Apollo Holds Tribute To Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson: Full NPR Music Archive

It's been an ongoing street wake since Thursday under the Apollo Theater's big red art deco sign, now flashing the words, "In Memory of Michael Jackson, a True Apollo Legend."

In 1967, a young Michael Jackson, not yet 9 years old, packed into a beat-up old Volkswagen with his father and brothers, and set off from their home in Indiana for New York City. Their destination? Harlem's storied Apollo Theater, where the Jackson 5 won the amateur night contest.

Jackson wasn't quite an Apollo legend in the manner of Ella Fitzgerald or James Brown. But the New York City theater is one of the country's most significant landmarks of African-American culture. And the Apollo is now honoring Jackson's life with a two-day memorial service that started Tuesday afternoon.

Friends Evannah Johnson and Lateefah Jones, both 18, are among the first in line. They say they've been camped out since Monday, and that they haven't slept or eaten.

Johnson says she shares a crush on young Michael with her mother. But she never had the illusion that his was a happy life.

"Him dying is better for him because he had a very stressful and hard life, so I guess he's out of his pain and misery," she says.

Well, not that it was exactly better for him to die.

"No! Not that," Johnson says. "But just that, from hearing all the things about him not having a childhood and working his whole life, I think he was tired."

A blisteringly hot afternoon did not dissuade hundreds upon hundreds of fans, who crowded behind blue police barricades. Umbrellas were up, coolers were open and men like Richard Powell stripped off their vintage M.J. T-shirts in an attempt to cool down. Powell drove from North Carolina to this memorial.

It's telling that most of the Michael Jackson pictures seen on the posters, pins and key chains peddled by Monica Yvonne Jones mostly show the star as a child.

"You know, they was really kids then," she says. "And as they started getting older, their life started changing. I guess it's for the better. This is what they want."

She says the Jacksons felt like her own family growing up, when a black family on national TV was rare. But that didn't stop the street vendor from expressing a dash of pragmatism.

"He's dead," she says. "He gonna make more money, and he's still popular. He's dead."

I made a mistake and asked how much Jackson paraphernalia Jones has sold since Thursday.

"I don't consider it paraphernalia," she says. "It's memories. It's love. You call it what you want. I call it $3."

Later this month, the Apollo Theater will hold another Jackson memorial, a concert teeming with stars. Unlike today's memorial, that one will not be free.

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