Through the lens of Carter Tomassi

In my ever expanding hunt for all things Allman Brothers related, I purchased a Carter Tomassi print a year or so ago and mentioned that I would love to interview him about his photographs.  He was wonderfully accommodating throughout the purchase and said that he’d be more than happy to answer any questions I had.  After our phone conversation, I sent him a number of questions.  What you see below is a beautifully written piece about his experiences.

I had considered adding my questions to this piece but it would only detract from what he has so eloquently expressed below.

The Great Speckled Bird, the hippie community weekly paper, was getting a lot of attention when I left school, heading for Atlanta. It was a weekly was run by whoever showed up to put in long hours for zero pay, that meant far left types, people who considered “liberal” a grievous insult. I’d spend 4 years at Auburn Univ. knowing next to zero about politics beyond what the Today Show reported. Somehow these good folks found it in their hearts to accept me.

LeicaM4
Photo by Carter Tomassi

At first I survived by selling the Bird on street corners, earning $25/wk. for rent and food. Outdated photo supplies somehow had to be paid for too. Eventually outside jobs with real paychecks came along. My SLR was traded in for a fancier Leica.

I was a street photographer as young people were pouring into Atlanta, living on the street or in the old decrepit mansions nearby. There was plenty to shoot, especially nights when the slow parades of cars from the suburbs drove past kids who wanted to be seen as shocking. It was the South’s Summer of Love two years after Haight-Ashbury.

Music was everywhere. Young bands plugged in from neighboring stores to play vacant lots. The 12th Gate coffeehouse broadened from folk to electric. I have vague memories of Little Feat in the early years playing there. Warm Sunday’s in Piedmont Park often had live music. In late ‘69 an undercover cop making a pot bust near the bandstand caused a pretty nasty riot, landing us on the national news. A roommate had his picture in Time magazine being pulled by his hair by a cop. No photos from me that day, I was sort of out of commission on psychedelics.

Earlier that summer had been the 1st Atlanta Pop Festival, two days in a huge dirt parking lot outside the city. As we entered the arena that day Janis Joplin (missed seeing her, she had played the previous day) was introducing her friends in a different band, It’s A Beautiful Day. I remember a great Led Zeppelin set as well as a wonderful palate cleanser from Dave Brubeck.

Piedmont Park crowd, 1970
Photo by Carter Tomassi

The day after that the promoter, Alex Cooley (who incidentally lived directly across from the park), brought back Spirit and Sweet Water to play for free in the park. Delaney and Bonnie and ABB may also have played but somehow I missed them. Around 11PM the Dead set up. Very vague memories here of drugs handed back and forth from stage to audience. At that hour it was pretty dark, just a couple of home floodlights lit the band pavilion. I laid back on a stone railing for my first, and best, Dead experience.

That same fall the Allmans played the park a few times, tightening their material before their first album release. They always drew a large crowd; people saw them as famous even before their fame hit. Another vague memory from that winter, waiting up for news on the band’s first Fillmore East show, cause who knew if N.Y. would like them as much as we did?

atlanta popThe next July Atlanta Pop #2 happened. The week before I drove down to photograph the setup, the next week I arrived along with 250,000 others. I hadn’t thought to ask Alex Cooley for a stage pass so for me the best photos were of the fans.

After those published images appeared the coveted back stage pass was mine. It should have been obvious to me published concert photos would be important to the promoters too. The next 2-3 years there were too many shows to count. It wasn’t about the music so much as capturing the musicians, finding moments between stage poses revealing their individual personalities.

Some moments couldn’t be shot, like the time Keith Moon screamed out “T R I S H!!!” between songs and ran offstage to be with his Atlanta sweetie. The Who carried on without a drummer for a couple of songs.

Skipping forward a year to the ‘71 Allman Brothers July 17th Atlanta Civil Auditorium show, a homecoming for the city and for the band. It had been a year since they were introduced to the huge Atlanta Pop Festival audience. Now the Allmans were officially rock stars. But they were also sort of “our band.” The feelings backstage were warm and friendly. My photo of Duane smiling towards the camera captures the spirit. Honestly I don’t recall taking the shot, was Duane smiling at my camera or had someone snuck in next to me, who knows?

Gregg and Duane Allman, July 4, 1971
Allman Bros. on stage in the Atlanta, GA concert of July 17th, 1971. Photo by Carter Tomassi

After the first show I caught some of the band backstage mixing with the (Bruce) Hampton Grease Band. Duane seemed approachable so I asked him to grab someone else for a shot in the sunlight outside. I kinda hoped he would get Gregg (who I realized later was nowhere around). Duane grabbed Berry instead; out we went for two photos. Less than a minute maybe. They might have done more but I felt like what I got would be okay. The shots had no significant at that point and weren’t printed.

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Only months later on Halloween day did the photos become important when Duane’s accident and death was reported on the radio. I chose the best one, cropping tightly on Duane.  Four days later when it appeared on the cover the Allman family called asking for other images.

Skipping ahead another year, things got a little spooky. Berry had just died in an identical motorcycle accident and I had shots of Duane and Berry standing together apart from the band. That photo had never been seen. The Bird and possibly Creem, a national rock paper, published the brothers side by side. I’m sure Rolling Stone would have loved having that shot but it was never offered to them.

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Berry and Duane backstage Atlanta, GA concert of July 17th, 1971. Photo by Carter Tomassi

The July 4th, 1972, Allman concert, the first without Duane, had a couple of shots of Gregg that need explaining. Early in the show there’s a photo of Gregg wearing a striped t-shirt, at some point he must have left the stage and come back wearing the now-famous Peacock silk shirt Eric Clapton had given Duane. Several years ago someone emailed me, bringing up the shirt’s significance. Gregg had left the shirt with his girlfriend Kathy Martin a singer in New Orleans. Kathy kindly filled me in on how a third person had tried machine washing the shirt, tearing it into sections. One other memory from that day; Gregg’s mom and a little girl appeared during the show at the side of the stage. Of course, it must have been Galadrielle. Unfortunately no pictures, it felt like family might be off-limits.

Gregg Allman
Gregg Allman at the Allman Brothers’ Band in 1972 Atlanta concert.  Photo by Carter Tomassi.
Gregg Allman
Gregg Allman at the Allman Brothers’ Band in 1972 Atlanta concert.  Photo by Carter Tomassi.

I greatly appreciate the work and effort that Mr. Tomassi took in recreating the events that he lived through and documented with his lens.  His photographic contributions and recollections help put together pieces of a shared puzzle that we can all enjoy.  Click the pic below to get to his website and maybe drop him a line about the article.  I know that he’d love to hear from fellow music fans and if your inclined, his prints are absolutely beautiful.

Carter

2 thoughts on “Through the lens of Carter Tomassi

Add yours

  1. I remember late 60’s early 70’s with ABB..Nothing will ever compare! Little did we know watching them in Piedmont Park ~ they would become our hero’s! Alex Volley had no idea when they performed at Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom how famous they would become. Thanks for the great article!

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