Thursday, September 30, 2010

Blues in Black & White Documents Blues History

Blues in Black & White
The Landmark Ann Arbor Blues Festivals as photographed by Stanley Livingston
2010: Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press

Two weeks prior to the Woodstock Festival, in 1969, on the University of Michigan Campus, the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival was held. I neither attended Woodstock or the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. The Ann Arbor Blues Festival was the one of the two I wish I could have attended. It was a gathering of blues legends that one would never see the likes of again. In 1970 a second Blues Festival was held and then after a short hiatus, the festival returned as the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival for a few more years, with a somewhat broader palette of music that now ranged from Son House to Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Otis Rush. The University of Michigan Press has published “Blues in Black & White” a celebration of those path making festivals centered around the marvelous photography of Stanley Livingston, one of several photographers who documented this event.

Livingston passed away in mid-September, 2010, but lived to see publication of this book that he worked on with his former photographic assistant, Tom Erlewine, who is the book’s editor and designer. The previously unpublished photos here were from thousands he took at the festivals. Livingston had never heard blues until he attended the first Ann Arbor Festival. He recalled, “When I arrived, Howlin’ Wolf was playing. I was struck by the intensity in his eyes. He had a scowling, expression, but then he’d smile just like a little baby. He was the greatest.”

Seeing Wolf and the others he knew he had to photograph them and that is what he did. and he did so, marvelously. The book presents candid backstage and performance shots that capture a young Luther Allison (Ann Arbor was a breakthrough performance for him); Howlin’ Wolf; Mississippi Fred McDowell (in performance and with a little child hugging him); Doctor Ross; Johnny Winter and pianist David ALexander (n/k/a Omar Sharif) hanging out; Lucille Spann and Sippie Wallace, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells (together and separately); B.B. King; Otis Rush; Papa Lightfoot; Victoria Spivey, Johnny Shines and a laughing Robert Lockwood; Charlie Musselwhite with Freddie Roulette playing lap steel guitar; Roosevelt Sykes backstage with Big mama Thornton and Big Joe Williams; Johnny Winter and Luther Allison playing guitar together; Magic Sam (a nice sequence of shots, one of which includes (an unidentified Eddie Shaw on saxophone) as Sam smiles and Bruce Barlow looks on); Lightnin’ Hopkins: Mance Lipscomb; Son House (one where he and his wife sing a gospel number a cappella and the other shows Son intensely playing guitar); Albert King (including one picture where Robert Lockwood is hugging him on stage); Muddy Waters; Otis Rush; Mighty Joe Young; Bonnie Raitt accompanying Sippie Wallace; Jimmy ‘Fast Fingers’ Dawkins; Freddie King; Hound Dog Taylor; J.B. Hutto; John lee Hooker, Juke Boy Bonner; Bobby Bland; Pee Wee Crayton; John Jackson (with his characteristic warm smile); Koko Taylor; and Robert Pete Williams. I am sure I may have omitted a few names but as you can see, this was a veritable Blues Hall of Fame and very few of the performers shown here are still alive. But this book is more than photos of blues legends. These are classic images of the performers and performances as Livingston gives us a sense of the intensity and joy on stage and back stage. As Peter ‘Mudcat’ Ruth is quoted on the back cover, “These photos are works of art.”

The book includes an introduction by Jim O’Neal who discusses how the Festival impacted him and led to the beginning of the magazine, Living Blues. Michael Erlewine, who founded the All Music Guide, provides a History of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival as well as an interview with Howlin’ Wolf. Blues in Black & White also includes brief biographies and suggested recordings of the artists pictured (and this also serves as an index for the photographs). The book also strikes me as beautifully printed with the images wonderfully reproduced. It is a no brainer that anyone who considers themselves a blues lover needs this book. This reviewer also suggests that it is among the finest recently published books of music photography.

For purposes of FTC Regulations, I purchased this book.

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