Spring has hardly begun and New York temps are a bit chilly, but it was still a “Hot Night in Harlem” for the 70th anniversary of the legendary Apollo Theater.
In fact, New York’s most famous theater was sweltering with talent Sunday night, in a star-studded tribute celebrating black music and benefiting the ongoing restoration of the theater that started in 2000.
Among the celebrities and performers who packed the theater was Denzel Washington, who recalled attending shows as a child. “To be up there again tonight, to be on that stage and look out in the audience, I imagine myself at 8, 9, 10 years old,” he told PEOPLE.
“Law & Order’s” Jesse L. Martin also turned out for the event, as well as “Kill Bill” actress Vivica A. Fox, who told PEOPLE that the Apollo provided a great sense of history. “I felt very honored that they asked me to be a part of this show tonight,” Fox said.
The show also drew many comedians, ranging from Bill Cosby to Chris Rock to Dave Chappelle.
But the evening’s main focus was the on the music, and the tributes were many. Among the performers who took the stage were Natalie Cole, Ashanti, Harry Connick Jr., Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, who noted Ray Charles’s lasting effect on country music.
Cole, who performed a version of the Etta James classic “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” told PEOPLE she was a bit nervous to perform on the Apollo’s storied stage. But that, she said, was a good thing. “My dad (Nat “King” Cole) always told me getting nervous was good. It means you want to do your best,” she said.
Nods to other influential musicians such as Al Green, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were offered by a host of artists, as well as performances by classic groups including the Four Tops, the Temptations, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
The show will air June 19 on NBC and a DVD of the event will be released the same month.