Rock ’n’ roll photographer takes us backstage for an insider’s glimpse.
London photographer tells tales of being back stage with rock stars
John Rowlands is not a household name. But the people he photographed are.
The Rolling Stones. The Beatles. Elton John. Alice Cooper. Dolly Parton. David Bowie.
He shot them all, so you can think of Rowlands as a walking, talking database of every rock star who rolled through Canada in the last 50 years.
Saturday night, the 71-year-old Londoner takes the stage at the Palace Theatre, as part of his Rock ’n’ Roll Memories show.
Each show, he says, is tailored to the audience.
Saturday’s Palace date is the 16th time he’s presented his collection of music memories. He begins by asking the audience, “Are there people here who remember Rusty (the rooster) and Jerome (the giraffe, from the long-running children’s television show The Friendly Giant)?”
The people who answer in the affirmative are his people, he says backstage.
While fans of the rock era may know the names of the acts and their chart positions and release dates, Rowlands promises to figuratively take the audience backstage with him by revisiting his many assignments.
If you’ve ever wondered, for instance, who Margaret Trudeau was romancing when the Stones played the El Mocambo in Toronto in 1977, Rowlands says he can supply the definitive answer. Those who say Mick Jagger and the ones who insist it was Keith Richards are all wrong. It was Ronnie Wood, he says. Rowlands even saw the out-of-focus shots of Wood the wife of the then-prime minister and mother of the current one took in the legendary Toronto bar.
“It’s the back story,” he says of what he supplies with his stories from the road.
Rowlands’ career as a raconteur began in 2009 when he was contacted by his insurance company, which wanted to do an updated evaluation of his work: negatives, digital files, the whole lot from 1960 onward.
After it was completed, the company contacted him and said, “You’ve eclipsed pop culture and you’ve got music history.”
His first show was in Cottonwood, Ariz., where he was living at the time.
He returned to London after a stroke in 2012 that left his left side paralyzed.
Part of his therapy had been lifting cameras of different weights; the same therapist made him shoot household objects around him. “Pick it up, grab it and shoot,” he was told.
“It’s a fond and warm fuzzy-blanket memory,” he says of what he provides for his audience, some of whom are his age and some of whom are aspiring photographers.
On Saturday night, he even will tell the story of how it all started, with a Brenda Lee show in his native Ottawa at age 13.
“I was the perfect victim for show biz,” he says. After he sent the shots of the starlet to her people, he got the shock of his young life when he got a check – for $35 – in return.
“I was floored,” he says.
Does he still have the photographer’s eye, all these years later?
“If it’s out there, I can grab it,” Rowlands says, smiling.
Elton John Roy Orbison David Bowie Dolly Parton in London Rock-and-roll photographer John Rowlands displays a photo he took of a Beatles press conference. The London shutterbug has snapped such luminaries as the Fab Four, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie since he began his career at a Brenda Lee show in 1960, for which Rowlands was paid $35. Perhaps his most famous shot is of David Bowie, an image nicknamed “The Archer.”
Steve Martin, who is at Centennial Hall with Martin Short for their An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life show Oct. 19, is in John Rowlands’ catalogue.