A Star at the Apollo, Out of Its Spotlight
By DAMIEN CAVE and FEB. 11, 2017
Tommy Hunt as he prepared for a performance at the Apollo Theater in September 1967. Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
Every Sunday in February, we will feature and explore previously unpublished photographs from The New York Times’s archives, with a special focus on the 1960s. Revisit last year’s Unpublished Black History project, sign up for our Race/Related newsletter and share your own experiences with black history in the comments.
One of the Apollo Theater’s fans got it almost right when she told Earl Caldwell of The New York Times: “You get two shows at the Apollo. That’s what I like down there. You get the show on the stage and the one in the audience.”
In fact, there’s a third performance that Times reporters and photographers often witnessed: the scene backstage. Check out Tommy Hunt here, gesticulating, arguing, singing — it’s hard to tell exactly what he was doing, but he’d probably done it before. Mr. Hunt was an Apollo regular in the ’60s, alongside Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, the Shirelles, the Supremes and many others.
He was also one of soul music’s earliest stars, joining the Flamingos in the ’50s and singing on what was then their biggest hit, “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
In this clip from 1959, he’s the one in the dark sweater walking down the snowy hill.
The Flamingos "I Only Have Eyes for You"
The Flamingos "I Only Have Eyes for You" Video by NRRArchives
In the archival image at the top, it’s September 1967. Don Hogan Charles photographed Mr. Hunt for an article about Harlem and its struggle to draw large crowds to its nightspots at a time of rising crime and racial tension. It was the first and only mention of Mr. Hunt in The Times, whether by oversight or ignorance, but it fit a 1960s pattern in which many news outlets tended to show blacks primarily through a lens of crime and its impact on whites.
The Times did, nonetheless, allow for some nuance. The Apollo was held up as an exception, with nightly variety shows and full houses on weekends, and the photographs with the article showed Mr. Hunt onstage as members of the audience danced and pulled at him.
“It was a little bit scary at the time,” said Mr. Hunt, who is now 83 and still performing. “I remember that picture, I remember that night. When you see a bunch of girls running toward you from the stage, they look like a bunch of elephants. I was like, ‘What’s going to happen to me now?’”
The backstage image is being published here for the first time. While it never ran in The Times (probably because of the unidentified man with the closed eyes), it seemed to capture Mr. Hunt, who was 34 at the time, in prime form. Though he was not a household name, he was clearly a talented performer.
Two years later, Mr. Hunt said, he left New York and the Apollo in search of new audiences. He made his way to England, where he scored several more hit singles (including “Loving on the Losing Side” in 1976) as part of a music and dance movement called Northern Soul. He went on to take his music all over the world, as far away as “Australia, Africa, Iceland,” he said.
More recently, Mr. Hunt said, he’s been sticking closer to home, a village in England called Knottingley, where, he said, it is often so cold that he is forced to wear “17 jackets.” Discussing the photo of his younger self in New York, he noted that he was quite a good-looking man back in the ’60s.
He suggested that even now he looks as good as he did in 1967, and sounds nearly the same. “I’m still in the business. I’m still as agile as I was then,” he said. “I’m still doing it.”