Photojournalist Tor Eigeland has enjoyed a front-row seat on the history of the world for more than sixty years and at a slower pace of life before the arrival of the digital world.
He trained under legendary former Life picture editor Wison Hicks at the Miami School of Photojournalism and he was right there to document Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba in 1959 and to drop everything to head to Paris for Ebony Magazine to photograph Chuck Berry after his sellout concerts at The Olympia. Tor also spent time with the Marsh Arabs in Iraq before Saddam Hussein attempted to obliterate this ancient way of life bound by nature, water, intricate tribal conflicts, customs and exquisite codes of hospitality to the stranger in this rustic Venice of Arabia. Now read this intimate and beguiling extract from his latest book Stuff Happens..... Alison Jane, Editor-in-Chief.
My work and travels have taken up most of my life but ticking away in the background has always been a love of music.
Occasionally I’ve been lucky and had a few great music-related work moments. One day, years later while based in Spain, I had a phone call from New York. It was from Era Bell Thompson, the iconic editor of EBONY, an American Black lifestyle magazine with a large circulation.
Tor Can You Get to Paris and Spend an Evening with Chuck Berry?
Strictly by chance, before I had done any serious professional photography, I had met Era Bell socially in Trinidad in 1962, when I briefly lived there in my Pan Am days. She had been invited to the celebrations of Trinidad and Tobago’s day of independence from the UK and I had volunteered to show her some of the island.
Era Bell and I had kept vaguely in touch for years as I had told her about my photographic ambitions and progress. Now, to my vast surprise and pleasure, she called me from New York: “Tor, can you get up to Paris tomorrow and spend an evening with Chuck Berry? He is performing at the Olympia. If you can do it, we’ll fill him in about you.”
The Olympia was and still is THE venue for this kind of performance. Plus I loved Chuck Berry. This was an assignment I would pay to do. Just to get a ticket for this performance at this stage would have been impossible. Chuck Berry was idolized everywhere, but especially so back then in France and for as long as I can remember I had admired his blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
Chuck’s energy on stage with his guitar was an integral part of him. He was ferocious, his style revolutionary, unique, and his songs were catchy works of genius. Songs like Sweet Little Sixteen, Memphis Tennessee, Maybelline, Roll Over Beethoven and You Never can Tell will last forever. Chuck Berry certainly deserves his title as ‘The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.’
“Tor conveys a deep affection and curiosity for people and place, witnessed in large part during
an era lived at a slower pace, in a pre-digital, pre-internet world, when there were possibilities
for deeper observation and insight.”
– Dennis Dimick, Executive Editor (Ret.) National Geographic
The next day found me in Paris entering his luxury five-star hotel. Asking for him at the reception I was put through to his manager who then put me through to Chuck himself.
“C’mon up,” he said. “I’m frantic at the moment,” he said. “We’re just getting organized for tonight.”
I entered his suite. Chuck jumped up. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans. We shook hands. He was friendly, polite, and business-like. A press pass was organized for me for the performance and then Chuck told me exactly where we were to meet up after his concert was over. He showed me a map of the Olympia building.
“I’ll get totally mobbed if I walk out the front. So, here is the back door. I will slip out of there with my sister and we’ll go get some dinner and relax and you can take a couple of photos if you want.”
Hard to believe, I thought as I left. I had actually met Chuck Berry and, thankfully, he made me feel at ease.
His performance that night at the Olympia was pure dynamite. A more receptive audience would be hard to find and Chuck responded with all he’d got, with SOUL! He ended up totally drenched in sweat after a number of encores. In the back of my mind, I wondered whether he would be able to do dinner after such total exertion. Just being in the audience, absorbing it, was joyfully draining!
Excited and a little anxious about dinner with a super celebrity, I walked out of the Olympia and around the building to a small, locked door around the back. And waited. And waited. I wondered if he might have been swept up into something else. A nervous half hour or so later, the door finally cracked open and out steps, Chuck, wearing a cap and casually dressed, followed by his sister, fortyish and also simply dressed. They were all smiles and, again, Chuck made me feel very much at ease. His sister Thelma, he told me, had arrived that very day from their hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
“Tor Eigeland is not only a great photojournalist, with an innate eye for detail, but
also a truly engaging storyteller.”
“I’m starving,” said Chuck. He had performed multiple times in Paris and knew exactly where he wanted to go. We hailed a taxi and, in outrageous French, Chuck gave the driver directions to a small restaurant in Montmartre. As it turned out he had picked a very neat, small American-style hamburger joint. The woman in charge remembered him, obviously fondly, and gave us an extra-spacious table.
“I don’t have time for all that fancy French stuff and complicated menus,” uttered Chuck to me. “I need some real food now.”
He ordered a Coke, some water and a hamburger “with the works.” His sister, a very modest, soft-spoken sort, and I joined him in ordering burgers. We also had a bottle of house red wine put on the table.
Along the way I discreetly shot a few photos and Chuck chatted very easily, telling me that it was the first time his sister had been out of the USA. She had hardly budged from their birthplace of St. Louis, Missouri. He said he felt very guilty about having ignored her and was trying to make up for it by inviting her to Paris.
“We haven’t even seen each other for many years.”
Chuck attacked his substantial hamburger with great gusto. We all did. Before he had downed the first one he waved to the woman in charge and ordered another.
“My weight literally drops a few pounds during the show,” he told us as he attacked the second big burger. “This one is as good as they get!”
Chuck and his sister were excitedly catching up after years of not seeing each other and Thelma was doubly excited, actually being abroad and in legendary Montmartre, Paris, France! Eating a burger...
We talked about the performance. Chuck said he loved playing in Paris as the audience was so appreciative. Now, finishing the second burger, he ordered apple pie ‘à la mode’ and we joined him in this. It turned out to be a truly substantial American-style apple pie with lots of ice cream on top. Both his sister and I were amazed and impressed when he ordered a second one.
And this is how I warmly remember Chuck Berry. After finishing the second apple pie he suddenly sort of faded, obviously very, very tired from the concert and decided it was time he headed back to his hotel, but he was not too tired to ask me if I needed a ride back to my hotel.
That was all a long time ago. In recent years I have had a couple of interesting music assignments. One was on the mournfully expressive Fado in Portugal and another was to cover a week-long Flamenco festival in Jerez. It was the real thing with its music and dance full of passion. Sessions could last all night long.
Especially notable on the music front, however, was a story close to home in France. It wasn’t long after we moved there that we discovered we lived only a couple of hours’ drive from Marciac.
Every year during the first two weeks of August, Marciac totally transforms from being a sleepy little rural town of some 1,200 inhabitants tucked away in southwest France into an amazing international jazz festival welcoming thousands of visitors. The musicians are the cream of the crop from around the world and music is everywhere. The general atmosphere is delightfully civilized and laid-back. Of course, I had to do a feature on Marciac and, by the time I did, we had been there a few times as a family for the pure joy of listening to live music.
Created in 1978, visitors flood into the little town from all over Europe and beyond. Music flows from everywhere all day long and well into the night from the bars and pop-up restaurants, the street corners and the main square. A huge marquee (le chapiteau), where all the big-name concerts take place, is erected on the town’s rugby pitch every year. This vast tent accommodates up to 6,000 fans every night. During the day, Marciac is a great place to just drift, especially as it’s invariably hot in August, to soak up the atmosphere of all the free ‘off festival’ concerts and to wander around a huge variety of stalls, many with an ethnic flavour. Daytime is very much a family affair.
Going back in time, immortals such as Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone and Ray Charles have graced Marciac’s main stage. One of the musicians who has been heavily involved in the festival for many years is Wynton Marsalis, who still shows up and plays on a regular basis, and also teaches sometimes at the local school, which specializes in music. Avisha Cohen, Chucho Valdes and Diana Krall are among the many other regulars, and in 2018 legendary Ahmad Jamal honored the town with his only concert of the year – playing brilliantly, said the reviews – at the age of 86.
Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander has also been part of the jazz scene in Marciac for years and even gives the occasional concert there in winter when, by chance, I got to know him casually. We were staying at the same little hotel and, getting up at seven in the morning for breakfast, there was only one other client there, and it was Monty.
In a jolly mood, he said: “Come join me!” We chatted about the previous evening’s concert, his travels, and his fondness for Marciac…
Extract taken from Tor Eigeland's Memoir - Stuff Happens Far from the Humdrum Life of a Photojournalist, Price £30.00. Published By Brown Dog Books.
About Tor Eigeland
Tor Eigeland is an internationally recognised photojournalist who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career contributing to such prestigious publications as Time, Fortune, The New York Times, Rutas del Mundo, Aftenposten, Aramco World Magazine, National Geographic Traveller, as well as ten book projects for the National Geographic Society’s Special Publications.
He is both a photographer and a writer. Broadly educated in Oslo, Montreal and Mexico, Tor then studied at the University of Miami’s School of Photojournalism under Wilson Hicks, renowned former Picture Editor and then
Executive Editor of LIFE Magazine - the magazine of the day.
Tor was born and brought up in Norway. He went on to live in Canada, Mexico, the U.S., Lebanon (Beirut), Spain, France and now England. He is a nomad at heart, speaking several languages, including some Arabic. He feels particularly at home in the Middle East and Hispanic worlds.
Modest about his achievements and having spent much of his time on the road, Tor has rarely exhibited his work. However, in 2013 he was invited by the Kon Tiki Museum in Oslo to show his photos from his time spent with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, having visited shortly after the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Tor’s unique photos of a lost civilisation, taken for a Time-Life book half a century before the marshes were destroyed by Saddam Hussein, were published in 2014 in his photo essay ‘When all the Lands were Sea’. Tor is also known for his photos of Fidel Castro, triumphant in Cuba, after the revolution in 1959. Tor’s final assignment was to Morocco in 2015, aged 84. In 2017 he held a retrospective of his work from his experiences with indigenous people. Since
then he has been working on his memoir from his home in Dorset.
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