Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Written by Keith Gore Wiseman | Photographed by Tom Davis
When concert photography was a black-and-white world, Tom Davis' standout color photos of Rock 'n' Roll, Country and Blues musicians earned him more than just kudos.
Step into Tom Davis’ insurance office and you may be surprised to find the entry packed with famous musicians — B.B. King with Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Alice Cooper, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Carlos Santana and Buddy Guy — all pictured in photographs taken by Davis himself.
This personal mini-museum also features items gifted to Davis by his friends, the musicians — autographed guitars and drum pads played by those pictured on the walls, plus posters, books and albums signed by the likes of Jimi Hendrix; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Buffalo Springfield; Jethro Tull; The Grateful Dead; Fleetwood Mac and too many others to list.
“Photography is my passion, my hobby, my fun,” Davis said. “I started taking pictures when I was about 15, and when I went to Ole Miss in 1971, I took my camera with me to concerts. They didn’t care back then if you brought a camera, but they very much care now, and you have to obtain credentials to do it.”
As a student, Davis had learned of efforts at the university to produce color photographs using an electron microscope (when film speeds at the time made color photography in low light difficult). He decided to apply the same methods to his own concert photographs, producing what were then, and still are, rare color images.
“The fastest color speed film back then was still very slow, so [the university photographers] shot their photos as if the film were faster and then overdeveloped the negatives to produce properly lit and clear images,” Davis explained. “I started shooting at concerts the same way.”
Upon graduation, Davis settled into an insurance and business career. But after a while, he felt he needed something to entertain and challenge himself outside of his day job. So he bought a camera and got back into photography, prompted by news that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were playing in Memphis.
“Years went by and I started reaching out to some of these artists, asking if they would sign photos I took way back when,” Davis said. “When they found out they were in color, not only did they sign them, they asked for copies for themselves and for publication.”
As Davis’ connections grew by word of mouth, he began to trade images for photo credentials so he could produce ever more images and make more connections. That’s how one of his photos became the cover image for the book, “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Sometimes Young.”
When Bill Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, convinced B.B. King to contribute his music collection to found the Blues Archive at the university, Davis, a huge King fan, asked Ferris for a favor and a connection.
Ferris got Davis a pass to a concert, but advised him that seating at the show was general admission. So Davis arrived early — and got a seat next to King’s family. They mentioned a lack of family photos from King’s tours and then introduced Davis to King after the concert.
After this casual visit, the Kings sent Davis a card, and Davis started mailing photos to their home address. Davis was floored when the first invitation came — to be King’s guest at a Las Vegas performance.
“I didn’t sell pictures on the internet, or worse, to the tabloids, so musicians knew they could trust me to be discreet and that I am not trying to exploit them,” Davis said. “Back stage is not wild like people imagine, and for many blues legends it is a family and friends gathering. But since they never know what is going to happen backstage, they are a little cautious.”
“In 2010, I took a photo of Eric Clapton and B.B. King that they both hung in their houses,” Davis said. “And, then I got introduced to Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and many others.”
“A lot of people you might think of as rock stars appreciate and are heavily influenced by the blues.” Davis said. “A lot of the British greats in particular have a great respect for the blues — everyone from Plant and Page to Slash of Guns N’ Roses, so I have met and photographed many rock stars, too.”
Davis currently serves as treasurer of The Blues Foundation, an international organization that just hosted its 35th annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
“At least 226 bands and artists showed up to play on Beale Street in January to compete for best solo artist and best group,” Davis said. “The foundation also made the Keeping the Blues Alive Awards to honor people who support and advance the blues — disc jockeys, clubs, writers, photographers and others.”
Davis said it’s hard to put a monetary value on the experiences he’s had, the photos he’s taken and the meaningful items he’s collected over the years.
“The value of these items to me is that they were gifts from friends, some now departed,” Davis said. “Knowing that I put a smile on these friends’ faces through my work is what I really value.”
Check out the full gallery here: