The great Canadian photographer who had impromptu guitar lessons from John Lennon and George Harrison is back in his old hometown this weekend to show and tell at the London Beatles Festival.
John Rowlands, now of Toronto, is among the fest’s celeb guests on Saturday.
“It’s turning out to be a very intense Beatles festival. We’re very impressed with the organization, the facilities and with so many bands playing,” Rowlands said Friday. “It’s very timely and a nice way to celebrate music that’s not being replaced.”
Rowlands went to Fairmont elementary school back in the day and has been reconnecting with old friends during his fest time. Later, after the family had moved to the Ottawa area, he was a teen who loved taking photographs of performers — and found himself with a dream gig. Rowlands was working with Capitol Records, which had The Beatles as its superstars. So Rowlands was at Maple Leaf Gardens alongside The Fab Four in 1965.
Many iconic images resulted. The surprise was the guitar lesson.
Lennon and Harrison were back stage, waiting at a ramp to go on before the screaming fans.
Rowlands took photos and decided to talk music.
“I asked them off-hand what key Eight Days A Week was in. They told them the key and they showed me,” Rowlands said.
Among the other music tips shared was Lennon’s lesson on the use of the thumbnail on a guitar string to produce the famous sound at the start of I Feel Fine.
Later, those quick studies helped the 18-year-old photographer identify the songs being played in his famous photographs.
“I can tell just from the lessons they gave me just by looking at the pictures they’re playing Day Tripper here … I can tell when they are playing She Loves You,” he said.
Rowlands covered four Beatles shows in 1965 and 1966. He also struck up a friendship with Harrison that flourished in 30-minute, transatlantic phone calls over the decades.
In those decades, Rowlands took photographs of many stars. He will have a Willie Nelson image from early in his career and a contemporary shot of the Texas country icon at a separate event at the Village Idiot on Saturday afternoon. Signed prints are for sale during his London stay.
He has also photographed such stars as The Rolling Stones, John and Yoko, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Slash, Alice Cooper and worked with Elvis Presley.
Among his most famous images is the “archer” image of Bowie, shot at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in 1976. Bowie stands in profile and pulls the string of an imaginary bow.
Recently, it was a Bowie-themed exhibition that re-connected Rowlands with a London woman he dated back in the day.
“David Bowie brought us back together,” Jo-Ann DaPonte said. Rowlands had made her a guest “plus-one” at his Bowie show after the two had gotten back in touch about his work.
There was no “plus-one” with DaPonte and the two are now together in Toronto, after Rowlands recently relocated to join her from the Ottawa-area.
In addition to the personal tie, DaPonte is helming Rowlands’ career.
Even as the two talked with media at the LPL’s Central Library space used as Beatles fest HQ, DaPonte met Komoka fan and Beatles’ collector Fred Young. They had been at high school in Strathroy at the same time and turned out to have many friends in common.
Young will be at the Central Library on Sunday. A display case shows off dozens of items from his collection, among them the old CFPL-AM chart for a week in February, 1964 when six of the Top 10 hits were by The Beatles.
Young also has displays with albums and 45s from his collection.
Because it’s London and because it’s Beatles fest, there are more connections.
Up from Detroit is Ringo Starr tribute artist Ringer Star, Mike Callahan off-stage. Star/Callahan “won’t cross the line” into impersonating the ex-Beatle drummer. But he is likely to end his shows this way — With A Little Help From My Friends.
Star’s London connection? He is being backed by another act at the fest, Beatles tribute artist Toppermost.
“I wanted you to know that the Toppermost Beatles tribute from Michigan, one of the headliners this weekend is owned by me, Tom Diab and I am a UWO graduate 1996,” Diab said Friday. “And my wife is from London. I also play the part of Paul McCartney.”
Speaking of Sir Paul, there might be another Rowlands focus for him.
“I’m trying to get together with Paul McCartney to do a retrospective on Paul. I’ve got him from ’65 to two tours ago,” Rowlands said.