|At first, George Shuba thought it was a joke.
The fledgling photographer, fresh from four years of honing his craft in the United States Air Force (Air National Guard), was accustomed to more traditional assignments — developing industrial films for Standard Oil, or shooting weddings. So, when a representative from a local radio station walked into his Cleveland studio in 1964 and asked if he could take pictures of beetles, Shuba was skeptical.
“Why did we agree to photograph bugs?” he asked his business partner Don Brill, as the duo started to comb through encyclopedias about insects.
But, oh, what a difference an “a” makes — as in the Beatles.
WHK radio was sponsoring the group’s appearance at Cleveland’s Public Hall on September 15, 1964, and Shuba had just been hired to take photos of the Fab Four in concert.
“I put my red badge of courage on, and found out exactly what I would be doing,” the 71-year-old says today, as he describes that unforgettable night when Beatlemania swept through the city in the form of screaming teens and ranks of beleaguered police, who couldn’t fathom what all the pandemonium was about.
That assignment turned out to be the one that would change his life.
It led to Shuba becoming the city’s preeminent rock photographer for the next two decades, covering performances that served as the soundtrack to Cleveland’s music scene. Media outlets including WHK, WKYC and WIXY radio, The Cleveland Press and The Plain Dealer relied on his keen eye to provide coverage. He also photographed the acts who appeared on WEWS-TV’s legendary “Upbeat” show — including Simon and Garfunkel making their TV debut on November 5, 1967, as well as what turned out to be Otis Redding’s final performance on December 9, 1967, the day before he died in a plane crash.
“Cleveland was a trial-and-error city,” Shuba says. “If a group made a hit here, they could make it anywhere in the United States.”
Step into the photographer’s studio in Old Brooklyn and it’s yesterday once more, filled with images of a zoned-out Jim Morrison on stage at Public Auditorium; Jimi Hendrix executing a complex guitar riff before fans at Music Hall; and the Fifth Dimension beaming down from their perch at the base of Cleveland’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
“I can still hear the music in the back of my mind,” Shuba says. “We were in a revolutionary period. Something was bound to happen — and which way the music was going to go, no one really knew.”
Although his musical preferences were firmly ensconced in the ’50s (he professes a fondness for Patti Page and Pat Boone), Shuba was quick to recognize the talents of the new breed of icon on stage before him.
“Their movements were poetry in motion,” he says, “whether it was the wrinkling of Janis Joplin’s brow or the raising of Pete Townshend’s shoulder or the turn of Sly Stone’s head.” And he had barely more than a millisecond to capture that essence on film.
The images have become sought-after collectibles, treasured by legions of fans and the artists they revere. Neil Diamond used the shot Shuba took of him performing at Geauga Lake Park in 1967 for the inside cover of his 2003 “Stages” CD. In October, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will pay homage with a retrospective of Shuba’s work spanning the years 1964 to 1975.
“These photos,” he says, “are my legacy to the city of Cleveland.”
For more information about Shuba’s images, or to make an appointment to see them, call (216) 351-5080.