View Slide Show9 Photographs
Eddie Rocco/Kicks Books
Capturing the Birth
of Rock ‘n’ Roll
By John Leland Jul. 6, 2017
Jul. 6, 2017
Eddie Rocco’s rock ‘n’ roll photos, taken in the 1950s and early 1960s for magazines like Sepia, Hep and Rhythm and Blues, seem to have had one aim: to let the good times roll. Not for him the brooding pose, the soulful gaze, the glimpse into the inner life of the creative artist. His was an aesthetic of action: hips swinging, pipes roaring, fingers popping, taffeta crumpling. Even when his subjects were lying down, as in his shot of the Carolina fireball Esquerita recumbent at a Texas diner (slide 2), they’ve got bounce by the ounce.
Mr. Rocco was a pro in a profession that had not yet come into its own, working as an in-house photographer for several rhythm and blues clubs, or for magazines riding a wave they thought might not last the year. It was music of the moment, and he captured the exhilaration of being in that moment, when the rest of the world ceases to exist and the frame captures life as a honking sax.
The Depression-era lexicon “American Tramp and Underworld Slang” says that the vernacular use of the word hip comes from “having one’s hip boots on — i.e., the way in which they protect the wearer from bad weather or dangerous currents is analogous to the way in which awareness or sophistication arms one against social perils.” By that definition, these pictures are the embodiment of hip. Inside these images social perils do not exist.
Chubby Checker giving Eddie Rocco a dance lesson.
Courtesy of Eddie Rocco/Kicks Books
Rock, it turned out, was here to stay, but not so Sepia or Ebony Song Parade magazines or the clubs where Mr. Rocco plied his trade. When Miriam Linna and Billy Miller of Kicks Books and Norton Records tracked him down and published “The Great Lost Photographs of Eddie Rocco” in 1997, most of his work had gone unseen for more than three decades, if it was ever seen at all. His name popped up in the Kennedy assassination literature because he had photographed in Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club in Dallas shortly before the shooting, and several of his images showed a man who looked like Lee Harvey Oswald — proof, some amateur sleuths said, that Ruby and Oswald were in cahoots. If the man was really Oswald, Mr. Rocco thought, the photos were worth a lot of money. But in the end, all he got was an unsuccessful lawsuit against Life magazine, which he claimed had accepted his negatives but neither published nor returned them.
After that, Ms. Linna said, Mr. Rocco vowed to never again work for American publications. He continued to shoot for European magazines into the 1970s but lived out his days modestly in Los Angeles — a heartbeat away from unimaginable fame, never to taste it for himself.