Donovan played at the Gibbes Museum Charlestown
“These seats are for people who are ‘reserved,’” Donovan Leitch said to me after his sound check as I sat in the second row right behind front row chairs marked “Reserved.” “You have to watch out for reserved people,” he said with a smile.
“Yes, they’re quiet people,” I said as one of my favorite songwriters stood six feet in front of me. I was frozen with excitement and became one of those reserved people, too transfixed to introduce myself. I was one of about 10 people in the room who snuck in as the public waited downstairs.
Among those 10, a woman sitting in the “Reserved” front row held up her iPhone and attempted to photograph the legendary 1960s folk singer from Glasgow. But the Sunshine Superman reached for his iPhone and held it up like a shield. “Don’t do that to me,” he said. “Or I’ll have to do it to you.” They both laughed.
Donovan Leitch sings “Sunshine Superman” at the Gibbes Museum of Art.
Donovan appeared at the Gibbes Museum of Art on Friday night (Sept. 21) during the first installment of a three-part lecture series. Friday’s lecture was for the Sound and Vision: Monumental Rock and Roll Photography exhibit opening that night. The exhibit features 40 photographs by 20 visionary photographers.
Before the 6 p.m. program started, Donovan was introduced to and kissed on the cheek by a woman appearing in one of the exhibit photos taken in 1956. That woman was Barbara Gray, a Charleston resident who was in Elvis Presley’s “The Kiss” photo taken by Alfred Wertheimer. The photo was snapped in Richmond, Va. While the image gives the impression it was a quiet setting, there were in fact 5,000 screaming concertgoers on the other side of the wall, guest curator of the exhibition and founder and director of Washington, D.C.’s Govinda Gallery Chris Murray said.
Gray sat quietly in the audience Friday. During a reception after the lecture, the fledgling music photographer and author of this article asked Gray how she managed to kiss the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Gray didn’t even want to kiss him, but Presley was persistent, she said.
Murray mentioned many of Donovan’s accomplishments in his introduction. Donovan scored 11 Top 40 singles between 1966-1969. He is one of the few musicians to ever collaborated with the Beatles, contributing to the songs “Yellow Submarine” and “A Day In the Life.” He was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.
“It’s not every day you have a great lyric poet sit here with a curator,” Murray said as he and Donovan sat on chairs atop a platform next to the projector screen. Murray hosted Annie Leibovitz’s first exhibition at Govinda Gallery in 1984, representing her Rolling Stone magazine work. Known for her creative portraits, Liebovitz was the chief photographer for the magazine from 1973-1983.
Donovan gets kissed after meeting Charleston resident Barbara Gray.
“I bought her photo of John [Lennon] and Yoko [Ono],” Murray said. “It wasn’t as famous then. She said, ‘You know, John was murdered the day that photo was taken.’”
The lecture’s first slides showed Dick Waterman’s images of blues singers Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and a young B.B. King. They were snapped in the early 1960s, during the first blues revival. “Blues is in the DNA of rock ‘n’ roll,” Murray said.
Donovan added “Without it, I don’t know where any of it would’ve came from. The blues had a baby, and they called the baby rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Liebovitz referred to Jim Marshall as the rock ‘n’ roll photographer,” Murray said as the roughly 200 attendees looked at Marshall’s 1971 image of Little Richard, wearing heavy makeup and medallions, and sporting a pompadour-turned-beehive rug. “It shows some of the soulfulness and struggle of his life. The personal and the profound.”
Murray pointed out Richard went back and forth from being a rocker to a preacher. “He had to balance that.”
“A preacher of the blues,” Donovan added.
The next image was Daniel Kramer’s portrait of a young Bob Dylan. “His first band was a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Murray said of popular music’s master of deception. “He said he wanted to be like Little Richard. The portrait captures the intensity of him at the time.”
Donovan said of Dylan, “When you’re a poet you have to present it. With this period, you’re talking about photography and television. If you really mean it, you will present it. You will dress it. You will dress yourself up during certain times of your musical development in the costume of the dream of the song. That’s what happened with Dylan, this smart, kind of jazzy look … and he looks pretty good to me, Bobby on that one. The difference between musicians who perform for fun and musicians in that group of there [pointing to the gallery of images in the room behind the audience] is what [producer] Mickie Most called ‘the Hunger.’ You can have the looks, you can have the songs, you can have the sound, but if you don’t have the hunger to communicate, you aren’t getting there.”
Another photo showed the early Beatles in Hamburg, Germany. With a blurry Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stu Sutcliffe in the foreground and Lennon standing under a brick entrance, the image was used as the cover of Lennon’s 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Donovan mentioned his and Harrison’s oft-told story that while in India, Donovan taught the Beatles guitar finger-picking styles heard on White Album on songs such as “Dear Prudence” and “Blackbird.”
The audience laughed as a Donovan photo from the mid-’60s appeared. In this Barry Feinstein portrait of the folk troubadour as a young man, he wore a pinstriped suit while sitting in a chair and holding a cane in his outstretched arms. Murray said the image was a nod to Charlie Chaplin. A cropped version of it appears on the sleeve of the “Sunshine Superman” single, also on display at the exhibit.
Other photos showed the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and many more. Gered Mankowitz shot the Stones’ Between the Buttons album cover one foggy morning after an all-night recording session. Murray said Mankowitz put Vaseline on the lens to give the image a surreal quality.
Donovan then surprised the audience by playing four songs on his acoustic guitar. The set included “Sunshine Superman,” “Catch the Wind,” and “Sand and Foam.” He ended with “Mellow Yellow” as the audience clapped and sang along. It was a fitting close to a laid-back and informative session.
Sound and Vision: Monumental Rock and Roll Photography will be on display at the Gibbes through Dec. 20. Upcoming lectures include writer Warren Perry speaking on Elvis Presley on Oct. 12 and Stanfield Gray (of Charleston Magazine) moderating a discussion about art and fame with a panel of South Carolina-based musicians on Oct. 26. Visit gibbesmuseum.org/events or call (843) 722-2706 for more info.