A Photographer to the Music Legends

Photographer John Lee

Photographer John Lee

At age 71, professional photographer John Lee is now retired and living at the Quail Hollow Senior Living Community in West Lebanon, NH. When he sits down to reminisce about his fascinating career as a professional photographer, musician and graphic designer, he not only invokes fond memories, but shares stunning photographs of some of the giants of the music industry.

After working in Nashville, Tennessee for 37 years John had established himself as the “go-to guy” when it came to photographing the national music scene and its giant super stars. Who else could state that they had lunch with the late Elvis Presley and his manager Colonel Tom Parker? How about the ability to call Country Western music legend Willy Nelson a personal friend? It was a breath-taking career that often took more turns than a Vermont scenic back road.

“I always had an interest in photography and considered it a real art form,” John explained. “I completed Art School at the New Phoenix School of Design in New York and got hired as a graphic designer by IBM at their corporate headquarters in Armonk, N.Y. While doing that, I got drafted into the United States Army where I was assigned as photographer for their various publications. While stationed in Germany, I was assigned five photographers to oversee.”

Upon completion of his military obligation, John’s love of music and photography took him straight to Nashville. It was a solid decision.

“While in the Army, I had been doing some freelance work with my photography and established contacts in the music business. I would photograph concerts and contribute to music publications. It wasn’t just Country Western performers that I concentrated on, but Rock ’n Roll, as well. I had the opportunity to photograph the Rolling Stones and The Who in concert, among others. That started to open doors.”

Once John became a fixture in the Nashville music scene, he quickly discovered that reaching out to the management of these famous entertainers was a formidable task with numerous obstacles. Basically, it boiled down to who you knew and how connected you became.

“The funny thing about the people who managed these music stars was the fact that they didn’t always put a lot of emphasis on the actual talent of a photographer. They would have friends that knew someone who took photos to do the work as a favor. Frankly, a lot of that work was terrible. I got established by selling my work to musical publications like the Country Music Magazine or the Vintage Guitar Magazine. That made all the difference in the world. People got to see my talent published and would ask specifically for me.”

There is a saying in life that “timing is everything.” John can relate to that old axiom. His arrival on the Nashville music scene coincided with the rapid rise in popularity of Country Western Music and the Rock ’n Roll scene as well.

“Things were happening so quickly in the music business that the demand for photographs for magazine articles and publicity purposes was staggering. Frankly speaking, a lot of the photographers on the scene were not very well-trained. My work had become established and it spoke for itself.”

John’s photographic skills were not restricted to music personalities. Auto racing had always been a passion, as well, and he allowed his camera to lead the way. He had the opportunity to record on film some of the legendary early NASCAR drivers and his pursuit of “the need for speed” helped him capture a memorable portrait of the incomparable Formula One driver, Jackie Stewart, who hailed from Dumbarton, Scotland. Stewart had set a record for Grand Prix wins with 27 before he retired.

John Lee photographed Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, among many other music stars.

John Lee photographed Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, among many other music stars.

“I had a love for auto racing for a long time,” John explained. It was an exciting sport to photograph. Most of the events took place on weekends so that allowed me to travel and photograph these events. Again, my work started to get noticed in this field, as well, and opened up many more doors.”

While John’s photography speaks volumes about the man, it does not paint a complete picture of his overall talents. He is also an accomplished musician, and living in Nashville only fostered his love of music.

“I played the drums and also taught myself to play the five-stringed banjo. I got pretty good on the banjo. But remember now, I was in Nashville, the center of Country Western music! I was surrounded by people who were making some pretty good music at the time. I still really enjoy music, but I think my photography carried me a lot further.”

After talking with John, one comes away with the impression that, without a doubt, the talented photographer and musician completed a fascinating career that many would envy. The burning question that arises quickly, how did he end up living in the Lebanon, NH area? He is a native of Baltimore, Maryland and his work carried him on a long journey.

“I have always loved New England and the lifestyle it offers. I often came up here on my own just to soak in the atmosphere. My son John moved to this region and I followed so I could be near family. I’ve been here 15 years and absolutely love the Upper Valley and what it has to offer. This is a great place to call home.”

by Dave Nelson