James Leavey's Corner
Sharing An Ashtray With Jan Olofsson

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey
Jan Olofsson was one of Sweden's first pop stars (known in the late fifties as Rock-Ola) before he went to Hamburg, met the Beatles and came to London to work as a photographer in the Swinging Sixties.

A selection of his photos of pop icons (Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Sonny and Cher, Billy Fury, Gene Pitney, the Kinks, Ike and Tina Turner, the Walker Brothers, Lovin' Spoonful, Sammy Davis Jr., the Rolling Stones etc) was published by Taschen as My 60s and has sold over 100,000 copies, worldwide.

Havana cigar-loving Olofsson's photographs have since illustrated The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London and The FOREST Smoker's Guide to Scotland - the world's first two smoker-friendly travel guides.

He also produced for his own company, Young Blood Records, several hit records in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, including Desmond Dekker's Israelites, Rod (under the name of Python Lee Jackson) Stewart's In a Broken Dream, I Remember Elvis, the classic football anthem, Nice One Cyril, as well as country music for Dr John, Willie Nelson and the late Hoyt Axton, and several hits for Mac & Katie Kissoon.

In November 1993, Jan Olofsson visited Cuba for the first time, when he fell in love with the country and its people. After several trips he found and fell in love with the beautiful young Cuban woman, Anita, who is now his wife.

Jan Olofsson
In September 1997, Jan Olofsson was the first non-Cuban photographer to hold a photographic exhibition, My Cuba, in Havana at the invitation of the Cuban government.This was followed a few months later by his My 60s exhibition (which has toured America, Europe and the Far East), also in Cuba's capital, as part of Cuba's Beatles Convention.

James Leavey
As we enter a new millennium, Jan Oloffson's musical career has stretched to four decades, with the release of two new albums: Cigars from Havana, featuring 18 original songs by his 22-year-old Cuban wife, Anita, and The Cuban Revolution.

JL: You spent quite a few nights in Stuart Sutcliffe's bed in Hamburg, back in 1962.

JO:That's right.I was 16 and had been sleeping in doorways and begging café owners for the odd meal. By this time, of course, Stuart, now known as the fifth Beatle, had moved out of the grimy room above Hamburg's Top Ten Club to live with his girlfriend, Astrid.

I never had much money in those days.A couple of hookers looked after me for a while because they thought I was a sweet little boy.Then when I met the Beatles in the Top Ten Club, they let me kip down in their room sometimes.I never saw them sober on stage.After a gig we'd carry on drinking in a little bar up the road where Astrid worked.

At that time, I also became friendly with various other British bands.Then I made contact with a record producer in Hamburg and kept pushing my new found friends, particularly the Beatles.

JL: Didn't a friend of yours introduce the Beatles to Bert Kaempfert at Polydor"

JO:Yes.He was a close friend of Tony Sheridan and made a couple of records with the Beat Brothers, as they were then known, backing Tony.I built up a nice relationship with them on a personal level and I guess they appreciated the fact that I tried to help them get a recording deal and also some bookings in Sweden.They were making about £20 a week and I was penniless, washing dishes all over the place.The Beatles performed at the Top Ten Club until 4am and had a vast supply of beers from the audience, so they used to pass over bottles and bottles to me every night.

I am proud to have been the first Swede to know them and recognise their talent, although I didn't realise at the time how their music would change the world.They captured a live audience like I've never seen before or since, with perhaps one exception.I saw Elvis Presley at Madison Square Gardens on June 10, 1972, and he brought tears to my eyes - for sentimental reasons.Elvis was the one who first got me interested in rock 'n' roll in 1957.

In 1962, I was soon travelling back and forth between Hamburg and London, and was managing a Swedish artist.This led to me being called the Youngest Pop Manager in the World.I was just 16, at the time.

JL: You'd already been a bit of a pop star yourself back in Sweden - billed as Malmo's First Rock 'N' Roll King - after winning an important talent contest.

JO:I did a few concerts in Sweden and people screamed, but deep down I knew I couldn't sing.My big ambition was always to get to England ands make it in the music business in some other way.I just hitched to Hamburg for fun and quite by chance ended up making lots of important contacts.

JL:What happened when you finally arrived in London in late 1962"

JO:As a young 16 year old I headed straight for the Two I's Coffee Bar in Old Compton Road, Soho, which had been made famous by the fact that both Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard were discovered there.It was a small expresso coffee bar (only soft drinks) with a small room downstairs open to any young up and coming talent.

When I first arrived, there was a regular singer called Vince Taylor who was influenced by Elvis, even in his clothes and hairstyle.I used to go every night to see Vince and he was great.Vince then moved to France where he became a very big star on the continent.I believe he was one of the first acts to make music videos for what was later to be called Video Juke Box (every café in France had one).

JL: So there you were looking for a way into music, and you started working with famous agents like Robert Stigwood and Larry Parnes (who looked after Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury).

JO: Yes.In those early days I used to knock on all the important doors for work, including the various managers of England's biggest pop stars. I was usually introduced to them through some of the English guys I had met in Hamburg, people such as Freddie Lloyd, Roy Young at Keiser Keller and the Top Ten Club.The Beatles (or the Beat Brothers as they were known then) didn't themselves have too many contacts.

In March 1963, a compere friend of mine, Tony Marsh, had some tickets for a gig where the Beatles (as they had now renamed themselves) were performing alongside Chris Montez (Let's Dance) and Tommy Roe (Sheila).They recognised me immediately and jokingly called me 'Our first Swedish friend.' I had a picture taken with them.From then on the Beatles and I met fairly regularly around town in the clubs and at functions.

At the time I got on well with all the up-and-coming stars and we used to mix socially at London clubs like the Bag O'Nails, Speakeasy and Revolution, and pubs like De Hems.I also went to lots of private parties.My personal favourites were those held at the Lotus House in Edgware Road, a great Chinese restaurant owned by Mr Koon.In fact the promoter, Arthur Howes, held a lot of parties for the Beatles there.As a photographer I never did take advantage of those social gatherings, and I don't believe any friend should.

JL: You were just starting to make an impression - a bit of P.R. here, a bit of management there - when disaster struck.Your visa ran out and every time you tried to re-enter the UK, they sent you back.

JO:On the last occasion, I came through Dover and I was determined to stay and make something of myself in the music business.They gave me a week to sort myself out with the Home Office.I had a lot of contacts in the Swedish media so I thought if I could get some work writing a pop column about the British music scene for a magazine back home, I'd be able to stay.I got the column no problem and then decided I might as well take the photos myself as well which is how the photography really began.

Having started work, I rarely missed a trick in my attempts to cash in on the - perhaps - surprising importance of Sweden in then Sixties pop scene.A big hit in Sweden may have only sold about 20,000 copies but it was an extremely lucrative country for touring and British beat groups, often setting up their first European shows, were grateful for all the help they could get. I used to hang out with all those guys at clubs like the Bag O'Nails and the Speakeasy and I always made sure I introduced myself and said, If there's anything I can do in Sweden…and of course, that always went down.

I spent most of the Sixties taking photographs of show business personalities and doubled up doing some PR work for artists like John Leyton, Manfred Mann and Heinz.I also used to out drinking a lot with Viv Prince, and Brian Jones and his Swedish girlfriend, Anna Wholin.

In 1968, I started a club called Titti's, which I named after a Swedish girlfriend, but I had to change the name of the club to Flicka as it was on Crown Property and for some reason Titti seemed to be an unacceptable name…

JL: All those connections opened doors to important British TV shows like Ready Steady Go! and Sunday Night at the London Palladium, where many of your shots were taken.So was Ready Steady Go! as good as its reputation suggests"

JO:If you look at it now, you think, My God!But it was live, it was spontaneous and all the artists used to just sit around with the audience.There'd be the Beatles in one corner, the Troggs in another, and that all made for a very exciting atmosphere.

JL:This life as a working journalist meant that your pictures were quite different from other Sixties' snappers.Your candid snapshots were very much of the moment, produced by a working journalist on the hoof, snatching a few minutes on a street corner or crouched down in front of a rehearsal stage.

JO:I never used a flash, originally because I just couldn't afford it.But since the less light you use, the steadier your hand must be to avoid blur, this presented a particular problem for someone like me who always enjoyed a drink.I remember once I went backstage to a Kinks gig and there were so many bottles of Haig whisky lying around that we got absolutely plastered.When I got home I found I didn't have one picture in focus.

JL:Some of your finest photographic work is of Jimi Hendrix.He must have made an incredible impact on people when he first arrived.

JO:Yes, he did make an impression, but nothing more so than other new bands.He was a lovely man though; shy, polite and very friendly.It's only with the passing of time that you realise how influential he really was.

JL:Did you ever think that your photographs would become so internationally revered"

JO: No, never.I find it hard to believe at times.But I'm glad people enjoy looking at them.

JL:Do you have a favourite photo"

JO: Yes, the Johnny Cash picture in the book, My 60s.It captures the man's powerful presence, psyche and personality.

JL:Who is your favourite photographer"

JO:Walker Evans.His photos of Cuba are stunning.

JL:Is it true that you found the critically acclaimed collection of photos for your best selling book, My 60s, in a cardboard box while rummaging through your garage"

JO:Yes.I knew they were around somewhere and thought they might be of some value.It was only when I sat down and went through them all that I realised they possessed something unique.

JL:What made you put the camera down and set up your own record label, Young Blood Records"

JO:Quite simply, my love of music.As much as I liked photography, my first love had always been music.

JL:In a career covering most aspects of the music business and stretching across four decades, does one moment stand out"

JO:Yes, in 1969, when I got out of photography. I had a deal at the time with a guy in Sweden to look for potential hit records that he could buy the Scandinavian rights to.He'd already rejected things like The Equals Baby Come Back, so he turned down Desmond Dekker's Israelites as well.I scraped together £100 as an advance for the rights to Holland and put it out myself.Three weeks later Desmond Dekker's record was Number 1 and there were guilders everywhere.And I thought, that's it.I've finally made it!

Copyright James Leavey, 1999.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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