NEW YORK — Ralph Cooper, who started Amateur Night at Harlem's landmark Apollo Theater, launching the careers of such stars as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, has died, his family announced Wednesday.
Cooper, who kept his age a secret but was believed to be in his 80s, died of cancer Tuesday night at his home in Harlem, said his son Ralph Cooper II.
Cooper began Amateur Night in 1935. The Apollo closed in the late 1970s, but Amateur Night was revived in 1985 after its reopening, with Cooper again serving as emcee.
Other Amateur Night acts who went on to fame included James Brown, Leslie Uggams, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson, the Coasters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Ink Spots and the Shirelles.
The Apollo was also a showcase for such talents as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. Michael Jackson was 9 when he first played the Apollo with his brothers.
Cooper, a New York native and the son of a coachman, got his start in show business working as a dancer in downtown clubs. He became involved in the business side and found his niche seeking out new talent at the Apollo.
After its $10-million renovation and reopening, the Apollo again fell on hard times, losing more than $2 million a year. It is being converted to a nonprofit establishment.