Jackie at The Apollo

In 2010, Douglas Henderson Jr published an unusual ebook you can find in the Amazon Kindle store. It’s called Endeavor to Persevere, and it’s part autobiography, part memoir of his years spent with tennis greats Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe, and part essay on excellence by people in all walks of life, particularly those who demonstrate the mastery of their art and craft in public performance. It is not surprising that the first “great” he comes across is Jackie Wilson.

Henderson grew up in the Bronx and his older sister took him to the Apollo Theater whenever Jackie was performing there. Here Doug describes part of one of the shows he saw:

Jackie commanded the stage and the audience as few others have. He danced like silk, as if moving on ice. His repertoire included twirls, gravity defying splits, half-somersaults, acrobatic gyrations and a few other movements they have yet to define.

By the end of the show, Jackie had seemingly covered every square inch of the stage with his nonstop, high-energy footwork and he seemed completely exhausted, as he lay prostrate on his back near the edge of the stage, eyes closed, body drenched in sweat and still singing his heart out. The crowd was on its feet, teetering on the verge of hysteria. Suddenly, Jackie stopped singing and lay motionless. The band continued to sizzle to Wilson’s signature hit, “Lonely Teardrops.” With his hair disheveled, shirt wide open (revealing his torso) and his bow tie long gone, Wilson had the audience on the brink of insanity. The women cried and the men screamed. And I was right there screaming with them.

From out of nowhere, the emcee was on a microphone, imploring some lucky fan to help Jackie. As the emcee searched through the crowd, the band continued to cook in the background. Finally selecting some frenzied female fan, he beckoned her to the stage. She bent over to kiss Jackie’s waiting lips, with some tongue added to seal the deal. Suddenly, Jackie’s knees curled up into his chest and his feet jutted up into the air. For a split second, he was airborne, defying the laws of gravity. The rest of his body soon followed, landing him squarely on his feet.

Jackie Wilson in concert was a spiritual experience. Were he an evangelist, he would have converted the entire house. Though spectacular in his numerous television appearances and recordings, in concert, Jackie—as though unshackled by the constraints of live television and vinyl—really took off the gloves and let loose with an unfettered passion. Wilson was a live performer extraordinaire. One without equal. I have never seen anyone else who could compare. Wilson’s performances became the barometer, the gold standard by which I would judge all entertainers and athletes. I carried the euphoric feeling I had from watching Wilson’s live performances with me for months.

–Douglas Henderson Jr. Endeavor to Persevere. Untreed Reads, 2010.

Hey, folks, that’s our man, Jackie Wilson. If you have a story about seeing Jackie perform, please share it with the rest of us.

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