Ken Davidoff does not have warm feelings for whoever broke into his home in 2008 and made off with thousands of dollars of camera equipment and memorabilia. Most of it probably wound up in a pawn shop or was discarded “because they don’t even know what they had,” he says.
But you might say that Davidoff — and rock and roll history — owes those nameless thieves at least some tiny thanks.
Because of the loss of boxes and boxes of iconic photos from our local pop culture past, Davidoff went from storing the evidence of his long career as a music photographer in a closet to making big bucks selling and licensing the images. And now displaying them in a museum.
“Gimme Shelter,” a collection of 23 photos by Davidoff of the mostly forgotten 1969 International Palm Beach Music & Arts Festival, featuring the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, The Byrds, Grand Funk Railroad and more, is at the Palm Beach County History Museum until Nov. 30.
“We were the center of the world for three days,” says the long-time Palm Beach County resident, second-generation photographer and official shooter for the festival, which had all the hallmarks of a mini-Woodstock, from rain and mud to a suspicious sheriff.
That’s what interested the history museum.
“The festival was a thing of its time, and we look at it for its impact on society,” says Benjamin Salata, the museum’s curator of collections. “Here you had people protesting against it being here, and decades later, SunFest shuts down the streets every year, with full cooperation of the authorities.”
The exhibit only captures a brief chapter of Davidoff’s story, one that sees him grow from kid apprentice to a society photographer father, to shaggy-haired chronicler of ’60s musical rebellion, to consummate journeyman with a camera and, finally, to a heralded keeper of the flame of a specific time in South Florida history.
His now-iconic images of Jimi Hendrix at the earlier Miami Pop Festival have made their way onto album covers, and been featured in an Emmy-nominated PBS documentary.
The history of Palm Beach County’s festival, for various reasons, seemed lost before Davidoff’s images were seen. “When the photos came out, people would say to us, ‘My sister told me about this festival, but I told her she was crazy!’” says Davidoff’s longtime friend and business partner Jack Connell, with whom he runs OldRockPhoto.com.
The evidence from Davidoff’s camera proves that for one Thanksgiving weekend, the Palm Beach International Speedway was a center of youthful protest, controversy, excitement and especially music.
There’s something slightly subversive about seeing images of Mick Jagger’s lippy pout, or activist Wavy Gravy in a jester hat and jumpsuit brandishing a bullhorn, placed neatly in the history’s museum’s restored courtroom. In 1969, that courtroom was still the functioning center of law and order for a sleepy Southern town. A place where the musicians and long-haired festival fans would more likely have been appearing as defendants rather than the subject of an art exhibit.
‘In love with rock and roll’
Before all this, Ken Davidoff was the son of Bob Davidoff, house photographer of The Breakers and visual archivist of the Kennedy clan’s life in Palm Beach. The family moved south from New York after Bob, who shot a lot of spring training games, finally decided he was done with winter.
The younger Davidoff, always interested in art, was given his first camera at 8 and began studying art at 12, going first to Palm Beach State College (then Palm Beach Junior College) and then to New York City’s School of Visual Arts.
Like a lot of kids, he “was in love with rock and roll.” Some of his friends, like Chris Leuzinger, who’s played electric guitar on every Garth Brooks album, actually became musicians.
It didn’t happen for Davidoff: “I thought I was a guitar player when I was young but wasn’t very good.” So he decided to shoot photographs of them, including James Brown and the Young Rascals.
“My father used to say ‘Who’s gonna buy those, Ken?’” Davidoff says, laughing. “And I said ‘Someday!’”
The self-described hippie started shooting shows on his own, and then going to the artist’s next show, “holding the slides up in the light” where the musicians could see them as they entered the venue and invite him backstage to talk business. That worked with the Allman Brothers, who were interested in the photos but not in coughing up the cash for them, so “I finally found the manager and said ‘I never really got paid.’ And then I got a check.”
In 1968, Davidoff talked his way into the Miami Pop Festival, “because I wanted to photograph Jimi Hendrix.”
Davidoff didn’t know he was photographing history. It’s important to put these festivals into some context — Miami Pop happened in Hallandale’s Gulfstream Park in May 1968, more than a year before the events on Max Yasgur’s farm in Woodstock, New York in August 1969.
Woodstock was three months before Palm Beach, which in turn was just six days before the Rolling Stones would head to another speedway, in Altamont, Calif., where four people died, including a concertgoer stabbed to death by one of the Hell’s Angels hired to provide security.
Those who opposed the idea of “bringing any hippies to Palm Beach County,” Davidoff says, willingly stirred up the fear of something awful happening here. The trailer for a never-completed documentary he and Connell intended to make about the festival show wildly inflammatory reports from local news outlets reporting the potential of “an uncontrollable orgy.”
The not-yet 20-year-old Davidoff, still excited about the shots he’d gotten in Miami, “heard about the Palm Beach festival and called the promoter to say that I wanted to be the official photographer.” He got the gig, and it soon became more massive than anyone could imagine, starting with the size of it.
“You’d look around and there’s 50,000 people.”
It was an unseasonably cold Palm Beach County Thanksgiving weekend, which, “by the time the Stones played, was rainy and close to freezing,” Davidoff recalled. “My dad came with me, in his white Gucci loafers that got totally destroyed in the mud. So he wore boots the second day.”
‘We’re going to shoot photos of John Lennon’
The Palm Beach festival was only the beginning of Davidoff’s career. He continued to shoot concerts, including the Shea Stadium Peace Festival in 1970, during which he watched Janis Joplin, whom he’d met in West Palm Beach, do slugs off a bottle of Jack Daniel’s with Johnny Winter.
Closer to home, he and his father shot photos of John Lennon in Palm Beach, just back from taking young son Julian to Walt Disney World with May Pang, wife Yoko Ono’s assistant and chosen mistress for her husband during the period that would be known as his “Lost Weekend.”
“My dad said ‘We’re going to shoot pictures of John Lennon’ and I said ‘Yeah, right!’” he says of the amazing day, a photo of which he still carries in his wallet.
After that, Davidoff shot wherever he could, from the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, where he annoyed Gloria Steinem by switching away from news to sports on the headquarters’ TV (she changed it back), to Johnny Cash pointing a gun at him in 1974.
He shot spring training for the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos. He shot weddings and events. He continued working with his father for Davidoff Photography, including work at Mar-a-Lago, and taught photography at the Armory Art Center.
He made a living with his camera, but somewhere along the line his passion was replaced with practicality — “I was stuck in a rut. I was working retail jobs, doing Glamour Shots, 60 Minute Photo,” he says.
Life had changed, including the carefree world of rock. His career in concert photography, ironically, ended with Julian Lennon, the son of the man whose lost weekend he’d captured all those years ago.
Davidoff says he arrived at the West Palm Beach Auditorium in 1986, where the younger Lennon was playing, and announced that he wanted to give the singer photos he’d taken of him and his father. The days of holding up photos for the Allman Brothers hoping they’d buy a couple were over.
“The guy said ‘No, no, I wouldn’t want him to see them, they might upset him,’ and I thought, ‘Why would that upset him?’” he says. “And then they gave me this release to sign, that had to be signed by the organization I was shooting for, and I said, ‘I’m shooting for me, not an organization.’ And then he said, ‘Well, you can’t even sign the release then!’” And that was it.
Those photos remained bound in boxes, following him from place to place, until that 2008 break in. Lost were $10,000 worth of baseball cards from his days as a memorabilia dealer, slides of John Lennon in Palm Beach, and the bulk of the second Miami festival photos.
Not long after, Connell says he got a call from his old friend, asking for help to build a website “to sell some of the stuff.”
Connell couldn’t believe what he had. “No one knew about it, and it’s all sitting in boxes in the closet,’” Connell says.
Oldrockphoto.com has now become the source of the former rock photographer’s living. The Jimi Hendrix photos he excitedly took back in Miami have become some of the most lucrative, used on the cover of the 2013 “Miami Pop Festival” album released by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and in a PBS special called “Hear My Train A Comin” that uses footage Davidoff shot.
And in this day of easily accessible images, Davidoff means “selling” not “giving,” such as the guy on eBay selling an image of one of the Hendrix photos superimposed over a map of Florida.
“We didn’t sue him,” Connell says. “But we shut it down.”
Davidoff, 66, who now lives in Palm Springs, says he’s proud of those images of his youth and a never-to-be-repeated movement of hope and rebellion.
He’s glad that they’ve finally seen the light of day. That they’re finally out of the box.
“I knew I had something,” Davidoff says. “I just didn’t know what to do with them.”
IF YOU GO
“Gimme Shelter”: Photos by Ken Davidoff
Where: Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum, 300 N. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach.
When: Through Nov. 30. Admission is free.
Information: The Historical Society of Palm Beach County website
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
Although Ken Davidoff shot many of the ’60s biggest stars, there are a few musical Moby Dicks to his photographic Captain Ahab.
Jim Morrison of The Doors: “I was outside the show in Miami (where Morrison reportedly exposed himself) and I didn’t go in! I missed him.”
Duane Allman: “I shot the Allman Brothers, but I never got to shoot Duane.”
Eric Clapton: “There was a Cream show in Miami, and the steps were really steep. And my wife looked at them and said ‘I’m not going up there!”
PALM BEACH COUNTY’S WOODSTOCK
The title: “First Annual Palm Beach International Music and Arts Festival,” held Nov. 28-30, 1969. The event was both the first and the last.
Estimated crowd: 40,000-50,000 people
Location: The 149-acre Palm Beach International Speedway
Why the hippies were for it: The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, Johnny Winter, Grand Funk Railroad and more.
Why the straights were against it: Officials fretted about health, sanitation and traffic, and were mortified by images of drugs and sex they’d seen 3½ months earlier at Woodstock. Then-Sheriff William Heidtman set up surveillance cameras and positioned 150 deputies around the clock at nearby Pratt & Whitney. In 1999, Heidtman said, “If I had it to do over again, I’d try to stop it.”
Problems: Chilling rain fell, and temperatures dropped into the 40s. Vendors ran short of food, and many of the 300 portable toilets were dismantled for firewood. Promoter David Rupp lost $300,000 to $500,000, “all the cash I had and all that I’d borrowed.”
Ticket price: $20
Amount Rolling Stones were paid: $100,000. They went on at 4 a.m. and played a short stint for the few remaining.
The festival’s toll: 130 drug overdoses, 14 eye injuries, 42 intestinal disorders, 1,700 headaches and minor cuts, 1,000 reported conversions to Christianity, 130 drug arrests, and one death, of a teen struck by a truck.
— Palm Beach Post staff report