MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, we want to take a walk down memory lane and take a peek into the future with a visit to the theatre. Long before the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem allowed blacks to attend or perform there, there was the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. It was built in 1910, and over the course of its first 70 years, just about every top black entertainer in America performed on its stage.
Here's a clip of the legendary jack(ph) saxophonist Charlie Parker, performing there in 1952.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: But, now, it's getting a second chance after a $29 million renovation. The theatre reopened last week to performers like Al Jarreau, James Ingram, Wanda Sykes and Les McCann.
Coming up, we'll speak with two of the designers behind the Howard Theatre's second act, but first, we wanted to hear what it was like in its heyday, so we called on Jimi Smooth. He was an usher at the Howard in the early 1960s. He's now the lead vocalist for Jimi Smooth and Hit Time. He was profiled in our recent feature on the Howard renovation in the Washington Post Magazine.
Jimi Smooth, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
JIMI SMOOTH: Thank you.
MARTIN: So how did you land your job at the Howard back in the day?
SMOOTH: Well, I used to hang around backstage, you know, to wait for the stars and the artists to come and go and see if I could make some money by going to the store, running errands or whatever, maybe go to the cleaners, you know, because it was a pleasure just to be in the company, I felt. At that young age, maybe like '57, I was about 12 years old when I migrated up to the Howard from Old Southwest Washington.
I am a Washingtonian, so when I went to the Howard Theatre, I would hang around. A bunch of friends of ours - friends of mine - we used to hang around some girls and some guys, you know, and we were all star-struck.
MARTIN: You know, as you mentioned, there were a lot of stars there. Did any of them stand out in your mind?
SMOOTH: Oh, I could go on for days. You know, it would take a lifetime. You know, so many great - I'm welling up a little bit now just to think about it. Brook Benton, Donna Washington, Baby Washington, Tammy Montgomery before she was Tammi Terrell. She was with James Brown. Yeah. A vocalist because James always had female vocalists.
MARTIN: How do you think that this exposure influenced you as a performer, yourself?
SMOOTH: Well, I believe I wanted to do this from the start, from birth, you know, but I just had to find out how, so I guess the Howard Theatre opened it up. When I saw Jackie Wilson and the clothes, the style, you know, it just blew my mind, along with the other artists that would come, too.
MARTIN: You know, it seemed to have made a big impression on anybody who had any connection with it. I just want to play a short clip from Mrs. Gloria Thomas Gantt. She started off as a cashier at the Howard and she later became a stage manager. I just want to play that clip.
GLORIA THOMAS GANTT: I remember when James Brown sang "Please, Please, Please." He just put on a show that you never would forget.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE")
JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Please, please, please. Honey, please, don't go.
MARTIN: Did you get to see James Brown?
SMOOTH: Many times. He was a great influence also, you know. Great influence, having listened to his music before I saw him in person. But when I saw him in person it was a totally different mind experience. You know, he's the greatest, and I learned a lot from him.
MARTIN: Well, you also have some amazing hair, if I do say that.
SMOOTH: Oh, thank you.
MARTIN: It's not his same style but it's very impressive. You have some very impressive hair.
SMOOTH: Thank you. I had the process, too, back in the day.
MARTIN: You have quite the pony tail, I got to tell you.
SMOOTH: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
MARTIN: I like to be the one with the interesting hair in the relationship, but you see, I can't even argue with you on it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SMOOTH: Thank you. I appreciate that.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the re-opening of the legendary Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. My guest is Jimi Smooth. He's the lead vocalist for Jimi Smooth & HitTime. But in the early 1960s, he was an usher at the Howard Theatre, which recently re-opened.
I did want to ask, you said that you just even thinking about it you were kind of tearing up. I wonder what it's been like all these years to drive past there and see it in this rundown state and then now to see it re-opened.
SMOOTH: It's been a heartbreaker to see the theater in its old state, you know, the dilapidated state like nobody cared about it and all the great souls that came from the stage door. It's a great place, you know, and I just never thought I'd see this day.
MARTIN: Really? How come?
SMOOTH: Well, the money, the politics because entertainment has changed. And then the big venues all the acts want big money so.
MARTIN: You mean they want to play like a stadium or like Verizon Center arenas. Yeah.
SMOOTH: Right. Arenas and so forth. Yeah. They want to do that.
MARTIN: Given that, do you think that they can survive as an ongoing theater?
SMOOTH: Well, the team that they have there now they're bringing in the right acts, so I think it will survive that. But you have to bring the mixture of the old artists in, and a lot of them would be grateful just to come back to the Howard Theatre because they've had some of their greatest shows at the Howard Theatre.
MARTIN: I just want to play another clip from somebody who grew up around the theatre. This is Mr. David Akers and his dad was a doorman there. Here it is...
DAVID AKERS: One performer who really stood out was a gentleman by the name of Roy Hamilton. I know he's not as famous as Sam Cooke or James Brown or some of those artists but he used to sing a song called "You'll Never Walk Alone." And the song he sang went something like this: (Singing) When you walk through a storm...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "YOU'LL NEVER WALK ALONE")
ROY HAMILTON: (Singing) ...hold your head up high and don't be afraid of the dark.
MARTIN: I didn't know that was his song.
SMOOTH: Roy Hamilton?
MARTIN: I didn't know. I don't know why I didn't know that that was his song.
SMOOTH: The great Roy Hamilton. And I had the pleasure of seeing him a few times also.
MARTIN: I know that you played at the ribbon cutting. You performed at the ribbon cutting. What was that like?
SMOOTH: Oh, it was fantastic to see so many people out there, you know, and family and friends and so forth. It was like the culmination of my career and my life, being able to, you know, perform for the opening, having been there for all those years, you know, starting out as a kid like 12 years old and now I'm a senior - an S citizen, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: An S citizen.
SMOOTH: Yes. Yes. A senior you might say, you know, so...
MARTIN: And looking good too.
SMOOTH: Thank you and happy to be here. I wish I could give a shout out to all the guys, you know, that are on here but that would take another program, you know.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations. I'm glad you got to be there to see that. And good luck...
SMOOTH: Thank you.
MARTIN: ...with everything you doing in the future. And hopefully you'll be back up on that stage. Jimi Smooth is the lead vocalist in Jimi Smooth & HitTime. In the early 1960s, he was an usher at the Howard Theatre. Mr. Smooth was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Jimi Smooth, thank you so much for joining us.
SMOOTH: Thank you. Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.