Bob Willoughby, a West Coast photographer whose candid images of celebrities in the 1950s portrayed the thrill and exhaustion of stardom and whose photos of Big Jay McNeely, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday and other jazz musicians captured their profound commitment to the music, died on December 18th of cancer at his home in Vence, France. He was 82.
Bob was a fan of JazzWax and kindly allowed me to use his images of Big Jay McNeely when I interviewed the r&b saxophonist in July. He also let me include his image of Art Pepper when I interviewed Lennie Niehaus in November. Based on my email correspondence with Bob only a month ago, news of his death came as a complete shock.
Like Phil Stern, Sid Avery, Peter Basch, Andre de Dienes and other Hollywood photographers of the 1950s, Bob specialized in humanizing movie stars who most Americans knew only from the roles they played in films. These art photographers, often on assignment for national magazines like Life or hired by the studios for on-location stills, were granted unrestricted back-lot access to their subjects. Movie studios at the time had little choice as they tried to contend with a swell of seedy gossip magazines that featured top stars in cheesy photos and articles with the sordid details of their private lives.
But unlike his peers, who tended to glamorize stars' athletic physiques and natural self-confidence, Bob preferred to wait for brief quiet moments. In photo after photo, Bob treated his subjects like exotic birds at momentary rest on tree limbs just prior to flight. With Bob's images, you first saw a star's iconic face. But the longer you studied the photo and the subject's eyes, the more you saw what Bob glimpsed—the underlying strain and fatigue of living in a fishbowl. Bob's Kim Novak at right is regal but defensive. Humphrey Bogart above is ruggedly handsome but strangely vulnerable. His Marilyn Monroe is less sex kitten and more scaredy cat.
With his images of jazz musicians, Bob managed to tease out aspects that were unique to the art form: their ambition and yearning, the unflinching devotion to the music, and that lost look musicians exhibit while performing. For example, Chet Baker is viewed sitting on a folding chair, his chiseled face impassive. Billie Holiday is caught mid-story. June Christy is leaning forward zealously and in line with the piano's lid arm. And the faces of Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong and Pee Wee Russell are lost in another world.
But perhaps the photos that best crystallize Bob's fascination with charisma and starpower are his images of Big Jay McNeely performing in 1951 at the Olympic Auditorium, a Los Angeles fight arena. These photos captured a sea change in the culture, depicting r&b not only as music wildly popular with teens but also as an elixir with the potential to erase racial differences. These images remain among Bob's most exciting works.
Yesterday I called Big Jay to talk about Bob and those images:
"I know those pictures well, but I can't recall details about Bob taking them. It's too long ago, and there were so many concerts in those days. The first time I saw those pictures was in 1952, in an annual yearbook of events from the previous year. Three of those pictures were in the book. When I saw them, I couldn't believe it. I always put my heart into everything I played but I didn't know how I looked doing it until I saw those photos. They were so strong they stuck with me all my life. Whenever people think of me, they think of the photos Bob took.
"What's most exciting about them is how the kids were responding to me. I was putting my whole soul into that music, to create something to entertain the people. I was giving myself to the audience. Those photos are showing my hospitality. What you see is that the audience was in charge. As a performer, you gave them what they wanted. You had to. When I see those pictures now, I can still hear the music we were playing that night. You can see in the pictures that Bob understood what was happening. He was right there, in the middle of all that excitement."
All photos by Bob Willoughby. © Bob Willoughby/all rights reserved.