Bearing Witness: Fan’s photos capture an era in Toledo music history

  • Bonnie-Raitt

    Bonnie Raitt and Sippie Wallace, Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, 1975.

    John Rockwood

  • John Rockwood with his new book, ‘Can I Get A Witness,’ and photographs of rockers Mick Taylor, Peter Frampton, and Chester Arthur Burnett.
    John Rockwood with his new book, ‘Can I Get A Witness,’ and photographs of rockers Mick Taylor, Peter Frampton, and Chester Arthur Burnett.

    Elvis Presley, Centennial Hall, 1977.
    Elvis Presley, Centennial Hall, 1977.

    All John Gibbs Rockwood really wanted was a concert ticket and a backstage pass.

    He came of age in rock and roll’s prime, drawn to the music’s seductive pull by watching Elvis and The Beatles and the Rolling Stones make the girls scream on The Ed Sullivan Show. A few years later he was poring over album liner notes for influences, tracking down blues albums, and latching onto artists like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry to soak up their mojo.

    Rock was the flashy prom queen, the blues was her sexy sister, and Rockwood was in love with both of them. That’s when he found his entrée into this wild world inhabited by his musical idols: the camera.

    He could take pictures of cats with names like Lee “Shot” Williams, Detroit Junior, Little Smokey Smothers, One String Sam, and Jake the Shake. His work would be published, he’d get paid, and — best of all — he could hang out with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells and Bo Diddley, sharing drinks, enraptured by their stories while getting to know them as men.

    “The camera was my access and it was bigger than anything,” Rockwood said. “Once I got into it, it was like the circus came to town and I left with the circus.”

    Now, more than 26,000 pictures later, the 65-year-old retired Owens Corning worker is basking in the publication of Can I Get A Witness (162 pages, University of Toledo Press, $22.95), which collects more than 150 of his photos in a handsome presentation that captures the grit, passion, and grind of an era of music that will never happen again. He will sign copies of the book Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Culture Clash Records, 4020 Secor Rd.

    Bob Dylan, Savage Hall, 1989.
    Bob Dylan, Savage Hall, 1989.

    On-the-job learning

    A burly, gregarious guy with a generous spirit and a genuine lack of pretense, Rockwood parlayed his photography into a lifetime of experiences that put him on the front lines of Toledo’s music scene. When a band came to town, he was there with his camera and an eye for moments that were both personal and artistic.

    His work is that of a fellow artist who felt the passion of the music so deeply he couldn’t help but convey it.

    “I was trying to take a picture that was in my head framed, you know?,” he said in an interview at a local coffee shop. “A lot of the pictures are in my head, but I didn’t take them. A lot of it was luck, but I also took a lot of them.”

    He started working for local music rags like Exit magazine out of Bowling Green, taking on assignments that got him close to the musicians. The ’70s and ’80s ushered in the modern concert business when rock bands would tour relentlessly, playing hockey arenas and theaters on bills that might include Heart, Foreigner, and Nazareth for three-hour shows at $8.50 a pop.

    Backstage access was easy to obtain because the bands needed the press to promote ticket and album sales. Rockwood took the plunge into the deep end and soon was shooting acts as diverse as Janis Ian, Frank Zappa, KISS, Bob Dylan, Dave Brubeck, and scores of others.

    “When I got the camera, I didn’t know [anything],” he said. “My best friend said, ‘You don’t know an F stop from a stop sign.’ And I kind of really just learned as I went.”

    Bruce Springsteen, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, 1984.
    Bruce Springsteen, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, 1984.

    The masters

    He also had access to his blues idols, which was no small thing for a guy who ended up fronting Toledo band Voodoo Libido as harmonica player and lead singer and who eventually formed his own record label, Blue Suit Records, that recorded a variety of artists and one Grammy-nominated album.

    From a degrees-of-separation perspective, Rockwood traces his musical lineage directly to the original blues masters: Son House, Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Wells, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, and dozens of others all the way back to the legendary Robert Johnson.

    He drank with them and served as a chauffeur and friend. He recorded their music, backed them up in bands when they played in Toledo, rounded up liquor, and made sure they felt welcome here.

    “Meeting Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B King, that was like meeting royalty, you know what I mean?”

    It’s not published in the book, but Rockwood has a picture of himself backstage at the Sports Arena with Waters and the great harmonica player Wells. He looks a little buzzed because he had been drinking with them, which gave him just enough liquid courage to make a fool of himself. The story is illustrative of the kind of experiences he was seeking.

    “We were all in a room, you know, the locker room. Muddy was drinking champagne because at that time he wasn’t allowed to drink anything else because of his blood pressure. And people were coming and going.

    “My friend came in, and he had a National guitar and started playing and Muddy was saying, ‘No, you go up and come down, you go up and come down,’” Rockwood said in a gruff impersonation of Waters’ explaining how to play a song.

    “I had a harmonica like an idiot in my back pocket and I just started playing it. Muddy looked over at me — and this is how crazy I am because I’m sitting next to Junior Wells — and he said to me, ‘You got the wrong harmonica boy! The wrong key, the wrong harmonica’ but he was really nice.”

    Rockwood erupted in laughter at the memory of Waters, who he hung out with whenever he was in Toledo. “Anytime Muddy was around I’d just be there and he’d say, ‘Come with me’ and he’d sit down and just start playing cards right away and he was like Buddha, everything revolved around him.”

    Capturing history

    Can I Get A Witness is the result of an earlier book published in 1999 by Joel Lipman, a long-time friend of Rockwood’s and a retired UT professor who was co-editor of the UT Press before he retired in 2012.

    He wanted to follow up that publication with something more substantial, so he and Rockwood began the laborious process of weeding down his thousands of photos into a work that represented the best of his photography while telling a story about Toledo’s live music history.

    Bonnie Raitt and Sippie Wallace, Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, 1975.
    Bonnie Raitt and Sippie Wallace, Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, 1975.

    Lipman also edited the text and helped winnow down Rockwood’s stories into a concise package.

    “I wrote, he talked. He’s got a great garrulous manner of talking about music and I just tried to capture his anecdotal voice as editor,” Lipman said.

    He is “enormously proud” of the book and the photos it contains. “I think they capture the kind of thrall of performance and the emotional heart of the performing musician. I think they also say something about the sweep of musical performances in Toledo over the several decades that they cover,” he said.

    Artists featured in the book include Elvis Presley, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Bonnie Raitt, Frank Zappa, the J. Geils Band, Humble Pie, Bad Company, the Stones, Jimmy Reed, Ritchie Havens (the cover shot), and Toledoans such as Art and Roman Griswold.

    When Lipman left UT, the job of getting the book published fell to Barbara Floyd, current editor of the UT Press. She considers Can I Get A Witness an important historical artifact.

    “The photos are obviously very powerful and moving, but what I like about them as a collection is that it presents this 35-year history of the music scene in Toledo, which is remarkable when you look at all the people who came through Toledo in their careers,” she said.

    J. Geils Band, Sports Arena, 1980s.
    J. Geils Band, Sports Arena, 1980s.

    ‘The blues guys’

    The book also represents a time that is long past. Venues such as Theo’s Taverna, the original Ottawa Tavern, the Sports Arena, and Centennial Hall are gone and many of the blues men who Rockwood venerated have died.

    The concert industry is not the same either, and Rockwood shakes his head disgustedly at stipulations by bands that photographers can only shoot the first three songs and never go backstage so management and artists can maintain strict control over their images.

    He still shows up at concerts, plays music, and actively markets his photos on the Internet and in occasional gallery shows. He and his wife Jennifer — a Toledo playwright and director who recently retired from UT — have two grown sons, Ian and Julian, and a grandson, Everett, and Rockwood exudes pride and contentment when he talks about his family.

    He also is acutely aware of what is going on musically and friends like Lipman rely on him for tips on what’s going on.

    “His life is literally framed by blues and popular music. He is a raconteur in the very best sense of that world,” Lipman said. “He’s just a wonderful friend to have. If John says to me, ‘Go to this event,’ I know I will be missing something special if I don’t.”

    For Rockwood the photos and the experiences always come back to the people he befriended on what he calls “the lonesome highway.”

    “I met the nicest people in the world, whether it was the roadies or musicians,” he said. “But I also met Fortune 500 guys and they were great too. It’s just that I would rather hang out with the blues guys.”

    John Gibbs Rockwood will sign copies of “Can I Get A Witness” at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Culture Clash Records, 4020 Secor Rd.