Hard Hitting Blues: Every Picture Tells A Story, Don’t It?

Of course, the most telling connection between blues and boxing were the bluesmen themselves who had also been fighters. But evidence of this association can be seen elsewhere, if you happen to look in the right places. If you’re lucky, there it is, staring you straight back in the face, just like the early blues and R&B posters do.

The “boxing style” posters (as they are affectionately known) were fashioned after the “Fight Night” posters of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. The printers that were employed had already been producing the fight posters, so they used the same motif for the concert posters. The music industry began using that style of poster for blues musicians in the mid-1950s.

Keep in mind now, we’re talking about an era when the major record labels still had “race records” and “colored catalogs”. Black music was still segregated from the mainstream record buyers (white audiences). The black blues musicians didn’t get exposure on the radio, with the exception of a few late night segments on Southern radio stations. Even the black gospel stations avoided the blues, because they felt it was the “Devil’s Music”. The songs sang about struggling in life, boozing it up, and chasing women … you know, things the devil would do. But, actually, they sang about real life.

The poster plus word of mouth was pretty much it in the way of publicity for their shows. The reason the posters evolved into the boxing style was convenience more than anything. That, and the fact that it was the cheapest and most effective means of advertising these shows at the time.

So, they used the concert poster as the main source of advertisement for their concerts, and they would post them everywhere they could; telephone poles, the market place, the barbershop. The posters were big and bold, with the artist’s name printed in huge font. That way, they were very visible on the streets. The posters would adorn telephone poles of every major intersection in almost every black community nationwide. Unfortunately, being an outdoor type of advertisement, not many of them survived, so they are extremely difficult to find nowadays.

Four major printing companies produced most of the boxing style posters. The Tribune Press in Earl Park, Indiana did most of the Chicago posters at that time. The Hatch Show Print Company of Nashville issued most of the southern venue posters (and later went on to print the majority of the country music Grand Ole Opry posters). Globe Printing Company in Baltimore created most of the East Coast posters. And Tilghman Press in California covered the West Coast states.

At the time, the posters would have cost about five cents a piece. Even though these were big colorful posters, printed on heavy cardboard stock so as to withstand the elements of the outdoors. Often, the promoters would cut costs by printing what they called “tour blanks”. If a musician had numerous dates and venues to play on his tour, they would print the posters leaving a big blank area at either the top or bottom of the poster. These were then filled in by hand announcing the date and venue (or sometimes the venue would have them printed with their info). So, they would print maybe 5,000 of each tour blank, and then mail them to all of the venues on the tour. Since then, those posters have gone from costing a nickel a piece to costing thousands of dollars. The average price of an original boxing style poster now runs around $600.

The oldest boxing style poster in my collection is from 1955, advertising B.B. King at the Neptune Club in Galveston, Texas. As far as I know, this is one of the first boxing style “blues” posters done. Prior to that (during the ’30s, ’40s, and into the early ’50s), they used hand drawn art for music posters.

The deeper I got into collecting blues posters, the farther back in time I went. Eventually, I ended up in the ’50s and early ’60s, and almost all of the concert posters from the era are boxing style. That all changed in about 1965 when clubs began using local artists to design the posters for upcoming shows, and that was the dawn of the Psychedelic Era of concert posters (’65-’72). The poster artists began creating elaborate hand-drawn designs, hand done lettering, and utilizing bright colors. The boxing style poster was a thing of the past at that point.

And the blues almost became a thing of the past then, too. But “the Blues had a baby, and they named it rock ‘n roll” (Muddy Waters said that). With the birth of rock ‘n roll, and more specifically ’60s rock ‘n roll, the blues almost died. Most of the “bluesicians” careers were kept alive by working as opening acts for major rock acts like the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, and so on. A number of the artists from the “Fillmore Era” had blues acts on the bill with them. After all, this was the music that inspired them to play in the first place. The Fillmore Era gave birth to two of the most collected series of concert posters: the BG Series (Bill Graham Presents/Fillmore West), and the FD Series (Family Dog/Avalon Ballroom). Both of those San Francisco venues were responsible for changing the style of the posters being printed. Some of the posters from the Psychedelic Era are so-oo-oo psychedelic, you’d have to be Dr. Timothy Leary himself to even read them.

Originally, the commercial context was over and done with once the printer was paid to run the poster and the poster was dispersed to advertise a show. But posters were a very democratic medium. Posted in public places, they were available to everyone and usually at no cost. To start a collection, all someone had to do was snag a poster as a keepsake (hopefully after the concert date).

With posters, like any collectable, there’s going to be some jackass out there that wants to try to reproduce it for a dollar’s sake. That means forgeries. Bootlegs. When beginning your collection, start out small, get to know your dealers, and don’t spend more than you are willing to get taken for. Sad, but true. Just like sports memorabilia (which is estimated to be a 23 billion dollar a year industry), there are going to be forgeries. Fakes. Reproductions. So just be aware.

The easiest way to determine if a poster is original is to examine it with a jeweler’s eyeloop (magnifier). Any photographic image (when printed) has a distinct moiré pattern, meaning the entire image is composed of a bunch of tiny dots. These dots should be perfectly round and in perfect alignment vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. If the poster is reproduced, let’s say laser copied or even re-photographed and then printed from that negative, the image will lose its moiré pattern.

Now keep in mind, this is only true of photographic images. A lot of times the lettering on the poster will not have a moiré pattern. And also, if the poster is re-printed from the original plates, it will still have the perfect moiré pattern, but the poster is then considered a second printing. And these could have been done 30 years later.

So it’s always good to research what you are collecting. There are a number of good books about concert posters, like The Art of Rock — From Presley to Punk (considered to be the Bible of concert posters), The Art of the Fillmore (which concentrates on only Fillmore posters), Eric King’s Collectors Guide to Psychedelic Concert Posters 1965-1973, and Goldmine Magazine’s Price Guide to Rock N Roll Memorabilia. All of these are great resources for the avid collector. Unfortunately, they don’t cover much in the boxing style “arena”.

The original posters from Chicago or L.A. of the ’40s and ’50s are quite rare. Most of that stuff is far and few between. Almost anything on the market from that era is a reproduction, or a second printing (done from the original printer’s plates, but at a later date). A lot of the printers, like Hatch, are currently doing second, third, and fourth printings, now that the stuff has become so collectable. The oldest piece of blues memorabilia I’ve ever seen is a 1917 Ma Rainey “Negro Minstrel Tent Show” poster. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for sale.

The posters really don’t “say” anything more than what they originally intended: to advertise a show. But for me they’re like a visual documentary of the days gone by. An era that has passed, when times were different.

I collect blues posters for a number of reasons, the first being my love of the music. The blues is the most heartfelt music ever. But I love to preserve the history of the music through the posters. And for me, being an artist myself by trade (I’ve been a tattoo artist for 28 years, almost as long as I’ve played guitar), I love the art value of the posters. Well, of course, there’s always the investment part. Music memorabilia is a great investment; it’s not just some passing fad. Music is a great part of our culture, and I don’t think it’s going to lose its popularity.

As to how to handle posters to preserve them, if you’re just storing them, flat is the best way to go (if you have the means). If you don’t have the space, roll them carefully and put them in acid free shipping tubes, though this can only be done with paper posters (not cardboard ones, which most boxing style posters are); although storage in tubes may cause “rolling wrinkles”, which is why storing flat is preferred.

I have all of my posters (the stored ones) shrink-wrapped onto acid free 1/4″ foam core using acid free shrink-wrap. Not a cheap way to go, but I can still see them when I want to, and that keeps them well protected. I also monitor the humidity of the room. I have found that to be better than keeping posters rolled in tubes like many people do.

When framing a piece for display, I use all acid-free materials — acid-free matte board, backing board, and so on. Then I use UV protective glass because sunlight will fade the colors of the ink drastically. I do all my own matting & framing, and nothing is permanently affixed. Ever.

Never use those little spotlights above your prints: Taboo! This will rapidly fade the image.

And never, never, never laminate or dry mount a collectable piece. That will significantly reduce its value.

This all started out just for fun, like a hobby, and it still is. I started with baseball cards and comics (like most American boys). Then I discovered music, and began playing guitar at 14, so my bedroom was covered with rock posters from ceiling to floor. I wish I still had some of those posters, because they’d be worth a fortune. I have strictly specialized in Stevie Ray Vaughan memorabilia and blues related concert posters for about fifteen years.

The first piece I actually bought for the investment value was a Leon Russell/Freddie King concert handbill from 1970, signed by the artist Randy Tuten. I bought that at a guitar show in Detroit about 15 years ago. It was in pristine mint condition, and I couldn’t believe that this thing had survived all those years without being damaged. That really got me going collecting concert memorabilia. The Freddie King handbill hangs in my office at my business, but now my collection is in excess of 3,000 pieces.

I’d search everywhere — record shows, guitar shows, and Goldmine magazine. It was pretty difficult finding posters locally. Even the local stuff (Grande Ballroom, and so on) is all gone. You don’t ever see it here. Most of the Detroit memorabilia has migrated to the West Coast, it seems.

But the Internet has changed that. For example, I own Stevie Ray Vaughan concert posters from Paris, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark. I would have never had access to any of that without the Internet. You don’t find many Australian concert posters at the guitar show in Detroit. The Internet has really helped make my collection grow in the past five years, as I’m able to contact other collectors that I would have never known about otherwise. I’ve bought and sold with people all over the world.

It’s always nice to run across a piece that you’ve never seen before . . . it’s like a rare fossil find. When I come across a cool poster, I then try to hook up with the musician to have them sign it. Many times they are just amazed to see a relic of their past. So there’s a lot of stories and memories to be had there.

I also collect autographs on one of my guitars. Her name’s Blackie, and she now has 50 signatures on her that I’ve personally collected, all from blues legends. Four of the guys who signed her are no longer with us. I have photos of 46 of them at the time of the signing, so there’s no doubt as to the authenticity of the signatures. The memories there — if that guitar could only talk. All of the talented hands that have been laid on her.

To preserve the past in any collection, you must have the objects and a desire to understand the knowledge and skills used to produce them. Blues posters are “pictures” of what times were like when they were created. Collecting and preserving them is a way of time-proofing history, preventing a culture from being worn away by the sands of times, and like saving a part of a nation’s soul.

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Dan Collins, “a well-faceted diamond”, is President of the Detroit Stevie Ray Vaughan Fan Club and a member of the Detroit Blues Society and the Memphis Blues Foundation. He’s a professional tattoo artist & body piercer, plays guitar with the Cold Shot Blues Band, and still finds time to ride one of his three Harley Davidsons.

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