In Charles Daniels’ modest home in Somerville, Massachusetts, on the outskirts of Boston, lie tens of thousands of undeveloped photos, sitting in molting canisters scrawled with cryptic markings and decaying instructions.
Most have been sitting there for over five decades, and while Daniels can’t be sure of everything that’s hidden in his trove, he knows for sure that much of it chronicles a pivotal moment in pop culture – when rock acts as impactful as the Who , the Faces, and Jimi Hendrix made their first mark in America.
As a young man in the 1960s, Daniels took pictures obsessively, shooting whatever caught his eye, wherever it wandered. By 1967, he had an enviable vantage point for that obsession, courtesy of the great amount of time he spent hanging out, and working as emcee, at the Boston Tea Party, a key venue in the psychedelic rock revolution.
Despite his proximity to history, however, Daniels never took his bounty seriously. “Most of what I shot, I just forgot about,” he said during a Zoom interview from his home. “We took a lot of things for granted at that time.”
In fact, it wasn’t until the isolation caused by the Covid lockdown that Daniels’ longtime companion, Susan Berstler, finally prodded him to begin the daunting task of having his work developed. The relatively small number of shots that have been developed so far demonstrate Daniels’ rare perspective on the stars of the day. “We all hung out together,” he said. “So I had an intimacy with the bands no one else had.”
It shows in the rough-hewn character of the photographs. Unlike the carefully lit, finely composed work of rock photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Henry Diltz or Jim Marshall, Daniels’ shots are more like the fly-on-the-wall snaps you’d get from a friend. As a result, they capture something more casual, close and real. “What’s unique about Charlie’s photos is that they show you what life was really like for a band on the road at that time,” said Steve Nelson, who booked and managed the Boston Tea Party during its peak. “Because he was a part of the crew, his pictures of him present the bands in a new light.”
The Tea Party was the perfect place to catch it. According to Peter Wolf, vocalist of the Boston-based J Geils Band, “the British groups would come to the Boston Tea Party to get their stuff together before they went down to Hartford, then to New Haven and then to New York, where the media was waiting for them. It was a testing ground.”
“It’s a shame the Tea Party never gets mentioned in the same breath as the Fillmores in San Francisco and New York because it was just as important,” said Ryan H Walsh, whose book Astral Weeks: The Secret History of 1968 centers on the Boston music scene of the time. “It was essential.”
A ‘visual diary’
How Daniels himself became an essential part of the scene reflects the attitudes of the era. The club never officially hired him as its emcee. He just naturally evolved into the role. “I was someone who was there every weekend on the scene,” Daniels said. “I knew the music. So when they felt they needed a little intro for the bands, as opposed to them just starting to play, it became easy enough for me to become the announcer.”
He first did so for Wolf’s pre-J Geils band, the Hallucinations, in 1968. “I met Charlie hanging out in Harvard Square, which was a cultural mecca,” said Wolf. “We would see each other at various shows and we became really tight.”
So much so that Wolf started to use Daniels as his foil on a radio show he hosted on Boston’s prime underground rock station, WBCN. Wolf let Daniels host on nights when he couldn’t make it back from a gig on time, and he gave him his nickname: “the Master Blaster”. Still, Daniels’ style of him as emcee and DJ eschewed the hyped-up tone that moniker implies. “Charlie’s style was very mellow and easy,” Wolf said. “He was welcoming to people, and that’s why I think he developed such a friendly relationship with the bands he photographed.”
For Berstler, Daniels’ immersion in Black music may also have played a part. “One of the reasons Charles made such an instantaneous connection with a lot of the British rockers was their love of Black music,” said Berstler. “For those guys, this music was something new. For Charles, it was something he grew up around.”
She thinks the fact that he wasn’t looking to publish his photos boosted his rapport with the musicians. As Daniels said: “This was just something I was doing for myself.”
Small wonder Berstler considers these pictures to be “Charles’ visual diary. One roll of film we got back made me laugh,” she said. “It was a few shots of whoever was his girlfriend of him at the time, some pictures of people on the subway and some people walking down Newbury Street and then towards the end of the roll are backstage shots of Pete Townshend and Keith Moon. So, this was less ‘Charles shot the Who’ than ‘this is Charles’ day’.”
His approach was so casual, said Wolf, that “some people began to joke that there was no film in his camera. He was taking so many shots that no one saw!” he said.
Daniels’ connection to photography began just as purely. Though he was born in segregated Alabama, Daniels grew up in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, where he began taking photos at age 12 or 13 after discovering a camera in his parents’ closet. “I just shot what was going on in the neighborhood,” he said.
He considered himself a street photographer, much in the manner of Bill Cunningham, who later became well known for shooting whatever fashion caught his eye on the streets of Manhattan. By the late 60s, when the counter-culture became generationally defining, Daniels found both his métier and his milieu de el. “Things were changing fast,” he said. “When the music started to change, it elevated everything.”
Resurrecting 3,200 rolls of film
He became so interested in the exotic new English musicians who started coming to town, he began to dress like them. “I became as visually interesting as they were,” he said.
He formed a special bond with the foppish and hard-partying Ron Wood and Rod Stewart, whom he first met when they were in the Jeff Beck Group. “Jeff was keeping most of the money and not giving Rod and Woody much of a salary so they quit and formed the Faces,” Daniels said.
To bolster their effervescent new image, the Faces had a bartender serve them drinks onstage during their shows and they asked Daniels to dance and play tambourine with them. “I became an onstage character,” he said.
They even invited him to travel in a Lear jet with them to gigs in other cities. “The rest of their entourage was sent on another plane,” said Berstler. “But Charlie was always on the jet.”
During one tour, she said, “Charles got chastised [by the tour manager] because he was spending more money on the road than Rod Stewart!”
“To be honest,” Daniels chuckled, “that never slowed me down.”
Clearly, Wood didn’t mind because, when he joined the Rolling Stones in 1975, he invited Daniels along simply to keep him company and covered all his expenses. “The roadies had to sleep four to five in a room,” he said. “But I always had my own room.”
One person who wasn’t thrilled about Daniels’ presence on the Stones’ tour was Annie Leibovitz, the tour’s official photographer. “She would go out of her way to make sure that I was not getting good photographs,” he said. “She She she would stand in front of me. But I was always going to get something.”
Much as he loved the Stones, his idol was Hendrix, so it was a dream when he was asked to introduce and shoot his show at Boston Garden. “They wanted to know how much to pay me,” Daniels recalled. “I said I would do it for free. But they paid more than anyone else had at the time: $200. I’d love to lay my hands on the film I took from that show.”
In the years following classic rock’s peak, Daniels remained a fixture at local shows. He was also hired by a blues and jazz club in Cambridge called Night Stage so that the largely Black artists who played there, including Etta James and Howlin’ Wolf, would feel comfortable in what was an overwhelmingly white environment. Later, Daniels made a humble living shooting dance and fitness videos. Several of his vintage photos of him were later published in a lavish coffee table book about the Faces and, in the last 20 years, he has twice exhibited his twork local galleries.
Over the last two years, Berstler has begun the development process with a local lab, which the couple paid with money from a local arts grant. Realizing the scope of the project, however, a friend set up a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of $40,000. It has raised more than $56,000, allowing Daniels to hire Film Rescue International, which specializes in such projects. Even for them, this remains an overwhelming task. With over 3,200 rolls of film – each containing either 12 or 36 shots, at 120mm or 35mm, respectively – that adds up to over 60,000 photos.
The project has buoyed Daniels’ spirits during a challenging time. At 79, he is undergoing chemotherapy for a blood disorder. His greatest hope for him is that the restoration project results in a book, something that never would have occurred to him back in the 60s when he was just living, and shooting, in the moment. “Now I take it a lot more seriously,” he said. “It’s incredible to think that all these things were just sitting there all this time, waiting to come back to life.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism