Roland Kirk in Swinging London
Here’s a surprise: in the middle of an assembly of frames snipped from contact prints included in a Photographers’ Gallery show of the work of the late Terence Donovan, there’s a picture of Roland Kirk. It was taken in 1963, during the American multi-instrumentalist’s first visit to London, when he played a season at Ronnie Scott’s Club — the original one on Gerrard Street in Chinatown — and a few concert dates around the country.
Donovan was primarily a fashion photographer — one of the trio of working-class London boys, along with David Bailey and Brian Duffy, who revolutionised the profession in the early ’60s — and his image of Kirk is surrounded by shots of Jean Shrimpton (to be seen directly above Kirk), Celia Hammond, Paulene Stone and other celebrated models of the era.
I saw Kirk for the first time during that short tour in 1963, in Nottingham, where he was accompanied by a British rhythm section. He had yet to add the “Rahsaan” to his name, and he was still wearing a dark business suit on stage. He was startlingly good, whether playing three reed instruments at once — the skill that had brought him to public attention — or just one. And to preface his tune “We Free Kings” he spent a good five minutes telling a very funny and very hip version of the story about the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem, holding his audience spellbound.
The music-related element of the Photographers’ Gallery show also includes Donovan’s nice colour portrait of Jimi Hendrix, swathed in silks, from 1967, his famous videos for Malcolm McLaren’s “Madame Butterfly” and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”, and his series of portraits of British pop stars — including Elvis Costello, Jarvis Cocker, Supergrass and Bryan Ferry — for an issue of GQ magazine in the 1990s.
But it was the reminder of Kirk that I took away. There’s a new documentary about him, Adam Kahan’s The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, which is just out on DVD. It includes a marvellous sequence from a 1971 edition of the Ed Sullivan Show on which Rahsaan leads a band including Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp and Roy Haynes. After Sullivan has announced that they’ll be playing “My Cherie Amour”, they cut loose instead on a wild version of Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song”. Sullivan takes it in his stride; following the appearances of Elvis Presley in 1956 and the Beatles in 1964, it was his third great moment of musical history — and maybe the one that finished him off, since his show ended its 23-year run a few weeks later.