On The Brink Of Fame by Ian Wright
"Too young to drive, Ian took a bus or rode his bicycle to the concert venues to capture images of equally young performers, all serving their own apprenticeships" – Sir Harold Evans, accomplished author, publisher, broadcaster and in the 1960’s, editor of Darlington’s provincial evening newspaper ‘The Northern Echo’.
When he first took the reigns of the Echo the then plain Mr. Evans met 15-year-old Ian Wright who’d recently been taken on to work in the newspaper’s dark room; washing floors, mixing developing chemicals and brewing the tea! What Mr. Evans immediately saw though was: "An energetic and ambitious young man who was the only member of the photography staff with the knowledge and interest in the new pop groups who were about to take the world by storm". Ian was soon promoted to the position of staff photographer and so began a long and illustrious career in the media that began, as this book so eloquently recalls, way back in those early formative years.
Take a look at a map of England. About three quarters the way up on the right hand side you’ll see a major river estuary where the River Tees spews its flotsam out into the North Sea. Straddling the Tees; the towns of Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees, together with Darlington further inland form an area known locally as Teesside – and in the late 50’s and early 60’s Teesside was experiencing a booming economy. Industry was vibrant, the coalmines and ship building yards were crying out for labour, and from far below the North Sea oil and gas were being pumped in huge volumes into the East Coast refineries.
At a Conservative rally in Bedford in 1957 Harold MacMillan declared: "Most of our people have never had it so good". This was certainly the case on Teesside. And the teenagers, previously massively unemployed, now had money in their pockets to spend at the weekends. Weekly pay packets doled out on a Thursday or Friday burned a hole in their newly acquired trendy clothes – and when the term 'the weekend starts here' was popularised in 1963 on the ITV Friday night show ‘Ready Steady Go’, it gave the green light to the swinging sixties and encouraged sons and daughters to rebel against their parents somewhat oppressive generation.
‘Ready Steady Go’, the programme pre-formatted by the BBC’s ‘Six-Five-Special’ in 1957 and ATV’s ‘Oh Boy’ a year later had accessed the youth of the day to not only the established crooners but more the new singers and groups bursting on to the scene. This was TV, but as Sir Harold realised all those years ago, someone in touch with the teenagers was needed to capture what was coming on celluloid – and, in ex sweeper-up and darkroom handyman Ian Wright, he had the perfect snapper!
Northern impresarios, the Levy brothers, first spotted the potential of excess money rattling around in the workers pockets. Marcus, Norman and David Levy with their La Dolce Vita Club first brought international stars the like of Tommy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Danny Kaye and Andy Williams to the North East. This led the way to others becoming overnight millionaires bringing pop stars to their own local clubs, bars and venues on Teesside. Local theatres and cinemas became auditoriums for bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Dave Clark Five and the Who to name a few, and individuals like Chubby Checker, Millie, Cliff Richard, Roy Orbison and PJ Proby took to the stage and performed to the youngsters just gagging for live performances from their idols – and Ian Wright was in there amongst it all. Security backstage was almost non-existent and Ian had access everywhere and to everyone. He recalls: "My first assignment was to photograph Miss Ella Fitzgerald at the City Hall in Newcastle. I took the train and then walked to City Hall with all my heavy weight plate camera equipment slung over my shoulders. Ushered into Miss Fitzgerald’s presence, her manager said that I had exactly one minute to take one photograph! Every inch the diva she seemed annoyed and inconvenienced. Every photographer’s nightmare flashed through my mind. Did I have the glass plate in the camera correctly? Would the exposure be right? Would the flash work? Would she be in focus? I then took the one photograph and then raced back to the station to catch the train back to Darlington where I developed and printed the photo. My relief rang through the darkroom as I sighed – thank God she didn’t close her eyes".
Ian tells of many such anecdotes in this tome. His recall is uncanny and his unique perspective of intimacy at a time when black and white was the norm becomes more evident with each monochrome subject. His sharp 1964 photograph of the three Levy brothers, all crouched over a roulette wheel in their infamous La Dolce Vita Club juxtaposed to his first editorial front page photograph, dated 31st December 1961, and showing a grainy image of a snowbound Ford Popular on the A66 at Scotch Corner, which incidentally led to his promotion from darkroom to professional photographer. Recalling the Levy brothers some twenty years later when Ian found himself in Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs house, he asked Sinatra if it was true that Marcus Levy and his brothers had offered him a million dollars to appear at the La Dolce Vita? Sinatra sartorially replied; "You bet your sweet bippy they did, but I was too busy to take ’em up on it".
‘On The Brink Of Fame’ for me is a gem. It brings memories flooding back of a world with a rather simpler, uncomplicated lifestyle than for the teenagers of today. ‘If you remember the sixties – you weren’t there!’ is an often quoted paraphrase that smacks of mind-bending drugs, sex, and of course the alcohol induced orgies. Where was I when all this was going on? I WAS there but what I remember is mothers cooking wholesome food, dads going out to work every morning, kids having fun and not shackled as they are today. School was strict; girls mysterious and your friends were there for life. Mind you I wasn’t frequenting the clubs of London or the clip joints in Soho. No doubt the show-biz parties with their LSD laced atmosphere did exist but I guess I was just a little too young at the time. I remember the early morning paper rounds and then after school, delivering shoes repaired by the local cobbler, all to supplement my pocket money from which I chose and bought my 45’s from the Top Ten!
I left school as Sergeant Pepper hit the record stores – my first job in the summer of 1967 saw me stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s, our local supermarket. I was suddenly grown up and independent and I had a wage – my first ‘grown up’ buy? a pair of Cuban heeled Beatles boots! In Boots the Chemist and Woolworths listening to ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘Hello Goodbye’, Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’, Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and shoeless Sandie Shaw singing ‘Puppet On A String’ – and the memory of hearing for the first time ‘Night Of Fear’ by our local band, The Move, sticks with me to this day. The job was boring but my lifestyle had changed overnight, I was now one of the countless teenagers looking forward to Friday night and ‘the weekend starts here!
Ian Wright’s photographs bring all those teenage memories back to life. What he was experiencing through his lens in the North East of England could have been anywhere in the country. Every provincial town had its local cinemas or town halls where, on a Saturday night, the sounds of the sixties could be heard live. Local bands were supplemented some times by the big names of the day. I lived in Rugby, in the Midlands, and well remember the day that the Rolling Stones came to town. It was early 1964 and although preferring the burgeoning clean-cut Beatles my curiosity for the ‘dangerous’ Stones overcame my favouritism, but being only fourteen I was deemed too young by my parents to go to the Granada Cinema to see them – but my cousin Jennifer, a full two years older than myself, was! She was in love with Keith and not only did she get to see her man up front but got backstage also. I never did understand her passion for those scruffy bunch of erks (as we chose to believe they were) and their music, but for Jen, the treasured kiss and autograph made her the envy of many of her friends!
The Rugby Advertiser, our local weekly newspaper carried front page headlines and photographs the following week, and the teenagers crowding and jostling outside the Granada waiting to see the Stones in our town could have been Ian Wright’s page 63 crowd scene outside The Globe Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees. The date, November 22nd 1963 and The Northern Echo’s headlines subsequently screamed ‘FANS IN HIGH STREET SIEGE’ and ‘Police curb crush for Beatles’. Look at every face in crowd and you get that sense of high anticipation, almost incredulous belief that something truly great is going to happen. Ian’s evocative photograph brings that instant-in-time right back to life.
Talking to Ian I asked what he remembered of the Stones, and in particular Brian: "I first met them in September 1964 during their first nationwide tour. They came to The Globe Theatre in Stockton riding high on their first number one ‘It’s All Over Now’. Backstage with them I was nervous, everybody was fidgety, I remember they were worried about their performance but to me it had been fantastic, a truly memorable rhythm and blues repertoire. Developing my pictures back at the office it became clear, from both sides of the camera, that Brian was the obvious leader sitting up front, with Jagger always in the background. The national newspapers had described the band as scruffy hooligans with unkempt hair and – unclean ruffians! To me they were nothing like that. Brian was smart, both in looks and attitude. Look at the after-show photograph. They’re wearing Eton collared shirts, conservative trousers, polished boots and black socks. Brian even has a tie on and the state of their hair, especially his, could never be described as unkempt!
A year later, in October 65 they came back to The Globe; this time ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ was number one both in the US and Britain. All of the band were affable except Brian who appeared somewhat reserved, it might have been down to the fact that he had the flu but he was still there, up front as leader, with Mick and Keith taking a back-seat, but you couldn’t help sense Mick edging forward in the hierarchy.
The last time I met and photographed the Stones with Brian in the band was in September 1966 when they were touring with Ike and Tina Turner. My group picture from this tour portrays Jagger in a masterful pose, sitting on an amplifier front and centre with Brian in the rear, leaving little question as to who the leader was now….."
Today Ian lives with his wife in the gaming capital of the world Las Vegas. Chatting with him over the phone there’s not a hint of a gambler, rather the more conservative English gentleman who as a youngster so impressed his Editor, a man who himself was to go on to a Knighthood. Happy to talk of those times the conversation inevitably switches to his passion of many years – cricket. His team in Vegas play regularly and ex-pats, some very well known names included enjoy their little bit of England, albeit in the extreme heat of the Nevada desert. Ian himself admits that once the temperatures approach 100 it’s time to leave the field for a cool beer! Cricket is mentioned in the Stones section of his book also. To this day he keeps in touch with Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts through their mutual love of the game and his team in France (where he lived until 2006) regularly played the Saumur Cricket Club of which Mick Jagger is president and Ian says: "Jagger, members of his staff and bodyguards turned up regularly when our clubs played each other at home and away. They always had a great team spirit and brought along lashings of sandwiches and beer".
The connection to cricket is an important aspect of the marketing of this book. Plans are currently being made to promote the UK launch later this year at the home of cricket – Lords. The Lords Taverners of which Bill Wyman and Ian are members is a charitable organisation and Ian has special plans to combine his work with their activities. Look out for news of a very special day.
Back to the book. Stones groupie Marianne Faithfull features prominently alongside Lulu and Dusty Springfield in the aptly titled chapter ‘Un-convent-ional Divas’. By 1965 Ian’s status had become such that he no longer rode his bike or took the bus to photo-shoots but, through hard work and a windfall, he was now driving a 3.4 litre racing green Mark 2 Jaguar. Wearing his newly acquired Harris tweed suit and sheepskin coat with mink collar (very un-pc by today’s standard!) and gripping the Jaguar’s classic wooden steering wheel in his racy little string gloves he felt he’d ‘made it’: "After all, I was in a very cool and sophisticated profession". And cool he felt when he was sent to photograph Ms. Faithfull before her May ’65 engagement at the La Bamba Club, Ian remembers: "Never mind Jean and Chrissie Shrimpton, Diana Rigg, Twiggy or Jane Asher, 19-year-old Marianne Faithfull was the girl of every man’s fantasy. When I found her in the hotel lobby though, with her stuck up manner and affected drawl, looking me up and down and not being suitably impressed I stood there thinking – obviously I was coming up short! And suddenly felt again like that gangly, bicycle-riding 16-year-old nervously meeting Ella Fitzgerald, rather than a seasoned photographer with a Jaguar in the car park. However, as I was thinking – bloody hell, it’s going to be tough to get decent pictures of this iceberg, she gazed up teasingly from beneath an overlong fringe and her voice changed from cut glass to a coo as she said: I remember you. You did the pictures a few months ago when I was here on tour with Gene Pitney. Just give me two tics and I’m all yours", and we went on to have to have a great day".
Ian still keeps in touch with many of his old friends from those far off days. One good friend, Spencer Davis, writes in the epilogue: "In October of 1965, The Spencer Davis Group was touring with the Rolling Stones. The Globe Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees was where I first met Ian Wright backstage as he photographed all the acts on the bill.
Some 42 years later I was invited to an exhibition of photographs by Graham Nash in La Jolla where Ian showed me some his photos. It was as if someone sent a powerful jolt of electricity through my very being. I was looking at friends with whom I’d either toured or socialised with in the heyday of the swinging sixties. To quote John Lennon – Some are dead and some are living – however, echoes still remain right here in Ian’s collection of photographs, some of which have never seen the light of day until now in the book you’re holding in your hands. Moreover, friends who’ve departed come back to life as if they had never left us".
I think the penultimate words should come from Ian Wright himself and his good friend Bill Wyman. Trying to gather the Stones together backstage in 1966 Ian recalls that he couldn’t find Bill: "I finally found him sitting all alone in the corner of a dressing room; Bill apologised and said – sorry from a long flight. I’m bloody knackered. It never stops – I said, yea Bill, I understand. Can I just take a quick shot of you alone and then I’m off? Years later this photo seemed apropos when Bill published his incomparable autobiography ‘Stone Alone’. Only recently he saw the photo and said it’s one of the best he’s ever seen of himself. What a wonderful compliment".
‘On The Brink of Fame’ by Ian Wright captures in its splendid monochrome photography totally unique and many unpublished archive photographs of artistes performing live, and life on the road in the sixties. The commentary is also unique as it comes so expertly from somebody who was there at the time, and experienced first hand what really happened up front and behind the scenes. The book is split into definitive chapters with the Rolling Stones and Beatles naturally having their own sections, one titled ‘Beatlemania’ and the other ‘Blood From A Stone’, the connotation of which I’ll leave you to discover as you read the book. Almost everybody who was anybody features over the remaining pages, and not only pop stars - the names are to numerous to mention but Ian Wright’s subjects range from Royalty to Commoner, Rock Icons to Prime Minister, Comedians to Serious Thespians and Pop Stars to Actors and finally, amongst the celebrities are the unknowns whom Wrighty asks: "Where are you now". Perhaps you’ll recognise yourself amongst the luminaries? This book is a must for anyone who remembers the sixties but if you WEREN’T there, please, go check it out – you won’t be disappointed.
Ian Wright: "Looking back on my life objectively I can see many things have come full circle. It’s a hard thing to admit but I have become somewhat like those elderly photographers with whom I first worked at The Northern Echo when I was a 15-year-old darkroom boy. Much as I hate to admit, I have become just like them in that I now vehemently resist the changes modern technology has wrought on my profession – my art. I repudiate digital cameras and computer printing, I still use the same techniques I was taught in 1959. Seeing the magic of an image come to life in a dish of developer is a joy that never ceases to hold me in its thrall".
Trevor Hobley 2008
On The Brink Of Fame (ISBN 978 0 9815283 0 4) published by SP Turner Group,
8306 Wilshire Blvd, Beverley Hills, California 90211 U.S.A.