dessert fell nothing short of what it should be, with delicious mini cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery and only the freshest coffee service.
True to our “always hungry, never ashamed” personalities, Yeissonn and I made a beeline to the food table and loaded our plates. Soon, we were at the bar and decided to try a signature, 125th Street cocktail, which was a delicious mix of ginger, citrus, and smooth Belvedere vodka. Cocktails in hand, we decided it was time to hit the dance floor! Between the lively animated tent walls and the stylish checkerboard dance floor stood DJ D-Nice, who was relentlessly cranking out all the hits. From golden oldies, to reggae, to hip hop and R&B classics, we danced the night away (at least until my feet were begging me to pull out the blue-studded, Chinese Laundry sandals, conveniently tucked away in my Gucci bag). We also took photos with Tony! Toni! Tone!, Harlem fashion staple, the one and only Dapper Dan, and David Grier, who eventually made their way to the dance floor as well. At one point, we finally ran into my earlier seating buddies, Richard and Donna, and I took a moment to introduce them to Yeissonn, happily chatting while giving my feet a much needed dance break.
At about 11:30 PM, we made the tough decision to call it a night and leave. We still had to scoop up our lil’ munchkin from the babysitter’s house before heading home, so as the responsible parents we are (or at least try our best to be), we danced our last song (Biggie’s “Juicy”) and set our empty cocktail glasses down before heading for the exit. On the way out, I caught a quick glimpse of the Apollo’s President and CEO, Ms. Jonelle Procope. Walking over to her to say a quick hello, I was elated when she accepted my invitation to have our photo taken. As a female business owner and entertainment attorney of color, mother, and lifelong resident of East Harlem, meeting a woman like Ms. Procope is a rare treat, as well as an inspiration. I look up to women like her in my daily life and professional practice (she’s an attorney, too!) when I challenge myself to do better, dream bigger, and feel stronger. A perfect ending to a spectacular evening, I gave Ms. Procope a hug goodbye, grabbed Yeissonn’s hand, and walked out of what was perhaps the best gala and afterparty of the year in my opinion. I have a good feeling we will be back next year!