“I was lucky,” said John Gibbs Rockwood with a smile.
Right time, right place? Law?
Yes, but it took more than luck for Rockwood to earn a reputation as one of the premier music photographers in northwest Ohio. It took countless hours, countless miles and irrepressible enthusiasm to always be in the right place at the right time.
“If you love something, you’ll find a way,” said Rockwood.
Many of his photos have been published in national magazines, on album covers, and in liner notes, archived in the University of Mississippi’s Living Blues Library, and now published in a new book from the University of Toledo, Can I Get a Witness, Press.
The book contains 150 black and white photos documenting rock and blues from the 1970s to the 2000s, a time when rock and roll was alternately innocent, intoxicating, decadent, naive and dangerous.
Lots of sorting
Rockwood spent five years completing the book, including sorting the 28,000 photos he took at concerts and behind the scenes in northwest Ohio, southwest Michigan, and musical pilgrimages to destinations such as Chicago and the Mississippi Delta .
After his father bought him a Nikon camera, he was able to hang out with his musical heroes, particularly blues legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin ‘Wolf, Buddy Guy and Toledo’s Big Jack Reynolds and Art and Roman Griswold.
“It would be like having a Yankees fan in the dugout with Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio,” he said. “And I have to do it over and over again.”
Rockwood was hired as a freelancer by the former Exit magazine, which gave him backstage access. Taking concert photos was great fun, he said, but the real magic happened backstage.
His new book features behind-the-scenes gems like a thoughtful Frank Zappa listening to a reporter’s questions in 1974, Mick Ralphs of Bad Company checking his guitars next to a row of urinals, and Gene Simmons in full KISS make-up doing the it in the locker room, all in the former Toledo Sports Arena. Other special moments in the book include Elvis Presley’s 1977 Toledo Show – shortly before his death; Tiny Tim sips a beer outside the Ottawa Tavern; Richie Havens played to 40,000 people at the Poe Ditch Festival in Bowling Green in 1975; Joan Baez at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater 1975 and Bob Dylan at the Savage Hall in 1989.
Barbara Floyd, UT archivist, said she saw Can I Get a Witness as more than a compilation of great photos. “Together they provide a remarkable record of Toledo’s cultural music scene for more than three decades. It’s a musical story of the Northwest Ohio, and John was there at all of those events. “
Rockwood and friend Bob Seeman formed a record label, Blue Suit Records, in the 1980s with the aim of documenting the aging blues artists they loved before it was too late. The small indie label has released 20 albums, many of them with unique blues artists who no longer exist. And while Blue Suit is still viable, it hasn’t released any new recordings in years. “Honestly, I don’t know who to record,” Rockwood said, shrugging.
Rock and roll is out of control. Or maybe it’s just the opposite – there is too much control. Backstage is guarded like Fort Knox. Photo passports come with large bureaucratic balls. Photographers push each other out of the way to get the same shot as everyone else.
The music business has changed forever and it will never return to the free spirited days Rockwood captured through his lens.
“There is no more mojo,” he said. “The mojo is dead.”
John Gibbs Rockwood will be signing copies of “Can I Get a Witness” on Saturday, August 30th, from noon to 3pm at Barnes & Noble, 1430 Secor Rd., Where it will be available for $ 22.95. It is also available from Culture Clash Records and UT Press, utoledopress.com/CanIGetAWitnessProduct.html