In approximately six weeks from this writing, it will be the 50th anniversary of John Lennon’s concert appearance at the Apollo Theatre on December 17, 1971. Granted it was a very short set (three songs, and one of them was Yoko’s), but this performance was unplugged decades before that term was coined. It was just John & Yoko and his band on the edge of the stage, accompanied by nothing but Yoko’s bongo and their guitars.
December 1971 was a busy month for the Lennons. Only the week before they had performed at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan before heading back to New York City. The day before his Apollo appearance, in fact, on December 16, they’d taped an episode of The David Frost Show, joined by David Peel and the Lower East Side band. This wouldn’t be broadcast however, until a month later, well into January 1972.
The show was captured on 16mm film, and also completely ignored by mainstream media. The only reports would come from Harlem’s local Amsterdam News. Aretha Franklin also performed at this benefit for the families of the prisoners shot in the Attica Prison riot in September of that year. Joining John & Yoko were counterculture activist Jerry Rubin, Chris Osbourne and Eddie Mattau. What they were about to offer were three songs that wouldn’t see the light of day until the release of John & Yoko’s Sometime In New York City six months later on June 12, 1972.
“I’d like to say it’s an honor and a pleasure to be here at the Apollo, and for the reasons that we’re all here,” John began. “Yoko is gonna sing a number that she wrote about her sisters.” The show begins with her offering of a beautiful version of “Sisters, O Sisters.” For once Yoko’s voice is gorgeous, as are the harmonies she shares with John on chorus. Next up is “Attica State”, a song John began composing at his 31st birthday party. The lyrics are strident but softened somewhat by the acoustic guitars, and the slide guitar adds a bit of flavor.
“Thank you,” John said, three times actually. “Some of you might wonder what I’m doing here with no drummers and no, nothing like that, but as you might know I lost me old band or I left it. I’m putting an electric band together, it’s not ready yet and these things like this keep coming up so I have to just busk it. So I’m gonna sing a song you might know. Its called “Imagine”. This may be the most sincere performance of John’s classic, and may quite possibly be better than the official studio version. The acoustic guitar seems deeper somehow than the piano on the original; Yoko’s bongo is not intrusive this time. It’s hard to listen to this song now, since that was one of the numbers they played at my brother Eddie’s funeral in 2018. But sometimes you just got to.
Ironically, Mark David Chapman was sent to Attica Correctional Facility after he shot John in 1980.
Available: John Lennon’s two songs, “Attica State” & “Imagine”, have seen release first on John Lennon Anthology (November 1998), CD 2-New York City. “Imagine” was subsequently re-issued on John Lennon Acoustic (November 2004). Insofar as I know, Yoko’s live version of ‘Sisters, O Sisters remains unreleased.