November 20, 2004
Behind the Lens: An Interview with Rock 'n' Roll Photographer Robert Knight
by RICK LANDERS
Armed with a galaxy of historic and contemporary rock 'n' roll image archives, photographer Robert Knight has recently signed with the Limelight Agency to offer a stunning collection of his work to the public. Since the tumultuous 1960s, Knight’s classic photos have seared images in our minds of guitar legends like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Jimmy Page and the great Stevie Ray Vaughan.
His resumé covers a vast territory. He’s also managed the Yardbirds, helped develop the Guitar Center’s Rockwalk, and recently met with John 5 and John Mayer for photo shoots. Simply put, he is one of the most highly sought after photographers in rock today. I had the good fortune to interview Robert between photo shoots and just before he embarks on a major exhibit with the Fender Museum.
Rick Landers: How did you get your start in rock 'n' roll photography?
Robert Knight: I was born in Los Angeles but grew up on Oahu. I lived in a very local, non-white area of Honolulu and went to Kaimuki High School. I had a total interest in music and got my hands on a lot of great records from record shops in Australia and England before they were released in America. I hung out with a bunch of guys who loved guitars and they introduced me to the likes of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. I knew a lot of the local radio and music promoters in Hawaii and I’d send them some of my albums and they started to play them. I’m pretty sure I had the first Hendrix, Yardbirds, and Who albums in Hawaii. I was totally freaked out over the great cover art on those albums!
My friends would give me a hard time since I didn’t play guitar, paint or draw. I started to feel out of it not having any skills in any of these areas.
Landers: How did you end up on the set of the movie “Blow Up” where you first met the Yardbirds?
Knight: In the summer of 1966, some friends had the idea to go to London for one of our high school breaks. We stayed with a family that looked after a photographer friend’s studio in London and they asked us if we wanted to come down and have a look as they where making a movie. It turned out to be “Blowup”. The movie had a scene with the Yardbirds that included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, along with Jim McCarty, Chris Dreja, and singer Keith Relf. I actually couldn’t get to the Yardbirds at the time as their filming was not at the studio, but I wanted to meet them and this started me on my quest. Really, that was it for me…the idea was born, I wanted to go back to Hawaii, get a camera and start taking photos of bands.
I worked as a golf caddy at the Honolulu Country Club and earned money to buy a camera and soon started shooting my guitar player friends and then local bands. This led me to meet some fashion models who suggested that I go to their agency for work. Soon I was making tons of money flying to Seattle and Vancouver to shoot young girls whose parents would end up buying lots of prints of their daughters from me.
Landers: Did you get a “big break” that opened the door for you to get a foothold in rock photography?
Knight: I figured I needed to go to photography school, so when I went hunting for one I discovered the San Francisco Art Institute had a great photo department. From there I found out that all of the great guitar players I would ever want to photograph would be playing at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West. This was the summer of 1968. Somehow I got lucky and met Bill and he let me shoot shows from the front row! During my first few months in San Francisco I shot Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix! I’d call back home to Hawaii and tell my radio and concert friends who would be the next hot thing so they would book them to play in Hawaii.
I knew Jan over at Rolling Stone magazine was from Hawaii and talked him into going down to Los Angeles to shoot the New Yardbirds, just before they changed their name to Led Zeppelin. When I got to the club, they told me I was too young to get in, unless I was with the band. The girl at the Whiskey called the hotel where the band was staying and spoke with Jimmy Page. I got on the phone and Jimmy asked me to come over to the hotel and by the end of the day I was with the band. Zeppelin played in front of about 175 people and it was wild. The next day I went with the band up to San Francisco where I stayed with them until the show at the Fillmore.
I told Jimmy I would call my friends in Hawaii and see if they would book the band. A few weeks later, I met the band at the Honolulu Airport with my VW and camera bag. I got some terrific shots of them at the house they rented at Diamond Head, learning to surf, trolling the beach and other very mad behavior. I ended up with some of the earliest shots of the band in America.
Landers: Do you play guitar?
Knight: I do not play the guitar but have one that is Jeff Beck’s, which is in the Rockwalk Museum in Hollywood. John 5 has given me one of his, and Clint Black gave me a nice Taylor on the birth of his daughter. I’m left-handed, so this stopped me from playing…stopped me cold.
Landers: Formal training? Mentors?
Landers: What type of photography gear do you use?
Knight: I've always used Nikon equipment for shooting film and use Nikon for digital as well. I have all the large format cameras you can think of and tons of studio lighting. I carry the digital now and have learned that power curve!
Landers: Tell us about some of the more interesting photo shoots you’ve done with some of the legends of rock.
Knight: All my shoots with Led Zeppelin where very interesting to say the least. Jeff Beck is my favorite subject and the shoot with Stevie Ray Vaughan, the night he died will go down as the most unforgettable. I’ve been working with Camp Freddy lately, which is made up of Navarro, Billy Morrison, Matt Sorum, and Duff. They are the world’s greatest cover band and each time they play they get the some of the best musicians in the world to join them.
Landers: Ever been in a situation where you wish you'd had a camera with you but didn't?
Knight: All the time. I was not just a photographer but a friend to a lot of the guys I photographed and hung out with them keeping my camera in the bag. It really came to the point a lot of times where I had to decide whether I wanted to hang out with them or do a session…a lot of time I chose to just hang out. I think that’s one of reasons, after 38 years in the business, I can still fly over to England and have a friendly visit with Jeff Beck at his home!
Landers: Any special memories of times spent with Jimi Hendrix? SRV? Jeff Beck?
Knight: Hendrix was pretty wild and my girl friend at the time ran off and hung out with him for a week at the Diamond Head house. I had a sort of love-hate thing going on.
And Stevie, I only got to know him when he was sober. A lot of time, he would come into Los Angeles, give me a call and we’d just hang out and talk. When I did the tour with Stevie and Jeff Beck, Stevie and I would watch Jeff play and Stevie would tell me how he couldn’t believe what Jeff was doing with his Marshall amp when it was only set at 1 or 2!
Landers: Who has been the most interesting or entertaining guitarist you’ve worked with?
Knight: Hands down it has to be Jeff Beck. He’s so funny and is really into comedy. And his cars…he has some wonderful cars that he’s built and I love to shoot him in and around them. It’s the real Jeff.
Landers: What's involved in setting up a formal photo shoot for an album cover or similar project?
Knight: Usually we get contacted by either the artist or the record company and will have several meetings to develop ideas or consider locations. My wife, Maryanne, is a wonderful photographer in her own right and she spends hours over all the details with respect to make-up, clothes, locations, and lighting. John 5 recently called me and told me he would like to have us do his new album cover. I thought my wife would have a better feel for what John wanted and she really out did herself in the weird and wild images that ended up on the CD.
A lot of the album covers I have done have also come from my archives, the label will call and use many of my images. I think I had 20-30 images in the Beck box set.
Landers: You are affiliated with the Guitar Center’s Hollywood Rockwalk team. How did the project evolve?
Knight: In 1985 I walked in the door of Guitar Center Hollywood with an arm full of photos trying to see if they would trade for an amp that my friend wanted. I ended up talking with Dave Weiderman, the Director of Rockwalk, who invited me to the first Rockwalk event with Van Halen that night. "Rockwalk" is a Mann's Chinese Theatre-type display at the Hollywood Guitar Center where over 300 artists have their hand imprints in cement.
As time went by, Dave would call me to see if I would come down and shoot the Rockwalk events. As I got to know all of the guys in management they asked about displaying some of my archive photos for the outside of the Hollywood store. As the Guitar Center business grew, it got to the point where I started doing shoots with new artists for the walls of new stores. Now, there are over 1,500 ten-feet tall images on the outside of their stores, making the collection the largest outdoor photo exhibition in the world!
When Ray Scherr sold the company I was brought on to work with Dave Weiderman in running the Rockwalk and to work on special projects for the company, like the Crossroads event of the past summer with Eric Clapton. In the end, as the company grew, all of the managers and upper management became my extended family. Dave Weiderman and I are now partners and have a great time putting together the Rockwalk and working with all of the A-list artists in the world.
Next year is the 20th anniversary of Rockwalk and we are planning a very special event as well as future Crossroads-type concerts.
Landers: You were also involved with the Kodak Rock Photography Collection in Las Vegas, Nevada?
Knight: This was a great idea and project that’s made up of 500 of the best photos of rock 'n' roll in the world. They had 6 of my images and 4 of my wife's, Maryanne’s, photos. The biggest names in rock photography where part of this project. They opened in Las Vegas off the strip, a huge mistake as far as location goes and very few people came over to see it. Too bad, as it was a stunning presentation.
Landers: We've heard that the Fender Museum plans on exhibiting some of your portfolio. How did this come about and when can our readers expect to see the exhibit?
Knight: It seemed only natural that having photographed the world’s top guitar players ever, most of whom played Fender guitars of some sort, that I would be talking to Fender’s Del about the museum. It looks like I will be giving the Fender Museum 40-50 images that will be on permanent display sometime next year. I have shot tons and tons of Fender artists over the years and many of the images of Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix have been used in their ads.
Landers: You are the manager of The Yardbirds, a blues/rock/psychedelic group that has included legendary guitarists such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmie Page. How did that connection arise and how did you eventually end up the band's manager?
Knight: The Yardbirds were one of my favorite bands of all time and over the years I worked with each of the group’s world class guitarists, Beck, Page, and Clapton. A few years ago I got to see the reformed band at the Long Beach Blues Fest. Judy Wong their long time friend was trying to get them a record deal but wasn’t having much luck.
Ray Scherr, who sold the Guitar Center, was a good friend of mine and he asked me to help him find the right guy to run a record label he wanted to start. His idea was to open a label that would give back to the artist more than the normal rip off financial model. He also wanted great players who could not get a deal only because they could sell records in the 20-50,000 range.
I introduced him to guitarist Steve Vai and before long Ray and Steve became good friends and opened Favored Nation Records. I made the call and Steve Vai was very interested in doing the first Yardbirds' record since 1968 and asked for my ideas on the project. I told him I wanted to open up my address book and get each of the cool players I knew to do a track on the record. Then the band asked if I would manage and I made the call to Weiderman and said, “Lets do this!”
The record turned out great, they toured America, Slash came in for several shows and it all went well. Since then, they’ve been touring Europe and it looks like they might be back on tour in the States in 2005.
I have since turned over the whole project to Dave Weiderman and am now working hard on taking my rock and roll archive to the next level, and have just signed with the Limelight Agency that handles the artwork of Ronnie Woods and Grace Slick.
Landers: You have covered the true icons of the electric guitar. What new players do you think are emerging that might stand beside them as future guitar legends to a new generation?
Knight: There are some really hot younger players that are exceptional. Players such as John 5 and Brad Paisley come to mind. And I think Slash will become a true guitar legend, if he hasn’t already.
And then I recently shot John Mayer - great guy, great player, and a huge SRV fan. We spent a lot of time talking about Stevie.
Landers: What music-related photography projects do you have waiting in the wings?
Knight: We think we might publish another photo book for Rockwalk and I’m working on doing a major book of my own work. I’ve been talking to a lot of people and with the Limelight Agency about coming on board. I expect it should be sometime around mid-2005 that we’ll have something done.
Contact InformationPublished November 20, 2004 09:13 AM.