By Dick Waterman
Thunder's Mouth Press, 174 pp., $29.95
The blues scene has been exhumed, poked, prodded and raked over until it would seem there's nothing left to look at or discover. Most so-called blues archives collections turn out to be just dusty, faded rehashes of the same old thing.
Photographer Dick Waterman's Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive is a refreshing change. Though the book is ostensibly a collection of photographs of blues legends, they're not just moments frozen in time, but glimpses of the essence of the performer. There are no rock god poses, no flailing arms or flying splits. These artists don't have to do anything, their presence alone is enough to get your attention. There's Son House, just sitting there with a unlit cigarette in his mouth--the face of the blues personified. Another photo from 1965 shows House and Howling Wolf sitting side by side in their Sunday finery, looking proud to be seen with each other. But perhaps one of the book's most stunning images is the photo of Chuck Berry at Carnegie Hall in 1965: Berry glows like a bronze statue under hot lights, his prominent cheekbones highlighted by the sweat pouring down his face.
Waterman gives the artists the respect they deserve. His commentary is not the usual gushing twaddle or breathless, gossipy Entertainment Tonight snippets about the artists, but touching stories that focus on the human side of the performers.
Waterman acted as an agent for many of the artists he photographs and founded Avalon Productions in 1964, the first agency that managed and promoted blues musicians exclusively. He managed Bonnie Raitt for 20 years as well as Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Mississippi John Hurt. Waterman was known for his loyalty and integrity, and even the irascible Robert Junior Lockwood, son of the soul-selling blues legend Robert Johnson, offered to testify in court for Waterman when he was facing a libel suit. It was a highly unusual act of charity for Lockwood, who would stop a show mid-song and refuse to continue if he detected the presence a camera in the audience, and once turned away representatives of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame who came to his house wanting him to donate a guitar to the museum.
"Like I got so many guitars, I can afford to be giving them away," Lockwood snarled. But he trusted Waterman, even though he didn't like his appearance. After telling the photographer he would testify in his behalf, he added, "You're one of the ugliest motherfuckers I ever met, but at least you're honest."
Waterman's honesty doesn't spare the dignity of some of the bigger stars, however. He takes a poke at Janis Joplin, telling of her run-in with Big Mama Thornton, who recognized Joplin in the audience during one of her shows and began berating her. "I wrote me a song called 'Ball and Chain' and I ain't seen no money coming to me from that song," Thornton fumed. "But some people who done that song, they livin' high and singing about getting themselves a Mercedes Benz." Joplin promptly left the building.
While the text is intriguing and unusual, it's the photographs that catch and hold your attention. You might have seen the artist in a similar pose, but Waterman's shots show the artist in a new light, as people, instead of images. With this collection, Waterman has succeeded in preserving the spirit of the blues, not just making another exposure of it.