Great Live Show...
and other things I wish I had shot
By Frank Van Riper
Jerry Lee Lewis, aka ‘The Killer,’ almost killed his career when he married his 13-year-old cousin—but that’s another story. I remember this golden-haired rocker from Louisiana stopping the show at the Brooklyn Paramount theater some 60 years ago, simply by beating the living hell out of his piano with ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,’ etc., etc.
Live rock n’ roll shows back then were not the multimedia, multi-platform events they have become. Even geriatric rockers like the Stones now perform with huge stadium screens, light shows--even, in Mick Jagger’s case, a big blowup doll of a hooker when he sings ‘Honky-Tonk Woman’ to Keith Richards’ mesmerizing base line.
Nope, back then it was just Jerry Lee and the house band alone on the stage throwing quarts of testosterone over a willing crowd of teenagers.
I was a high school kid who barely knew his way around his first “real” camera, a Dejur Dekon (you can look it up) so I wasn’t even thinking of taking concert photos. But ten years later photographer Henry Horenstein, then in his 20s, started shooting musicians in honky tonks and roadhouses in the south and elsewhere, preserving a bit of Americana that has all but vanished. His portrait of Jerry Lee Lewis—from his classic book Honky Tonk - 1972-1980, is a keeper:
The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, lights up a stogie at an upright piano in this wonderful portrait by Henry Horenstein from his book, 'Honky Tonk.' ©Henry Horenstein
Not that The Killer was the only show stopper I ever saw and didn’t photograph. At another rock show—likely organized by DJ Murray Kaufman at the Brooklyn Fox theater—I saw Jackie Wilson literally stop the show. “Mr. Excitement,” arguably one of the greatest showmen of his era, could send a vibrato up to the cheap seats in the balcony, and when I saw him belt out, say, ‘Higher & Higher’ (probably a pretty good guess) the house went crazy.
True to his name, to even more screaming, Mr. Excitement sang it again.
Over the years, I’ve seen any number of live acts, performing all kinds of music, in big rooms and small. (In 1968, covering the Hubert Humphrey presidential campaign, Count Basie once tipped his hat to me late one evening as I left the cocktail lounge of the Century Plaza Hotel, where he and his band were playing.)
Just turning 22 in 1968, this was my first presidential campaign and I was the only print reporter on the Nixon or Humphrey press plane who regularly carried a camera as well as a typewriter—in this case a Nikon F loaded with Tri-X and an Olivetti Lettera 32 portable, both now museum pieces.
It’s not that my paper, the New York Daily News, also wanted me to take pictures. In fact, it was forbidden, as I would find out in no uncertain terms. I was very proud that the informal portrait of Vice President Humphrey that I made on his campaign plane accompanied my full page Daily News op-ed piece. But the picture--and accompanying photo credit--prompted howls from the picture desk in New York and threats of a formal union grievance. With one exception years later, when I interviewed and photographed a convicted murderer in a maximum security prison hospital in Santa Barbara, I never shot for the paper again.
|I was prouder of that agate-type photo credit than I was of the huge byline at the top of the piece. "Don't ever do that again," I was told.
But in terms of thrills and, in one case, surprising emotion, these next two events stand out for me:
It’s 1984 and I am on a national book tour touting my campaign biography of John Glenn, former astronaut, now presidential hopeful. In the Green Room of a TV station in LA, I am about to follow jazz great Oscar Peterson, one of my idols, after the commercial.
Oscar and I will pass each other going to and from the set. What to say to him in those few seconds?
When I was dating my soon-to-be-wife Judy, I gave her a copy of ‘Night Train,’ one of my favorite jazz LPs, by Peterson and his great trio, including bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen.
“I wore out the Night Train album,” I said to Oscar as his meaty hand enveloped mine in a handshake.
His smile was incandescent.
In fact, Oscar’s wonderful piano work was not the only thing that had attracted me to his album. There also was the cover photo. The “Night Train” of the title not only was a classic Jimmy Forrest tune that the tenor sax player “borrowed” from Duke Ellington to create a separate piece, it also referred a gorgeous moody cover photo by the great Pete Turner, who had a profound influence on me as a color photographer:
Truth to tell, it was Pete Turner's moody cover shot tht first attracted me to one of Oscar Peterson's classic jazz albums.
My encounter with Oscar Peterson was a great moment for me—but I had not gone to grammar school with him. I did go to PS 90 in the Bronx, however, with Murray Perahia, who would go on to become one of the greatest classical pianists of his generation.
Murray, a slight little kid, would always play at our assemblies. We even went briefly to the same music school before Murray went on to Julliard (and I, as you might guess, did not.)
“What’s the secret,” I once asked him, as we walked to Music Centre Conservatory off Fordham Road. “You make it look so easy.”
“You really do have to practice,” Murray said to me almost apologetically.
“Shit,” I observed.
Decades passed. We lost touch.
Then, one day I saw that Murray Perahia, hailed by then as the greatest living interpreter of Bach, was going to play a recital at the then-new Strathmore Music Center outside of Washington, DC, where I lived and worked as a political correspondent in the Daily News Washington Bureau.
I was barely able to get nosebleed seats for Judy and me in literally the last row of the balcony of the huge hall. As Murray emerged to thunderous applause, he looked miniscule, but there was no mistaking my old grammar school friend.
It was not surprising that this musical genius gave a virtuoso performance. What did surprise me was my reaction to it. I was in tears almost from start to finish, a mixture of pride for my former friend and gratitude to be able to hear him play in person.
Afterward, I briefly considered going to his dressing room to congratulate him. But I knew there would be a crowd—and, worse, I feared that Murray would not have a clue who I was.
Judy and I drove home on air that night, buoyed by the memory of what we just had seen and heard.
And this one time we didn’t really need a picture.
Van Riper Named to Communications Hall of Fame
|Frank Van Riper addresses CCNY Communications Alumni at National Arts Club in Manhattan after induction into Communications Alumni Hall of Fame, May 2011. (c) Judith Goodman
[Copyright Frank Van Riper. All Rights Reserved. Published 2/22/24]