Renowned rock photographer John Rowlands to auction images of the stars in aid of Trinity-Conception charity

Published on December 4, 2013

In 1960 Ottawa, John Rowlands was a typical kid. A lover of pop music, like many of his friends, he was in love with American performer Brenda Lee. When she came to the capital to do a show when Rowlands was 13, he decided he’d be taking her home from the concert — as a picture.
Rowlands took his camera and shot a full roll of film at the show, and on the way out, got a bright idea.

“I’m looking down a corridor and I see a sign that says, ‘Brenda Lee and The Casuals,’ and I go, Wow, maybe I should just thank her for the show. There were no policemen or security to stop me,” Rowlands says. “I knocked on the door and her mother answered. I said, I just came to tell you that I really enjoyed the show, and she said, ‘Well, why don’t you come in and tell Brenda yourself?’

Rowlands spent a half and hour or so with the singer, chatting about school, and carrying her suitcase to the car. He left with her postal address to stay in contact and a little while later, got a phone call at home from her manager.

The manager was interested in seeing the pictures Rowlands had taken of Brenda Lee, and asked for the negatives. Rowlands sent them to him, and three weeks later, received a cheque in the mail for $35.

Two months later, Rowlands received another call, this time asking him if he would go to a local radio station to shoot another American musician, who would be there to do an interview. The pay this time was $50, and after he handed over his film, he was introduced to the singer: Sam Cooke.

Rowlands’ photography gigs progressed to the point where his work was known by editors of New York-based national magazines. “16” magazine became his largest account, and the pay started getting better. The year he was in Grade 11, Rowlands recalls, he made $11,000 — $80 per 8x10-inch photo.

“After doing this kind of stuff, which was just my heart saying I’ve got to take pictures, I said, ‘Do you know the formal, technical thing of what you’re doing?’ I didn’t,” Rowlands says.

He enrolled in photography studies at Ryerson University, missing a fair number of classes to go on the road with acts like Conway Twitty, who later became a close friend.

Among the artists Rowlands has photographed over the years: Frankie Avalon, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Slash, Alice Cooper, Sting, Michael Jackson, KISS and Willie Nelson.

He toured with The Rolling Stones and a single photo he took of the Beatles when he was 19 years old has made him more than $650,000 to date.

Rowland also spent four years working with Elvis, hired by the president of RCA Canada.

“He said, ‘I’ve got the Elvis people coming in in a month to have meetings and I want to really zing them.’ I shoot these pictures and he gets them blown up and put behind his desk for when the RCA guys from New York show up. They’re sitting there going, ‘Ed, before we get down to the meeting, where did you get those?,’” explains Rowlands with a chuckle. “A month later, I get a phone call saying they saw my pictures and they wanted to hire me for some jobs in America.”

Rowlands travelled with Elvis for two years before he actually met him — “He was very highly protected by the record company. I was even instructed not to co-mingle with Elvis’s people,” he says — but describes The King as friendly, kind, quiet, a practical joker and a great guitarist.

“You’d sympathize with him, because of this total limitation on his privacy,” Rowlands said. “He had a friend who worked for one of the ambulance companies, and he’d get an ambulance with the tinted windows and drive around at night, just to see Memphis, the old Memphis where he used to stroll.

“I went to Graceland at one occasion and here he was, sitting on the fence on the inside, talking to two fans on the outside. He sat there and talked and he was as interested in them as they were interested in him. ‘Where did you come from? How did you get here? Did you take the train?’ He wanted to live the life that he couldn’t, there with them at the fence.”

Of all the acts he’s worked with, Rowlands admits David Bowie is perhaps his favourite, and he worked with him on three tours, the most recent in 1993. One of Rowlands’ photos of Bowie, called “The Archer,” has become an iconic image, and one of the star’s personal favourites.

Rowlands, who recently moved back to Ontario after spending 25 years living in Palm Springs, Calif., is currently in this province. He’s a longtime family friend of musician Dave Fitzpatrick (a founding member of The Fables), and on Friday night, he’ll partner with Fitzpatrick, his Fitz and Wiseman bandmate Clyde Wiseman and West Side Charlie’s in Bay Roberts to raise money for The Angel Fund. The charity raises money to help women in the Trinity-Conception area with immediate financial needs as they cope with breast cancer and treatment.

Rowlands says auctioning his work is something he often does to help charities, where it is fitting and timely and needed.

At the event, he’ll speak on his experiences with the stars and his adventures in rock ‘n’ roll, and hold a question and answer session before auctioning off more than two dozen 18x24-inch prints of his work. A significant portion of the proceeds will go to The Angel Fund. Admission for Friday’s event is $5 and the event starts at 8 p.m.

After that, Fitz and Wiseman will take to the stage for a couple hours, playing everything from Johnny Cash to Pink Floyd — all artists with whom Rowlands has worked, Fitzpatrick notes.

“His work is great, but the man is also a nice person,” Fitzpatrick says of Rowlands. “The things he’s doing in life to help others should be commended.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury