For celebrated rock n’ roll photographer Robert Knight, strolling through the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas is like flipping through the pages of a scrapbook. “When I come into the Hard Rock, it’s like walking through my life,” he smiles, glancing at the various memorabilia displays—from Elton John’s flamboyant stage costumes, to guitars that Slash once played on stages around the world. “I see all these people I grew up with,” he muses out loud. “Their guitars, their clothes, their music...”
Knight isn’t what I’d expected. The fast-walking 58-year-old dressed in hipster black doesn’t seem nearly…well, ancient enough to have been a part of so many embryonic moments in early rock n’ roll history. I’m thinking, this guy used to hang out with Jimi Hendrix and photographed Led Zeppelin’s first shows in America?
Then there’s the great irony of his childhood in Hawaii, which he explains as we order lunch at Mr. Lucky’s. Knight was the son of a Baptist minister, who forbid him to watch movies, go to concerts or listen to the raw, edgy rock n’ roll sounds that were emanating from England in the mid 1960s—where working-class white kids with names like Jagger, Page and Clapton were interpreting their love of blues music through electric guitars and blaring amplifiers.
Despite the parental restrictions, Knight discovered English music magazines from which he was able to order records. “I had Hendrix, Kinks, and Yardbirds records long before they came out in America,” he says with boyish enthusiasm. “I talked my high school into letting me DJ during the lunch hour—I was playing this really hip music that no one had ever heard.”
Determined to seek out the source of these new sounds, Knight scored a job at age 15 (making him Honolulu’s youngest travel agent) in order to qualify for cheap airfare. “It was about the music,” he says. “I wanted to go where it was being made.” During the summer of 1966 he wound up crashing with some friends in London in a photo studio where a film was being shot: Blow Up, now considered a classic cinematic document of swingin’ 1960s London. One of the movie’s party scenes featured a rowdy musical rave-up by The Yardbirds, which included a baby-faced, pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page and fellow guitar genius Jeff Beck. Knight realized then that he “desperately wanted to be part of this scene. I said to myself, ‘This is the crowd I want to run with.’”
However, he needed some type of entrée—a reason for the scene to accept him. “I didn’t play the guitar, I didn’t paint or draw, so I decided I would be a photographer,” he tells me. He returned to Hawaii and toiled as a caddy on the weekends to earn enough cash to buy cameras and lenses, then honed his craft by shooting models for travel advertisements.
In1968 he convinced his parents to let him attend the San Francisco Art Institute. “I knew Hendrix and all the bands would be coming through there,” he says. “My parents didn’t know that was my motive. I wound up spending my nights shooting bands at the Fillmore.”
In San Francisco, Knight persuaded Jann Wenner, the young editor of an upstart publication called Rolling Stone, to hire him on as a photographer. Soon, Knight was shooting acts like Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane, and Hendrix when they came through town to play.
Knight’s original heroes, The Yardbirds, had disbanded by then, but because the band was still committed to play some shows in Scandinavia, Jimmy Page retitled the band “The New Yardbirds” and recruited new musicians to round out the lineup: singer Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. This thunderous combination would soon be known as Led Zeppelin, and they’d go on to sell more than 300 million records—but when they arrived in America for the first time in 1968, for a gig at the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles, Knight had to convince Jann Wenner to send him there to shoot the show.
“I was the only photographer at Led Zeppelin’s first gig in America,” he says, “but I wasn’t old enough to get in. The girl at the box office called the Chateau Marmont and got Jimmy Page on the phone. She said to him, ‘there’s this young boy here to photograph the band.’ He told me to come over to the hotel, and he brought me to the gig. The next night I went to San Francisco and shot their second show.”
Knight remembers calling the promoters back in Hawaii and declaring Led Zeppelin was “going to be huge.” Two months later, the band that would rule the 1970s was booked at a show in Hawaii for the whopping sum of $5,000. (The promoter asked Knight to shepherd them around town during their stay; he took them surfing.) One of Knight’s most famous photographs from the era is of the band, standing at the Honolulu airport, wearing leis around their necks and clutching the master recordings for the Led Zeppelin II album. It was the beginning of a long relationship between Knight and the legendary band; he would go on to photograph over 50 Led Zep shows.
Knight also hung out with Hendrix when he came through Hawaii. Elton John was his houseguest for a while. For Knight, it was never about trying to grab exclusive shots and cash in; in fact, most of his images weren’t even released. “I’d shoot the stuff and put it away. It wasn’t until years later that I started doing anything with it,” he says. He befriended these future legends (and many others), and photographed them on and offstage, simply out of his love for music.
“There was no money for me in the rock n’ roll business back then,” he says, “so I became an advertising photographer.” The income from shooting ads allowed him to continue pursuing his first love, which was attending shows and photographing bands. “Any time Jeff Beck would go on tour, I’d follow him around for a while,” Knight says. “I only photographed bands that I liked. I had opportunities to photograph a lot of big bands, but I wouldn’t do it. Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane—I hated them. Maybe if I’d done drugs I would’ve understood the ‘stoney’ bands…I could have gone to Woodstock, but the thought of 500,000 hippies together was a repulsive idea. I never embraced the hippie culture, even though I lived in Haight-Ashbury in the middle of it.”
It wasn’t until 1985 that Knight began to reveal his vast photographic archives. He formed a relationship with Guitar Center, the national franchise of over 200 stores that sell musical equipment. That same year while on assignment in Hong Kong, Knight met his future wife, Maryanne Bilham, a native of New Zealand and a gifted photographer in her own right. (They finally tied the knot in 2004.)
The couple has collaborated on the super-sized photos of guitar legends that grace the exteriors of the Guitar Center stores. Knight calls it “the world’s largest outdoor photo exhibition. There are over 3,000 giant photos on the outsides of their buildings.”
Guitar magazines then started contacting Knight to shoot photo spreads of six-string icons. He also supplied cover shots for posthumous albums from Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Knight’s close friendship with the late Vaughn, considered one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time, ended in a tragedy that haunts him to this day. “I really loved him,” he says, “and I worked with him the night he died. That was a very traumatic experience.”
It was August 26, 1990 in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. Stevie Ray and his barnstorming blues band, Double Trouble, had been booked for a two-day, all-star blues show featuring Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Eric Clapton. Vaughn called Knight and asked him to come and shoot a Fender Guitars ad which would star him alongside Clapton and Cray.
Knight arrived and shot the Fender ad. “Stevie and I talked earlier that day about life and death,” he recalls somberly. “He had a premonition that he was living on borrowed time.” (Six years before, Vaughn, battling addictions to drugs and alcohol, had been resuscitated by doctors after an overdose; this would inspire him to get clean.)
After the photo shoot, Vaughn turned to Knight and said, ‘if anything ever happens to me, Robert, you’ll know me when you hear me.’”
Knight then photographed the show, where he captured otherworldly images of Vaughn playing guitar like a man possessed. Sparks of light radiated from him in the photos, although there was no background light source that could have created the effect. (“That was Stevie’s energy, his aura,” Knight has said of those images.)
After the show, Clapton informed the assembled group of musicians and crew that his bass player didn’t want to ride in their helicopter, and there was an extra seat. “He offered the seat to anybody who wanted to head out—there were four helicopters shuttling people from the gig,” Knight recalls. Stevie Ray took the seat.
Back at his hotel early that morning, Knight saw a news report about Clapton’s helicopter crashing. As it turned out, Clapton wasn’t on that doomed ride—but Stevie was.
“The next day, my phone melted down,” Knight says. “Everybody wanted those pictures, but I wouldn’t give them to anybody—it would have been blood money. I sat on them for two years, and then Fender approached me and we decided to do some silk screens and raise money for the Stevie Ray Vaughn Foundation. One of Stevie’s people had called me and said he’d want those pictures out, so I released them.”
Knight’s friendships with rock legends—some of which date back to the 1960s—have also resulted in some epic (and surreal) celebrations. A few years ago, Knight and his wife were among a handful of guests invited to Jeff Beck’s wedding in England. They arrived at the guitarist’s 500-year-old estate and then caravanned in hot rods to the local Justice of the Peace, where Beck was quietly married in a civil ceremony.
“The next day he threw a party in his backyard,” Knight says. “I come back the next morning and there’s this huge Moroccan tent set up, and a full-on rock concert stage. Jeff and I are drinking champagne hanging out, and then here come the cars…Jimmy Page with all his kids. Paul McCartney with his entourage. Chrissie Hynde. Terry Bozzio. Guys from the Yardbirds. A half-dozen of the top British comedians in the world. No security, no minders, just all of these people in the middle of the English countryside. Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck got up and did forty-five minutes of rockabilly, with Paul on vocals and Jimmy and Jeff trading leads.”
Another time, Jeff Beck asked Knight to tell him the 20 coolest people he’d ever want to see at a party. “I gave him a list of names, and all 20 showed up at the party in London,” he chuckles. “Dave Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Ringo Starr...” (Knight and Starr are friends, though he admits he wasn’t a Beatles fan growing up: “When I was a kid, if you were a 15 year old boy and you liked the Beatles, you were gay. It was a band that girls liked. You had to be a Stones fan. It wasn’t until Rubber Soul that I paid any attention to them.”)
As for the technical side of his craft, Knight says he’s “a Nikon guy since day one.” Though he has embraced digital photography, Knight remarks that he was trained in film processing dark rooms, and shot his own prints. “Unfortunately, that’s no longer a requirement,” he says. “So many of today’s photographers have never been in a darkroom and don’t print their own work. But I think it’s like learning musical theory: Steve Vai can play the guitar and read and write sheet music, as fast as he plays it. He told me that 200 years ago, if you couldn’t do that, you wouldn’t even be considered a musician. It’s the same thing with my generation—you wouldn’t be considered a photographer if you didn’t know how to print and process your own film.”
Even shooting with state-of-the-art digital gear, Knight’s brand of photography still presents formidable challenges. “Being a live rock n’ roll photographer is one of the hardest things to do,” he says. “You stand below a stage where you don’t have control of the lighting of the artist. They won’t stand still. The exposures are constantly changing; you don’t know what’s coming next. That’s hard, compared to having Elton John in the studio, where you’re controlling the lighting and you can pose them.”
Of the endless tours and concerts he’s photographed, Knight says his most thrilling was the ARMS charity concert, given in Los Angeles in 1983 to raise money for multiple sclerosis research. The all-star lineup of British rockers marked the only time that Clapton, Beck and Page, all former lead guitarists for The Yardbirds, had performed together on one stage.
Reflecting on other shows that stand out in his mental archives, Knight says, “I shot the Stones at the Palladium in LA. It was so small, the stage was lower than this table. I could have grabbed them by the legs. The Fillmore West was unbelievable…and the Avalon in San Francisco, they had these spectacular light shows. Some of the big arenas are nice to shoot in, but they’re surreal. I remember shooting U2 at the Sun Devil stadium in Phoenix, and the stage was so high I couldn’t see the band.”
Select images from his sprawling archives (in all, he says he has “literally hundreds of thousands of photos”) are now licensed out to magazines when they run stories on the musicians Knight has photographed. Meanwhile, he stays busy with assignments from record companies and equipment manufacturers, and the Las Vegas-based advertising business he runs with his wife, Knight Bilham Photography.
"MY CAREER HAS ALWAYS BEEN GUITAR-CENTIRCK, SO I FIXATE ON YOUNG NEW GUITAR PLAYERS AND WANT TO BE THE FIRST GUY TO PHOTOGRAPH THEM"
“She’s more methodical and technical than I am,” he says of his spouse and collaborator. “She’ll spend all day on a shot; I lose interest after ten minutes.”
Knight credits Bilham with getting him to branch out with his business and explore other subjects, particularly the great outdoors. Knight and Bilham completed a three-year project that had them photograph every destination Princess Cruise lines goes to; their travels took them to Argentina, Iceland, China, and dozens of other places.
Lately, Knight has been focusing on younger bands, shooting Guitar Center ads with Las Vegas act Panic! At the Disco, and working with a rising Irish band called The Answer. (“They’re amazing,” Knight says of The Answer. “For two years they’ve been opening for really huge bands in Europe like The Stones, Aerosmith, and AC/DC.”)
When I ask him to rank the greatest players of all time, Knight demurs. “I think it’s unfair to ask ‘who’s better’: Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or whoever. It’s a horizontal line of guys marching forward. Is the Edge the greatest guitar player in the world? Well, he sure sounds wonderful in U2. I can listen to him all night long.”
Meanwhile, Knight is always on the lookout for new talent. “My career has always been guitar-centric, so I fixate on young new guitar players and want to be the first guy to photograph them,” he says. “I shot Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd early on. Joe Bonamasso when he was twelve years old.”
Nowadays, lead guitarists aren’t revered the way fans once worshipped the abilities of Hendrix, Page, Clapton and their peers. The guitar solo was once a staple of any great rock song; today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single memorable guitar solo among today’s chart-topping bands. But every now and then Knight comes across an explosive talent, and does his best to shine a light on them. His documentary features a segment on Tyler Dow Bryant, a scarily talented 16-year-old blues guitar prodigy that Knight discovered in Texas.
“The guitar became really unfashionable for a while, and I stopped shooting [bands] for a long time,” he shrugs. “There was a period when everything was synthesizers, y’know, like Duran Duran. It was Eddie Van Halen who brought the guitar back. Over the last 10-15 years, I’d say Steve Vai and Slash were the most innovative. Nowadays, there are a lot of very big bands and their guitar players suck.”
After decades of helping to promote others along their path to fame, the spotlight is now shining Knight’s way. A hard cover book filled with his images, “Rock Gods: Forty Years of Rock Photography,” is to be published in October, and a documentary about his life as a rock n’ roll photographer is in progress. About two years ago he was approached by filmmaker John Chester and Tim Kaiser, a producer for the hit TV shows “Seinfeld” and “Will & Grace,” and they hatched the idea to do a documentary film about Knight, featuring his all-star cast of rock n’ roll pals.
“I called a bunch of my friends and they agreed to participate and give me 100% access: Jeff Beck, Santana, Slash, Def Leppard, Billy Gibbons, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Bonamassa, Robert Cray…it keeps growing,” he says. “It’s a quest for [understanding] the creative process. Every one of these artists struggles. Even with all the money they have, they think their best work is ahead of them.”
Last year, the Hard Rock Hotel invited Knight to participate in a joint dedication with his good friend Slash, as they unveiled a new memorabilia display case that included one of his guitars and trademark top hats, and some of Knight’s photos. “It was the first time I was standing getting my picture taken with Slash, instead of taking his picture,” Knight laughs. “I kept wanting to leave the frame, thinking I don’t need to be in this picture. I’m not very comfortable with that side of it, but Slash pulled me back in…”
Knight still speaks about the guitar-slinging greats with the genuine enthusiasm of a fan. But the respect is mutual: when a Las Vegas gallery held a retrospective of his work back in January, the kick-off party was attended by an array of rock stars, including Bootsy Collins, and members of Sick Puppies.
Over forty years ago, pure love of the music inspired him to pick up a camera and start shooting; today, the love is what continues to drive him. “I’m not the highest-paid photographer in the world, and not the best,” Knight says, “but for whatever reason God has blessed me. I was born in the right period, and I’ve been in the right place at the right time.”