Rock and Rowland

Spreading his hands he does his signature “ta da” move.

by Trevor C. Hale

HONG KONG — Rowland Scherman is about to smash a perfectly good guitar. He and some VIPs are staged outside the Hard Rock Cafe’s newest venue, in Hong Kong’s hip Lan Kwai Fong district, preparing for the ceremonial smashing which will herald its opening.

Rowl, long time pal and iconic photographer, is visiting me in China. Once the Hard Rock brass saw the pics he agreed to donate, they asked him to join the guitar smashing.

Hundreds are there. The Grammy–award winning photographer, who at 74 years young and as spry and dry as ever, is usually more comfortable behind the lens. No matter. He’s a rock star in his own right.

His 15 minutes of fame began before Warhol coined the phrase. After being “discovered” by Jerry Moss (the “M” in A&M Records) in New York in the late 1950s, Rowl was being groomed to be the next Franky Avalon. “I had written a hit song. It was great, except I had incurable stage fright,” he recalls. “I’m more comfortable behind the lens, but to be honest, I’d rather have a song in the jukebox than to have shot the pic on the wall.”

Rowl signed with Co-Ed records and went on tour lip synching his song “Oh Darling” on a few shows, including Dick Clark and Name That Tune. As with many young stars, he developed a coke problem.

“I was on a cruise ship lip synching my record,” he said. “Andy Williams was the headliner. Someone handed me a Coke and said ‘Have a Coke,’ and I said, ‘No, I never touch the stuff. It rots your teeth.’ The cameras were rolling and the Coke PR person freaked out, telling me to drink it anyway and pretend you like it.  No one prepped me for that kind of thing. It was a dumb thing to say, and the end of the tour.”

Rowl is donating two of his most iconic prints to the Hard Rock.  The backlit Dylan profile silhouette, for which he won a Grammy in 1967, and a wide shot of the Beatles first concert in the U.S. which was a couple days after their gig on Ed Sullivan.

Pre-smash, a Hard Rock hottie is strapping a black People’s Liberation Army fighter pilot helmet on Rowl. Below the bright red star on its front, she lowers a visor to protect him from flying guitar shards. Once fitted, spreading his hands he does his signature “ta da” move, as much to entertain as to bring out the mirth of his subjects, captured with the ubiquitous camera in hand.

He is known to many as the proprietor of Birmingham’s original Joe Bar (living “the Bogart at Sam’s fantasy all men have”). He came to the ’Ham in 1978 as part of a group of artists working for the Birmingham Mural project. Having lived in London (on the way to India to meditate, he visited his sister in swinging London in the early ’70s and stayed seven years) he was fan of good pubs and good lager. He opened Joe Bar with his then–wife, Joyce at the northwest slice of the Five Points circle.

“We had great imported beer. People loved it. Vivaldi during the day and Bennie Goodman at night. It was a great time. I love Birmingham. Great people, great music, great food.” Rowl currently lives in Cape Cod doing portraits, and occasionally, retrospectives.

Favorite thing in B’ham?  “All my friends.  Especially Illa Faye Miller. She’s a treasure.  What a babe.” Illa Faye runs the Studio by the Tracks which helps disadvantaged children through art.

A national exhibition featuring famous rock and roll photography, called “They Shot Rock and Roll,” is on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art.  Incomprehensibly, none of Rowland’s pics are part of the show.

“These guys spent their whole lives shooting rock and roll. I got lucky with a few pics that are as historic as they are artistic, like Dylan at Newport, the Beatles in Washington and the pics at Woodstock.”

Rowl’s portfolio includes pics of JFK, RFK, Lyndon Johnson and MLK at his “I have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. His work transcends rock and roll.

Fellow B’ham icon Cathy Crenshaw will help showcase Rowl’s work when the show comes to the BMA.

It’s time for the VIPs to smash their guitars. Rowl gives us a huge grin, hamming it up for the cameras, shaking his guitar playfully above his head. After the countdown he’s the first off the blocks, destroying a Gibson in one long lumberjack swing. The other VIPs take longer, and Rowl has already stepped aside, capturing and savoring the moment, in front of and behind the lens.

Trevor C. Hale, a Cullman native, lives and works in Shanghai and is a proud board member of the Rowland Scherman Charm School for Men. He can be reached at

One Response to “Rock and Rowland”

  1. Cathy Winsor says:

    I remember Rowl from the 50’s! He was my best friend’s big brother and a sweetheart of my sister’s. His iconic work behind the camera was always astonishing. His breathtaking portraits have been seen everywhere. His father and mother were beyond proud of him, as were my parents and particularly my brother. My brother became a photographer for some time, but he just didn’t have what Rowl had. I remember being thrilled when we all heard “Oh Darling” on the radio. He’s a true Rennasance (sp?) man and I love him.

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