HISTORIC PHOTO OF GEORGE HARRISON, FIRST BEATLE TO PERFORM @ THE SPECTRUM (12/16/1974) PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL LESSNER
BEATLE GEORGE HARRISON: THE SPECTRUM (December 16, 1974)
Special thanks to photographer and friend Michael Lessner for permitting me to display this historic photo of George Harrison on “My Spectrum Memories” blog. This photo documents the moment my life changed.
I met Michael through a friend of mine, Barry Suzynski, who was attending Community College of Philadelphia at the time. Lessner was also a student, studying photography. I worked at the Spectrum, on the changeover crew (the overnight part-time labor force that configured the arena for the various sporting and entertainment events). As I got to know Lessner, I began taking him backstage to meet the performers, in addition to providing access to restricted locations that were great for photography.
In appreciation, Lessner would give me photos. I still have them; they are priceless mementos of cherished times in my youth. Among my favorites were a series of Stephen Stills playing at the Academy of Music in 1974, and a couple of Harrison shots, including the one featured here.
My memories are vivid, like yesterday it remains fresh in my mind. Till this day, I can visualize Lessner standing in the dimly lit pre-concert crowd, wearing a gray smock, with large wide pockets (perfect for lenses, I would personally discover years later). Accompanying his classic Nikon F ironhorse of a camera, was a honeywell strobe light. This electronic combo was “THE” setup, and its how Lessner photographed most of the shows. On occasion, flash photography was not permitted and he used high-speed films.
I had unlimited access throughout the Spectrum. I worked long hours; the work was very intense physically and emotionally draining, but the unique perks (meeting your favorite performers) made it all worthwhile. When I discovered that Harrison was playing the Spectrum, I signed up a few weeks in advance to work on the move-in crew that would unload the band’s trucks and assist with various odd jobs like rolling the instruments up to the dressing rooms and passing equipment up to the stagehands, the unionized laborers who actually assembled the stages and worked the spotlights.
The Harrison shows were major league productions, on a par with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1974 reunion tour, all of which were managed and overseen by the famous rock impresario Bill Graham, the gravelly voiced promoter who owned the Fillmore Auditoriums in New York and San Francisco. Graham was a no non sense guy. Harsh, loud and to the point. He slapped a fan at the Bob Dylan show who was reaching behind a drape trying to call Dylan.
I and a few friends were unloading the trucks. It was a cold December day. The job was hard , hauling and unpacking heavy equipment down ramps and up to the stage. Carrying 24–foot long lighting trusses, rolling trunks up the ramp to the dressing rooms. There was a lot of activity. To make matters worse, I was stricken with a bad case of gas. I had eaten my brother’s famous garlic meatballs the previous night, and it was unfortunate for the roadies. They were getting very angry, hollering who’s doing this…”get the fuck out of the truck.” Of course, I didn’t confess, but it was funny hearing these guys yelling, all the while trying to complete a setup under tight deadlines.
Once the sound and lighting systems were hoisted into place above the stage, and the audience barricade was secured, we began the final chore of counting chairs, removing gum and aligning them in neat rows. The ushers would use chalk to mark the row and seat numbers. The changeover was complete, but a few of us stayed around for the show and planned to meet Harrison.
We stood off to the side, alone, waiting for Harrison’s arrival. The tech rider indicated that the Steffen limousine service was handling his local transportation. Security wasn’t particulary tight, so we remained backstage without worry. The moment had arrived! The backdoor, a long serrated, wall of aluminum was being raised. A couple of black limos pulled into the Spectrum. We saw Harrison heading toward us, being lead by a short, rotund, bearded body guard. He burrowed past us, but Harrison stopped and greeted us, shaking our hands, and walked over to a third friend that the body guard blocked.
It was a great moment! We met a Beatle. Harrison was wearing a gray winter coat, his hair was long and curly, his mustache, dark and trim. The moment lives forever. Bob Field, the assistant director of operations, who oversaw the changeover crew, gave me a backstage pass. It was a green button, with the Harrison’s Dark Horse Record Company logo on it: A dark horse, of course. This would give me access to the backstage area during the show.
I sat in the second row; these seats were empty. The first show, was actually the last show to be offered after the first two sold out. I saw Lessner near the stage, and he asked if I could take him backstage. Instead, I lent him my backstage pass, and asked him to be careful with his cameras. He might get thrown out and I could lose my job. Sometime later, he returned. I don’t think he met Harrison, but he did see what was going on backstage moments before the show.
It was crowded with workers and Indian musicians; it was more like a circus event than a concert. Security was very loose, that is, if you had a pass like I did.
As the stage lights dimmed, Lessner took a position close to the stage, setting his telephoto lens and preparing for Harrison. As the lights went down, two large circular shapes of light appeared on both sound towers. The Sanskrit (Ancient Indian) symbol for OM was being projected onto two, long sheaths of black fabric concealing stacks of speakers and cones.
Harrison took the stage and began playing an instrumental from his recently released “Dark Horse” album, titled “Hari’s On Tour Express.” The crowd roared, and settled back into their seats as the show progressed. I was frozen at the sight of Harrison, my nose was frozen, too.
I stood near Lessner watching him take these obscenely close photos. We shared that view of Harrison featured above. After the first show, I ran backstage, and saw Harrison again. He was standing with several band members, just lounging around. No security at all…just lots ofIndian women in colorful saris and beads, and men carrying unusual instruments.
I shook hands with Harrison again. He was wearing a powder-blue jump suit, covered with buttons of Hindu gods and Eastern animals. I stayed back there awhile, then went out in the audience and watched the second show.
The next morning, my job was to straighten aisles, repair broken chairs, remove chewing gum, by spraying it first with a cold blast of freon, and proceding to scrape it off. The last task was to interlock seats by sliding a seat leg of one chair into the slotted connecting point on the adjacent seat. As I made my way through the seating area, I found myself next to the sound mixer. Nobody was there. I looked over the system. Harrison’s system! Next to the sound board, I saw a cassette tape. I read the note taped to it. “Harrison 12/16 Philly.” It was a tape of last night’s show. Just sitting there. I was getting anxious, excited, nervous!
I could have a copy of Harrison’s Spectrum show. A Beatle. I wrestled with the thought. I was the only one out there, it was too risky. The lord would be proud of me as I resisted “temptation.” I continued checking the chairs, gripping a rolled up seating manifest in my hands.
Once the seats were reset, I had to check the rubber separators used to fill gaps between the portable seating risers used for the first five rows in the stands. There were wide gaps and serious injuries could occur if people fell in the gaps. These were a few of the odd jobs undertaken by arena workers. Behind the scenes, if you will.
I watched most of Harrison’s third and final show from within the protective barricade, separating the seating area from the stage. It was incredible, I was a few feet away from Harrison, I could see the designs on the colorfully painted Magical Mystery Tour guitar. I learned the chords to “What is Life” as Harrison strummed the rhythm, using barre chords, shaping minor sevenths as he moved up and down the fretboard.
I saw his capo placed on the seventh fret as he sang, “Dark Horse.” I saw reflections from his metallic slide bar as he began playing “Maya Love.” Toward the end, I watched him chanting, “My Sweet Lord, My Sweet Lord,” as I cried, “I wish I had a camera, I wish I had a camera.” As I wrote in an earlier story, about photographing the Rolling Stones. I had the best view in the house, but couldn’t enjoy it.
The hot news of the night was the backstage talk among the road crew that Paul McCartney and John Lennon were going to join him in New York. Eddie Franco, the Electric Factory stage manager, said he might be working there. We begged him to take us with him. He had already reneged on a promise to get us Harrison Tour road crew shirts. We didn’t have much faith in him, but, nonetheless, we hammered him. The tour would end at the next stop in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Alas, Franco never came through. No shirts, no tickets, no work, no York.
The shows were over, Harrison departed. We watched him leave. He gave a friend of mine a scarf and bottle of vodka; the end of tour giveaways that were common to tours.
All that remained of the Harrison shows were memories. Nothing more. Memories. Until Mike Lessner gave me a few pics from the show, including the one featured here. THE PHOTO that changed my life. A few weeks later, I bought a camera from a friend of mine. A Pentax Spotmatic 500. Six weeks later, on February 8, 1975, I photographed my first event, on my first roll of film, excluding a test roll to check the camera and familiarize myself with its operation.
That event was Led Zeppelin! I began to photograph all the shows, practicing for the arrival of the Rolling Stones on June 29 & 30, later that year. I’ve been posting my Spectrum photos on this blog for almost two years now, and the response is amazing. Everyone is enjoying the memories as much as I did.
As I continued my simple hobby, professional news and magazine photographers would give me tips. I was learning a skill from some of the finest photojournalists in the country. Among them, Elwood P. Smith of the Philadelphia Daily News. One night he screamed at me during a hockey game when I began to take pictures.
“Get up against the glass! Against the glass….” he yelled.
I was scared, afraid he was going to have me fired! Was I in his way?
He smiled and explained what he was yelling.” Get closer, get closer… get up against the glass, so you won”t get reflections….” He reached into his leather bag, a prisoner of war bracelet dangling from his wrist, and gave me four rolls of Trx 400 film. He taught me how to shoot hockey games, the light reflecting from the hockey surface and, of course, REFLECTIONS!
Three other photographers taught me a lot. Vicky Valerio of the Philadelphia Inquirer had just been hired after graduating from Bobby Knight’s Indiana University in 1976. She was very polite and talked to me about lenses and filters.
John Campoli, a student and photographer for the Temple News taught me how to push film, using Acufine and he explained the concept of razor, or tack sharp focusing. Until then, I was just pleased with seeing an image in my viewing screen and shooting. Not knowing what critical focus was. Campoli shot the photo of Grace Slick posing with the changeover crew workers. It’s one of the most popular images accessed on my blog.
Finally, there is Zorab Kazanjian, the official Spectrum photographer, who gave me many tips about shooting angles. He shot a photo of me assembling the Sixers’ floor one night and it was published in the Spectrum “Action” house magazine.
To those I thank, as my simple hobby of photographing my favorite performers evolved into a wonderful career. Unexpectedly, it occurred. As Harrison would say, “Any road will get you there.”
And it all began on this night, with this photo from Michael Lessner. The night my life changed. This is the most important photo of my life, oddly enough, my favorite photo is also shot by someone else. It’s the shot of Stephen Stills from, July 21, 1971 by Bruce Klastorin. I was fourteen years old when I saw one of the CSNY group members for the first time. Now, there’s only one missing photo from my life. Does anyone have a shot of CSNY from Atlantic City in 1974? If so, contact me.
Thanks again, Michael!
NOTE: A generous sampling of Lessner’s concert photography is available in the recently published book documenting the history of the Electric Factory,
Roger Barone/ june 1, 2011 (first draft)