Gary James' Interview With Beatles Photographer
At twenty-five, Tom Murray was the youngest photographer to be commissioned by The Royal Family. He apprenticed to Lord Snowdon where he honed his skills as a portrait photographer. His portrait subjects include such luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, John Huston, Dustin Hoffman, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Pierre Cardin.
Then there was the Summer of 1968. Mr. Murray was invited to join the shoot for an album cover for a popular rock group by a fellow photograper. As fate would have it, that band turned out to be The Beatles. From two rolls of film, Mr. Murray kept twenty-three negatives, which are some of the best photgraphs ever taken of The Beatles. That shoot has come to be known as "The Mad Day: Summer of '68".
Tom Murray spoke with us about his Day With The Beatles.
Q - Does it surprise you at all, that of all the celebrities you've photographed, The Beatles would spark the most interest?
A - Not really. As I always say, Elvis is the King and The Beatles are the four most famous people in the world. (laughs) You gotta run with that as an Elvis fan as well. There's a Beatles song being played every second of every hour of every day, every year.
Q - I've heard the same thing said about Elvis.
A - Yeah. He's the same. No one can stop that little crew. You never know, perhaps John Lennon and Elvis are doing music together now.
Q - That would be a hell of a band.
A - It would be.
Q - And let's not forget Brian Jones. John Lennon wanted to put a band together with Brian.
A - Brian Jones was incredible.
Q - Where you a Beatles fan prior to this photo shoot?
A - Oh yes, I had been. I was working for the Sunday Times Magazine and it was the first ever color Sunday supplement to go with a newspaper. The whole idea was born by Mark Boxer, who was in charge of the Sunday Times. He decided, we'll put a color magazine together. Lord Snowdon, who was married to the Queen's sister, designed the studio on the roof of the Sunday Times building, which is like a giant greenhouse, sixty feet long, thirty feet wide and was all glass. I got the job there quite, quite by accident. I had been working in Africa and decided to come back to England 'cause I'd only gone to Africa for a two year contract and stayed for 4 1/2 years. When I was leaving one of the directors of the theatre said "You should write to Lord Snowdon. You remind me of him the way you work." I said, "How do you mean?" He said, "You're very bossy and arrogant and you do wonderful photography. (laughs) So, I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not. So when I got back to England I said to my mother, "I'm not sure what to do now. I've worked in newspapers for four years and I've worked in Africa for four years. I'm going to write to the top four British photographers of the time." They were all the young guys, same age as Avedon at that time. My mother said, "Why don't you write to Lord Snowdon?" Well, he'll never answer. Funny enough, he was the only one that did answer. The other four never even bothered to answer my letter, which, because of that, I alway answer any letter that people write to me, because Lord Snowdon did that. I went to Kensington Palace and met Lord Snowdon. He said, "Well, there's two jobs I know of. One's at Vogue Magazine, but, I think you're over qualified for that. The other one has just come up this morning. The Chief Photographer for the Sunday Times Magazine is leaving to set up his own studio." He said, "Let me phone up." He phoned up Michael Rand, who was the art director at the time. They said go over. I had a red XK 150, so I jumped into that and drove over to the Sunday Times and just parked on the yellow line, went in and came out with a job. I was the highest paid staff photographer in London, working for the best magazine, with world famous photgraphers. I was there for a year, photographed The Beatles and the next year, I was the youngest photographer commissioned to do a portrait of a member of The Royal Family. It just went from better to better to better.
Q - Wasn't that nice of Lord Snowdon to do that for you.
A - Very much so. We still speak two or three times a year. The thing with him even now is, if you write to him, you'll get an answer back within two days. Anyone who's ever asked me for advice, I will always answer them and give what advice I can. It was the same with The Beatles. I didn't even know who the group was that I was going to photograph. There was another photographer, Don McCullin, who was asked to photograph a rock group. He didn't say who it was. He said he hadn't photographed a rock group before and I had. But, they were nobody of great consequence at the time. He said would I come back with him and drive him around? I said "Sure." At that time, in 1968, London was very quiet on Sunday 'cause there's no Sunday opening hours as there is now. No twenty-four hour towns. I picked up my car, drove into London, picked up Don at the Sunday Times studio. He said "bring your camera, you might get some nice snaps." But, usually when I take anything for myself, I photograph in black and white. For some reason, I put two rolls of color in my pocket. We went to this old church, which was a rehearsal studio. As I walked in the church, I heard someone playing "Lady Madonna" on the piano. I opened the door and went "Oh shit, Paul McCartney." I looked around and there's George and Ringo standing over the other side of the room, drinking tea. And in the other corner is John and Yoko. I turned around and said, "Is this the group?" He said, "Oh yes. Didn't I say it?" I said, "No." (laughs) I suddenly thought, oh dear, no assistant, no extra cameras, no flash, no tripod, no extra film. I usually go out with four cameras and lenses and a case of film and a tripod and an assistant. So, it was a golden opportunity and I photographed only outside 'cause the film wasn't fast enough to photograph inside. I only photograhed the way I wanted to do it. Quite often I was in a different place where Don was because I was photographing in color. I photographed it like a magazine assignment. The upright pictures which would fill a page. It was great. We were there from nine in the morning until seven-thirty at night. We ended up in Paul's house. There were six girls waiting outside Paul's house to see Paul. Of course, when all four boys jumped out of the car, they nearly had heart attacks. Well, those ladies are still alive. They'll be in their mid-fifties by now. But, I edited them all down. Eve Arnold, who was a wonderful American photographer, was one of the founders of Magnum Photo. She's famous for photographing Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable...people like that. She's in her nineties now. She said keep the best, get rid of the rest and they'll be good for your old age pension. So, I did that and popped them in a drawer for twenty-odd years and the only time I looked at them was when John Lennon was shot in New York. I was working in New York at the time, at the studio on 55th and 7th and a friend of mine, who worked at Time Magazine, said "I've got an interesting picture to show you. It's the one of John Lennon lying dead on the ground and the other three boys looking down at him. He just did it. He lay on the ground, three boys looked down at him and there's one frame with his eyes closed and George wearing his famous glasses. But, they decided it was too spooky to do anything with. So, I put it away. Years later I was working in Los Angeles 'cause the Winter was a bit too cold for me in New York. The day the camera froze to my face, I decided there had to be somewhere warmer in January to try and shoot fashion. When I was in L.A., a friend of mine, Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched, she said she was a proposer for an Aids project called Project Angel Food. It was a big charity auction. There were five hundred photographers donating work...would I donate a picture? I said yes and I showed her the one of John pretending to be dead. She said yes. She posted it at the auction with Angelica Houston and Jack Nicholson. We got nearly eight thousand dollars for it from fifteen years ago. So, I thought I better get these pictures appraised from my lawyer. She's actually a friend of mine. We have the same birthday. She took them along to Christies. She came back and said, "Oh, they're worth one hundred thousand dollars." I said "Well, that's nice." She said "No dear...each!" I said, "Oh, one hundred thousand dollars times twenty-three. Well, that's good." That's when they went from being in a drawer to being in a bank. (laughs) In fact, they're in a bank as we speak, just for safety. Obviously, they'e been scanned for safety just as well.
Q - So, you sell reprints of the photographs you took of The Beatles?
A - Yeah. There's a limited edition of the photographs. There was a problem we had...a lot of fans wanted little tiny photographs. I wanted to go the Fine Art route. So, we sell twenty by twenty-four inch archival prints that are actually done in New York, 'cause some of the labs in England are closing down now, 'cause of the move to digital photography. It's actually causing quite a problem to get hand prints done these days. So, I actually have them done in New York City. That's the one thing people comment on when they see the prints, how fabulous the colors are. And the colors are astonishing and it's basically because the original slides were kept in the dark in an envelop for so many years. They weren't shown to anybody, so they lost very, very little in all those years. And of course the lucky thing is, I shot them in color instead of black and white. They're the finest ones taken that year. It was the last publicity shoot they did. The cracks were beginning to happen. That's why it ended up being called "The Mad Day: The Summer Of '68", and it was a mad day rushing around London. We could stay half an hour, forty-five minutes before too many people arrived, which is really good. I doubt you could do it now. (laughs) You'd be inundated with people in about a minute and a half.
Q - So, you were in Africa when Beatlemania broke out in England.
A - Yeah. I went into what was a remote area of Northern Rhodesia. We drove to see a Catholic priest who was doing some good works in a village. We drove about four and a half hours in the middle of nowhere. As I pulled into this village, I could hear a Beatles song playing and the first thing I saw was the Coca-Cola signs. (laughs) I thought The Beatles have arrived and Coca-Cola has arrived. It was just amazing. It was literally just mud huts. We met the priest and did the story and I felt well, The Beatles have really moved when you can hear them over one of these sort of battery generated radios in the middle of nowhere. It was just amazing.
Q - Did you have any idea that something special was going on in London and Liverpool, with rock 'n roll musicians?
A - Oh, yes, 'cause all the fashion. You could go down the Kings Row, which was the area to be seen in your flared trousers and your platform shoes. You would see The Beatles driving by in their cars. You'd also see The Rolling Stones 'cause they all lived in those areas. It was just an everyday thing. You would see the guys. The Beatles, The Stones...it was all so ground-breaking for young people. It was young people's music for the first time. We'd still be hearing things like Bing Crosby. I remember the shock...horror, the first time people saw Elvis Presley wiggling his hips around. It was considered by some people to be blasphemous. We just loved it. It was music we could relate to. Then The Beatles came along and all their music seemed to fit that era. What's strange now is that each ten years, a new generation comes along and the songs still seem to fit. Even today! A lot of the songs seem to fit what's happening in the world. A lot of the stuff that Sir George Martin recorded was all very ground-breaking. They hadn't done all this multi-tracking and over-dubbing and one person playing all different instruments. Now, you see the size of a piece of tape in a recording studio and it was mammoth in its width. Of course, now so much of it is done digitally as well. But, a lot of people still like the snap, pop and crackle of vinyl. Vinyl sort of has a life of its own. Vinyl will never die as long as there are die-hard fans.
Q - I read where you used to get sick prior to your big photo assignments. Sick to you stomach?
A - Yeah. Physically sick. I still do now. If it's a really important job, I get very nervous until I get behind the camera and take over. I've been very lucky. I've had a great career since I was sixteen, traveling all over the world photgraphing the rich and famous and some would say the rich and undeserving sometimes and photographing everyday life and it's just fabulous. I only came to America for six weeks and ended up working here for twenty years. I get rather nervous when I leave home. (laughs)