So what to do on a snowy Sunday before Christmas in NY? Well an expedition to faraway Brooklyn, to see the Who Shot Rock & Roll Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum seemed like a plan. And if you are in NY, living or visiting and photography or Rock and Roll is your bag, then I recommend the trip.
I’m not going to go into the whole show, just to note two photos that I had not seen before- or at least I don’t recall seeing them. The first is a wonderful warm photo taken in 1966 by William “Popsie” Randolph at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, of Wilson Pickett and his band featuring a then young unknown Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix looks for all the world like he has the greatest job ever, dressed in soul uniform du jour, playing guitar for the Wicked. Which it may well have been. He is a year away from the Marquee Club, Monterey and immortality, yet who’s to say he wouldn’t have counted a stint in Wilson Pickett’s band playing the Apollo in Harlem as a highpoint. Sure looks that way. Judge for yourself.
But it’s the second photo that really stopped me dead in my tracks.
Jean-Marie Perier, described as the “French David Bailey”, spent two weeks touring with Chuck Berry in 1964 (for that alone he probably deserves a Legion of Honor award). When I walked up to the photo my first thought was “That’s a great shot of Ike Turner” then I thought “no…wait…. is that Wilson Pickett?” As the title board notes, the image throws one off because we are so used to photos and film of Chuck Berry in motion, leering, grinning, shaking, dancing, duckwalking, the whole panorama of an r’n’b revue. This is something else.
This is Stagolee.
Berry was a year out of jail- his second jail term- having served time on a ridiculous Mann act conviction after a trial that at the very least could be termed suspect and at worst racially charged and biased in the extreme. In the interim the rock’n’roll world had changed with the advent of the Beatles and the Stones and in their wake, a plethora of bands who owned a huge sonic & songwriting debt to Berry and who frequently covered his songs. Berry, riding that wave of popularity was touring Europe to enthusiastic audiences. He had a whole slew of new hits – Nadine, You Never Can Tell, No Particular Place To Go- and the admiration of the young hitmakers coming out of England.
I think there is something of that in this picture- a wariness, a hardness, but also a man confident in himself, surefooted, alive. This man knows things we don’t; what it is to be black and railroaded, to stay tough and strong and to survive, to have looked racism in the eye and taken the fall and come back stronger. This man keeps a very private kernel of himself hidden away far from his very public self and from prying eyes. He tours alone, without a band or close companions, hiring as needs be from the local musicians in the towns he plays. Then he moves on. No one gets close. And Perier captured it, not that core itself but the diamond hard crust he used to keep his essential essence safe. The picture says “see what you see, you don’t know me and you never will”. This is one hard brother. The hip-hop minstrels don’t even come close.