Joe Compton was 18 when he borrowed his mother’s car and headed to the Washington Coliseum for an afternoon concert by the Rolling Stones one November day in 1965. The ticket cost $3, he recalls, and Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles opened. The stage looked like someone plopped an “expanded wrestling mat” in the arena’s center — something Compton noticed because, besides music, he loved to watch pro wrestling at the old coliseum.
Compton also loved photography, so he brought along his childhood Brownie box camera on the off chance he’d get some lucky shots of the Stones. That chance came toward the end of the 35-minute set.
The band was playing Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” Mick Jagger, going into James Brown/Otis Redding mode, “dropped to his knees holding the microphone, in front of Brian Jones on keyboard,” says Compton. Just as he snapped his shutter, a flash burst directly across the stage from Compton, creating a starkly backlit tableau.
Grainy and raw, the picture was clearly the work of a fan, not a pro. Though Compton went on to become a music writer, documentary maker and music photographer, this is the photo he framed and hung on his wall for decades.
“I always kept that photograph back,” he says from his home in Baltimore, “and I just thought there would always be some place where it would be the right time to share it.”
Finally it has taken its rightful place among hundreds of other fans’ rock-and-roll photos in a handsome new photography book by Smithsonian Books.
"Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen," to be published in October, started with the Smithsonian putting out a call on its website in December 2015 for fans to send in their concert pictures. After a year, the institution had gathered 4,000 submissions, all of them no doubt with storied memories behind them. Then came the task of deciding on which musicians would make the cut, as well as which photos.
The task fell to Bill Bentley, a respected music industry veteran in Southern California who wrote the tome. Bentley, a former publicist, talent scout and label executive, decided right off he had to limit choices to the most influential acts; he could write an encyclopedia and never please everyone. The selections he settled on range from legends of the 1950s — Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley — to today’s stars such as Adele and Jack White.
“We got into the idea of: Let’s try to tell somewhat of a history of rock-and-roll without being pedantic or voluminous,” Bentley says. “What artists really moved popular music forward during those years? And then how good a photo do we have of those artists?”
“I took a very liberal definition of what rock-and-roll is. Is Otis Redding rock-and-roll? Probably not. But rock-and-roll people loved him, and he really influenced rock-and-roll. You have to be open when you think about music.”
In the end, some 140 bands or performers made the cut. “Obviously, not the best pictures ever taken, but the most emotional pictures.” And the pictures that had not been seen time and again. It turned out that three-quarters of those used were taken by fans, by Bentley’s estimate. Professionals had to be relied upon to fill in gaps.
With a range as broad as Captain Beefheart to Carole King — “Are there two more different people in the universe?” he asks — the author was open to huge pop stars as much as cult musicians. The 13th Floor Elevators, a Texas psychedelic band, warrant a two-page spread. Kiss is in there; so are Guns N’ Roses.
“So you kind of get the whole breadth of rock-and-roll without being too critic-y and too perfect,” he says, “Rock-and-roll is really messy, and any history of rock-and-roll is going to exclude more people than you include.”
An essential part of the rock concert experience is seeing it. “I always had this feeling that we listen with our eyes and our ears,” Bentley says. “Especially at shows. Because what you’re seeing is why you’re there, in a lot of ways. I mean, you want to hear it, too — but you could do that with a record — but you want to see it.”
The Stones were, of course, going to be included in the photo history, yet it was only by happenstance that Compton’s snapshot made it into the mix. He had known Bentley for 25 years but only found out very late in the process about the Smithsonian book. Bentley saw Compton’s photo and had the layout rearranged to accommodate it.
The experience of the rock show hasn’t essentially changed since Compton saw the Stones more than 50 years ago, but one thing has: camera phones are ubiquitous. Bentley says he can envision another book, strictly with iPhone pictures.
“It’s really hard,” he says of the choices he had to make for “Smithsonian Rock and Roll.” “My dream would be to do at least volume two.”
This story has been updated.