Oshawa photographer shoots music history

May 21, 2017 by Barbara Howe Oshawa This Week

SCARBOROUGH — The whir of the coffee grinding machine competes with babbling babies and their excited mothers who sit on bentwood chairs around tables, corralled by baby carriages. Beside them, a group of senior women take their time over a leisurely lunch at this coffee shop in Scarborough, perhaps plotting the next community social evening. At the high window table, a couple of silver-haired gentlemen stoop over a number of large photo prints. One man signs the bottom of each, while the other carefully rolls the prints into a sleeve, shakes his friend’s hand and is on his way.

John Rowlands stays a while to reminisce about his life’s work as a photographer and the celebrities who have coloured his career through the camera lens. A brief flip through his portfolio reads like a who’s who of the music world.

Rowlands describes himself as “just a kid from Ritson Road,” but the Oshawa-born photographer has not always stayed so close to home.

Rowlands says he has toured the world nine times with rock ‘n’ roll bands and artists spanning five decades. He’s photographed stars from Abba to ZZ Top and everyone in between.

He’s lived in Ottawa, California, Arizona and now resides in Scarborough. But Rowlands says he is now transitioning from being a highly active photographer to a highly active storyteller, and is in the process of cataloguing his 2.5 million negatives and slides so his legacy can be appreciated.

Rowlands says his foundation for jumping on his career path was forged at an early age after he received replies back from letters he wrote as a schoolboy to TV stars and actors, such as Perry Como and Robert Cummings, and realized anything was possible.

“That was my fuel, that was my energy,” said Rowlands. “I thought ‘wow, these people have great jobs, but they’re still people’.”

Rowlands was 13 when he saved up his allowance and took his father’s camera to watch his heartthrob, 15-year-old Brenda Lee, in concert in Ottawa.  After the concert, he spotted her dressing-room door and knocked on it. He remembers looking up at her mom, Grayce Tarpley.

“Just came to thank Brenda for a great show,” Rowlands said. Tarpley invited him into the room and he chatted with Brenda for half an hour.

“I carried her suitcase to her station wagon; I was so excited I wrote down the licence plate,” says Rowlands. “I got her autograph and a kiss on the cheek.  A week later I get my snapshots back from the drugstore, mailed them down (to Nashville), they sent me 35 bucks.”

Rowlands went on, “In my first professional job at 13, I got $3 more than an ounce of gold. That got me into the business.”

From there Rowlands picked up more photography gigs. Record companies liked his style and booked him to cover Sam Cooke.  Later, New York-based 16 Magazine used him extensively to work for them. He sold countless prints for $80 each and by the mid-1960s the Oshawa native was being flown to New York City for shoots and meetings.

DURHAM — John Rowlands’s photo of The Fab Four, The Beatles. – Photo by John Robert RowlandsEDZ_johnrowlands_02___Super_Portrait

Rowlands was behind the lens to capture the British Invasion in the 1960s and created a real rapport with the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Gerry and the Pacemakers. He had impromptu guitar lessons from George Harrison and shared corn on the cob with Leonard Cohen in his kitchen in Montreal.

But Rowlands observed these pop icons are just like regular people offstage.

“We were just regular folks telling regular stories,” says Rowlands. “Same crowd, same gang, same interests.”

Rowlands says what makes his work stand out from the crowd is emotion. He says spending time with artists gives him the back-story about why songs are written. This gives him the edge of evoking a time and place in the shot.

“I look for something that people will appreciate,” says Rowlands.

Surprisingly, the most memorable subject Rowlands has worked with was Red Skelton, the American TV and radio entertainer.  Skelton invited 17-year-old Rowlands and a buddy to walk with him in a parade in Ottawa in 1963, and gave them complimentary tickets to his sold-out show,

“This guy had a heart bigger than Texas,” says Rowlands, choking back tears. “For all this rock ‘n’ roll stuff, it’s been great. But at the top of it all, Red’s been the greatest.”

Rowlands says he kept in contact with Skelton until his death in 1997.

Fifty years later, the blue-eyed photo junkie is still shooting the stars. Despite suffering a stroke five years ago which left his left arm paralyzed, Rowlands still manages to capture music stars at their best. Four of his recent images of Rihanna have been shortlisted for an upcoming CD cover. Since the stroke, he has also photographed Paul McCartney, ZZ Top and covered the Ottawa Blues Fest. A touring Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition, David Bowie Is, featuring Rowlands’s favourite photograph (and the late David Bowie’s favourite image of his career), The Archer, opens in Barcelona, Spain on May 25.

Visit his website, rocknrowlands.com.

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