Although Sidney Smith is running New Orleans’ most-talked-about walking tour now with Haunted History Tours, in another time he was the Crescent City’s pre-eminent rock photographer. You can see more of his pictures at www.rockstarphotos.net, or take a look at the most haunted places in New Orleans . Taking a break as he continues to recover from the impact of Hurricane Katrina on tourism in the Big Easy, Sidney had a few words for Hittin’ the Note.
“My father died when I was 15. He did photography as a hobby and left me all these cameras and camera equipment. I was always into music from the get-go. The Beatles were my entire youth. I mean, literally, they were my entire youth. My whole world changed at nine or ten years old, I guess like everybody else’s did when they saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.”
“I was in my mid-teens around 1970 when I saw the Allman Brothers Band. The first time I saw them, they actually played Tulane University’s Homecoming Dance in New Orleans. It was probably one of the very first things I ever did with my camera. It was long before they became major superstars. I remember they were playing things like “Wipe Out” because Tulane kids didn’t realize what excellence they had in their presence at the time.”
“I shot some pictures, and the next time I saw the band – just a few months later – it was very easy to talk to them. In those days, I just showed the band the pictures and they were really easy to talk to, very down-home guys. They started buying photographs. Gregg(Allman) , for instance, told me to send his grandmother a bunch of pictures. He’d give me a hundred bucks and say, “Send her a hundred dollars worth of photos.”
In 1971, I shot Duane for the last time.
They always played the Warehouse in New Orleans. The Allman Brothers basically owned the Warehouse, which was the music club in New Orleans at the time. There was a house band for the Warehouse, and the Allman Brothers were it. They played there every two or three months, and I was working for the Warehouse at the time as their photographer. They had me shooting pictures for them, so I just started going to all the concerts. I missed some of the really good ones, unfortunately -the Doors played their last concert at the Warehouse before Jim Morrison died, and I’ll kick myself forever for missing that one.
I actually moved to Macon in late ‘73, because I used to make all these trips up there to see Butch and Dickey and Gregg. Capricorn Records asked me at the time – it was a fellow named Mike Hyland who was the promotional guy for Capricorn – he asked me if I wanted to move to Macon and work with Capricorn as their photographer, and I jumped on that. That was after I had been invited a few months earlier by Dickey to be the photographer at his wedding when he married Sandy Bluesky. That was kind of a bittersweet job. He married her in July of ‘73, and the summer previously I’d gone down to Miami as a freelance photographer, shooting pictures of the Democratic and Republican Conventions and the turmoil with the Vietnam era going on down there, and all the protesting. One of the pictures I had shot down in Miami won a Newsweek photo contest, but they were holding the awards banquet in New York on the very same day that Dickey Betts was marrying Sandy in Macon. I chose to forgo the Newsweek event – which would have, you know, highlighted my photography to some degree – to go to Dickey’s wedding. I got some great shots of Dickey and a lot of celebrities who attended that.
Later that year, I moved to Macon to work with Capricorn. I got a lot more time with the Allman Brothers and stayed there until 1974. I moved back to New Orleans in mid-to-late ‘74, and in the fall I went to see George Harrison in concert, which was a big deal for me.
As I said earlier, the Beatles were my entire youth, and, as far as I was concerned, the Beatles had been sent down by God to change the world. Anybody who is my age or in their 50s certainly understands this. I went to see George Harrison just as a paying concert-goer, and I took some great shots of him, while watching him onstage, tears were literally flowing down my face. I mean listening to him play Beatles songs – I was 20 years old, and it was like watching my whole youth in front of me.
A few months later, I heard that Paul McCartney was coming to New Orleans to record an album, which turned out to be Venus and Mars. So I started making phone calls everywhere around the country, from LA. to New York, trying to contact anybody I had met over the years, because, by this point, I had become a pretty well known rock and roll photographer in New Orleans. I had work in Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, and Hit Parade. I just was trying to call anybody I’d met over the course of the years who might be able to get me anywhere close to McCartney, so that I could even just shoot a photo of him walking in or out of the studio right when he got to town. The day came, and I was listening to the radio and the news reporter said Paul McCartney’s in town to record this album, and he’ll be staying in town for the next two weeks at an undisclosed location yada, yada…so I figured it was not meant to be.
Then my telephone rings. It’s a woman named Lisa Robinson who ran a thing called the Pop Wire Service. She did Hit Parade magazine and some other things. She called me from New York and, of course, she didn’t know whether I was 20 years old or 60 years old – she was just talking to a photographer from New Orleans that she had worked with. She said very matter-of-factly – I remember this phone call – she said, “Sidney, listen – Paul McCartney is in New Orleans for a few weeks. Do you think you have it in your schedule to work with him for a few weeks as his personal photographer while he’s in town?” I was totally speechless, and I just said, “Yeah, I can do that.” So she said, “Here’s what you need to do. You need to go to this hotel in the French Quarter, and you need to meet with his manager, a fellow by the name of Allen Krowser and, you know, bring him a portfolio of your work, and he’ll talk to you and, you know, you’ll probably get the gig,” I said, “Dig it.”
So I’m driving down to the French Quarter and I’m thinking to myself, “You know, three months ago, I was crying because I watched George Harrison on stage. I can’t blow this gig! I can’t go there and start to cry when I meet McCartney.” I get to the hotel and I walk up to the manager’s room with my briefcase of photos, knock on the door, open it, and sit down with him. He throws my photos all over the bed and he’s looking through them and he’s complimenting me. Then he looks up and, in a very British accent, he says, “Let me ask you something. When you meet Paul, you’re not going to cry, are you?”
I looked at him, dumbfounded, and said, “Why, why would you say that?”
He said, “Well you know, it’s a funny story. We just came from Nashville and we hired a young photographer, right about your age, and every time he saw Paul, he started to cry. It’s very disconcerting, you know.”
I said, “No, not me – no, no. I’m totally professional – you won’t have any crying from me!”
I take pictures nowadays only if there’s a reason. I’m not doing it professionally anymore, but occasionally I shoot. I’ll give you an example. During April, Jazz Fest was held in New Orleans. I got a call from Rolling Stone magazine a few days before Jazz Fest because Phil Walden had just died. As I’m sure you know, Phil Walden was the founder of Capricorn Records and the manager for the Allman Brothers. Rolling Stone still has my name on file as the photographer to contact for file footage of the ’70s, and they were looking for photos of Phil, so, while I had Rolling Stone on the phone, I parlayed some photo passes out of them for Jazz Fest. I went to Jazz Fest this year and shot probably some of the best pictures of Bruce Springsteen ever. I got great Springsteen shots, I got great Dylan shots, and I got great Dave Matthews shots.