Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder: Through the Lens : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders It's Tuesday: Sam talks with photographer Bruce Talamon on capturing famous black musicians in their most intimate moments from their living rooms to the stage. His photos are out in a new book: Bruce W. Talamon. Soul. R&B. Funk. Photographs 1972-1982.
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Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder: Through the Lens

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Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder: Through the Lens

Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder: Through the Lens

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey, y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. So there's this picture that I'm obsessed with. It's got Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF EARTH, WIND AND FIRE SONG, "GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE")

SANDERS: The photo's in black and white. Maurice is walking away from the camera. You see his back, and he has this white umbrella he's holding over his head. He is walking through sand. He's in a desert. And behind him are three big pyramids, almost larger than life. They are the pyramids in Egypt. It is beautiful. It's one of the most iconic music photos ever.

A man named Bruce Talamon took that picture and a lot of other pictures. We are talking to Bruce today because if you can name a black musician from the '70s, chances are Bruce Talamon has photographed them - Michael Jackson dancing with his brothers on a soundstage; Patti LaBelle, feet up on a chair after a long day of press interviews; Diana Ross literally crowd-surfing at a concert. Bruce has a new book out with hundreds of his photos. It is called "Bruce W. Talamon: Soul. R&B. Funk." Bruce and I talk about some of the stories behind those photos and those artists, how he got so much access to them and what they're like up close. All right - also, full disclosure, Bruce is married to NPR Code Switch correspondent and friend of the show Karen Grigsby Bates. OK. With that, let's get to it. Here's me and Bruce Talamon talking with a bunch of music at NPR West.

(SOUNDBITE OF EARTH, WIND AND FIRE SONG, "GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE")

SANDERS: Bruce, hi.

BRUCE TALAMON: Hey, man.

SANDERS: How are you? We're dressed alike today. I like that.

TALAMON: Yeah, my wife just pointed that out (laughter). You know she would.

SANDERS: Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. So - you know, it's funny. I've been hauling your book around the last several days, going through all the photos and reading up on it. And I love this book, but it's heavy. Just to put it in scale for our listeners, this is probably four times the size of an average book...

TALAMON: Easily.

SANDERS: ...Five times...

TALAMON: Easily.

SANDERS: ...As heavy.

TALAMON: Easily.

SANDERS: How many photos are in the book?

TALAMON: Just under 300...

SANDERS: OK.

TALAMON: ...Are in the book. And it's 372 pages.

SANDERS: It has Stevie Wonder on the cover...

TALAMON: Yes, it does.

SANDERS: ...Looking Stevie Wonder-esque. So I want to talk about the backstory...

TALAMON: OK.

SANDERS: ...Of all of this. But first, I want to just go through some of the amazing stories these photos tell with specific artists. I want to first talk about these amazing photos you have of Aretha Franklin. This is a year in which everyone is talking about her. And I'm seeing in these photos a side of her you maybe didn't see all the time.

TALAMON: Right. Well, there's a couple of things. These were all taken in Los Angeles.

SANDERS: OK.

TALAMON: The one that everybody really loves is the one which is at her house in Los Angeles.

SANDERS: So describe this for listeners. She is leaning over the side of a...

TALAMON: Of her grand piano, which was in the living room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARETHA FRANKLIN SONG, "ARE YOU LEAVING ME")

SANDERS: She's got her hair up.

TALAMON: Hey, man - sister just pulled her hair back. It was very casual.

SANDERS: And she's looking you right in the eyes.

TALAMON: And she's looking me right in the eyes.

SANDERS: How close were you to her? It seemed like you were right up in her face.

TALAMON: I was a couple of feet away. So...

SANDERS: Did she play for you?

TALAMON: Yes, she did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU LEAVING ME")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Are you leaving me?

TALAMON: You know, when you do a portrait, you also want to have elements of the background or of the surroundings. And - I mean, think about it - Aretha Franklin, piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARETHA FRANKLIN SONG, "ARE YOU LEAVING ME")

TALAMON: And then she would share with us some things that she was working on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU LEAVING ME")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Sometimes these tears refuse to hide worry, worry, worry. Are you leaving me? Please, please, please, darling, don't die.

SANDERS: You saw her perform, too?

TALAMON: Oh, yes. It was wonderful. I remember one photograph that didn't make the cut. And I had to decide if there needed to be blood on the floor, but - with my editor. But..

SANDERS: Yeah?

TALAMON: ...her hands, reaching out - there were - I have this shot. You've got her hand in the frame, and then you've got the hands of the crowd coming up...

SANDERS: Oh, wow - touch her hand.

TALAMON: ...To touch her. It was extremely joyful.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TALAMON: And I saw that over and over again - I mean, like, with Patti LaBelle, with Etta James, with Chaka Khan, with Natalie Cole. You know, so many of these women - it was authentic, right? It wasn't something that was staged. OK, and we're going to have the shot of the - no. I got that because I was watching. And just - back then, you know, these were film cameras, not digital cameras. So you didn't use one camera and then you could convert the color to black and white. You had - on your left side, you had black-and-white cameras - like, three of them. On your right side, you had your three color cameras.

SANDERS: You carried six cameras everywhere?

TALAMON: No, I carried probably seven cameras - two on the neck, three on each side, with different lenses.

SANDERS: That's a lot.

TALAMON: Yes.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TALAMON: My chiropractor will tell you that.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TALAMON: You know, I mean - but again, that was - you don't want to miss something. If you see it, you've missed it. OK? You better come back with the shot. And if you don't, there will be somebody who will replace you tomorrow.

SANDERS: Yeah. I want to take you to LaBelle and these photos because you captured them not just in performance, but, like, on the road.

TALAMON: Yeah, I went on the road with them.

SANDERS: I'm looking at this amazing photo of the three members of Labelle, which gave us Patti LaBelle for folks that don't know. But the three of them are in the back of a car...

TALAMON: Sarah Dash...

SANDERS: ...Or a cab and just passed out, sleeping.

TALAMON: ...And Nona Hendryx. And...

SANDERS: I mean, it's just a lovely shot that really just kind of...

TALAMON: That's the limo.

SANDERS: ...Captures how grueling this stuff is.

TALAMON: Oh, yeah.

SANDERS: How long were you with them on this trip?

TALAMON: I think I was with them a week. It was, you know, total access. You had the soundchecks. You had the rehearsals. Then you had the performance, and you had them getting ready. And you know, at the appropriate time, they let me in back in the back there. And Patti had her little glass of wine, and she was...

SANDERS: What kind of wine?

TALAMON: It was white wine. I don't know if it was chardonnay or not. But the girls were glamming up, daddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come on.

(APPLAUSE)

LABELLE: (Vocalizing).

TALAMON: I mean, it was fabulous.

SANDERS: Well, you have this photo of them looking in the mirror as they're getting their makeup together.

TALAMON: Yeah.

SANDERS: Then they're wearing these elaborate costumes with feathers.

TALAMON: Lots of feather - this was the "Lady Marmalade" tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

LABELLE: (Singing) Hey, sister. Go, sister. Soul sister, go, sister. Hey, sister. Go, sister. Soul sister, go, sister. He met Marmalade down in Old New Orleans...

TALAMON: That was a crowd-pleaser. Folks would get up - well, hell, folks stood up the whole concert. It was like church.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

LABELLE: (Singing) She said, hello. Hey, Joe. You want to give it a go?

TALAMON: And it was loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

LABELLE: (Singing) Gitchi gitchi, ya-ya da-da, gitchi gitchi, ya-ya here, mocha - mocha chocolata, ya-ya (ph) - Creole Lady Marmalade.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: And I found out reading this - before that era of their career, the kind of glam rock look...

TALAMON: Right.

SANDERS: ..."Lady Marmalade"...

TALAMON: Right.

SANDERS: ...They were just, like, a straight-ahead group of R&B singers...

TALAMON: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Before that.

TALAMON: Yeah.

SANDERS: They changed it up.

TALAMON: Oh, there's no question.

SANDERS: Did you photograph them before they changed it up...

TALAMON: No, I did not.

SANDERS: ...Or after they changed it up?

TALAMON: No, I did not. I got the full spaceship (laughter).

SANDERS: It's beautiful. Well, this picture of Patti right here that I'm looking at right now...

TALAMON: Right.

SANDERS: ...She looks like she is onstage in ecstasy.

TALAMON: Oh, there's no question.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

LABELLE: (Singing) Mocha - mocha chocolata, ya ya - Creole Lady Marmalade. Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir? Voulez-vous...

SANDERS: All right, time for a break. When we come back, Bruce tells me about the time he caught Al Green coming offstage after a very exhausting concert and he smacked his head on a doorjamb. We'll tell you the story. BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Your entree into the world of...

TALAMON: Absolutely.

SANDERS: ...Taking photos of these black musicians came...

SANDERS: Absolutely.

SANDERS: ...Through Soul Magazine (ph). A lot of folks will not have heard about that. What is Soul Magazine?

TALAMON: Soul Newspaper was a small African-American arts and photography and music - well, it started out as a magazine. But the economics forced it into taking a step back.

SANDERS: OK.

TALAMON: I mean, the first issue we had slick paper...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TALAMON: ...And color. And then we were forced to see reality and go back to newsprint.

SANDERS: OK. And y'all were doing, specifically, coverage of black artists.

TALAMON: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. And it was the only African-American-owned and -operated black publication at the time that was doing black music. Regina Jones and her husband Ken Jones...

SANDERS: Regina and Ken, they were the publishers of Soul. Right?

TALAMON: ...Here in Los Angeles, understood that black kids bought records and had a hunch that they would buy a newspaper filled with interviews and stories about the musicians creating that music. And it worked.

SANDERS: There's this photo you have that has just - it stopped me in my tracks. You're with Al Green from one of his shows. And you catch him as he is leaving the stage, I'm sure after, like, four or five encores. And he's about to collapse...

TALAMON: No, he did collapse.

SANDERS: ...Or he does collapse.

TALAMON: He collapsed at the - this was a situation where I got in front of him and was walking with them as they left the stage. And his security has him, and they're literally - he's off his feet, OK?

SANDERS: They're, like, dragging him off the stage.

TALAMON: They're dragging him - I mean, no, no. He got off the stage.

SANDERS: OK, OK.

TALAMON: But as we get to the door of his dressing room...

SANDERS: After they've dragged him offstage.

TALAMON: ...After they've dragged him off, he has - he's spent. He's done. So they get him back to the room, and he literally collapses at the door, smacks his head against the doorjamb. And I've got maybe one second, two seconds, to get this shot. And I just remember shifting. And this is no time to take your meter out and say, excuse me, can you hold that while I shoot? So you know that, OK, you've got to drop the shutter speed quickly to, like, maybe an eighth of a second...

SANDERS: OK.

TALAMON: ...Firm up because your body is a tripod and slowly fire that so there's no movement.

SANDERS: What song would he close out with?

TALAMON: Sometimes he would close with "Love And Happiness."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND HAPPINESS")

AL GREEN: (Singing) Something's going wrong. Someone's on the phone. Three o'clock in the morning, yeah, talking about how she can make it right, yeah.

TALAMON: He was secure enough where he didn't have to - you know, he could change it up. And his musicians knew...

SANDERS: They knew how to follow him.

TALAMON: His musicians knew...

SANDERS: Well, it was very churchy in the way that, like, the band will just follow the pastor.

TALAMON: Quite - exactly.

SANDERS: They will follow the pastor to any key, to any song.

TALAMON: Al was the pastor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND HAPPINESS")

GREEN: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah. Love and happiness. Oh, yeah, yeah.

SANDERS: He ruled the stage.

TALAMON: Yeah, there's no question. And he had to have his security because those nice ladies would pull his [expletive] into the crowd if he wasn't careful and - because he would give out beads. He would give out necklaces. He would give out roses.

SANDERS: I remember - and there's a photo of him - that you have of him giving the roses out.

TALAMON: Giving the roses out.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TALAMON: And the little hands - the hands would be...

SANDERS: The hands reaching up for it.

TALAMON: ...Coming up like little birds.

SANDERS: It's - it is biblical.

(SOUNDBITE OF AL GREEN SONG, "LOVE AND HAPPINESS")

SANDERS: So, you know, on top of capturing these artists in their brilliance, you did a really great job of capturing the fans...

TALAMON: Yes.

SANDERS: ...And their near-ecstasy over these artists. I mean, there's these photos you have of a pretty young Jackson 5 and these young girls swarming their cars.

TALAMON: Well, yeah.

SANDERS: What was that like?

TALAMON: And - total pandemonium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You know when the Jackson 5 sing, we always line up - one, two, three, four, five.

TALAMON: Total chaos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And you all are going to try to take over the stage now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You know what? I'm coming up there with you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Come on, fellas.

TALAMON: Total Beatles-eque.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The line is back there, fellas. This is my line. I'm going to give them my show now.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

TALAMON: One of the things that I said to my editor was - I said, before Michael Jackson conquered the world, he belonged to little black girls in Gary, Ind., and in Charlotte, N.C., and in Harlem. You know, people tend to forget that. There's a certain - when you look at these kids, you know, these were their heroes coming to play. And these little girls were dressed in their - like, as if they were going to Sunday school.

SANDERS: Yeah. How did Michael deal with it at that age, from what you could see? You were there with him.

TALAMON: Yeah.

SANDERS: Did he - I mean, how did...

TALAMON: He was a total professional. He was wound up like a top.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENJOY YOURSELF")

JACKSON 5: (Singing) Let's have some fun. Let's have a good time, you and me. Sittin' there with your mouth poked out, just sweet as you could be.

TALAMON: I mean, when we did that session in 1976 after they had just left Motown...

SANDERS: And they went to a new label. And you have that photo of them, looking just so happy to be free.

TALAMON: To that new label, to Epic Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENJOY YOURSEFLF")

JACKSON 5: (Singing) Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself with me. Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself with me.

TALAMON: There was no stopping him. He was like a - he was, like I said, like a top.

SANDERS: Was he dancing?

TALAMON: He was dancing. We had - look; you got to set the stage. You got to set the mood, right? So you have food. You have somebody spinning the records, making sure that they're not twiddling their thumbs looking at you, right? You can be a fabulous photographer, but you've got to set the mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENJOY YOURSELF")

JACKSON 5: (Singing) We can tear the house down. We can tear the house down. We can tear the whole house down - whoo. Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself with me.

TALAMON: You know, when he would start, his brothers would go into their routine.

SANDERS: Really?

TALAMON: And so you'd get a private performance right before your eyes. Then there's that question - do I dare open my mouth and say, fellas, you got to get closer together?

SANDERS: No.

TALAMON: No. Nobody cares, 40 years ago, that they're off of the background - that they're off of the seamless. If you're looking at the fact that, they're - oh, well, you know, the white isn't behind them - bull-[expletive]. You know, that's not going to work.

SANDERS: You want to get that action.

TALAMON: You've got to get the action.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENJOY YOURSELF")

JACKSON 5: (Singing) Come on, come on. Come on, come on. Come on, come on. Come on. You can do it, you can do it. You can do it, you can do it.

SANDERS: All right, time for another break. In a minute, Bruce talks about his favorite artist, and it's a hard choice. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: One of the things I loved about the photos you had of the Jackson 5 and the fans surrounding them - you gave great visual attention and care to these young black girls who are so often forgotten in so many ways.

TALAMON: Right.

SANDERS: And it felt like you were trying to say something with those photos of those fans and those young women.

TALAMON: Well, you got to understand something. I was on my way to go to law school when I bought my first camera.

SANDERS: After Whittier College.

TALAMON: After Whittier College.

SANDERS: Poli sci major, if I recall.

TALAMON: Poli sci and sociology major.

SANDERS: OK.

TALAMON: I bought a camera when I was on a foreign exchange in Berlin, but my training was sociology. My training was political science. You know, this was a time when we were active, you know, when folks, you know, had a point of view. And I was - you know, I was caught up in that whole thing myself - civil rights and human rights and political power and the - you know, and to register to vote, and all of that - and to see how black folks had been marginalized in so many instances. So this was my background. So of course I'm going to take that and apply it...

SANDERS: To your work.

TALAMON: ...To my work. A, this was not going to be just a book that was screaming into the microphone - you know? - even though this is the first photo book on soul and R&B and funk. But so many people fetishized James Brown sweating, and that's all you see. And there's more.

SANDERS: Well - and this is what came through in the book as well - for these musicians, it was more than just music. They were activists, too. They were active in making music in an era where the fight for equality for black people was a very big thing. And there were just little things in here that I had totally forgotten. Like, you have a caption in the Stevie Wonder section where you talk about how his rendition of "Happy Birthday" - the Stevie Wonder version - was used to help lobby to make MLK Day a national holiday.

TALAMON: Right. Or...

SANDERS: You have these photos of Muhammad Ali having, you know, fundraisers and events to, like, raise awareness about Nelson Mandela.

TALAMON: Yeah, he was - he was in conversation with Gil Scott-Heron. And like I said, they knew the power of their position, and they understood that it's more than wearing a red hat. And they had something to say, and they would say it. They understood the music. These boys were notorious flirts with the ladies. But it wasn't - you know, the music could be used - they understood that the music could be used for so much more, you know? They weren't worried about their Instagram accounts or their brand, and they wanted to do what was right. And that night, they were talking about trying to see how they could get together and do something to make people more aware of Nelson Mandela's plight. That, to me, speaks volumes.

SANDERS: Yeah. Who of these musicians did you like the best?

TALAMON: You asking somebody to pick, you know, which of your children is your favorite.

SANDERS: And every parent secretly has an answer to that question.

TALAMON: Oh, I know. We were fortunate. We only have a limited edition. But my camera had a love affair with Chaka Khan.

SANDERS: Why?

TALAMON: Why?

SANDERS: Yeah.

TALAMON: Because she was so bad. I mean...

SANDERS: What's your favorite Chaka song?

TALAMON: "Tell Me Something Good."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

CHAKA KHAN: (Singing) You ain't got no kind of feeling inside.

SANDERS: It's a love affair with the - your camera had a love affair with her. Tell me - yeah, I want to know.

TALAMON: My camera was seduced.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TALAMON: She was playful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

CHAKA KHAN: (Singing) Tell me something good.

TALAMON: She knew who she was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

CHAKA KHAN: (Singing) Tell me that you love me, yeah.

TALAMON: She had this way that she carried herself and when she walked into a room. And I love the way that - the interaction between she and the band, and I think the photographs show that. And they were having a lot of fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

CHAKA KHAN: (Singing) What I got to give will sure 'nough do you good. Tell me something good.

SANDERS: It has been the highlight of my month to just go through these photos and read these stories, so I thank you for it.

TALAMON: Well, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

CHAKA KHAN: (Singing) Tell me something good.

SANDERS: Many thanks to photographer extraordinaire and all around nice guy, Bruce Talamon. Thanks for the chat. You can find Bruce's photos in his book, "Bruce W. Talamon: Soul. R&B. Funk. Photographs 1972‑1982," on sale now. This is a good book for your coffee table, for your living space. It's going to impress your friends and also impress you. All right, we're almost out of here. I have one more favor to ask of all of you. If you like this show - and I hope you do - do us a favor. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. There is some magic of the Internet and of technology and of smartphones that helps this podcast be discovered by more people the more reviews that we get. I don't know how it works, but I know it works. So help us out. Do us a solid. Leave us a review. It would mean so much to us. OK, listeners, we're back in your feeds on Friday. 'Til then, keep rocking. I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

CHAKA KHAN: (Singing) Tell me something good. Oh, yeah. Tell me that you love me.

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