Capturing images of a musical icon
Updated: Dec 20, 2018
WNY native Jeff McEvoy has spent 20 years photographing Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys
Here is a scene from the late 1970s: Lewiston teenager Jeff McEvoy and a friend trekked to Record Theater on Main Street in Buffalo to meet members of the Beach Boys, who held an autograph session when their tour stopped in Western New York.
Despite his youth, McEvoy had been a Beach Boys fan his whole life, thanks to his father, Blair, who constantly played surf music and Kingston Trio records on the family turntable. Those harmonies took root, and young Jeff became enamored with the sounds.
“My friend got a visor signed by (late drummer) Dennis Wilson, and I shook hands with Carl Wilson and Al Jardine,” McEvoy recalled decades later. He and his pal, Jeff Robbins, were awestruck to meet musicians they admired. “I was too scared and nervous to really talk to them. For those guys, it was obviously nothing, but to a young kid, meeting them was huge.”
McEvoy’s love for surf music only deepened.
Today, at 55, McEvoy lives a dream he never could have imagined when he stood in that snaking line at Record Theater.
For the past twenty years, McEvoy has traveled the country as the official photographer for Brian Wilson, founding member of the Beach Boys. He has become friends with his musical heroes, attending concerts, sharing dinners, sightseeing, and accompanying them to promotional events.
He still marvels that Brian Wilson and his wife, Melinda, will request that McEvoy fly to a spot like Bangor, Maine, to photograph a show.
“I’m always welcome, and when I’m with them I feel like part of the gang,” McEvoy said. “They are all really great guys. I’ve never had a negative experience.”
McEvoy’s full-time job is Photographic Services Supervisor for the United States Senate. Over the years, he has taken photos of nearly every politician who passed through Washington, D.C. Search for McEvoy online, and you may find a photo of a Supreme Court nominee under questioning by the Senate. But it’s just as likely you’ll discover Brian Wilson behind a piano, or the Beach Boys gathered around microphones on a lighted stage. Traveling with the band has been a dream realized for a self-described “super fan.”
“I’ve never taken money [from the band],” he said. “If someone pays for my flight, it’s appreciated, but everything I’ve ever done has been about the music. It’s my way of giving back for all the years of listening to Beach Boys songs.”
After graduating from Lewiston-Porter High School in 1981, McEvoy spent seven years in the Army as a photojournalist. While stationed in Europe, more than once, he traveled to a neighboring country to watch the Beach Boys perform. He cannot pinpoint the total number of shows he has attended, but McEvoy claims to have seen the Beach Boys live at least once every year since 1976.
During his time in the Army, while stationed in Washington, D.C. in 1984, McEvoy and a friend camped out on the National Mall the night of July 3. The following day, they joined a crowd estimated at more than 500,000 to watch the Beach Boys in concert with Ringo Starr, the former Beatles drummer who took a guest turn with “America’s band” playing “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
The Beach Boys had performed on the Mall for Independence Day celebrations in the early 1980s, but in 1983, then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt banned the group, saying their fans drew the “wrong element” to the Capital. (That year’s holiday concert featured Wayne Newton instead.) The following summer, however, the Beach Boys were invited back.
“Nancy Reagan put the kibosh on that,” McEvoy laughed. President Reagan and the First Lady, former Californians, were fans of surf music.
The day was important for another reason. Carrying his military photojournalism credentials, McEvoy wandered backstage, hoping to encounter Brian Wilson. While he never found the band’s creative leader, McEvoy spoke with a young man holding a guitar, asking directions to Wilson’s dressing room.
Although McEvoy didn’t recognize the guitar player, he remembered him when they met again fourteen years later — a meeting that would shape the path of McEvoy’s career. But first he needed a full-time job.
After leaving the Army in 1989, McEvoy again found himself in Washington, D.C. attending an outdoor rally.
“I saw a bunch of press photographers walking by,” McEvoy recalled. “I stopped one and asked if there were any job openings. They said a guy had just retired from the Senate. I didn’t even know the Senate had photographers. So on a cold call, I walked up Capitol Hill with my portfolio and was hired.”
Catching the Wave
For several years, he navigated the ins and outs of Washington. It wasn’t until 1998 when McEvoy finally made a connection that would lead to Brian Wilson.
“There was a surf band from California called Papa Doo Run Run that was coming to D.C. to play a private event,” McEvoy said. “I sent an email to the band leader, saying I was a photographer and loved that music. If there was any way I could come and take pictures, I hoped to do it.”
McEvoy was invited to sound check, where he recognized the guitar player he had spoken with backstage all those years ago. It was Jeffrey Foskett, who had performed with the Beach Boys in the 1980s and now sang falsetto in Papa Doo Run Run.
“He didn’t remember me,” McEvoy said. “He started playing songs on his guitar, and I was naming them off, and he asked me to stay for dinner with the band. I got to sit down with all of them, and they started talking about shows where they backed up Jan and Dean. Listening to this, I was like a kid in the candy store.”
McEvoy sent photos from that night to Foskett, who also served as Brian Wilson’s musical director. Foskett noticed McEvoy’s work featured a similarity to famed rock and roll photographer Henry Diltz, who shot iconic images of the Doors, the Eagles, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and David Cassidy.
“A few months later, Jeffrey (Foskett) called me up,” McEvoy said. “Brian Wilson was going out on his first ever solo tour in 1999. He asked if I would like to be the official tour photographer. I waited for about half a second, then said yes. I didn’t even check with my boss. I figured I had enough leave time to make it work.”
As McEvoy processed his good news, he realized he wanted to share the experience with his father, the man who had introduced him to Beach Boys music all those years ago.
“I called Jeffrey back and asked if I could bring someone on the road with me,” McEvoy said. “I heard the hesitancy in his voice, until I admitted I wanted to bring my dad. Then he said, ‘Absolutely, that’s so cool.’”
Blair McEvoy, now 74, spent 32 years working at Engine Four for the Niagara Falls Fire Department until his retirement in 2004. During his stint in the Army, he had been a singer, and later taught his son about photography when Jeff was young.
“Jeff called and asked what I was doing in June,” Blair said. “I told him I’d probably be working.”
“Can you get time off? How would you like to travel with me while I photograph Brian Wilson?”
The McEvoys studied the tour schedule. There would be stops in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. As excitement grew, McEvoy recognized this would be unique for several reasons.
“I realized in my whole thirty-some years, I had never been alone with my dad for more than a couple hours, let alone several weeks. Growing up with siblings, there was rarely any one-on-one time. What were we going to do driving to all these places and staying in hotel rooms?”
Father and son agree that everything went better than they had hoped.
“My biggest thrill was traveling with my son that year,” Blair reflected. “We were in Foxwood Casino in Connecticut on Father’s Day. I was on the road with Jeff and he was working for Brian Wilson. You’ve got to be kidding. In Cleveland, we were eating chicken wings with Brian in a hotel room at two in the morning, and Jeff Foskett said, ‘you guys are really in.’ Another time, it was just Brian, my son and I, and Brian was diddling out songs at a piano. He turned to me and asked what I’d like to sing. The three of us broke into ‘Surfer Girl’ and I thought it was just unbelievable. The thing is, we never tried to exploit anything or expect anything. A lot of people do.”
Foskett, who has worked alongside McEvoy for twenty years, appreciates the photographer's professionalism.
"Obviously working as a Senate photographer for decades, he would develop a great eye for detail. He also learned discretion. That’s very important. Jeff is part of the inner circle with several different acts that I work with. He has heard — or overheard — many confidential discussions and has never leaked information. He is a trustworthy man and his heart is as big as his bicep."
Walk the Line
There have long been two Beach Boys camps. The official band is fronted by vocalist Mike Love, Wilson’s cousin and co-writer of hits such as “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Help Me, Rhonda.” They still tour as the Beach Boys. Wilson, credited as the creative genius behind nearly every hit, is also known for melancholy reflective songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” and “Caroline, No.” He has recorded under his own name since 1988. (Wilson’s life was the subject of the 2014 movie “Love and Mercy.”)
In 2012, Wilson rejoined the Beach Boys for their 50th anniversary, recording an album, “That’s Why God Made the Radio," with Love, Jardine, and past members Bruce Johnston and David Marks. McEvoy attended 15 concerts that summer, posting photographs online. At the end of the tour, however, the reunited Beach Boys split again, returning to their separate camps.
Fans are divided: some prefer Wilson's innovate vocal harmonies and chord changes, while others gravitate toward the classic party songs that the Beach Boys perform regularly. By 2014, Foskett left Brian Wilson’s band and rejoined the Beach Boys.
“When Jeffrey changed bands, I was able to take pictures with both,” McEvoy said. “With my personality, it’s easy to straddle the line between the camps.”
Wilson’s passionate fans are quick to vilify Love, who has criticized the people around his cousin despite expressing affection for the man. McEvoy doesn’t see it that way.
“I drove Mike Love and Jeffrey to the Walter Reed Medical Center so they could meet with wounded warriors and their families and sing songs for them,” McEvoy said. “Mike was with his wife, Jackie, and daughter, Ambha. You read all these negative things about Mike, but when you chat with him, all that goes out the window. He’s a down-to-earth guy. He cares deeply about Brian. There’s a genuine love there. I can’t say why there’s a rift, but it’s disappointing.”
Let Him Run Wild
When he is photographing a concert, McEvoy may shoot 2,000 photos. He then culls the best and emails them to band management. Along the way, he has an up-close view of one of America’s most prolific composers.
Wilson is consumed by music; his mannerisms can be confusing to strangers, and even those close to him.
“To me, Brian Wilson is a 76-year-old man who is still a teenager at heart,” McEvoy noted. “I don’t mean that in a negative sense. He has an ability to goof around and sway people, but if he doesn’t want to talk with you, he won’t. He’ll zone you right out. When you catch him in a mood where he wants to talk, it’s amazing to witness his mindset.”
Wilson has always been a prankster. McEvoy once watched him walk into a room backstage, take a single bite from every cookie on a tray, then return the uneaten remains to the plate. Another time, he wandered away before a show to sit alone at the bar in front of the theater. Once, without speaking, he grabbed a stranger’s beer and guzzled it. (McEvoy offered to pay the stranger, but the man refused, happily incredulous that he had been singled out by Brian Wilson.)
After one show, the band sat down to a spaghetti dinner. Wilson, fork poised, yelled across the table.
“Hey Biggie,” he said, addressing McEvoy by his nickname, ‘Biggie Mac.’ “I want you to take a picture of me doing this.”
Turning his face toward the ceiling, Wilson proceeded to drop a gigantic ball of pasta into his open mouth.
“It went all over his chin and face,” McEvoy laughed. “He thought it was the funniest thing. I still have that photo.”
During a scene from the movie “Love and Mercy,” the actor playing Wilson shoves an entire hamburger into his mouth. McEvoy laughed when he saw that, because he had witnessed Wilson doing the same thing in person.
Despite the antics, Wilson is also curious and inquisitive. As tour photographer, McEvoy is allowed free reign at a concert. No one tells him where to stand or when to shoot. Once, before a show, Wilson called him over.
“Biggie,” Wilson asked, “how many photos will you take tonight?”
“Probably fifteen hundred,” McEvoy replied.
“Fifteen hundred?” Wilson repeated, incredulous. “Goddamn! Fifteen hundred?”
“He needed to process that,” McEvoy explained. “In Lowell, Mass., he was onstage, and stopped the concert. He said, ‘I want to dedicate tonight’s show to my photographer friend, Biggie.’ I had heard him dedicate a show before to his wife, Melinda. I was in the balcony with my camera, and I was stunned. A woman in the audience tapped my shoulder, asking if I was Biggie. Yeah, I told her meekly. The thing with Brian is, whatever hits his brain at the moment, he lets it go.”
When he first began touring as a solo artist, Wilson worried about fans’ reactions. McEvoy heard him come offstage, concerned whether people liked the concert.
“The crowds were going nuts, but he was looking for affirmation,” McEvoy said. “I tell people, don’t expect to see Brian Wilson from 1964 singing the high parts to ‘Don’t Worry, Baby.’ If you’re a purist, you want to see all those instruments. You want to see six different tambourines, a bass harmonica, with no pre-recorded keyboard tracks. He may close his eyes and feel the music and sounds. He may look like he’s lost, and sometimes he may not even sing. But the beauty is, you’re getting a chance to see the man enjoy the music he created.”
I Get Around
Traveling with Wilson’s band serves as an escape from reality for McEvoy.
“It’s a welcome relief from the madness on Capitol Hill,” he admitted. “The band will be amazed I drove five hours to see their show, but I say, are you kidding me? I can zone out during the ride and get to listen to my favorite music and hang out with you guys.”
His connections have led McEvoy to photograph other musicians, including the bands Chicago and America. Because of Wilson’s stature, fellow celebrities flock to him, so McEvoy has photographed Jan Berry (of Jan and Dean), Tony Dow, Jeff Bridges, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Pat Boone, Ed Shearer, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Christopher Cross, Eric Clapton and Kevin Bacon. Jimmy Buffett, John Stamos, Sugar Ray, and Gary Sinese have performed with Love and the Beach Boys at Fourth of July and Memorial Day concerts in Washington, and McEvoy photographed them as well.
Besides the initial trip with his father, McEvoy has been able to incorporate his family — wife Trecia, daughter Alexis, and sons Zachary and Ian — into his second job.
Trecia recently accompanied him to a rehearsal for upcoming holiday concerts. While McEvoy was photographing the stage layout in anticipation of the Christmas show, Trecia offered tips about set decorations to the tour coordinator.
“There are five guys saying ‘that stage looks great,” McEvoy recalled. “But she gives it the woman’s touch.”
Alexis, now 27, frequently traveled with her father when she was a girl.
“She used to be my road buddy in the old days,” McEvoy said. “If Brian was playing in Pennsylvania or North Carolina, we’d get in the car, and off we’d go. She was too young to be into the music, but she’d sit backstage with Brian’s daughter, Daria, and they drew pictures and did arts and crafts.”
Zachary, McEvoy’s older son at 19, has actually performed with the band during a concert, singing into Foskett’s microphone.
“Zachary is a beautiful vocalist, and Jeffrey had him come onstage to sing ‘Barbara Ann’ with him,” McEvoy said proudly. “I just re-posted a photo of Zachary with Brian from 2012. He was giving me a hard time about it, but it’s not every day you get to be onstage with your arm around Brian Wilson.”
McEvoy has come a long way from a fan meeting at Record Theater. His father understands that Wilson’s music will last for generations.
“I told Brian that the music was so beautiful, the way the melodies were put together,” Blair said. “This music will be playing 200 years from now.”
©2018 by Jeff Schober
The story behind
Last summer, Sirius XM launched a Beach Boys channel, and it changed my life. I unwillingly locked keys in my running car because I wanted to hear the end of “Sail On Sailor.” I wrote a column in the Buffalo News about the experience. It can be found here.
A few days later, I received an email from Jeff McEvoy, introducing himself as a fellow Beach Boys fan who served as their official photographer. Immediately, I wanted to hear his story. It’s a good one.
Side note No. 1: Jeff noticed my head shot with the column and said I resembled his father when Blair was younger. When I spoke with Blair on the phone, he mentioned the similarity too. Although his photo doesn’t appear here, I am confident Blair McEvoy is a handsome man.
Side note No. 2: I’ve been a journalist for 30 years, and this is my first story to reference four people named Jeff (McEvoy, Foskett, Robbins and me). That won’t ever happen again...
While this article was being written, Brian Wilson announced a concert at Artpark next June. I'll be there... will you?
Thank you for reading Buffalo Tales. Please share this story with your friends.
Steve Desmond and I wish you happy holidays and a safe new year!