October 2008 Issue
Focus on Rock
Renowned photographer George Shuba shares his images of Cleveland's music scene.
The fledgling photographer, fresh from four years of honing his craft in the United States Air Force (Air National Guard), was accustomed to more traditional assignments –– developing industrial films for Standard Oil, or shooting weddings. So, when a representative from a local radio station walked into his Cleveland studio in 1964 and asked if he could take pictures of beetles, Shuba was skeptical.
“Why did we agree to photograph bugs?” he asked his business partner Don Brill, as the duo started to comb through encyclopedias about insects.
But, oh, what a difference an “a” makes –– as in the Beatles.
Cleveland’s WHK radio was sponsoring the group’s appearance at Public Hall on September 15, 1964, and Shuba had just been hired to take photos of the Fab Four in concert.
“I put my red badge of courage on, and found out exactly what I would be doing,” the 71-year-old says today, as he describes that unforgettable night when Beatlemania swept through the city in the form of screaming teens and ranks of beleaguered police, who couldn’t fathom what all the pandemonium was about.
That assignment turned out to be the one that would change his life.
It led to Shuba becoming the city’s pre-eminent rock photographer for the next two decades, covering performances that served as the soundtrack to Cleveland’s music scene. Local radio stations and newspapers relied on his keen eye to provide coverage. He also photographed the acts who appeared on the city’s legendary “Upbeat” show –– including Simon and Garfunkel making their TV debut on November 5, 1967, as well as what turned out to be Otis Redding’s final performance on Dec. 9, 1967, the day before he died in a plane crash.
From Oct. 10 through Jan. 4, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will host a 48-image retrospective of Shuba’s work, spanning the years 1964 through the early 1980s –– a time, explains Jim Henke, the Rock Hall’s vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs, when Cleveland wielded make-it-or-break-it influence in the music industry.
“WHK, WIXY, WMMS ... the city always had good rock stations, going all the way back to Alan Freed coming up with the name rock ’n’ roll on his WJW radio show,” Henke says. “Since audiences were so supportive, artists on tour made sure to make Cleveland one of their stops.
“And George was there, documenting it all.”
Step into the photographer’s studio in Old Brooklyn and it’s yesterday once more, filled with images of Jim Morrison zoned out on stage in the city’s Public Auditorium, Jimi Hendrix executing a complex guitar riff before fans at Music Hall, and the Fifth Dimension beaming down from their perch at the base of Cleveland’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
“I can still hear the music in the back of my mind,” Shuba says. “We were in a revolutionary period. Something was bound to happen –– and which way the music was going to go, no one really knew.”
Although his musical preferences were firmly ensconced in the ’50s (he professes a fondness for Patti Page and Pat Boone), Shuba was quick to recognize the talents of the new breed of icon on stage before him.
“Their movements were poetry in motion,” he says, “whether it was the wrinkling of Janis Joplin’s brow or the raising of Pete Townshend’s shoulder or the turn of Sly Stone’s head.”
And he had only a second or so to capture that essence on film.
The images have become sought-after collectibles, treasured by legions of fans, as well as the artists they revere. In 2003, Neil Diamond selected the shot Shuba took of him performing during a 1967 Geauga Lake Park concert for the inside cover of his “Stages” CD.
“These photos,” Shuba says, “are my legacy to the city of Cleveland.”
For more information about Shuba’s images, or to make an appointment to see them, call 216/351-5080.