I remember the first time I saw Chuck Berry at the Howard [in the ’50s]. That was during the time of “Maybelline.” Why can’t you be true? I was wondering how the people were going to accept him. Because his music was more white than it was black. He really tore the place up. When he went into that duck walk, that sealed it.
David Akers, 56, is a singer and played trumpet for Wilson Pickett from 1984 to 1999. His father was the doorman at the Howard Theatre from about 1924 to 1970.
When the Motown Revue would come through, my father would take the five of us backstage. He knew I could sing. So he’d have me audition for Smokey Robinson and everybody backstage.
Motown [would] come in with five or six groups and do two or three shows a day. Between shows they would all gather around: the Contours, Junior Walker & the All Stars, the Supremes, the [Four] Tops. “Let’s hear the kid sing.” So, I’d go sing.
I sang in front of Diana Ross. I must have been 9, 10, 11. She told me I was cute, I was a great singer. “It’ll be coming for you, son. Just keep on singing.” It felt incredible. I thought I was going to be a superstar.
We had family in Detroit. I often asked my dad, “Why didn’t you take me to Detroit so I could sing and be a star?” He said, “Well, Detroit came here. You could do it right here.”
Otis Redding, he killed me one night. He sang a song called “Try a Little Tenderness.” It’s a ballad. He’s singing softly and smoothly. But by the end of that song, everybody is screaming ’cause he is getting so into it. It just got bigger and bigger. The horns are screaming, and he’s down there just beating his leg [on to the floor] and, “Got to! Got to! Got to!” So powerful. God, I can just feel it. It’s like going to church, you know.
I knew he was probably going to do the song. But I didn’t know it was going to take my insides and put it outside, expose my whole being right there. At the end of the song, you’re shaking and screaming, “One more time. One more time.” But he was gone.
Sandra Bears, 68, is a member of the Jewels. The Howard Theatre helped launch the female vocal group in the early ’60s.
The exciting part about going to the Howard Theatre: If you’re lucky enough to see one of the stars come out the side door, you could maybe get an autograph. I remember getting Clyde McPhatter’s autograph. All I had was the top of a popcorn box, and he signed it. I kept it forever. I think I slept on it under my pillow.