I Shot Frank Zappa
How I found myself in the WC with one of the most influential rock musicians of all time and waited forty-eight years to sell a poster, by photographer Robert Davidson
An excerpt from the forthcoming book, ‘I shot Frank Zappa’ by Robert Davidson.
Background: In 1967, I was working as the official photographer for Tony Secunda, rock group manager. Secunda was managing the Moody Blues, Procul Harum and the Move. One day, he mentioned an American called Frank Zappa. I had never heard of him before.
Tony was helping to promote Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, who were billed to perform at the Royal Albert Hall. This was part and parcel of an exchange with British bands – the Luddite Musicians Union had insisted that any American playing London had to be matched by a British artist playing the States. To even things up, The Move did an American tour. As Secunda’s trusty photographer, I was sent along to a press call at the Royal Garden Hotel in Knightsbridge, where Frank was staying. It was a posh, five-star hotel – very nice. On this occasion, he hadn’t come over with his band.
There was a private lift at the side that went straight up to his penthouse suite. When I arrived it was a sweltering day – 16th August 1967. One of London’s hot ones. There were about fifteen other people there. I waved to my friend Nick Jones from the New Musical Express. There were a couple of other photographers I recognised and a lot of press people from various magazines and newspapers. I settled in. It was quite smoky and hot. In those days you could smoke indoors.
There was an incredible hush as Frank entered the room. He had one of those auras that if you could bottle it, you could make a fortune. There was something about him, not just his looks. As he came into the room it fell silent. It was as if one was in the presence of somebody very special. He came in and sat down. Looked around. Somebody put up their hand and asked a question. When he gave the answer, he focused on the person he was talking to and answered the question fully and exactly. He made the interviewer feel as though they were being talked to and gave them the answer they wanted.
As the temperature increased in the crowd of dripping bodies, he said, ‘Excuse me,’ removed his shirt and carried on answering questions. He was then wearing tight brown patterned trousers and shiny winkle-picker shoes. I was wondering all the time, where a good location would be to shoot him. This was supposed to be for publicity, but I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do. Nobody was clicking away as he talked, it wasn’t like that – it felt more respectful. I had a Rolleiflex then, which meant you had to get fairly close to the subject – unlike a single lens reflex, where you could zoom in from a distance. To be quite honest, I felt somewhat intimidated by him. There was something about him. It felt as though it needed to be more than just a ‘happy snap’. So I wasn’t snapping, and neither did I see anyone else in the room taking pictures.
Then, Frank said, “Excuse me, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” He got up and disappeared. I began to wander around the apartment looking for a place to take the pictures. Walking down the corridor, I passed an open door and heard Frank’s voice. He was speaking on the telephone. I looked in and there in the bathroom suite, was Frank sitting almost stark naked on the lavatory. His trousers were around his ankles. I saw in the doorway the potential for a most perfectly framed photograph. I didn’t know who he was talking to, but it later turned out to be his wife, Gail, heavily pregnant with Moon.
It was an extraordinary sight – this gentleman seated naked on the toilet. I thought to myself, “That’s just the ticket for what I’ve been sent to do.”
I knocked on the open door and said,
“Please may I take a picture?”
There was a pause. He spoke into the mouthpiece,
“Some Limey wants to take a picture of me on the john.”
“Whatever turns him on.”
Frank finished his conversation with Gail and then looked towards me. I turned on my Mecablitz flashgun, making a high pitched squeal as it powered up. The light turned green and I took a shot. Realising immediately that the camera was set at an incorrect speed, I said,
“I’m terribly sorry, I got the settings wrong.”
“Take your time, it’s fine,” he replied in a relaxed tone.
So he sat there and posed. He was on the phone for a couple of the shots. Others without. And one sitting there looking sideways at me. This would be the picture I eventually used as a poster. Then he got up, pulling his trousers back on. I took him sitting in the bidet, standing up, and smoking a cigarette. A total of twelve shots.
“Well that was better than Queen magazine, ‘cause they came in and they wanted me wearing a shower cap.” said Frank. “It sure as hell beats that!”
And that was that. We rejoined the others, where I stayed to listen to the final questions.
I went back to my studio, developed the photos and discovered I had the most extraordinary pictures. The photo that I had taken from the side was by far my favourite, but all twelve were ‘keepers’. I told Tony,
“Hey, I’ve got some great shots.”
“Yeah, shame about that Robert,” he replied. “I’ve been trying to do a deal with that Herby Cohen. But he’s as tight as arseholes. I can’t get anywhere. He’s taking all the money and then wants more. I won’t be doing business with him.”
Crestfallen, I enquired, “What am I going to do with the pictures?”
“That’s your problem, Robert.”
I knew I wouldn’t get paid for any unused pictures. Not for the film, nor the printing. I probably wouldn’t even get my bus fare going there – that was Tony Secunda for you. “Right” I thought, “I’ve got a fantastic picture of this bloke” – whom I really liked, despite knowing very little about his music. “What shall I do next?”
The Frank Zappa Toilet Poster
It was then that I decided to produce a poster. A friend of mine was going out with Tony’s secretary, Elora. He is credited on the side of the poster saying, ‘Des Dale’ – designed by Dale. He put the curly whirlies all around. It was then printed in sepia. I put ‘© Loon’, as Patricia, my girlfriend at the time, thought that I was ‘a bit of a loon’. Then I had the image transferred onto copper printing plates at great expense. The minimum economic run was a thousand. This cost me an arm and a leg to get up and running.
I was very pleased with the result but I didn’t know whether the posters would sell. Not many people knew about Frank Zappa. It was a gamble.
One of my photos first appeared in the International Times, Issue 18 August 31-September 13 1967. That photo eventually became the Phi Zappa Krappa poster. But interestingly, that photograph was not the one I used. My favourite image was the sideways photograph, and this would become my poster.
Once I’d produced my poster, I went to Carnaby Street and left ten of them on sale-or-return in each poster shop. They were selling for about two bob. So I was making ten old pence for each one. I left them behind saying, “If you need any more, give us a ring and I’ll bring some round.” By the time I got home, two shops were already on the phone saying they’d sold out. Then, I knew that it was a seller. Next, I needed to find some more new places to sell it. It started to take off like a rocket. So, I found myself a distributor, called Osiris. Their name was then printed on the poster, alongside the other copyright details. They started to distribute it and all seemed to be going well.
The Toilet Poster agreement
Then one day, Danny Halperin from Osiris rang up and said “Frank is in back in England and has been in touch with us.” Apparently, he had been walking through Carnaby Street with the rest of his band, The Mothers of Invention. They saw a whole pile of posters. The band fell about laughing saying, “Look at this Frank.” He got really angry, because he didn’t realise the picture was going to be used as a poster. It was originally meant to be a promotional poster for the Royal Albert Hall gig. Apparently, he was demanding twenty per cent of the action. Danny said to me,
“Is that OK with you?”
“Perfect,” I said. “That’s wonderful.”
Feeling I was getting away very lightly, I continued “Is that all he wants?”
“Very well,” I said to them. “Give him twenty per cent from all the posters sold. Deal directly with him. Give me my money, and give him his twenty per cent.”
That was the deal struck with Danny on the telephone. I didn’t think any more about it.
About three months later someone from Osiris rang up and said
“Frank’s in town in about a week’s time.”
“Oh great, maybe I’ll go and see him.”
“Probably best not.”
“Well, he’s really angry.”
“Um, sorry man. We forgot to pay him his twenty per cent.”
A shiver went down my spine as I realised the seriousness of the situation. “Thanks for dropping me in the shit. I think that lot could be dangerous. You’ll get me killed.”
“Don’t be silly, man.”
Putting the phone down, I recalled a recent terrifying incident.
For some time I had been working at Mike Berkofsky’s studio. His studio was Smith’s Square, a cul-de-sac right in the middle of Soho, directly opposite the Windmill Theatre. When you drove down to the end there were garage doors facing you all around. There was only one way out. A week before Frank had arrived in town, Mike’s other assistant, who was female, had gone along to open up the studio. There in the cul-de-sac, she found someone crucified onto one of the garage doors. A turf war had been raging between the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, who covered the East End and the Richardsons, who ‘looked after’ the West End. This gentleman was obviously caught in the middle of something nasty. They had literally nailed him to the garage door. When she found him the next morning, he was not in a very good state. This was certainly a warning to me. In 1960s London, people didn’t write letters – they went round and ‘bopped’ you. They didn’t say, ‘Please could we please have our twenty per cent.’ They got heavy.
Herb Cohen sends the boys ’round, and how I still have both my hands
I signed myself out of the studio for a week and went into hiding. I said to my secretary Angie, “Look out. Take care of yourself. Something’s about to kick off. They won’t hurt you, but they might come looking for me.”
The following day, three enormous gentlemen arrived. They peered into the cars parked outside the studio. Then Angie saw them coming up. One of them was “the largest brute” she had ever seen. She said he was so big he couldn’t get in the door. The other two also looked really menacing, making her feel very nervous. She rang me up, saying
“Those gangsters did turn up.”
“What did they want?”
“They want the negatives. They want the printing plates. They want all the existing posters that have been printed. And they want a sum of money. A seriously large amount of money.”
“Jeez. When do they want it?”
“They want it tonight.” By now it was the afternoon.
“They want it by tonight?” I asked, “What happens if…?”
Angie said that that was the question she asked.
“What happens if Robert doesn’t come up with the goods?”
She elaborated, “This big gentleman was cleaning his nails with a flick knife. He made a sort of cutting motion across his wrists. Indicating that you would have a hand chopped off, if you didn’t come up with the goods. He did in fact ask, ‘Are you right or left handed?’ I think it’s probably best that you do what they ask.”
“Yeah.” I agreed. “Definitely a good idea.”
And that’s what I did. I collected the negatives and the prints and plates. I went and borrowed the money. It was too late to try getting any money from Osiris. To all intents and purposes, it was extortion with menaces, but I couldn’t quibble over definitions. It was look-out time for me. The general climate of fear meant that I couldn’t go to the police. I was petrified. I realised that I couldn’t avoid this. They knew where my studio was located. There was no way I could run to ground. They hadn’t found me this time, but one day there’d be a tap on my shoulder.
“You Robert Davidson?”
Chop-Chop – or whatever. I could imagine the scenario. However, I’d rather have my hands than a million quid, thank you very much. It was a no-brainer. I took all my stuff directly to Herb Cohen. They were staying at the Royal Garden Hotel again, and were due to go to Paris the next day. I took everything they wanted. I didn’t keep any copy-negatives, no prints, no nothing. I left it all at reception. And that was that.
I always felt it a shame, that Frank had thought I had profited from the poster. In fact, although the pictures were already enormously popular, I hadn’t earned a penny from them. And, despite the efforts of his management, due to the vast amount of pirated reproductions already produced, nor did Zappa.
However, over the following five decades, merchandising of the poster made a fortune.
‘Zappa Krappa’ – an iconic poster
“The proliferation of the unconventional image, with poster reproductions reaching into the millions, propelled this intimate portrait of Zappa into the fabric of pop culture.”
The Frank Zappa ‘Toilet Poster’ was affectionately known to fans as ‘Zappa Krappa’. It went on to become one of the biggest selling posters in rock and roll history. Throughout his life, Frank would say that this image was better known than either him or his music.
“I’m probably more famous for sitting on the toilet than for anything else that I do.” Frank Zappa, Nationwide, July 1, 1983
Being my favourite and most popular work, I never forgot about those images. I always hoped to reclaim the negatives. Without them, I was unable to prove copyright ownership. I was astounded to read the caption underneath the poster at the V&A exhibition of 2006, which announced- Photographer Unknown. Unless I took matters into my own hands, I was destined to become that bloke responsible for all manner of works of art and music – ‘Anon’. I made various attempts to reclaim my negatives, but I wouldn’t see them again for forty-eight years.
‘Zappa Krappa’ photo series found, almost half a century later
In March 2015, Herb Cohen, Frank Zappa’s manager, died aged 77. I received an email from Javier Marcote, a Spanish Zappa fan. Five years previously, Marcote had heard me speak about my desire to reclaim the negatives. He told me that he had learned that the negatives were to be sold online by Los Angeles pop memorabilia company, Rockaway Records.
I phoned them and told them my story. Rockaway kindly agreed to sell me the 10 surviving negatives for a token fee. “We had bought them from the Herb Cohen estate,” said Mark Steckler of Rockaway. “We are just glad that Robert Davidson could get them back.”
Almost half a century after I thought I had lost them forever, my negatives came back to me.
Frank Zappa by Robert Davidson – Exhibitions
Whitebank Fine Art showed the Frank Zappa photo series by Robert Davidson in July 2017, in a photographic exhibition – ‘Zappa and Hendrix: Unseen Portraits 1967-2017’ – alongside images of Jimi Hendrix, by Mike Berkofsky.
“Whitebank Fine Art is delighted to present its first photographic exhibition, featuring unseen original portraits of two giants of music, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix. Photographers Robert Davidson and Mike Berkofsky have spent the better part of half a century searching for their lost negatives. It is therefore a privilege to be exhibiting these original photographs exactly fifty years from when they were first captured.”
Limited edition fine art prints from the photo shoot with Frank Zappa at The Royal Garden Hotel in London are available from Whitebank Fine Art. Please click on the link above to explore the works, and contact Whitebank to purchase.
Buy official Frank Zappa ‘Zappa Krappa’ posters by Robert Davidson
Now, for the first time, the Frank Zappa Toilet Poster is available to buy directly from the photographer. These posters are reprinted true to the original 1960s design and are the only official prints of this iconic image.
For enquiries about my photography, prints, talks or anything else, please send me a message!