The Power of Soul, R&B, Funk
A PHOTOGRAPHER’S WORK TELLS A RIGHTEOUS STORY
Do you have one single favourite Motown photograph?
There’s plenty of choice with the likes of the Supremes or the Temptations, Marvin or Stevie. Less so when it comes to, say, the Satintones or the Spinners, Barrett Strong or Brenda Holloway, to mention just a handful.
The era makes a difference, too. In the 1960s, Motown exercised considerable care and control over the visual portrayal of its stars, not least because many were naïve youngsters from the Detroit projects. When it granted access for imaginative professionals like Bruce Davidson and Doug Jeffery, the results were usually magnificent: Davidson’s pink-hued hotel-room shot of Diana Ross in New York in 1965, for instance, or Jeffery’s crisp, two-tone image of Berry Gordy instructing drummer Bob Cousar backstage at London’s Finsbury Park Astoria, also in ’65.
You can view such photos in (self-interest alert!) Motown: The Sound Of Young America, together with pictures taken by chance, such as Barney Ales’ endearing snap of Smokey and Claudette Robinson, exhausted and fast asleep on the way home from yet another promotion trip, somewhere in America.
Meanwhile, a cascade of previously-unseen photos of Motown stars can be found in a new book, Soul R&B Funk: Photographs 1972-1982. They are from the portfolio of Bruce W. Talamon, and include eye-popping pictures of Stevie, Diana, Smokey and Marvin in concert and elsewhere, as well as Rick James, the Jacksons, the Temptations, the Commodores and more. The tome also offers scores of images of other music masters of the period, such as Isaac Hayes, George Clinton, the O’Jays, James Brown, Minnie Riperton, the Isley Brothers, Labelle, L.T.D., Al Green and Earth, Wind & Fire.
My favourite is probably Talamon’s 1978 shot of the Gaye brothers, Marvin and Frankie, inside their parents’ home in Los Angeles, seated at a table of food – green beans, mashed potatoes, turkey, and bread – served up by mother Alberta. “She wouldn’t let me just take pictures,” Talamon notes in the caption, “she set a place for me.” The tableau is all the more striking for its location: the house where Marvin would die by his father’s hand, six years later.
Another striking image is of Stevie Wonder, captured on film in ’77 at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, a Hollywood cultural institution. Photo equipment nestles near the star, the cook peers out at the activity, and a wall sign serves to remind patrons: “Sorry – No Checks – No Exceptions.”
“I’ve always thought of my photographs as documents that went beyond screaming into a microphone,” Talamon explains in the book’s introduction. “My body of work has been about the whole unvarnished process, as opposed to just that portion that publicity machines and record companies want you to see. I chased that fleeting visual record for 10 glorious years.”
Black music (for want of a better description) was big business by the 1970s, having broken out – in part, due to Motown – of confines previously set by radio, television, record companies and racism.
Not only did such music invade the peaks of pop album charts during that decade, but it also reigned on the road: nationwide tours headlined by Clinton, Hayes, the Isleys, Maurice White’s EW&F, the Jacksons and others generated millions of dollars in ticket sales, year after year. Nothing better illustrates that revolution than the opening spread of Soul R&B Funk, showing Rick James on stage in 1977, leaning into an audience of tens of thousands at the Los Angeles Coliseum, cupping his ear to their cheers. Street songs became stadium anthems, and this panoramic view proves it.
Talamon was a political science major, headed to law school, as he told the Observer this summer. “Then I bought a camera on an exchange programme in Berlin, and got excited about the power of the image.” He began to photograph musicians in 1971, his first being Miles Davis in Copenhagen, followed by Isaac Hayes at Wattstax in ’72. Then the young Californian took on regular assignments for Regina Jones at Soul, the black-owned newspaper which covered rhythm & blues and its makers. In particular, Talamon shot the stars at Soul Train, Don Cornelius’ influential TV vehicle for the best in black music.
In 1974, he started to work with record companies; Motown publicity chief Bob Jones was his first client. The occasion was Thelma Houston’s appearance at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. “I was so clueless. I said $35 for the evening. [Bob] smiled and said, ‘How about $50 plus expenses? And bring a flash.’ Eventually, I got more.” Other photographers employed by Motown in that decade, such as Bobby Holland and Jim Britt, helped Talamon with portrait work. “Bobby was instrumental in convincing Regina to buy a basic lighting package,” he recalls. “Jim taught me not to fear studio lighting.”
Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross are strongly represented in Soul R&B Funk, but it doesn’t neglect those with lesser star power. A couple of candid snaps of Eddie Kendricks in 1975 at the West Hollywood premises of tailor Bill Whitten are engaging, for example. The clothes designer’s clients included Wonder, the Jacksons and the Commodores; Kendricks is shown, in between fittings, pouring a Courvoisier.
Among the Wonder images is one of him in conversation with Berry Gordy. It’s from the same day in March ’76 as the picture of the two men which appears in Motown: The Sound Of Young America, only the latter shot also features Wonder’s lawyer, Johanan Vigoda, and Barney Ales, who was then running Motown Records for Gordy. Talamon’s shot is said to be when Stevie delivered the tapes of Songs In The Key of Life; shortly afterwards, on April 1, his new contract with the company was signed.
An earlier Talamon collection was Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer, published in 1994, with pictures taken in the three years before the Jamaican musician’s death. The photographer said that Marley was frustrated by difficulties in reaching African American audiences in the U.S., leading him to forego a single concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden in favour of five nights at the Apollo. “And when Bob became ill,” he told the Washington Post, “he was opening for the Commodores so that he could reach people that normally wouldn’t go to see him.”
In Talamon’s new book, he puts his work in context through a Q&A with novelist and playwright Pearl Cleage. When asked about memorable photo sessions, he recalls one with the Jacksons at the end of 1976. “The moment Michael stepped onto the white seamless, he started to dance. It was as if someone had wound him up. The music was blasting and you could feel the excitement. And then his brothers started their routine.
“Trying to keep them on that seamless backdrop? All that went out the window. Truly in that instant I had to make a decision: be perfect, or hold on and try to keep them in focus? Thirty-eight years later, we don’t care about the damn backdrop. Look at the joy on their faces.” Talamon also implicitly endorses the view that the Jacksons’ talent came to be restricted at Motown. “They were with a new record company, making new music,” he tells Cleage. “They were free.”
Jim Britt, the California snapper whom Talamon credits with career help, took his fair share of Jackson 5 photos while they were (shackled?) at Motown. A compelling cross-section can be found in The Jacksons: Legacy, which also draws on material from the family archives and was written by the group with Fred Bronson. This was published last year around their 50th anniversary; it was in August 1967 that the brothers won first prize at a talent contest at New York’s Apollo theatre.
There’s no coffee-table book featuring Jim Britt’s Motown work, but many of these photos can be found at his website and bought as archival prints. He has an interesting background of his own, having been a singer before – and after – becoming assistant art director for the record company in Los Angeles in 1972. He later advanced to chief photographer for ABC-TV and in the ’90s, his photo studio in Los Angeles doubled as a jazz club.
There’s a website, too, for Jim Hendin, who took one of Motown’s most iconic portraits: that of Marvin on the front of What’s Going On. With his own studio in Detroit, he was the company’s primary photographer from 1968-72, with LP covers including Stevie Wonder’s Signed Sealed & Delivered and Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5, as well as others by the Undisputed Truth, Edwin Starr, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Thelma Houston, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. The Hendin site offers prints for sale of many of these artists.
A Hendin favourite of mine features Britain’s Kiki Dee, from the shoot for her one and only Motown album, Great Expectations. The U.S. cover places a photo of Dee in the middle of artwork displaying Union Jacks – subtle, right? – but Hitsville’s international licensee, EMI Records, was adamant about not employing that for the U.K. market. It prevailed only by telling the American firm a white lie: that it would have to pay royalties to Queen Elizabeth II if the flags were used on the British sleeve.
(Hendin worked under the supervision of Tom Schlesinger, Motown’s director of advertising & creative concepts, an intriguing figure covered in the first edition of West Grand Blog, and to whom I’ll return in a future post.)
Soul R&B Funk powerfully illustrates how far American black music advanced during the last quarter of the 20th century, to heights of commercial influence and cultural stature previously hard to imagine. Talamon’s photographs also make such progress feel righteous, as well as reminding us of the role played by Motown’s music makers in clearing the way and climbing that mountain.
Book Notes: Soul R&B Funk is newly published by Taschen; it includes text in German and French as well as English. The Jacksons: Legacy (2017) and Motown: The Sound Of Young America (2016) are published by Thames & Hudson. The latter book will be available in paperback early next year. Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer, published by W.W. Norton, can be found on Amazon.