Photographing Etta James & Brian Ray

Before I photographed Etta James for the first time in 1975, I hadn't heard one song of hers. There 
was just one detail I had read somewhere: Janis Joplin used to hang out in her dressing room before she started her own career. As Janis was one of my favorite singers, I wouldn't miss the chance to 
hear the original.

First time in Montreux

In 1975 Etta James was relaunching her career at the age of 37, and on July 11 she had her first appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, with renowned Jazz musicians, John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) on bass and a completely new name on guitar: Brian Ray. – Janis had died almost six years before that, at the age of 27.
Etta James - Montreux 1975

Where photographers do their homework

The soundcheck for the Etta James Band was scheduled in the afternoon before the show. At that 
time the Montreux Jazz Festival was a pretty relaxed place for registered photographers to work. We almost always had access to the soundchecks. This was my chance to get a first impression of Etta's performance. During soundcheck you also see the lineup of the band, the singer's behavior on stage, and her main position.

This knowledge is crucial for a photographer and has a major impact on the quality of his pictures, especially for a young photographer like me. 1975 was my first time in Montreux as a photographer. 
I was 22 years old, and a dream had come true. But that's
another story.

A very young musical director

After a few minutes of the soundcheck, it was obvious that Etta James would give her debut with brilliant musicians. Among them was a guitarist who looked like the perfect antithesis of Etta: slim appearance, white hair, white skin – almost transparent. And he was by far the youngest member of the band. Even more surprising, watching the speechless communication inside the band, it was clear to me: Brian Ray was Etta James' musical director. The ingredients for the show were intriguing and promising.
Etta James, Brian Ray: Their first concert in Montreux became almost instantly a legend.

Etta's spell

Discovering new music is sometimes like falling in love. That's what happened to me that night. Etta's voice and performance, her songs – she almost instantly put a spell on the audience. Even today I can recall the feelings I had 40 years ago. Still, I cannot find words to describe them. A picture tells more than a thousand words – this saying is not always true, but definitely for this concert.
Etta James. Backstage - Montreux 1975

Brian Ray tells the whole story

Recently I had the chance to talk with Brian Ray on Twitter. What he told me makes the story even better. Brian was 20 years old back then, living in California. He flew with Etta and her boyfriend to Switzerland. The other musicians had been recruited by Claude Nobs, the legendary Festival Director, and Brian met his bandmates for the first time just one day before the show. What a challenge, what an achievement! "Etta and I were years apart in age. But that night in 1975, we were equally new. New to Europe and to the Festival in Montreux."

A dinner with Led Zeppelin

For Brian Ray, this was perhaps "the single most important show of my whole career. For some reason, the energy, the mystery of meeting iconic players and directing them at an age when I doubted I could fill the shoes. Going to dinner with Led Zeppelin the night before the show. Feeling the love of the audience. Wow. Then Rory Gallagher invited me up for his encore on "What'd I Say," and the crowd chanted MY name – too much!"

This concert put Etta James and Brian Ray on the European map and is among the most memorable nights in the history of the Festival.

A present for Etta

Two years later Etta and Brian were back in Montreux. After soundcheck I gave Etta my favorite picture of her, which I had shot in 1975. On the backside of the print was my dedication: "The concert I will never forget." Etta gave me the biggest hug I have ever received. With her appearance in 1977, she enchanted Montreux right off again, me included. But there is no bigger feeling than falling in love.

Etta had four more shows in Montreux, in the nineties with her son Donto on percussion. Later her younger son, Sametto, joined her on bass. During her long career Etta James received six Grammy Awards. She passed in 2012, shortly before her 74th birthday.
In 1977 Etta James and Brian Ray have a triumphant second appearance in Montreux.

Brian Ray joins the McCartney Band

Brian Ray was Etta's musical director for 14 years. During this collaboration he started his own songwriting, and in 2006 he released his first album, Mondo Magneto. He also worked with other artists like Peter Frampton, Rita Coolidge, and Smokey Robinson. Today Brian is a member of Paul McCartney's band and has been for 14 years now, playing guitar and bass(!). You find him on numerous live albums and DVDs, along with three of Paul McCartney's recent studio albums.

My pictures cover just a very short period in Etta's and Brian's lives. But by coincidence, I had the chance to capture a crucial moment in the career of two outstanding musicians.  

Revisiting the negatives

Recently I started to save my negatives for the digital age. By this occasion I found two pictures of Etta I hadn't used before – not even printed in 1977. While taking pictures I photograph what I see, by intuition. Photographing is a special state of mind, as I described earlier in MY BLOG

Editing my pictures is much more rational: What is really on the picture? What does it say? I need an emotional distance to make a good choice. The pictures I had selected in 1977 show Etta powerful, passionate, seducing the audience.

A different view

A few pictures I discovered only 40 years later show her in a very different mood: sad and lost during her performance, as if she were completely alone. Back then I didn't understand what I had captured. Only years later, after reading her biography Rage to Survive, I got some clues about her life, her addiction. Now these pictures reveal someting for me. At times you are photographing what you 
are trying to understand. And yes, some pictures need a few words.

Etta James, Montreux Jazz Festival 1977 - Great voices have their story, with pain and even tragedies. "I had to pay my dues" is a well known saying in the world of Jazz.


To round out the story: Etta's younger son, Sametto, was conceived on that trip in 1975. Etta's boyfriend at the time is his father, and Brian is his godfather. 

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Next Jazz related story
Special Album: Etta James & Brian Ray

Making it my picture

Working with Photoshop is important to me. Now I can really look at the pictures I have captured with my camera. It's also the crucial moment to decide which ones are worth working on. I shoot in RAW because this mode gives me the best quality and the full range of options.

Near N.Y. Aquarium Station

Defining the groove

Usually the pictures I have taken come with a correct White Balance. With little adjustments in Camera Raw I can make the colors slightly warmer or cooler. With this tool I can give the image the groove I want. Maybe the exposure needs a small correction; in most cases a higher contrast gives more character to the picture. With other sliders I can work on the whites, blacks and colors. I immediately see what I do – it's almost magic and a creative task for sure.

Revealing hidden qualities

Some photographers, especially those working in a studio, claim to make almost all decisions before taking their pictures. Using Photoshop as little as possible seems to be a question of honor. For me photographing is a process. With these tools, I can reveal hidden qualities of the picture I have taken. It's all there in the RAW file.

What matters to me is that the picture I am publishing looks like my image – and certainly not photoshopped. You make a photograph twice: as you capture it and then while processing it. I agree with this well-known saying. Working on an image makes it not only better – it definitely becomes my picture.

Hell's Kitchen, Lower Manhattan

Why I rarely crop

After Camera Raw I use Photoshop for more fine tuning, retouching, and converting the picture to the appropriate format. I could also crop the picture here, like in Camera Raw. Actually, I rarely crop. The crop tool is for adjustments; it's not the place to define the framing of a shot. I strongly believe that I see my picture while I am photographing. This includes the perspective of the shot, composing the image, deciding what is in the frame and what is not. When I pull the trigger in a decisive moment, it's like exclaiming: Yes, it's a picture!

Sometimes reframing in Photoshop is a frantic attempt to save a single mediocre shot with a very important content. A working image is sometimes better than having nothing. I may be satisfied with the result, but these images have a lack: They have never surprised me - like my favorite pictures did when I looked at them for the first time: I have captured this! They will have a fair chance to surprise viewers as well.

Etta James. Backstage - Portrait with black frame

The black frame

Showing the pictures 'as seen' was a real concern at the time I started photographing seriously. It was a statement for the credibility of photography. A small black frame around the picture was the trade mark of Henri Cartier-Bresson, some kind of proof that he had conceived his image before taking it.
Many photographers followed him, me included. With my beautiful enlarger, the Leitz Focomat 1c, I could easily add a black frame on my black and white prints. To tell the whole story: These prints were just for me as the newspapers would have cropped the frame, of course.

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Photographing is a special state of mind