Photographing pop folks for a half-century

Levon Helm at FloydFest in 2010. (All photos and videos by Doug Thompson)

As I shot photos on the opening day of FloydFest 18 Wednesday, I realized that I worked my first music event as a newspaperman 53 years ago in Roanoke at a concert of Herman’s Hermits at Victory Stadium.

That concert became one of the first such events that I covered for the Times and other newspapers over the next five decades.  In Roanoke, I also covered concerts by Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays and others at Victory Stadium, plus an appearance by Peter, Paul & Mary at Virginia Tech.

After leaving Roanoke and taking a reporting and photography position with The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, a new summer music series — The Mississippi River Festival — began on a site at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE) the year that I arrived.  Over the next decade, I would cover concerts that included The Who, Loggins & Messina, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, The Eagles, Pete Seeger & Arlo Gutherie and many more.

The legendary Dave Brubeck

Other assignments took me to nearby St. Louis to catch Dave Brubeck’s Quartet, the Annual Ragtime Festival on the city’s waterfront and smaller concerts featuring Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen, Leon Redbone and similar acts in and around Alton.

This summer’s FloydFest caps a dozen assignments covering the July event at the site at the Floyd and Patrick County line just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Over the past 14 years, my lenses have captured Sam Bush, Levon Helm and others in both still photos and video.

At the Mississippi River Festival and other locations in the St. Louis area, my still photos include the Grateful Dead on stage, Glenn Frey and his colleague backstage after their show, Jackson Browne stretched out on the grass before his concert, Jim Croce relaxing and telling stories, among other encounters with music legends.

Kris Kristofferon in the ’70s

I shared beers with Kris Kristofferson at a popular watering hole, Vanzo’s, in Edwardsville, Illinois, after his appearance at MRF, listened to stories from Harry Chapin in his motel room at a Holiday Inn and listened to Gordon Lightfoot jam with other musicians around a pool at that same location at another time.

My job has given me a rare and unique chance to photograph entertainers on stage and relaxing before, between or after performances.  I shot my first photos of a popular music act at age 17 in 1965 and am still shooting at age 70 this year at FloydFest.

My chosen profession has given both Amy and I rare opportunities to meet and know a number of famous, fascinating and influential people.

She worked personally with Al Pacino on a tribute performance at Lincoln Center in New York to the legendary Lee Strasburg.  We shared dinner at a restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with former Gov. John Connolly and listen to his stories about that day in the limousine in Dallas in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet.

Christopher and Lynda Day George.

in Alton, I danced with actress Lynda Day George after dinner with her and husband Christopher George as they prepared for an appearance at a charity function.

Amy still blushes from memories of having her butt pinched by the lecherous and legendary Roger Maris at a cocktail party where she also met Whitey Ford and Johnny Bench in Washington.  She has the baseball signed by them.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of one-on-one interviews with fascinating people for articles, including Mel Brooks, Gregory Peck, author Tom Clancy, Paul Newman (after he lost the clutch in a sports car race).

We mourned this weekend at the passing of lifelong friend Adrian Cronauer, the armed services radio DJ portrayed by Robin Williams in “Good Mornin’ Vietnam.”

As Jerry Garcia sang in “Truckin'” by the Dead: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”  He talked about that song when I interviewed and shot photos of him in Illinois on Aug. 16, 1980.

Yes, it has been a long strange trip but we’ve enjoyed it…a lot.

© 2004-2022 Blue Ridge Muse

© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse