A Thousand Pictures Tell of a Legacy
Have you ever met someone for the first time and instantly know that this person is going to be your friend? There is just something about them that you connect with…as though you already knew them on a deeper level. I recently interviewed someone like that. He is a humble and kindred spirit of sorts, a follower of nostalgia who makes history in his efforts to capture it. He is a man who watched the original Pink Floyd’s The Wall and shot it with a camera he smuggled in. He is a man who shared a joint with Tom Petty during an interview. He is a man who got Pat Benatar to hold up a copy of a magazine with a Playboy Playmate on the cover. He is, without a doubt, a unique individual. Allow me to introduce Vernon Gowdy III.
Like many teens and young adults of the 1970’s, Gowdy fell in love with rock music and concerts. Back then, he was a “science nerd” who studied what was under a microscope and not behind a microphone. However, the idea of looking at something through a narrowed lens intrigued him. Just as an organism in biology class came alive to the human eye under magnification, music came alive to him behind the lens of a camera. This would start a life-long passion that would bring some of the most interesting people in the world into his frame of view.
He had been hooked on concerts as a live music fan since his first concert in 1975 when his sister took him to see Rod Stewart. But, during his college years at OU, he began to cultivate an interest in photography as well as concert going. Soon, an opportunity arose that he believed would allow him to merge the two interests. He was right!
“I had been taking pictures at concerts since 1976, but in 1977, I noticed a review of a show with photos in the college newspaper and thought I could get better pictures than that,”. He immediately applied for a position with the Oklahoma Daily college newspaper and was hired. It wouldn’t be long before he got his first assignment. Who could’ve known then that his first show would become of great historical significance worldwide? It would be a small event back then dubbed as the Sex Pistols at Cain’s Ballroom. In recent months, that show would be commemorated 40 years to the day by a large write-up in the Tulsa World and an interview with concert promoter Larry Shaeffer who booked them. Determined to succeed with this first show, he drove his Camaro for over four hours in a snowstorm to make the engagement. Anyone who has driven an old Camaro knows that it’s a sled with a mind of its own when it comes to ice and snow. Even then he was determined to get the shot.
RIGHT ON TARGET
Gowdy continued honing his photography skills while with the paper, including sports, concerts and other subject matter relative to a school paper. However, it was the concerts that he loved shooting. Because of this love, he had something that most people didn’t have; authentic, one-of-kind concert shots of famous musicians playing live. As impossible as it is today even to believe such things were ever possible, Gowdy used his position as a part-time employee for Target working in the Records & Camera department to not only spin the new albums released, bur also to display his photos on the counter and sell them for a dollar or two. He did this with management approval. It probably wouldn’t take security long today to toss an employee off the receiving dock today if they attempted such a thing. But hey, it was the 70’s!
“I got my Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology in May 1979 and began working as a Senior Research Technician at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) doing cancer research. I worked there for about a year but then quit to do JAM Magazine full time,” Gowdy said. The “science nerd” still wanted to focus on what was alive, but it was what was living on a concert stage that captivated him more than what was living under a microscope. The first issue of JAM magazine debuted in September 1979. He was then able to work out a deal with the manager of the Boomer Theatre in Norman where he obtained an office in which to give JAM magazine a home.
SPREADING THE JAM
This opportunity turned out to be a goldmine for Gowdy. It just so happened that Larry Shaeffer of Little Wing Productions had started booking shows there. So now Gowdy had a steady stream of artists such as Pat Benatar, The Talking Heads, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and many more in the same building. Instant material! Even better was that he only had to walk downstairs to shoot photos of the shows for the magazine. Gowdy recalls a funny story in 1979 when Pat Benatar played that venue: Gowdy and his business partner asked her to hold up a JAM t‑shirt and a copy of the recent edition, which happened to have a cover photo of Playboy’s 25th Anniversary Playmate Candy Loving. He recalled her facial expression as she held up the cover of Loving to be one of, ‘Uh…do I look weird holding this up?’. She was very “cool” about it though, he said.
The magazine idea had been the brainchild of three former employees of the college paper who saw a need for a publication about music in Oklahoma. With very little experience, the three men turned it into a popular publication that was even sponsored by area radio stations. Although the popularity was growing, profits were elusive, and by 1984 Gowdy began questioning if he was on the right track. He decided it was time to move on and his partner David Huff took the struggling magazine to Dallas where it continued in print for several more years. Eventually, it moved to online where it continues covering music entertainment. Gowdy began taking photos for them again several years ago and maintains the titles of senior staff photographer and co-founder.
THE WRITE STUFF
During his time with the magazine, Gowdy would hit the road in search of music. He seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time and always camera ready. He shot several historical shows at Texas Jam beginning with the first in 1978 at the Cotton Bowl. He also flew to Los Angeles and shot the original Pink Floyd The Wall show and St. Louis to shoot Fleetwood Mac. Still to come in his photography career were Robert Plant, Sammy Hagar, Steve Perry (Journey), Nancy Wilson (Heart) Niki Sixx (Motley Crue) and many others in various venues. What makes this man so amazing is the preservation of iconic music history for which he is responsible. Although this was not the initial reason to shoot, saving history is what he was doing. He has an incredible collection of unique moments in history that would otherwise not exist. There may have been other photographers at those venues, but as any photographer knows, each shot is a unique piece of art that is different by each one who points the lens.
At heart, this Oklahoman is a lover of history. To this end, Gowdy began putting words and photos to book pages. His desire to keep music history alive prompted him to write two books about the Diamond Ballroom in Oklahoma City. While shooting there, he became excited about the many music legends that played there since its opening in 1964. He was fascinated as well how the ballroom had such an array of artists ranging from Country Swing to Heavy Metal throughout its existence. He felt the ballroom was a story worth telling and a piece of history that everyone should know.
“I feel that my books and photos contain history that people should know about and that is important to Oklahoma history,” Gowdy said. In addition to his books on the Diamond Ballroom, he has several works published that include compilations of photos from Rocklahoma and Texas Jam. In addition, he has published Adventures of a Rock Photographer Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, Diamond Ballroom: From Country Swing to Heavy Metal and From These Walls: History of the Diamond Ballroom. He is currently the house photographer for DCF Concerts and promotes his books at various venues. He even donates the proceeds from his Rocklahoma books to charity. As I wrote in the beginning, this is a man I certainly call a friend.
Oh…one more thing. If you ever get a chance to read Sammy Hagar’s biography, take a look at the back cover photo. There you will find the iconic Gowdy photo of Sammy jumping in the air with his Flying V guitar taken in Dallas in 1979. And that is a photo worthy of any history book!