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The Wright Stuff -- Part II: A Photographer‘s Rock Odyssey

Rick Coates - September 11th, 2003
The intensity of the Grande Ballroom show in 1968 was the turning point for
The Who. The group returned to New York to prepare for their trip back to
England, a trip that Tom Wright was unable to take because of his earlier legal
For the uninitiated, the Grande was a rock palace in the inner city of Detroit which hosted some of the greatest bands in the world at a time when the city‘s own rock scene was at its peak.
“Part of me wanted to go but another part of me knew that musically Detroit
was the place to be,“ said Wright. “So I told Pete (Townshend) I was going back to
Detroit and he agreed that is was a good thing. We decided to connect up
when they returned to the U.S. for their next tour.“
Wright‘s intuition was correct again because he would return to Detroit at
the height of the city‘s rock music explosion. He just needed a way to pay
for it all.
“I went to the offices of Eye Magazine in New York, which was the music
magazine in those days, and told the editors that the music scene wasn‚t
happening in New York or California but rather in Detroit,“ said Wright.
“They looked at me and said okay you go there, photograph the bands, check
out the scene and write an article.“
It had taken only one show at the Grande a few days earlier to convince
Wright that Detroit was at the center of the rock music universe.
“The Who just hadn‘t been recognized until that night they walked into the
Grande. Sure, concerts were selling out and their songs were on the radio,
but when they took the stage at the Grande it all changed,“ said Wright.
“They walked in and played three notes and everyone knew the song. That had
never happened before, not even in England. The crowd went crazy and I saw
what it did for the band; to this day it is among their best live
performances ever.“

Wright sensed that Detroit and the Grande would be at the center of the
emerging rock scene, the crossroads where British and American rock
musicians would revolutionize music for years to come.
His perceptions were correct. To this day many legends including Eric
Clapton, Led Zeppelin, The MC5 and Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac have all
said that their best performances ever were at the Grande.
“I thought after that first Who concert at the Grande it was the first time
the crowd had seen anything like that,“ said Wright. “Then after the show
the stage manager said it is like this every night, he mentioned the night
before when Cream was there. He also told me about all the great bands in
Detroit. So I started thinking that there must be something to this city.“
Wright returned to Detroit to work on his piece for Eye Magazine.
“I called Russ Gibb, who was a school teacher and also owned the Grande
Ballroom. Well, Russ also had a popular radio show (WABX-FM) and went by the on-air
name Uncle Russ. He invited me on his program. He went on the
air and told the listening audience that The Who‘s photographer and tour
manager was here in town to take photos of the Detroit music scene and to
write an article for Eye Magazine; and if you wanted to be in the article
call the station. Well, the phones lit up: Bob Seger called, so did the MC5,
Iggy Stooge, Ted Nugent and several others. All of these guys at that time
were unknown.“

Wright left the studio and went to visit with the MC5 and ended up living at
their home for a few weeks photographing them.
“Those guys were intense. They would get up early in the morning go in their
basement and play for 15 hours straight. I photographed and
watched their best performances in the basement of that house. I think it
was unfortunate, but the band became a political pawn of John Sinclair and
never realized their full music potential.“
He would then move to the Third Power farm, home of future Bob Seger
guitarist Drew Abbott.
“When I showed up they said that only the pig barn was available,“ said
Wright. “Well I moved in, fixed it up and after a few days everyone wanted
to live there.“
While at the farm he would photograph Third Power and others who were
emerging from the Detroit scene including Ted Nugent, Bob Seger and
Teegarden and Van Winkle.
After about six months Wright returned to New York with hundreds of
photographs and an article about the Detroit music scene for Eye Magazine.
“I was mesmerized and really felt that I had something with these photos and
all the bands that were coming out of Detroit that no one had heard of but
eventually would. Well, when I got the offices of Eye, they
were boarded up and the magazine had gone under just a month earlier.“

The Who were not ready to return to the U.S., as Townshend was busy finishing
Tommy, so Wright decided to return to Detroit to manage the Grande.
“I thought what better place to be then the heartbeat of the rock music
scene? And The Grande needed to be fixed up and I was the person to do it. The problem was they weren‘t looking for a manager. In fact when I arrived back in Detroit and met with Russ he told me no. He said that he couldn‘t afford to pay me. Well, we made a deal and I said give me a few weeks, let me move in and see what I could do to the place.“
Gibb agreed and Wright moved in. He built an apartment for himself at the
Grande and eventually took over the day-to-day onsite management of the
operation. He would eventually take in runaways and others who were hanging
around to help him run the place. The group would become known as the Hard
“These guys, many of them runaways, would clean and help out and in return I
would pay them a few dollars. Probably what this group took away most from the Grande was sitting and watching the sound checks of Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Howlin‘ Wolf and others, it was like getting a daily guitar lesson from the masters of the instrument.“
The crowning jewel of Wright‘s stay at the Grande came when The Who returned
to premiere their rock opera Tommy in the United States. The double album was about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who launches a cult.

“There were a lot of venues vying for this first performance. Bill Graham
felt that Tommy should debut at the Filmores in San Francisco and New York
first and then off to Boston. Pete said no, that Tommy would be first heard
at the Grande Ballroom. I think that decision says it all as to the impact
the Grande had on The Who.“
Wright and those in attendance that night were not disappointed.
“During the day Pete went to the radio station to discuss Tommy and they
didn‘t even have a copy of the album. Fortunately, Pete had brought one with
him. It was so new that Roger had the lyrics taped to his mic
stand. The crowd went wild and after several songs from Tommy, The Who were
so energized from the rush of debuting Tommy that they kicked into what
might have been their best live performance ever.“
Wright recorded the debut of Tommy using toilet paper rolls on the
microphones to enhance the sound quality.
“I got all of Tommy on tape including Pete‘s introduction to the rock
opera. Then after they finished Tommy they kicked into their
best performance ever and one minute into it I ran out of tape.“

While at the Grande, Wright was approached by Russ Gibb to coordinate several
outdoor shows including the Detroit Rock & Roll Revival at the Michigan
State Fairgrounds. The two-day concert over Labor Day Weekend in 1968 would
feature the MC5, Chuck Berry, Dr. John, Johnny Winter, Stooges, Amboy Dukes,
Grand Funk Railroad, Third Power, James Gang and Brownsville Station.
In August of 1970 Wright oversaw the famed Goose Lake International Pop
Festival that attracted 300,000 people just outside of Jackson, Michigan.
The concert featured Jethro Tull, The Faces, Moutain, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop
and many others. Wright oversaw all of the logistics including managing the
“We told every band that they has 45 minutes. Well, we heard stories that Iggy
Pop was saying that no one was keep him to 45 minutes, so I came up with a
circular stage that rotated. We divided it in half so when the
band was playing the next band could set up and then we would just turn the
stage. Well sure enough when his 45 minutes was up, Iggy Pop kept singing, so
we started turning the stage on him in the middle of the song, so he jumped
off into the crowd.“
After Goose Lake, Wright and his three closest friends, “Chuch“ McGee (roadie for the Rolling Stones), Russ Schlagbaum (Pete Townshend‘s accountant for 10 years and currently in charge of tour logistics for the Rolling Stones), and Patrick Culley (who‘d go on to various management responsibilities with Ted Nugent, Rolling Stones, Bill Graham, and The Eagles) boarded a Polish freighter and went to Europe for several months before Wright returned to the states to tour manage and photograph several bands including the The Faces and The James Gang.
“Chuch“ McGee lived in the U.P. and passed away last summer during a Rolling Stones rehearsal in Toronto. He had been with the Rolling Stones for 30 years and
was Ronnie Wood‘s guitar tech. Chuch is considered by many as the best
roadie ever and his death stunned the group, leaving a usually talkative
Mick Jagger speechless as the group left rehearsal. Chuch was so valued that the whole band flew to his funeral in Marquette and played “Amazing Grace.
Wright brought the last photo he had taken of Chuch to the funeral and every
member of the band asked for a copy of it. When Keith Richards was given a
copy of the photo he responded: “Ah, Tom Wright is a fine photographer with
a special touch, he captures the true essence of people.“
When asked about why Wright‘s photographs were so important to the artists,
guitarist Joe Walsh of the James Gang and The Eagles responded: “You had to have been there and Tom was. Tom Wright is the ‘Jack Kerouac‘ of photography.“

Wrights‘ contributions to rock and roll photography are significant. Unlike
famed photographers Annie Lebowitz, Bob Gruen and Linda McCartney, who
focused their eye on the commercial and “celebrity“ aspects of rock,
Wright captured the artists in their most intense state of
performance, with no thought to the commercial viability of the photos
he was taking. After the concerts, he would develop the film in the bathrooms
of the tour busses, planes or hotel rooms and present those he captured on
film with his best shots of them. The immediate response was a confirmation
of what the performer felt had happened that night but were unsure until
seeing Wright‘s photographs.
“I like to refer to it as an ego explosion,“ Wright said. “Those photographs
seemed to serve as an artistic motivator for the performer to out do
themselves the next time they took to the stage.“
Wright‘s photographs were so important to the performers that they often couldn‘t wait to see them. In fact Townshend would often join him in developing
“Yeah, Pete loved to come in the darkroom and use the enlarger to blow up
the photographs,“ said Wright.
Pete Townshend has appeared at two of the three public viewings of Wright‘s
work. Townshend has connected with Wright‘s work not because the legendary
guitarist is the subject of many of them nor because of their 40-year
friendship, but rather as an artist who has an appreciation for the work of
another artist.
“His work is very much about ‘capturing the moment.‘ His view of the people
who filled the world as he grew up is casual but penetrating, and he
demonstrates above all that he is an enthusiast of the ‘right‘ situation;
the moment when the chemistry between groups of interactive people starts to
work,“ said Townshend. “The errant conscience of his camera has captured
both the flippancy and the passion of the times.“

Until now Wright has allowed only minimal commercial access of his work. His
photographs primarily ended up in the homes of his subjects. A recent
Christie‘s auction of the John Entwistle (The Who bassist, who passed away
last year) estate saw several Wright photographs auctioned for thousands of
dollars. At a public viewing of his work in a London Gallery five years ago,
several persons inquired about purchasing his work. Sotheby‘s held an auction of a
few pieces and to the surprise of the auction house all the pieces sold and
for a lot more than had been projected.
To date, all major rock music photographers have made their work
available to the public. Wright has not. The result has created a worldwide
demand for his work. Galleries, museums and exhibition halls have expressed
interest in his traveling “Rock and Roll Picture Show“ that will begin in
the fall of 2004. His website will launch later this month, where Wright will offer museum quality reproductions of his work, all personally inspected by him as well as signed. Also next September, his book “Roadwork“ will be published by the University of Texas and will feature his road
observations as well as 300 of his photographs.
Why all of the interest?
While other photographers showed up to the venue with a one-day pass, Wright
had a permanent one. He lived amongst his subjects, sometimes managing them,
other times capturing them at their artistic best. His photographs don‘t
require a written caption; they speak for themselves.

Thirty years ago Rod Stewart and Ron Wood wrote the song “Every Picture
Tells A Story,“ that was probably inspired by the hundreds of photographs
that Wright shot of them. For Tom Wright and those he captured on film, his
photos tell hundreds of stories.
At an exhibit of Wright‘s work at the Universal Amphitheater prior to the
Los Angeles premier of Tommy, Pete Townshend commented that, “I owe Tom Wright a lot.“
The statement from Townshend goes deeper than what appears on the surface.
Wright‘s photographs inspired Townshend. They served as the mirror that
didn‘t exist on stage. Townshend and others that Wright photographed had
no visual gauge of their performance. His photographs provided a visual
confirmation of what their egos were asking: it sounded good, but did I look
Whether you were there or not doesn‘t matter, the photographs in the Tom
Wright Collection will take you there even if just for a moment. As Rod and
Ron once wrote: “So remember, every picture tells a story don‘t it!“
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