A Thou­sand Pic­tures Tell of a Lega­cy

CL HARMON

 

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.

VERNON GOWDY

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PHOTO 101

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!

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