ZZ Top's Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons at the Woodlands Pavilion, May 2015EXPAND
ZZ Top's Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons at the Woodlands Pavilion, May 2015
Photo by Violeta Alvarez/Courtesy of Smithsonian Books

Houstonian Helps Smithsonian Pick Six Decades of Great Concert Shots

Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen
By Bill Bentley

Smithsonian Books, 216 pp., $40

Houston native Bill Bentley has been around a bit in the music industry. While ultimately reaching the levels of A&R Director at Concord Music Group and VP of Warner Bros. Records, he’s also logged time as a drummer, concert promoter, producer, publicist, writer…even a record-store clerk.

"I was born and raised in Houston and got to see a mind-blowing amount of music there starting in the '50s. I can remember driving down the street with my parents and Lightnin' Hopkins was sitting in front of an ice house on West Gray playing a guitar," Bentley says via email. He also notes shows of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett.

"I was so lucky to grow up in Houston and got to see the greatest music in the world, everything from Bongo Joe to the Red Krayola," he says. "I don't think there was a better live music city anywhere during all those years."

But none of that likely prepared Bentley for the incredible duty for this book project: Sifting through nearly 4,000 live concert photos — most of them never before seen — submitted to the Smithsonian website by amateur shutterbugs and fans.

“We looked for ones that featured the most emotion and uniqueness: images that really pinned the viewer to the wall,” Bentley says. “For me, what makes a great concert photo is one that makes me either wish that I had been there, or brings back memories that makes that particular concert come alive again. Those electrifying photos convey the rush of the real experience.”

From early rock pioneers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard to ‘70s titans Led Zeppelin and David Bowie up to Jack White and Adele, 142 different artists are shown in concert in this coffee-table book.

And in order to include some bigger acts, Bentley also reached out to well-known professional music photogs like Jim Marshall, Henry Diltz, and Baron Wolman (located by photo researcher Susan Brisk). From the amateur submissions plus all of those, he culled the 362 photos that appear in this book.

Of the unpublished fan photos drawn from yellowing scrapbooks and attic boxes across the country, Bentley says the most surprising find was one taken by teenager Joe Compton in 1965 of the Rolling Stones in Washington, D.C. It was only their second tour of the U.S., and Bentley himself saw the same show just two weeks later in Dallas.

“It shows the band at their very best: Brian Jones is playing keyboards and Mick Jagger is singing down on his knees," he says. "The way they're lit makes the band seem almost ghostly. I had never seen a photo from that 1965 tour that captured them as they really were then in all their power.”

His own personal favorite photo is a 1958 shot by Jimmie Willis of Elvis Presley performing in Waco. “Presley has an almost possessed look on his face as he sings, conveying the sheer power of what rock and roll was at its birth, and also hinting at what it would become,” says Bentley. “I was six years old when I first saw Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, and like the time-honored saying goes, it changed my life forever.”

Of course, the thought that any U.S. government agency 60+ years ago at the dawn of rock and roll would be doing anything to honor the subversive new genre would be absurd. But Bentley says that the ensuing decades have firmly woven the music into American life.

“Rock and roll really brought the youth of America into the forefront of American life, [and] it was only a matter of time that the Smithsonian Institution would turn its famous attention to the music,” he says. “The Smithsonian proudly features all aspects of American life, and what’s more American than rock and roll? It was a marriage made backstage and on the bandstand.”

Houston appears in the book via a January 1966 photo taken by Bob Simmons of the 13th Floor Elevators at the La Maison Club. More importantly, the Houston Press’ own Violeta Alvarez has two submissions that made the final cut: One of a Valentine’s Day 2015 Alice Cooper Show at Bayou Place (which – full disclosure – I reviewed), and a May 2015 stop by hometown heroes ZZ Top at the Woodlands Pavilion.

Bentley calls the Cooper shot specifically “off the charts wonderful” and catches the “underlying humanity” of what the singer represents, even under all that makeup and sneer. The ZZ Top photo was a no-brainer personal choice to include since Bentley has known singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons since 1963 when Gibbons was in the junior-high band the Coachmen. Bentley saw shows by the group at St. Luke's teen canteen on Westheimer on Friday nights.

“Alvarez's color photo of Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill captures their funky regalness on hometown turf,” Bentley offers. “So it was the Houston boy in me giving a tip of the hat to some true Texans. How could I resist?”

Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen will be published on October 24.

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