For decades, a singular photographic collection has lain nearly unseen in the Somerville home of photographer Charles Daniels — a half century’s worth of undeveloped film crammed onto shelves, stuffed into Ziploc bags, or, if he thought it was special, stored in the bottom drawer of his fridge.
Some canisters have turned green with age. Others bear cryptic, decades-old descriptions. Still more lack any label at all.
But if the film has been kept under less than museum-quality conditions, the images themselves are the stuff of history: a rare window into the late 1960s, when one of the country’s first rock ballrooms, the legendary Boston Tea Party, helped launch the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Faces, and other groups that would become the mega-bands of the 1970s.
Known then as the “Master Blaster,” the club’s stylish emcee, Daniels kept his camera close as he befriended touring acts, gaining unguarded access beyond the stage and a unique perspective on what turned out to be a germinal moment in rock history.
“An act could be unknown on a Thursday night and be hugely popular by the time they left on Saturday,” said Don Law, manager of the Tea Party from 1968 till it closed at the end of 1970. Now president of Live Nation New England, Law described Daniels as an “iconic figure” of the club who was “right there for so many of the big moments in the early days of these bands getting launched.”
Now, more than five decades later, Daniels and his supporters are seeking to bring these images to life. They started with a small grant from the Somerville Arts Council, but earlier this year his friends launched a $30,000 fund-raising campaign to shore up his legacy, as Daniels, 79, undergoes chemotherapy for a recently diagnosed blood disorder. The campaign’s aim: to process more than 3,000 rolls of undeveloped 35mm and medium format film — a sprawling visual history that could include never-before-seen images of musical acts such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band, The Velvet Underground, The Jeff Beck Group, and, if he’s lucky, Jimi Hendrix.
The group has processed about 200 rolls so far, revealing, among other things, candid shots of a young Rod Stewart and guitarist Ron Wood on tour with Faces in the early 1970s. Other newly developed rolls contain images of The Who’s Pete Townshend, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and Peter Wolf, a close friend of Daniels at the time who was in a band called The Hallucinations before getting started with the J. Geils Band.
“Charlie captured it all, because he was constantly clicking away,” said Wolf. “He was a cultural archivist without even knowing it.”
Originally from a small town in segregated Alabama, Daniels moved north with his parents when he was around 11 years old. The family settled in Roxbury, where Daniels soon began taking photos after he found a Brownie camera in his parents’ closet. He fell in love with shooting on the street by age 14, teaching himself to capture better and better images as he ventured farther afield, roaming Harvard Square, and, eventually, landing at the Tea Party’s original location at 53 Berkeley St.
But if Daniels loved photography and music, it took him a while to connect the two.
“I considered myself a street photographer,” said Daniels, adding that he initially stored his camera in the club’s office. “At some point I realized I had an advantage to do stuff that no one else was doing. That’s when I started photographing the bands more seriously.”
Even so, his shooting style remained casual. He used the camera almost like a sketchbook, documenting the day’s adventures.
“He uses the camera as a diary, a visual diary,” said his longtime partner, Susan Berstler, who’s helping to organize the fund-raising campaign. “In one roll there will be a couple pictures of his girlfriend, some pictures on the T, walking across Boylston Street, and then, oh, yeah, there’s Keith Moon” of The Who.
The result is a rich chronicle of Boston’s cultural life over the past half century, including portraits, street photography, images of antiwar protests, dance rehearsals, and performances.
Still, it’s his front row seat to Rock & Roll history that has many people excited.
“Having the access that he did and having a camera — it was just open sesame,” said David Bieber, owner of a vast archive of pop culture artifacts. “He had that inner circle perspective and the opportunity to capture the moment. People are looking forward to seeing these images because this is a time capsule: Who knows what’s going to be revealed here?”
Ray Riepen, who started the Tea Party in 1967, called Daniels a “fabulous guy.”
“He was just a guy that was on the scene,” said Riepen, who also founded WBCN, Boston’s groundbreaking underground radio station, and now lives in Kansas. “We kept running into one another, and eventually we became friends.”
From the Tea Party, Daniels went on to announce bands at other venues, including the Boston Music Hall (since renamed the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre), the Orpheum Theatre, the old Boston Garden, and the Cambridge Common, where bands would often perform Sundays following a stint at the Tea Party.
He was a fixture in Harvard Square, and he frequently accompanied Wolf during his run as an overnight deejay on WBCN, which once broadcast from a back room at the Tea Party. (It was Wolf who christened Daniels the “Master Blaster,” who in turn dubbed Wolf the “Woofa Goofa.”)
Daniels also became close friends with guitarist Ron Wood, touring for three years with him and Stewart as an announcer for Faces during the early 1970s — a raucous, hard-partying age, when the band was kicked out of hotels so frequently that Wood once recalled they dubbed the Holiday Inn the “Holiday Out” and began checking in under the alias “Fleetwood Mac.”
“We could never register as our own,” said Daniels, who’s now a little fuzzy on the details. “I was probably more into taking pictures than doing the wrecking.”
When Faces dissolved, Daniels joined Wood as a guest during the guitarist’s first tour with The Rolling Stones — a 1975 junket captured by the band’s tour photographer, Annie Leibovitz.
“She didn’t really like me,” said Daniels. He’s also quick to point out that he didn’t announce the Stones and wasn’t on the band’s payroll. But “to be able to hang out and shoot film was just as good.”
Daniels wasn’t the only photographer to shoot Boston’s music scene in the late 1960s. Other photographers such as Peter Simon, Michael Dobo, and Jeff Albertson photographed shows around town, publishing their work in various outlets.
But Daniels was different. Although he’s printed some of his work over the years, he has not published it broadly. A few of his images appeared in a limited-run slipcovered history of Faces published in 2012, and he has shown his pictures at only a handful of shows.
“Friends of his from that age joke that he didn’t have film in his camera, because for years they never saw it,” said Berstler. “They were wrong.”
Now, Daniels is sure there are more rolls from his days with the Stones. He’s already put his hands on previously undeveloped images of Stewart, Wood, Wolf, and Townshend, and he’s holding out hope for rolls he shot of his idol, Jimi Hendrix, whom he met backstage at the Fillmore East in New York and again at the Boston Garden, where Daniels announced the show.
“I was almost a Hendrix fanatic in those days,” said Daniels. “When he died, I went into hibernation for weeks.”
Wolf saw Daniels on a near daily basis in the late 1960s. He said it was his friend’s charisma and lack of artifice that opened doors and enabled him to shoot so unobtrusively.
“Charlie was non-exploitive: You never got the sense he was taking these pictures to print and use for some kind of commercial gain,” said Wolf, who recalled that he and Daniels would often frequent the cafes and shops of Harvard Square, a vibrant cultural hub at the time that he compared to the Left Bank in Paris. “I always think very warmly of Charlie, sitting on a wall next to the Brattle Theatre and just watching the metropolitan poetry walk by.”
So, why has it taken him so long to finally want to develop his work?
“I didn’t need to see the final result as much as I just thought I needed to pay attention,” said Daniels. “It was more or less like being in the middle of it as opposed to really finishing it off.”
Now, as he prepares for another round of chemo, he and his supporters are halfway to their fund-raising goal. Berstler is wading through thousands of photos. She’s sent off another tranche of canisters to Film Rescue International, the Canadian firm that’s processing the film. She’s also talking with a handful of universities about placing his images in the archives, and they hope one day to present his photographs at an exhibition, perhaps even in a book.
What shape that will take remains to be seen, though Daniels added he’s hopeful the Hendrix rolls will turn up — perhaps in the fridge, where he keeps his “super film.”
“It’s never lost,” said Daniels. “I have it, but I forgot where I put it.”