Farewell Bob Willoughby
It’s with sadness that we have learned of the death of photographer Bob Willoughby over Christmas.
Bob was arguably best known for his work as a stills photographer on Hollywood film sets between the 1950s and 1970s where he pioneered an evocative, photojournalist style, capturing the biggest stars with a mixture of candor and glamor. But his other great passion was jazz and with his music images, he was a longstanding, and outstanding, contributor to Redferns.
Indeed it was through his music work, mainly on the blossoming West Coast jazz scene in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, that he seemed to hone his spontaneous approach, absorbing so much of its atmosphere into his style. It can be seen in this early image of Miles Davis, pictured around 1950 backstage at the Shrine Auditorium, caught resting momentarily after a performance – exhausted but still somehow effortlessly radiating cool.
Photo of Miles DAVIS; posed, backstage, holding trumpet – at Shrine Auditorium, during Gene Norman’s ‘Just Jazz’ Concert (Photo by Bob Willoughby/Redferns)
Even this early in his career, his ability to frame a fleeting moment with apparently staged precision was breathtaking. In this shot of Big Jay McNeely, performing around 1951, he froze not just a moment of performance but of reaction too, with the audience abandoned to the music.
Connecting his music and film work, Willoughby worked frequently with the various members of the Rat Pack, shooting their famous 1960 Las Vegas residency at Sands as well as a number of classic Frank Sinatra sessions, his style a perfect match for Sinatra’s 1950s image.
UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1960: Photo of Frank SINATRA and RAT PACK and Dean MARTIN and Sammy DAVIS JNR; L-R: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, ?Buddy Lester? – performing live onstage at Sands Hotel (Photo by Bob Willoughby/Redferns)
UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1950: USA Photo of Frank SINATRA – Posed – mid 1950s (Photo by Bob Willoughby/Redferns)
Though it is perhaps his session with Chet Baker, fittingly one of the most notable exponents of West Coast jazz, that best typifies the laid back but stylish atmosphere he was able to create in so much of his music photography. Taken during a recording session in 1953, it is a defining and much emulated set of images.
Bob Willoughby’s music images show an immense talent that seemed to emerge fully formed and that will be much missed.