Up Close and Personal with Southern Music Legends
Access was easy when I started shooting concerts in about 1973. When I joined the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, which had a writer interested in concert reviews, I had to figure out how to get credentials. Going through venues didn’t work. Back then the only valid credential came directly from the record companies. At first I had to send them requests on letterhead and then follow up with a clip of the review. But very quickly they got to know me, and all I had to do was call the New York or LA office and say hey, it’s me, and so-and-so is coming. Once I got to that point I really started shooting more shows. It didn’t matter if it was for review or not. It was live music, and I flat-out loved shooting live music. I became a fan of a lot of bands I didn’t think I’d like. Hearing them live, seeing how they worked for their audience made me a fan.
Back then, I was usually the only shooter at a show. I almost never saw another photographer. Now it seems like everyone with a camera is shooting, and the audience is waving their phones in the air. In general, the rule back then was “first three songs.” After that I had to put the cameras away. The publicists argued that if you couldn’t get it in the first three songs then you didn’t belong. And after about 3 songs many artists start to get a bit “messy.” I shot a lot of club shows as well as arenas. I shot in South Texas and around Arkansas. I went to Memphis a lot and even shot the first Farm Aid Concert for UPI (United Press International).
Nowadays my hair is shorter and bedtime earlier. Here are a few of my favorites.
Champaign Illinois, September 1985, at the First Farm Aid concert.
I was hired by United Press International to shoot this show, and it was a kick to stay on stage all day and shoot each performer as they did their shortened act. Seeing Johnny play with Willie, Waylon, June, and Glen Campbell was beyond special.
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1987.
I’d photographed him twice before and this time still wasn’t happy with what I’d captured. As I ran out of shooting time I was leaving by a side door near the stage. When I looked back one last time, I saw him silhouetted by a spotlight and got one good frame before the moment was gone. I was grateful that I later had more chances to photograph him, and once I joined him for breakfast where we talked about the catfish industry, life on the road, and diabetes.
Little Rock, Arkansas. 1984.
Like B.B. King, I’d shot Ray Charles before but hadn’t captured “my” shot. They all looked too generic. This night I was shooting up at him over the lip of the stage. He looked so feeble being led across the stage to the piano bench. He sat hunched over the keyboard and mumbled a few comments before lifting his hands and pouncing on the keys. It was like a charge of electricity hit him, and his whole body came alive. The power of music over him was magic.
Oxford Mississippi Circa 1990.
I was in Oxford and caught him playing in a small basement club called Lafayette’s. It’s likely gone now, but what a fun night. He just picked up backing musicians wherever he played and then had to coach them through the gig. The next morning I was having breakfast at Smitty’s with the writer on the assignment, and he and his manager came in and joined us. Bo ordered what turned out to be three large platters of breakfast, and afterward they left for their next gig in an old battered and smoking Volvo.
Beaumont, Texas 1982.
Fats rarely tours, and I felt lucky to shoot this one. The light wasn’t good, and it’s really tough to shoot someone playing piano from the audience. But this venue was more than willing to let me find different angles, and I did finally find one I really liked.
Little Rock, Arkansas, circa 1987.
Shooting Merle in a country honky tonk was perfect. He was not someone whose music I knew beyond Okie from Muscogee, but that night he made me a fan. Last year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame used this shot in their ‘in memoriam’ part of the annual induction ceremonies.
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1989.
The Judds were as hot an act as any in country back in 1989. They owned the charts.
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Jerry Lee Lewis
Port Arthur, Texas 1981.
If I remember right Jerry Lee had just left the hospital and there was some doubt whether or not he’d make the show. Obviously he did, though he looked cadaverous. He started slow but built energy and enthusiasm as the show went on, almost with a threatening anger.
North Little Rock, circa 1987.
Public Television organized a concert with Bill Monroe, Ricky Scaggs, Lee Greenwood, Glen Campbell, Tammy Wynette, Minnie Pearl and several other performers. I was fortunate to spend the day at rehearsals and then later photograph the show. The most fun was watching and shooting rehearsals, when the various stars were catching up with one another
I believe this was shot in about 1982 in Port Arthur/Beaumont Texas.
I photographed Willie over half a dozen times, the last time at the First Farm Aid concert that he organized. But this was a couple years before. At the time I didn’t recognize this photo as being worthwhile. Re-editing all my concert film about 2000 I found this frame. It struck me as much more iconic than any other shot I had of Willie. Somehow the passage of time creates a different perspective of what’s good and what’s timeless.
Champaign Illinois, September 1985.
Another of my favorite bands that I got to photograph at the first Farm Aid Concert.
Beaumont/Port Arthur Texas, 1982.
Russell is another underappreciated performer who was hard to photograph behind a piano. In addition, he was under a big hat and covered by his ever-growing beard. But what a legend.
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1985, Private Dancer tour.
I generally went to a show with two or three cameras and lenses, but for Tina I went with only one photo in mind. I wanted a tight shot of her face, so I took an extremely heavy and long telephoto lens. I think it was solid cast iron. For Tina I was limited to 10 minutes, and near the end of those 10 she finally gave me the shot I wanted. She was walking across the stage when she stopped and turned, looking and right down the lens. Thank you Tina!
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1983.
This was a run down venue with poor sound. Stevie Ray had just completed guitar work for David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album. When the album hit it rocketed Stevie Ray from a regional guitar act to national prominence. But this was just days before that release. He was opening for The Call. The crowd probably was less than 200 people. I was in front and had to use wide lenses I was so close. I could have reached out and strummed his guitar. He played with his teeth and behind his back, leaving the crowd standing in awe.
I went to Merlefest in North Carolina and saw many of the most revered pickers of the day. That year the fest opened a “garden of the senses,” and I got to follow Doc through as he experienced the garden by touch and scent (he was blind since childhood).
North Little Rock, circa 1987.
Another shot from that PBS TV taping where I photographed Bill Monroe.