The Apollo Theater celebrates 90th anniversary at star-studded spring benefit with Usher, Babyface

NEW YORK (AP) — The Apollo Theater, a bastion of Black music and culture and one of New York City's most storied venues, celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

On Tuesday, the historic theater held its annual spring benefit — its largest annual fundraising effort, this year raising $3 million — with a star-studded event featuring Usher, Babyface, Big Daddy Kane, Jordin Sparks and more.

Sparks opened the night with an impressive medley of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” Then Kym Whitley emerged as a hilarious host, joking about the producer Babyface, who was being honored, arguing that he should now be known as “Grown-man-face, sexy-face, kiss-your-face.”

Later, she'd offer her own transformative story at The Apollo, sharing with the audience that it was on that stage where she first made an appearance as a stand-up comedian on television. “If you can make it at The Apollo,” she said, “You can make it anywhere.”

Speeches were given by a number of Apollo representatives, including President/CEO Michelle Ebanks, chairman of the board Charles Phillips, executive producer Kamilah Forbes as well as New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.

But it was the performances that really got the crowd on their feet. Dancers treated Usher to a choreographed medley of his own songs, from “Yeah!” to “Burn,” “Caught Up" to “Confessions Part II” and beyond.

Usher, who just a few months ago wowed audiences with his own career retrospective while headlining the 2024 Super Bowl halftime show, was presented with the Icon Award.

In his speech, he recalled watching “Showtime at The Apollo” with his late grandmother. “I remember thinking, ‘Man, someday I’m gonna make it to that stage,' and ‘hopefully one day, I’ll get a standing ovation,'” he said as everyone in the audience stood. “I stand before you humbled by your appreciation.”

“You know, they say if you make it in New York, you can make it anywhere," he continued, referencing Whitley's comments from earlier. “Well, if you can make it to The Apollo, you can do anything.”

Fat Joe and Kwanza Jones, formerly winners of The Apollo's famed Amateur Night, came out and led the crowd in a singalong of Babyface's 1989 hit, “Soon as I Get Home.” They were tasked with introducing the super-producer, who had been presented the day prior with the inaugural legacy award at The Apollo Theater's 2024 Walk of Fame ceremony.

“I never imagined I would get this,” Babyface said during Monday’s ceremony. “I never saw myself actually, you know, being here at The Apollo. I didn’t want to perform here because I didn’t want to get booed, but I didn’t get booed,” he laughed. “I’m so glad that I came here for The Apollo.”

On Tuesday, his acceptance speech mostly ditched the jokes to express gratitude. “To be here at The Apollo — what's so hard for me to find the words, because if I’m honest, I just never saw myself as like being on The Apollo stage. I was always the guy behind the scenes and writing songs for everyone else,” he said. “I am just in awe to be considered as part of this.”

“I'm just going to thank everybody. Normally I stand up here, I'm funnier than this,” he continued, “Usually, I am. But I'm just, I'm really just so taken by this, and I just want to thank you for the bottom of my heart. I appreciate it.”

The night ended with a series of singers coming out on stage to serenade Babyface with some of the most famous songs he produced: Toxi Braxton 's “You Mean the World to Me,” Eric Clapton's “Change the World," Whitney Houston's “I'm Your Baby Tonight” and so on.

Standouts included Karyn White doing her own “Superwoman,” Johnny Gill getting everyone out of their seats for his “My, My, My” and of course, Babyface himself closing the night out with “Whip Appeal.” They're called classics for a reason.