Burton Wilson’s camera was Austin’s memory during the hippie era, documenting the vibrant scene at the Vulcan Gas Company in the 1960s and the Armadillo World Headquarters in the 1970s. The former Vermont farmboy passed away Monday morning (June 2014) at age 95.
Wilson got it down while those around him were only concerned with getting down and in the process, created the defining images of an enchanting era in Austin’s history.
“I was a huge fan of the early years of New Orleans jazz, but there was almost no visual documentation of that era,” Wilson told me in 2007. “I knew that if I ever discovered a magical music scene, it would be my calling to document it. The hippies were doing something that had never been done before and I was smart enough to realize that it was something special.”
You almost never see any pictures from the Armadillo not taken by Burton Wilson who, at age 51, approached the club’s honcho Eddie Wilson, then half his age, for permission to take photos at the new longhair haven in 1970. Burton promised two things: to stay out of the way and to provide copies of any photos.
A student of Depression-era photographer Russell Lee, who taught the first photography classes at the University of Texas in 1965, Burton Wilson learned to be as unimposing as possible, to use only available light. His Nikon became one with his body, as he fashioned a mini-tripod that sat on his chest and hooked onto his belt. He was a curiosity in the hippie love den, an old man so trusted that many of the ‘dillo female regulars posed for nude photographs during the day.
The anti-paparazzo, Wilson displayed the utmost respect for his subjects and was rewarded with the relaxed, unguarded and generally warm backstage shots that became his specialty.
“I think a lot of the musicians liked me because I didn’t pose them,” Wilson said. “And I didn’t take a lot of shots like you see them do now. I had to buy my own film, so if I felt like I got a good shot, that was it.”
One such single click landed Wilson the cover photo of Johnny Winter’s 1967 debut album, The Progressive Blues Experiment. The local Sonobeat Records had hired Wilson to shoot a standing pose of Winter in front of a white background. “They were very definite about what they wanted,” Wilson said. “But when I had one last exposure, I wanted to try something else. Johnny picked up his National steel guitar and you could see the reflection of his face, so I snapped the photo.”
Sonobeat sold the recording and the artwork to Imperial Records, which chose Wilson’s arty shot for the front cover and used the posed photos on the back.
The photograph he called “my Mona Lisa” was taken at the end of a long day in East Austin with Mississippi blues singer Big Joe Williams, best known for “Baby Please Don’t Go” and his nine-string guitar. The stoic shot of the big proud, troubled man having a cigarette after supper at the Victory Grill, was a favorite of mentor Lee’s.
Wilson was in his mid-40s when he took up photography. A 1941 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Wilson had a setback in his goal to become a world-class sculptor when an artillery blast in World War II nearly killed him, leaving him unconscious for 21 days.
Burton and Katherine Wilson, his wife of 70 years, moved from Dallas, her hometown, to Austin in the late ’40s. “Austin was just a small town back then, so we bought 15 acres in West Lake Hills, off Red Bud Trail, and built our house,” Wilson says. He was living on his disability check and making and selling pottery with Katherine when he heard in 1965 that the Russell Lee would be teaching at UT. “It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up,” said Wilson, who became good friends with Lee. Like Wilson, Lee was a northerner who had married a Dallas woman, which brought him to Texas.
Wilson had heard about the Vulcan Gas Company from his son Minor, a guitar player and repairman who was friends with Janis Joplin, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Grateful Dead and others. But it was the bookings of nascent blues players such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes and Mississippi Fred McDowell that first drew Wilson to the Vulcan.
A folk and blues record collector, Wilson donated his 78s and rare LPs to the Center for American History in the ’90s and had the music returned on 38 reel-to-reel tapes. Wilson kept meticulous records of what was on those tapes, just as he did with all his photographs.
His organization was so precise, he actually helped solve the 1975 killing of Armadillo bouncer and poster artist Ken Featherston, who was shot to death by a patron who had been prevented from leaving with an open container and vowed revenge. Armadillo security chief Dub Rose recalled that, a couple years earlier, he had a scuffle with a man who fit the killer’s description and turned him in to police. Rose remembered that Wilson had taken a picture of him wearing a new cowboy hat the night of that fight. Wilson was able to produce the date of the photo, and the killer was identified through his police mug shot from the earlier incident.
Wilson had stories to go with almost all his photos, including the shot of Bruce Springsteen, then 24, wearing an airbrushed shirt depicting a woman wearing only a top hat, coattails and a smile. “Rosie,” it said, perhaps in reference to Springsteen’s showstopper at the time, “Rosalita.” Or maybe one of the two women desperately trying to get backstage to give the shirt to the man not yet known as “the Boss” was named Rosie.
“I knew one of the women,” Wilson recalled, “so I told the guard it was OK to let them back. They made Springsteen take off his shirt and put on the one they had made for him and I asked if I could take a picture.” Springsteen’s priceless expression is a mix of quizzical and defiant. He wore the “Rosie” shirt throughout the three-hour show, but had sweated away the airbrushed design and at the end of the night the T-shirt was blank.
Just as a huge chunk of Austin’s history would be if not for a charming gentleman who promised to stay out of the way.
(This is a chapter from “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” by Michael Corcoran (UNT Press 2017)