Sunday, December 16, 2007

PoPsie N.Y.

PoPsie N.Y. Popular Music Through the Camera Lens of William “Popsie” Randolph
By Michael Randolph, Forward by Quincy Jones
Hal Leonard

Many of the photographers who have documented jazz, like Francis Wolff, Roy DeCarava, and William Claxton, are now as celebrated as the musicians whose images they captured. Generally overlooked in this pantheon of jazz photography has been William “PoPsie” Randolph, probably because his images were almost entirely created as work-for-hire in the Runyonesque Broadway P.R. industry. Now a portion of his enormous body of work has been collected by his son in the illustrated volume, PoPsie N.Y., titled after his father’s signature logo.

One gets a sense that Randolph’s world was not unlike that seen in The Sweet Smell of Success, except it seems clear the photographer was much more popular with his clients than Tony Curtis’s press agent, Sidney Falco. As son Randolph explains, PoPsie [two capital P’s] Randolph had worked as a band boy/road manager for the Woody Herman and Benny Goodman orchestras, and it was actually BG himself who essentially staked Randolph’s photography business. Bandleader and producer Quincy Jones writes in his introduction: “I feel fortunate to have had a part of my life chronicled by a great photographer like PoPsie.” (P. 4)

As one might therefore expect, there are several photos of Goodman and Jones collected in PoPsie. While, all forms of popular music from the fifties through the seventies are included, jazz is particularly well represented. Some photos are particularly tantalizing from a musical point of view, like the shot of Charlie Parker and Lionel Hampton jamming together at the Band Box. Numerous other jazz artists are also pictured here, including: Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Mac Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Randolph was often called upon to shoot publicity photos on behalf of artists and their labels, producing headshots in the studio, like the one of Peggy Lee on the cover of PoPsie (and also on the cover of a recent biography of the singer). He also shot recording sessions, club dates, and press conferences. Perhaps the best photos in the book are the casual shots, like that of Nat King Cole at home with his daughters. Randolph’s style is marked by a feeling of warmth and glamour. Unlike the dramatic shadows of Francis Wolff, his subjects are usually bathed in light, in photos well suited for use in press kits.

PoPsie is a charming collection, that recreates an era gone by, in which recording artists were expected to be elegant and sophisticated, rather than cheap and scandalous. Those days are sadly over. Randolph’s studio was just steps away from the Brill Building. No longer the songwriting Mecca, the Brill still houses some somewhat show-business related tenants, including a screening room, and Colony Records, the only remaining link to Randolph’s days. Last time I was there for a screening I stopped at Colony and saw PoPsie prominently displayed. Nice to know they remember.