Saturday, March 08, 2014

Jennifer Dodge story on Apollo Theater

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“Sunny” Night At The Apollo

Kitoto Von Hebb Takes The Stage and Does Her Father Proud

By: Jennifer Dodge

     If you have even the slightest knowledge of American music, you’ve heard of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, a section of New York City.  The Apollo isn’t just bricks, wood, and a stage, though. It’s a cultural experience. When you walk into the venue, you can almost feel the energy of crowds long gone, can almost hear the notes still reverberating of the music greats who played there, from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Count Basie to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and The Jackson Five.  In short, the stage has been well worn by just about every great musical artist, Black or otherwise, since the 1930’s. For that reason, the Apollo audience knows their music, and because of that, they don’t suffer fools gladly.
  Kitoto Von Hebb, daughter of Bobby Hebb, who has recorded in the studio with luminaries such as Grammy-winning drummer Steve Holley (of Paul McCartney & Wings, Elton John, Ian Hunter, erc,) legendary pianist David Maxwell (Freddie King, Muddy Waters,) guitarist Peter Calo (music director for Carly Simon) and others, made her Apollo debut on this magnificent night.

     Ironically, my first time in the Apollo was also that night, although I wasn’t backstage, rehearsing a classic song that my father had written, wondering if my voice would hold, if my nerves would get the best of me, or how the audience would respond to my performance. I had the enviable job of sitting in the 6th row, enjoying the NYC Fab 50 show. Artists who had a link to The Beatles, or who were influenced by The Fab Four were asked to share songs and stories with the folks who braved the cold and filled the seats. And what a show it was: Leslie Uggums; Danny Aiello and Hasan; Barrence Whitfield; Gary US Bonds; Mary Wilson of The Supremes; Lloyd Price; Bettye LaVette; Lulu.  We’re talking some real heavyweights of music, and a loaded bill of natural entertainers. The only rookie on the bill was Kitoto Von Hebb, daughter of Bobby Hebb, who in addition to writing some enduring music also had the distinction of touring with The Beatles in 1966 during their US tour.  He also wrote one of the most-covered songs in the past 50 years, “Sunny,”  which is probably one of his best-loved songs. It was this song that Kitoto planned to sing, for the first time, in front of a crowd.

    Kitoto has   a lot of love and respect for her father. In fact, her exact words about why she chose to be a part of the event were: “Because it would honor my dad, first and foremost. That was what I was thinking…he toured with [The Beatles] in ’66 and he was friends with them, and so I would have loved for him to be a part of this. I know he would have absolutely loved it. He would have been so honored and so happy to…reunite with so many different people that he’s passed through in his career, and since he’s not here to do that…I don’t think there’s any other way, any better way that I can honor my dad than to perform his song.”  Even through the phone, I could feel how sincere Kitoto was about doing what she could to honor her father and to continue his legacy, to bring his music to as many people as she could. 

  According to Kitoto, her father gave her much throughout her life: a role model, attention, affection, humor, and love. He also passed on to her his musical talent. Kitoto may have looked nervous as she took the stage, but once the music started, she owned the stage. The three chatty women next to me remarked that she looked terrified as she took hold of the mic (“Poor thing looks like she’s shaking!”), but after she was done, they changed their tune (“Damn!  That’s how you do it!”).  What might have helped provide confidence to Kitoto was the audience’s reaction once they realized what song she was singing. As I looked around the theater, I could see people swaying in their seats, mouthing the words as Kitoto hit her stride. Or perhaps it was the realization that her father’s music was once again stirring a crowd to happiness.  For that night, during that song, Bobby Hebb was again doing what he did best: reminding us all that when life isn’t what we think it should be, we can still make things “sunny.”


   Life is ironic in so many ways, and no more so in the fact that it’s only when someone is absent from our lives that we truly understand how much their presence meant to us. Kitoto Von Hebb’s performance revived the audience’s collective memory as to why “Sunny” is such an important song, and I have no doubt that Bobby Hebb was smiling, watching his daughter with pride, as she did justice to his work.

(All photos, credit: Jennifer Dodge)

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