New Orleans photographer Sidney Smith talks about Allman Bros, Paul McCartney & Brandon Niederauer

"You have to understand that in New Orleans, music is way more than just a part of life. It’s a city of music. It’s the birthplace of Jazz. We are a melting pot of different cultures and musical tastes."

Sidney Smith: The Lensman of Saints

From 1970 to 1980, New Orleans native Sidney Smith carved out a reputation as one of rock and rolls best lensmen. From the Allman Brother’s Band to Paul McCartney, Sidney worked with almost every premier band of that era.  In the 1970’s, his photographs appeared regularly in numerous rock magazines such as Cream, Circus, Hit Parader, and Rolling Stone. Enjoying much success in the field of photography, Sidney went on to spend much of the 1980’s and 90’s as the owner and operator of Merry Minstrel, an entertainment company that he marketed and franchised throughout numerous states around the country. 

"I enjoy being creative. In photography, I have always enjoyed being the one to produce the photo that no one else has, or was able to come up with. This is especially true with my photos of rock stars."

From the mid 1990’s to the present day, Sidney is owner and operator of Haunted History Tours, New Orleans’ most popular tour company. Haunted History tours offers a wide variety of tours that are all based around the paranormal. The tour company has been featured on A & E, the History Channel, Sci-Fi channel, Discovery, CNN, and is recommended by The Travel Channel as the #1 tour in New Orleans.

Sidney chose to create this website after being contacted by numerous people around the world who were seeking to purchase some of his photographs from his glory days of being a Rock Star Photographer. Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osborne, the Grateful Dead, and many many others.

Interview by Michael Limnios      

All photos credits & copyrights © courtesy of Sidney Smith

How do you describe Sidney’s philosophy? What characterize your progress?

I enjoy being creative. In photography, I have always enjoyed being the one to produce the photo that no one else has, or was able to come up with. This is especially true with my photos of rock stars. I’ve often been able to do this by forging a personal relationship with the musician. I was recently given a great compliment by Sandy Blue Sky, the former wife of Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts. Speaking about the early days of the Allman Brothers, she stated, “For me, it was Sidney Smith, who was there taking pictures without intruding on anyone’s space.  Just  documenting.”

Which was the best and worst moment of your career? Which is the most interesting period in your life?

That’s an easy one. The best and worst moment of my photography career occurred at the same time. In 1975, when I was 20 years old, I was asked to be the personal photographer for Paul McCartney during his stay in New Orleans to record the album, “Venus & Mars”. For me, The Beatles were EVERYTHING. They had been my ‘gods’ since I was 10 years old. This was a dream job come true. Getting to meet and work with Paul McCartney on a daily basis for a couple of weeks was an unreal experience. A few days before he left New Orleans, McCartney threw a private party on a riverboat sailing up and down the Mississippi River. I was the only photographer allowed on the boat and I spent the entire day shooting amazing pictures. At the end of the day, when the boat arrived back at the dock, I put my camera bag down next to me and became a fan, just watching Paul play with the band on board. As I went to grab my bag to depart the boat, to my horror, it was gone. Someone had stolen my cameras as well as all the film I had shot that day. I was devastated. It has been almost 39 years since that fateful day. I am often asked if I have ever seen the pictures in any magazines. The answer is no. I believe the thief was simply after the equipment, not realizing the treasure trove of photos captured that day. I was so negatively affected by that experience, within 2 years I gave up photography as a profession.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Well, meeting Paul McCartney was a wonderful experience, since he had such an affect on my life. And not that it ranks in the same category as meeting McCartney, but in June of 2013, I was asked to speak at an Allman Brothers Band camp in New York about my experiences working with the band in the early 1970’s. On the first night there, I met a ten year old child by the name of Brandon Niederauer. Brandon is nothing less than a musical child prodigy. He is an incredibly talented guitarist who reminds me of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Duane Allman combined.  His abilities (and his soul) go WAY beyond his years. I have formed a close relationship with Brandon’s family and I hope to be a positive influence in the years to come. Remember the name…Brandon Niederauer.  Future guitar hero!

Brandon Niederauer jammin with Little Freddie King in New Orleans. Photo © by Sidney Smith

Are there any memories with all those great musicians which you’d like to share with us?

Well, one rather amusing event took place on December 31, 1973. I accompanied the Allman Brothers Band to San Francisco for a New Years Eve concert. The Grateful Dead showed up and dosed the Allman Brothers with LSD, without their knowledge. All of a sudden, while the band was playing onstage, the band members started experiencing strange feelings.  Dickey Betts told me that the neck of his guitar started to grow. Butch Trucks told me that his drum sticks turned into rubber. Members of the Grateful Dead ended up playing on stage and replacing members of the ABB for some of the concert.  I don’t think the Allman Brothers were amused.

Who from the musicians was most gifted front the lens? What was the strangest request where someone asked?

Well, Duane Allman was, in my opinion the best guitarist I have ever photographed. So, as far as being “gifted”, I’d say Duane Allman. Although, Paul McCartney was probably the most gifted all around musician. That man can play just about ANY instrument. Watching him record in the studio was amazing. As far as the most interesting to photograph… That would be a toss up between Led Zeppelin and The Who. Both of those bands had incredible energy and on stage presence. The strangest request someone asked? Hum…Well, probably the strangest request came from Gregg Allman, who way back in 1973 invited me into his home one day and asked me to hide outside his house in the bushes and photograph any men that might be visiting his wife while he was on the road. But then, he saw me the next day and whispered to me not to do it. (Not that I ever had any intention of doing it in the first place!)

"All I know is, it’s the music that makes me feel good. It’s the music that’s in my soul. Musically, the Allman Brothers Band, which is still going strong after almost 45 years, still does it for me. That’s REAL music, and musically, they’re still the best live band out there. Catch ‘em while you still can!"

Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be Bluesman?

For me, being a blues musician means FEELING the blues when you play.  And you can really tell a musician who really “feels” what he / she is playing. And in my opinion you don’t have to be old to play the blues. The 10 year old musical child prodigy I mentioned earlier feels what he’s playing.  It’s a pleasure and a joy to watch him play. The future of the blues is alive and well.

Why did you think that the New Orleans music and culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

You have to understand that in New Orleans, music is way more than just a part of life. It’s a city of music. It’s the birthplace of Jazz. We are a melting pot of different cultures and musical tastes. Cajun, rock, blues, jazz…It’s all here. Musicians gravitate from all over the country to live and play in New Orleans. It’s a magical city with a magnetic affect on those who are inspired to come here.

What's the legacy of New Orleans in the world culture and civilization? How has changed over the years?

The culture is ALIVE in New Orleans. We celebrate EVERYTHING!  Music, food… We throw a party for everything. There is a festival of some sort almost every weekend. From the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to Mardi Gras, we’re a party town! Voodoo is also alive and well in New Orleans. It is very much still practiced as a religion. We’re an old city and we embrace our history.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

I miss not being able to watch many of the original masters. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman… We’ll never get to see those guys again. My hopes are being realized by many new, up and coming guitarists such as Brandon Niederauer. My fears are that young people coming up today will not realize just how important groups like The Beatles were to the culture and character of change. Every musical group today has been influenced by those of the past. The worst thing I have seen happen to music is the disco era in the mid to late seventies. Although additionally, I’m very UN-impressed by new artists like Justin Bieber. But I’m relatively confident artists like him won’t ever have the lasting affect of those artists who evolved in the sixties. Allman Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, The Doors, The Stones, Dylan, Cat Stevens…That was the real deal, and still is for me.

Which memory from concerts, jams and gigs makes you smile?

Seeing George Harrison in concert in 1974 makes me smile. Once again, the Beatles were my all time musical heroes and influences. Seeing Harrison onstage was like seeing my entire youth in front of me.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music world and circuits?

That’s easy, and I’ve pretty much already covered it. Emotionally, this young, ten year old guitar child prodigy, Brandon. When I watch this kid on stage, it literally brings tears to my eyes.  He has truly touched me emotionally and has given me new hope!

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Blues culture and what does the “Blues” mean to you?

All I know is, it’s the music that makes me feel good. It’s the music that’s in my soul. Musically, the Allman Brothers Band, which is still going strong after almost 45 years, still does it for me. That’s REAL music, and musically, they’re still the best live band out there. Catch ‘em while you still can!

"You have to understand that in New Orleans, music is way more than just a part of life. It’s a city of music. It’s the birthplace of Jazz. We are a melting pot of different cultures and musical tastes. Cajun, rock, blues, jazz…It’s all here." Elvin Bishop and Dickey Betts / Photo © by Sidney Smith

What from your memorabilia (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

Just pretty much the stuff I’ve already mentioned. But really, a time capsule for those musical artists is really unnecessary because the legacy of the groups like The Beatles will live on forever. They set the stage for everything that followed. However, I WOULD put my 2 favorite record albums of all time in the capsule. First, “Meet The Beatles”, as it was my introduction to the group that changed everything and formed MY life.  And secondly, it would be the Allman Brothers, “Live At Filmore East”, as that STILL (in my opinion) remains the best live album of all time.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would LOVE to have been able to be in the recording studio in the sixties with the Beatles, watching the magic develop. Or…more importantly, I would love to have been with John Lennon on the evening of December 8th, 1980 so that I could have directed him away from his apartment building that night.

How started the thought of Haunted History Tours? What are the places where you feel especially well in city?

I have always been an entrepreneur. I’ve started several businesses in my life.  Haunted History Tours is the business I currently own and started almost 20 years ago.  New Orleans is a huge tourist destination. I was born in this city and with the exception of a few years here and there, I have lived here all my life. The town is rich in history, not to mention that everyone loves a ghost story. New Orleans is considered to be the most haunted city in America. Come take our tours and find out why! Visit us at www.HauntedHistoryTours.com

And while you’re at it, visit my photography website, www.SidneySmithPhotos.com or www.RockStarPhotos.net

Johnny Winter and Jimmy Page / Photos © by Sidney Smith

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