In the music business, they often refer to performers as “the talent” and their recordings as “product.” Dick Waterman, the Boston-bred agent, promoter, and photographer who died Jan. 26 at age 88, saw the musicians he represented as something else — friends.
I’m deeply sorry to mark the passing of my friend, Dick Waterman, who made such a huge impact on the lives and careers of so many great blues artists, championing them as people as much as their music, booking and managing them with great care, integrity and skill. He gave me my start as well, going on to book and represent me for 15 years. He was also a renowned photographer who published a book and his wonderful photographs of some of our most legendary roots artists… He was an incredible storyteller, popular columnist in the local Oxford (Mississippi) Eagle and packed a great deal into his 88 years. We are so sorry to lose him and I am deeply grateful for the gifts he gave me and the life he lived. My sincere condolences go to his wife Cinda and all his family.
Dick published a book of rare photographs and personal recollections called “Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive” in 2003. While the book itself is out of print, you can learn more about it here: http://tinyurl.com/yduhh6sa and read an excerpt (below) from the preface I was honored to contribute.
To learn more about his life, you can check out his biography, “Dick Waterman: A Life In Blues” written by Tammy L. Turner. https://www.upress.state.ms.us/Books/D/Dick-Waterman
My friendship with Dick developed as closely as did the ones with the many blues artists we both adored. Through his connection I received the education and gift of a lifetime, hanging and learning about life and the music from all my heroes as well as being given a job I’d love for the rest of my life. Within a couple of years, I was opening for his acts and Dick went on to manage me for the next fifteen years.
While so many mostly white, middle class Blues aficionados seem to obsess about only the actual Blues recordings, huddling around their hallowed 78s, speaking in hushed tones about this or that obscure song, the living, breathing scions of the music walk among us. Often forgotten, neglected and long occupied in jobs other than music– farmer, porter, you name it, ..having given up on the idea of recognition of making a living in music, suddenly their lives are transformed by being ‘rediscovered’ during the heralded Folk/Blues revival of the mid-1960s.
After starting his own management and booking agency, Avalon Productions, Dick knew the meaning of rent money, medical bills, proper billing and payment. How to get a person from some small town in the Delta up to the big east coast cities for the gigs and back. He knew how to help these often rural, unsophisticated geniuses fare in the alien, impossibly whirlwind world of the folk/blues festival and concert circuit.
By gathering so many greats under one roof, Dick was able to collectively bargain to ensure each artist got to play the best gigs and be paid what they deserved. He steadfastly guarded every aspect of his artists’ professional life and was often the family’s solid rock during personal crises as well.
For helping raise the quality of life for so many artists with whom he worked, for reminding the white progeny of these mighty scions wherein their debt lies, for refusing to compromise probably at the expense of his own advancement, taking the high road and loving the people as well as the music, Dick has helped shepherd the Blues to a place in history truly befitting its worth.
For this, and for the gift that are these extraordinary images and reminiscences brought together in this book, we thank you.
Born in Plymouth and educated as a journalist at Boston University, Waterman fell into the folk scene in Cambridge in the early 1960s. His role in rediscovering the long-lost musician Son House in 1964 led to a lifetime in the blues.
Waterman brought several living legends to the Newport Folk Festival. He befriended the Rolling Stones and shot rolls of photos of a young Bob Dylan. He got Arlo Guthrie his first gig and encouraged Bonnie Raitt to launch her career. In 2000, he became one of the first non-performers inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
After he published “Between Midnight and Day” (2003), his book of photographs of Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, and many more, Waterman told “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross that he had a hard time listening to his friends’ records after they were gone.
“It’s more than music to me,” he said. “When I hear these men, I remember their after-shave lotion. I know what they drank. I know what kind of cigarettes they smoked.
“When I listen to them, they don’t come to me as musical notes. They come back to me as people.”
Waterman grew up in an affluent Jewish household. His father was a doctor: “He got up in the morning and made sick people not sick,” Waterman recalled in “Dick Waterman: A Life in Blues” (2019), a conversational biography written by Tammy L. Turner.
He wanted to be a sportswriter but found himself covering the folk scene around Club 47, the small Cambridge coffeehouse that would become Passim, for Dave Wilson’s biweekly newsletter Broadside. While covering Newport for the National Observer in 1963, he was “totally captivated” by Mississippi John Hurt, a blues singer and guitarist who had recorded in the 1920s, then “vanished” for decades.
Waterman began helping Hurt, McDowell, and others land engagements in and around Boston, including a packed weeklong run for Hurt at Cafe Yana near Fenway Park, which serendipitously took place just days after Hurt appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” A few years later, Waterman would name his burgeoning agency Avalon Productions after Hurt’s hometown.
In June 1964 Waterman joined fellow blues enthusiasts Phil Spiro and Nick Perls on a drive to Mississippi, in pursuit of a tip that Son House — a contemporary and friend of Charley Patton, the “Father of the Delta Blues” — was alive and well and had been spotted in Memphis. House had given up music in the 1940s and was using his given name, Edward.
Traveling in a Volkswagen Beetle with New York plates, they picked up a local minister who was an old acquaintance of House. On the backroads they encountered some hostility, as Waterman recalled in Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney’s “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” (1979), the definitive book about the Cambridge folk years. This was the Freedom Summer, when white students from the north were volunteering in Mississippi to encourage Black citizens to register to vote.
When the Reverend Robert Wilkins got out of the car to ask for directions to a connection’s home, Waterman recalled, two “big, heavy, beefy, red-faced guys” stared at him, and then “spat straight down in contempt.
“They just looked at him, full of loathing and hatred. The air just crackled. They finally said, ‘Third farm down,’ and they turned and walked away.”
The day the group cracked the code about House’s whereabouts — he was actually living in Rochester, N.Y. — was the same day the activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Those parallel stories were told in “Two Trains Runnin’,” a 2016 documentary from director Sam Pollard that aired on PBS.
Though House in his younger years had been an influence on both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, Waterman soon learned that he’d forgotten how to play his own songs. He enlisted his friend Alan Wilson, the blues-crazy Arlington native who would soon cofound the band Canned Heat, to work with one of his heroes.
“They sat knee to knee with their guitars,” Waterman told Terry Gross. “So really, Al Wilson taught Son House to play Son House.”
During his Cambridge years, Waterman was known as the man to see if you were hoping for an audience with the masters of the folk blues. He’d grown up, as Turner points out in her biography, in a house “with a pineapple, the symbol of hospitality, ornamenting the front door.”
In his 2020 book “Looking to Get Lost,” the music historian Peter Guralnick recounts his awkward visit with Skip James at Waterman’s apartment.
James, another historic figure who’d just been rediscovered, made music that “struck me as unfathomably strange, beautiful, and profound,” Guralnick writes. Despite the fact that the shy 21-year-old had never interviewed anyone before, “I felt an obligation to seek him out.”
Waterman introduced Raitt, who was similarly mesmerized by the elder bluesmen, to House, McDowell, and Howlin’ Wolf. In fact, the two blues fans, Waterman and Raitt, kissed for the first time in a car outside MIT’s radio station, where they’d taken Buddy Guy for an interview. Their romance didn’t last long, but their professional relationship carried on for years.
Over time, Waterman had plenty more adventures in music. In the early 1970s he booked the acts at Joe’s Place in Cambridge, where a young, all-but-unknown Bruce Springsteen became a regular. Van Morrison once asked Waterman to be his manager. (He declined.) When John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were forming the Blues Brothers, they consulted Waterman for help in putting the band together.
For Waterman, who lived his last decades in Oxford, Miss., it always came back to the blues. Driving back east from California with Son House during a 1965 tour, he found WBZ’s 50,000-watt broadcast on the dial somewhere in the Midwest and tuned into Jefferson Kaye’s Sunday folk program. When the DJ played House’s newly recorded version of “Death Letter,” Waterman had to explain to his passenger that he was hearing himself on the radio.
“I had a surge of just being elated,” Waterman recalled. “It was like the greatest three minutes of my life.”