John Cosway – Brushes with Fame: Photo Tripping with Music Legends
The veteran Toronto newsman/photographer delved into his archives to produce a photographic work of significance that features candid moments with Elvis, the Beatles, Ronnie Hawkins, Johnny Cash, Gordon Lightfoot, Walt Grealis, Mick and Keith, - the golden age of rock n’ roll. He discusses the book and his career here.
By Bill King
Most everyone has a photographic memory in time they’d like to revisit and share with others. At times it’s a goal that catches the corner of a net, a drive that slips within inches of being a hole-in-one, a pass that catches a receiver and finds its way into the end zone or something as artful as a stash of images stored away bottom of a closet. Sometimes those images carry with them a common interest way beyond family get-togethers and travel.
Former newsman John Cosway decided after retiring from print to sort and scan 200 black and white negatives and write about those early days of rock n’ roll from a fans perspective and shape into book form. There’s a narrative to the dense tome that reveals itself as much a memoir as an unveiling of nearly forgotten photos. What makes Brushes with Fame a work of significance are the candid moments that frame a good portion of the 230 pages. These are back, and off stage captures with Elvis, the Beatles, Ronnie Hawkins, Johnny Cash, Gordon Lightfoot, Walt Grealis, Mick and Keith, - the golden age of rock n’ roll. In fact, an exhibition of these rarities is a must. I recently spoke with Cosway about the book and his career.
Bill King: It’s wonderful that you've taken the initiative and I guess you've got help from friends to put together a book of this breadth.
John Cosway:Well, I put it off for 50 years. I was approaching my seventy-fifth birthday and decided now or never. I was encouraged by friends and family. I was ready after working at the Wayback Times. I gave that up and devoted two years to getting it done.
That’s a lot of film negatives to scan. Then there’s editing and deciding which stories to write.
I looked for somebody for about a year to do the negatives, but the cost was prohibitive, so I bought a scanner, and I did them all myself. Almost 200 negatives.
This is the Epson flatbed?
Epson Perfection V500. It worked wonders. It was a learning curve, but it paid off.
What was fascinating is that I’d forgotten a lot of the people I had on negatives. I was surprised at some of the pictures I didn't know I had; then suddenly developed. I misplaced the names of a lot of the performers,but Facebook postings have helped identify some of the people for me.
Your negatives, did you keep in proper sleeves and date?
No, I wasn't very organized. I had them in a shirt box for decades. Some were very loose and no I wasn't very organized from the start. It was quite a challenge.
To find out the exact date - it's easier now since we have the Internet. You can Google-search most the concerts and other information. It's not always that easy.
Most of the major events have dates, you know like the Festival Express in Calgary, and different concerts. It wasn't too difficult to pin down a date, including Elvis Presley April 2nd,1957. I knew that from newspaper reports.
Didn’t this all begin when you were young guy delivering newspapers and hanging around newsrooms and then find yourself in situations where concerts were coming up and given a camera?
My first celebrity photo was Frankie Avalon, and that was as a teenager at an Alan Freed Christmas Jubilee concert in New York City. I was a Toronto Star carrier for eight years, and they had an annual contest for subscriptions, and I won five trips in a row and then on the last one, in January of 1959, I went to this concert featuring 17 acts of the day. It was the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Frankie Avalon, who I took a picture of. That was my first.
Did it get published?
No, I tucked that away. I was a teenager at the time. It didn't get published until I put it in a book.
What was your first published photo?
It was Little Stevie Wonder in Chatham. He was 13 years old and he was at the Chatham Memorial Community Center and it was with an old Speed Graphic camera - they weighed about 5 pounds and I snapped it with a local teenage fan. When I was researching the book, I tried to find the fan,but she had died, but I got a hold of her sister and got a nice heartwarming story about how important that picture was to her all her life. That made me feel warm inside.
Did you ever find out who the woman was in those photos with Johnny Cash?
We are still looking. We have a lead and she might have been a publicist, which took us in a different direction. We still have to pin that down. A lot of people have been asking, have you identified the woman yet? She’s in six or seven photos and we're anxious to see. Another photo she’s in is with Dave Mickie.
I like that photo with David Marsden.
It is popular. But Dave says he doesn't remember much of the 60s.
That's a great look with the pompadour hair style and the cigarette hanging from the hand. I know John Rowland has a lot of the photos from the from the same era especially the Beatles. The fact you were able to get into these press conferences made it possible to get these shots.
John must have been to my left because some of his shots are straight ahead and mine are taken from an angle. We must have rubbed shoulders during the Beatles’ press conference.
It must have been exciting being in the room - the electricity - the noise?
What was surprising, a number of photographers who were there were awestruck. I wasn’t so much but I noticed some photographers had their jaws open and were caught up in the moment of Beatlemania. There’s a shot of a whole room of photographers taking pictures. It was exciting times and they all look so young now. What is surprising is a number of them smoked at the time. I think today it wouldn't be that percentage.
What was the most captivating moment of that era for you? Maybe an assignment?
Most of them weren’t assignments - I would go out on my own. In fact, when I did the Beatles I was working at the Brampton Times and I offered them to the city editor and she wouldn't publish because there were no local people in the photos. It was a community newspaper and you had to be local to get in. She turned down the Beatles and that was 1965.
You began delivering newspapers then worked your way up into the newspaper rooms.
I worked for the Toronto Star delivering newspapers for eight years. Then I got into the Globe & Mail. In fact, my book, is dedicated to Robert Turnbull. He was the city editor at the time and he put up a memo about crosswalks being proposed for Toronto. And I responded. He sent me a memo saying he liked my writing and I should have a future in this business. He helped to get the job in Chatham. I was forever thankful for him. He changed my direction in life.
Did you continue writing for newspapers?
I worked at the Toronto Sun for 19 years, up to 1993. I started as a police reporter in 1975 and court reporter. I wrote a couple of columns on lotteries and video and after the shakeup at the Sun I decided to leave in January 1994. I wrote about antiques for a while and auctions and that sort of thing and then I joined the WaybackTimes in 2006. A friend bought it and I worked for them for 10 years. When the book came along, I decided to quit and devote full time to doing it.
You had others who worked with you on this?
My partner, Margaret McAulay, is the one who got me involved and urged me to get this done. And she was a great help. She did a lot of research and continued support. That carried me through two years of putting it together.
And a lot of writing too. Most books are loaded with photos and the minimum amount of text.
A lot of people put photos on Facebook without any story behind them, and I thought this is an opportunity to tell the stories behind the pictures. I took a lot of time researching the details. I thought it was worthwhile doing the complete story.
One thing we have in common is Festival Express because I was in the band that kicked it off at Varsity Stadium in Toronto before the train crossed the country. By the time they pulled into Calgary, the musicians must have been spent?
You asked me earlier what my favourite time was, that would be the Festival Express.
I ended up in the same hotel as lot of the performers. After the concert was over, I was going up to my room and I heard a party going on. I left my camera in the room and went down and joined this party and a lot of celebrities were there. Sha Na Na, Janis Joplin,Ian and Sylvia - it was a full mix of people, so I crash that party two nights in a row and had a great time.
You never brought the camera along?
No, I didn't take my camera into the party because I thought it would be an invasion. I didn’t think they’d want pictures.
How did you work with the camera?
Most shots were candid.
Like the Rolling Stones. I worked my way back stage. Nobody else was there. They arrived in a paddy wagon and jumped out and ran to their dressing rooms and I got shots of that and backstage they were waiting to go onstage stage and got shots of that. I tried to get more candid photos than standard.
Was there interaction with the artists?
Not much. Paul McCartney said ,“Hi mate.” Other than that, that was the extent of my verbal conversation with the Beatles. Janis Joplin said four words to me. I’d taken about twenty pictures of her at the concert and she walked into the after-hours party and we were walking toward each other and I'm trying to think what should I say to my favorite blues artist?They were supposed to go to Vancouver ,but they decided not to, so I said,“ your fans in Vancouver will be disappointed.” She said,“that’s too fuc… bad” and walked out with a bottle of booze and her boa blowing in the breeze.
Buddy Rich, what's the story there?
I used to take my camera to different night clubs in Vancouver when I worked at the Richmond Review. I was entertainment editor of The Richmond Review and when you landed in Vancouver International, you’re in Richmond. I had heard Buddy Rich was not the friendliest guy when it came to reporters and people. But I walked into Isy’s. Isy Walter was the manager and I asked, do you mind if I take pictures? He called Buddy over and he was quite friendly and said; sure,go ahead. I was on stage shooting him close-up and took about 15 or 20 pictures and then the people who paid to see him started to complain. I was in their view. I sat down and had a beer and watched the rest of the show. But he was tremendous. He was very cooperative. That was in Isy’s supper club and I got a hold of his son for the book and he’s in California and I interviewed him for about all of the experiences.
Were you ever contacted by any of the artists or their management asking about photos from this night that others you might have?
Because most of them weren't published, I don't think they had established a bond with me as a photographer. I never did get a call from anybody saying, you know, do you have any more photos. I regret not sending some photos to people that I did take. I was in to Stanley Park and I ran across a movie set. And it was Anthony Franciosa with Peter Lawford doing a movie. I had heard that he was a rough kind of guy when it came to media, but he said “no, take all the pictures you want,” and he posed besideLawford, who just sat there and read that script. But I heard Tony was not very cooperative, but I should have sent pictures to him because he was so helpful. I never sent pictures to any of the other people.
How can people get the book?
We have them on eBay. If you search the book title and my name - they're also available at stores in Northumberland County. We've been trying to get a Toronto outlet interested but we don't have any at the moment. If you go to our website Facebook.com/coswayscorner, they have all the locations where to get the book. 165 of the photos are mine. Stuart Clugston, a fellow from the Richmond Review who shot the Led Zeppelin concert in 1970, agreed that I could use his photos and that's a very popular chapter.
Did you have some assistance from a local printer?
"Yes, the book was designed and printed locally, and is getting great reviews."
It's a weighty book.
It's almost two pounds and 230 pages. And I would say there are total of 190 pictures. You know it’s as if I'm crazy, but it's 13 years of my life taking pictures of celebrities. I appreciate your interest.