Posted March, 2010
While working on my interview with Aerosmith drummer, Joey Kramer, I needed some great photos of him to grace the pages of the interview. As I was checking out various shots on Kramer’s website, I noticed that my favorite ones were shot by photographer, Rob Shanahan.
I tracked down Shanahan to ask for permission to use his photos. My search for him led me to a huge array of photographs of many other easily recognizable artists – not only from “my day” but many current celebrities.
While he was gracious enough to allow me to use some of his great pictures, it reminded me of an idea that I had when I launched Boomerocity.com: Interview some of the better rock photographers who have “shot” some of the icons of our day. After checking out Shanahan’s online portfolio of artists he’s photographed, I knew that I wanted to interview him.
I’ve had several conversations with the 42 year-old Shanahan. The first observation that I had was that, though he takes his craft very seriously, he’s clearly having the time of his life doing what he does. When he mentions who all he’s had the privilege of photographing, it’s not in the spirit of name dropping but of sharing the excitement and awe just as he surely did when he first started shooting pictures at the age of fifteen.
Since those early days, Shanahan’s work has appeared on such international publications as Rolling Stone Magazine and has been used for such album covers as Ringo Starr’s latest album, Y Not.
Early in the conversation, Rob immediately confirmed what I gathered from his photographic portfolio: Not only is he an incredible photographer, he’s also a professional drummer (and a darn good one, at that), having pounded the skins for 16 years with his band, the Hollywood Stones. He’s been drumming since he was 11 years old.
Let me stop right here to plug his band, Hollywood Stones. The band is probably THE best Rolling Stones tribute band in existence today. I’m a huge Stones fan and I don’t like my Stones music messed with – even by the Stones. But these guys are REALLY good. Seriously.
Don’t believe me? Well, then, will you believe accolades from the L.A. Times, NBC News or Showtime! Magazine? Or, if you think you can’t trust the press to get it right, how about the likes of Dick Clark, Slash, and Eric Burdon? Yeah, they’re THAT good.
Their uncanny ability to mimic the Bad Boys of Rock ‘n Roll has taken them, not only all over the U.S., but to the U.K., South America and other parts of the world. Did I tell you that they’re THAT good? Well, they are.
Back to the Stones in a moment.
It’s obvious that Shanahan’s role as an acclaimed professional drummer has guided him to shoot photographs that reflect not only the perspective of audiences and readers but the perspective of the artists (especially drummers) as well. His musician’s eye guides him to produce the kinds of shots that his subjects and the readers love and are captivated by.
Early in our first conversation, Shanahan had me spellbound with his story of how he met Stones drummer, Charlie Watts. The story was prompted by my comment of the pictures on his website (www.robshanahan.com) of Watts and that it must have been “a dream come true” for him. His telling of the story reveals his almost childlike awe of the circles he travels in.
“Unbelievable! I should probably tell you how that came about because it’s a really great story. Do you know Jim Keltner? Jim Keltner is one of THE drum studio session guys. He did all of George Harrison’s and John Lennon’s solo records. He played drums for Lennon on ‘Imagine’ and on so many great songs we’ve all heard a million times on the radio. He’s just a really terrific guy.
“I met Jim through the Paiste cymbal company. I’ve become really good friends with Jim photographing him probably a half a dozen times over the years. Every drum or cymbal ad of Jim within the last seven years, I’ve photographed. I love working with Jim, I feel that he’s the older brother that I never had.
“He knows my love of the Stones and I told Jim that I’d love to meet Charlie. He made the call to Charlie and made it happen.
“I think the first city that I went to see him was in Las Vegas at the MGM. I go to the ‘Will Call’ and I get my pass and I noticed the initials ‘C.W’ on it. I realized that it’s Charlie Watts initials, signifying that I was his guest.
“I go in and get escorted to the back. Everyone was really nice. They knew that Charlie was coming out to meet me. All of a sudden, Charlie comes in and I was like, ‘Holy crap!’ So, I met Charlie backstage and we had, maybe, five minutes so he asked me, ‘What are you doing the next couple of days?’
“I’m sure that I had something going on. I don’t remember but I said, ‘Whatever you want to do!’ He asked, ‘Why don’t you meet me in Little Rock? I’ll have a lot more time. I’ve got a lot going on in Vegas with ‘meet and greets’ and such.’ So, I went to Little Rock to meet up with him again.
“So, when Charlie says, ‘Why don’t you meet me in Little Rock?’, you go! I went and had a really good time with him there. He took me backstage and showed me around - hung out in his dressing room. We talked about old drummers and all the drummers that I had been working with lately – recently, etc., etc. And then, when they came back into Los Angeles, I had an idea - to get Charlie and Ringo together – again – back together! When was the last time these guys had seen each other?
“So, I called Ringo to ask if he would be interested in doing a shoot with Charlie. He said (sliding into a perfect English accent), ‘Oh, that would be lovely!’
“So, back in LA, the day before the Dodger Stadium show, Jim picked up Charlie at the hotel and came up to Ringo’s. I was there with Ringo, waiting in the driveway for Charlie. The car pulls up and out comes Charlie.
“Ringo yells, ‘Charlie!’ and Charlie yells, ‘Ringo!’ and they go running towards each other. I just grab my camera and just start shooting. I have this great sequence of them running towards each other with outstretched arms and hugging. It’s a fantastic sequence.
“We hung out at Ringo’s house for the afternoon, for like four or five hours. He has a couple of rooms in the house just devoted to drum kits. One is with an electronic kit and the other one has an acoustic kit.
“They went back and forth and played and talked. I shot pictures of everything and then, at about four o’clock, Ringo looks at his watch and says, ‘Oh! It’s tea time!’ So the four of us - me, Charlie, Ringo and Jim – are sitting there, poolside, at this little table, having tea and we’re talking about drums, recording, what the Stones are doing now, family, this and that. I had to pinch myself!
“What I did is I put together a book of that day and had it published. I did just a small run of five copies. I sent one to London to Charlie. I gave one to Ringo, one to Jim and I have two copies here. One that I don’t touch – it’s just tucked away and then one that I show people that sits out in my office. People freak out and go, ‘Holy crap! Do you realize what you’ve got?’
“The important thing is the four of us like the book. I’ve received a call from Ringo, Charlie and Jim, all completely thrilled with the book. It was a special day and I am thankful I was able to document it.”
Having been immediately blown away by such an incredible story, I had to ask the obvious question: How did Shanahan break in to the rock photography field?
“I landed in California in the summer of ’88, fresh out of school in Minnesota. I went to Minnesota State- Mankato. Studied Photography and business then moved to California. I just started taking pictures of whatever I could to make money.
“It’s a long story but I started shooting sports – I was the big long lens guy on the sidelines of the football field. I was shooting for the NFL and Major League Baseball. I did that for about ten years. I’m really not that big of a sports fan but I love my Minnesota Vikings!
“I enjoyed shooting but my real passion was music. I just felt that I really needed to start shooting music so I started poking around in the industry. I figured that I would just go with what I know. I know drummers and I know drums.
“Every time I‘d look through a drum magazine, I would think, ‘I should be doing these photographs. Why shouldn’t a drummer be the one to photograph drummers?”
“So I got busy shooting in the music industry. The next thing you know, I’m shooting more drummers and more ads, then other musicians– and the phone started ringing. It just kinda goes from there, you know? You never really set the path – it just kind of happens.”
My next obvious question: How did he manage to not only meet, but become the personal photographer and a friend of, Ringo Starr?
“I met Ringo through Sheila E. I photographed her for a Paiste cymbal ad and she really loved the ad. Ever since then, she’s called me for all of her stuff. I’ve shot her record covers and her drum and cymbal ads. Whenever she needs photos, she calls me.
“She was out on tour with Ringo in ’06 for the All Starr tour. When they came through L.A., she called and said, ‘Rob, you’ve got to come, take pictures. I’d love to get some shots live, backstage with Ringo, etc.’ I was so nervous. I was about to meet Ringo. I couldn’t believe it!
“At the time, in the band, were Billy Squier, John Waite, and Richard Marx. So, I’m back in her dressing room and those guys are popping in and out, saying, ‘hi’. She’d introduce me and I’m, like, ‘Hi, Billy, how’s it going? I’m a big fan.’ ‘Hi, John, I love The Babys and all that stuff.’ ‘Hey, Richard . . .”
“The whole time, I’m thinking about Ringo. Where the heck is Ringo?
“Finally, he comes in and she (Sheila) goes, ‘Hey, Ringo, this is Rob.’ The first thing he says to me, and this is hilarious, ‘Oh, so you’re Sheila’s photographer.’ That’s all he said to me and he walks out.
“I’m, like, ‘Okay, that went well.’” I thought, ‘That’s Ringo! I was in the same room!’ I freaked out.
“Anyway, everything went fine. After the show, I’m hanging out and talking to Eric Singer, the drummer for KISS. I’d never met him before so it was cool sitting and talking to him. Ringo’s publicist came up to me and introduced herself and said, ‘Hey, Ringo wanted to know if you would be interested in shooting the next couple of shows for him – a band photo and some things for the press. He wanted me to ask you.’ I’m like, ‘Holy crap! Yeah, of course!’
“So, that was it. I drove down to San Diego the next day for the show down there. I brought lights, brought the back drop and did the band group photos after the sound check and before the show.
“I remember Elizabeth, Ringo’s publicist, telling me in San Diego, ‘Just do your thing. Whatever you want to shoot during rehearsals, sound check; if you want to be up on the drum riser – whatever you want to shoot.’
“I’m up on the drum riser shooting, three feet from Ringo while he’s playing. I can feel the drums and he’s playing with the camera. We had a good relationship from the beginning, you know?”
Shanahan also enjoyed the unique privilege of traveling with Ringo during his trip to his home town Liverpool a couple of years back. While Rob shot around 1,900 photos of the historic shows that took place in England, he also accompanied Ringo and Barbara on their visit to Ringo’s high school and his two childhood homes on Madryn Street and on Admiral Grove.
While we were chatting about all of that, Rob also mentioned that he was traveling with Ringo the following week to New York City for a PR tour for Ringo’s new record, Y-Not, which Rob also photographed the cover. While he was in New York City, he also had a shoot with Steely Dan’s drummer, Keith Carlock, as well as shoot Ringo’s various appearances there (The Jimmy Fallon Show, Jon Stewart, TV and print media interviews, and the like).
I asked Rob the same question that I asked Bob Gruen: Were there any photo gigs that “got away” that you regretted missing. Again, his answer was revealing in ways that I wasn’t counting on. He indicated that, while he hasn’t really missed any photo shoots that he regretted, he did miss the chance to do some drum session work for KISS’s Gene Simmons.
However, what Rob DID get to do is play drums for Ringo Starr at his Eden Prairie, Minnesota, All-Starr stop during the 2008 tour. He played on the last two songs (All You Need Is Love and Give Peace A Chance) while Ringo was singing up front of the stage. Shanahan says of the event, “This was near my hometown so there were approximately 50 family and friends in the audience, including my high school band director and his wife. For all of them to see me play drums on stage with Ringo, Billy Squier, Edgar Winter, Gary Wright, Colin Hay, Hamish Stuart and Gregg Bissonette was a dream come true!”
Is this guy living the dream or what?
One of the more surreal moments of Shanahan’s career was when he got to meet one of his other drummer idols, Mitch Mitchell, of Jim Hendrix Experience fame.
I pick up the story as Rob tells of catching the Experience show at the Greek Theater.
“I went to their gig at the Greek Theater last fall. I met up with Mitch during the sound check and had a photo shoot with him with his brand new DW drum kit that he was so excited about. It was the day before his birthday and he was getting birthday cards and calls from family. He was in really great spirits.
“We were talking about his new drum kit from DW and the photo shoot went great. Then we had dinner with Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, who was playing guitar on the tour. I’m telling you, that was a trip! It was really a great experience.
“The show was fantastic. Then, three or four days later, I’m driving home from the gym and I hear on the radio, ‘This just in: Mitch Mitchell was found dead in his hotel room.’ I couldn’t believe it!”
“After the initial shock and disbelief, my first thought was that I may have the last photos of him alive. And it turns out that I do – the last real photo shoot. He had a show after the L.A. show in Seattle and there were a photographer from the local paper that had a few live shots that went around on the news wire. But, my shots were the last one-on-one posed shots. I had a few on Getty Images’ website that went world-wide but I didn’t really want to exploit them, you know. His wife, Dee, called me to see some photos. I sent her a real beautiful print, and also sent one to Drum Workshop – the company that made his drum kit. They got Mitch’s kit back after the tour was over, and have it displayed at their showroom up in Oxnard. It’s really beautiful. They have it under beautiful lights, on display, along with my picture of him sitting with that very kit. I wish I could tell his daughter how much the birthday card she sent had meant to him. He proudly carried it around and was showing everybody that night I was with him”
What hasn’t Shanahan done that he wants to do, photography-wise?
“I’m still dying to do some work with all of the Stones – the whole band. I would love to be able to be their number one photographer – their go-to guy. I think that would be fantastic! Kind of like I do for Ringo.
“There was a rumor going around the internet a couple of months ago that Charlie Watts was retiring, was quitting the Stones. He didn’t want to tour any more. I immediately got on the phone and called five drummers, friends of mine who had worked with the Stones, Curt Biscara (Jagger’s solo records), Charlie Drayton (Keith Richard’s old band, Expensive Wino’s), and I called Jim and I said, ‘Man, if the Stones are going out on tour and they need a drummer, obviously, I would LOVE to do the gig!’ That would really be my all-time goal.
“Curt has seen my band play and he said, ‘Dude! You have to do that! Nobody else can do that but you. You would have to do it!’ So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It’s a far out dream but, you know, hey?”
As our chat progressed, Rob drops another gem into my ear canal.
“I should tell you about my working with Paul and Ringo together. It was at the Love - Cirque du Soleil show in Vegas. I was hired by Apple Corps to do photos for the one year anniversary. Paul was there; Ringo, Olivia and Yoko; George Martin; all the Apple people; all the EMI people; all of the record execs. It was a pretty big thing.
“So, all I did was follow Ringo and Paul around the whole day. Larry King was there and they taped a show. Just before we were going on to the Larry set I asked them, ‘So, when was the last time you guys danced?’ They looked at each other and started spinning around so I started shooting. I have this really great photo sequence of the two of them having a dancing moment.”
“So, fast forward to June of this year when the Beatles’ Rock Band was coming out. They hired me to do the promo photos for the cover of USAToday. It was downtown at the USC Galen Event Center. It was the official press launch for Beatles Rock Band. CNN as there; USAToday, CBS, NBC, etc. – all the biggies.
“We’re waiting for Paul and he walks in. He’s the last to arrive. He eventually walks over to where I had a studio set-up and says ‘Hey, Rob, how’s it going?’ I’m thinking, “Wow. This is Paul McCartney and he just remembered my name! He’s freaking me out! He then asks, ‘How ya doin’? How ya been? I’m glad you’re on this!’
“I put him and Ringo in the white background and started shooting. They started clowning around – their usual selves. It was fun to shoot those two again. I realized that, whenever those two get together, I get the call. It’s a good feeling. It’s something special.”
No doubt, this speaks volumes of Rob’s work and his respect for his clients who then become friends.
Still speaking about that particular photo shoot, Rob continues, “Paul actually wanted to go through and pick out the shots with me. So, immediately after the photo shoot, while he went off to do interviews, I uploaded the pictures into my laptop. I quickly edited the shots down to about 40 before he came back to view them.”
“Paul and I then went through them and picked out 10 shots – it was just me and Paul, working at my computer. It was a trip, man! It was funny because he was chewing gum during the photo shoot, which is a big no-no, and you could see it in the corner of his mouth on a few of the shots. Of the ones we liked, you could see the gum!
“So, he asked me, ‘So, can you remove the chewy?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, of course!’ So, I retouched out the gum. Did my magic with PhotoShop. The photo ended up on the cover of USAToday. I couldn’t have been prouder than getting a copy of USAToday and seeing my photo with my photo credit with Paul and Ringo on the cover. I thought it was going to be on the cover of the music section but it was on the cover of the ‘A’ section, the front page, above the fold – like BIG!”
With Rob’s legacy in the business, he obviously has a vast collection of photos of a myriad of people playing a wide variety of instruments across all genres of music. As has already been mentioned, Shanahan has been shooting all the top talent who endorse Drum Workshop drums. It was during one of the calls with Rob that he mentioned that the company wants to publish a book of his photos of their artist.
While describing the book project, he says, “Unfortunately, it’s not going to be the definitive collection of all of my drummer photos. Since it’s a Drum Workshop book, they only want to use the drummers that play their drums, of course. There won’t be any of my ‘Ringo’ or any of the non-DW drummers, although, some day, I’ll have THAT book out.
While it’s obvious that Rob’s formal education in photography has served him well, his business studies from his college days has come in handy, too. In listening to him describe some of the agreements and licensing deals that he has negotiated, it caused my inner business geek to salivate with envy. The guy is certainly no dummy, that’s for sure. Case in point, while discussing the cover shots for Ringo’s latest album, Rob shares the following story:
“I was able to negotiate a licensing deal with Universal Music because they wanted to use the cover art for t-shirts. So, that was in addition to what Ringo paid me for the album and the design. Universal came out and said, ‘Hey, we really like the cover. Ringo wanted us to contact you to find out about licensing the image and the art.’ That was actually a nice bonus surprise that I really wasn’t thinking about.
“So, as a result, I’m more keenly aware of licensing opportunities and doing stuff like t-shirts and merchandise and limited edition prints and stuff like that.”
As the old Ronco commercials used to say, “But wait! There’s more!” Rob shares this story about the events leading up to the retrospective/gallery show of Ringo’s career in the historic “Studio A” at Capitol records.
“Ringo, Barbara and I got together at his house, looking through a bunch of photos on my laptop. We needed to pick some photos to display at the Walk of Fame event at Capitol Records. Ringo was getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and having a party in Studio A. We ended up picking ten, and of those ten, seven were mine and three were from a collection I got from Apple Corps in London. I had all ten of these photos printed 4x5 feet and hung on display for the party.
“In dealing with Apple, they sent me their FTP site and password and all of that. I got into the folder and I’m looking at these photos that I realized have never been released! Old Beatles photographs that, through the years and for whatever reason, have been sitting in their archives.
“A lot of them have been digitized – probably just scanned and sitting in this folder at Apple. It was amazing going through these because I’d never seen 80% of them. It was their own private collection - pretty amazing stuff.
“I showed them a ‘before and after’ of what I did with one of the photos. They go, ‘Wow, we really need to have you do that (the restoration). It would be great to have you restore them for historical purposes.’”
Later in the conversation he shares this story about the iconic, “Abbey Road” photo and its restoration.
“I zoomed in really close and started looking around in that photo, which is kind of eerie because I know that the license plate means something to a bunch of people. Paul’s barefoot. There’s a guy standing on the right side of the frame, looking at them. There’s all these little things going on in that photo that, through the years, the total Beatles freaks have claimed to be some iconic meaning.
“So, I’m diving into that photo in super high res, seeing that picture big on my 30” monitor. I zoomed in on that thing at 400% or 500%. I noticed that there was trash on the right side of the frame in the gutter – like wrappers or an empty cup or something.
“I realized that I could clean up trash on the curb and I could clean up the photo a little bit. But do I really want to alter the historical significance? So I decided not to and left that one pretty much alone. But the other ones – there’s a photo of Ringo playing drums – an old black and white photo that Ringo really liked. But it was a scan from a black and white print that was made in an old dark room. You can see a bunch of dust specs and little hairs.”
The story begged the question: Was there a particular photo that he saw and restored that had a particular impact on him?
“Let’s see. There’s one shot of Ringo sitting on his drum riser, like it might be between takes on a TV set or something. He’s got the classic black oyster pearl drum kit up on the drum riser. The drum riser looks like it’s about five feet tall. Ringo’s sitting on the drum riser – on the high hat side. He’s got a cigarette in his hand, just kind of leaning down, looking at the floor.
“It’s a moment that the photographer captured, in the middle of the mayhem and the screaming and the Beatlemania. This looked like this is one of the only places that Ringo felt truly safe – on his drum riser - his place of Zen. I had a good time studying that photo. It was good to see my friend, Ringo, enjoy a little peacefulness in the middle of the madness that was his life at that time.”
How does Ringo compare to the other drummers Rob knows?
“To compare Ringo to other drummers is really hard for me because, of all the drummers that I’ve met over the years – and I’ve met a lot of them – I don’t think any of them can relate to what Ringo has gone through. To be a member of the Beatles, the British Invasion and all of that stuff, I don’t think anyone can relate, except, maybe, Charlie Watts.
“I would say that Charlie is really quite different than Ringo. Ringo has a real outgoing personality. Very funny and witty. He likes talking to people and interacting with people. What he doesn’t like is people coming up to him and asking for a photo or to sign stuff.
“Charlie, on the other hand, is really quiet – in his own little space. He doesn’t like all the adulation. He would rather be playing in a jazz band in Harlem somewhere with 50 people in the audience. He’d be happy with that.”
It’s clear that Rob knows it photographic subjects from a perspective that I would dare say no other rock photographer does: From their place on the stage whether it be the microphone, the keyboards, guitar or drum riser. When you couple that with the profession respect and awe that Shanahan brings to the photo shoot, one understands why he connects with his subjects in a rare and refreshing way.
Rob will, no doubt, continue to make his incredible mark in the realm of Rock photography. You can keep up with his work by visiting www.robshanahan.com. As hinted at previously, keep your eyes open for books that showcase his incredible work.