“This is what they call an ego boost, big time. Wow,” said photographer Tommy Smith III as I set up video cameras for our interview.
The son and namesake of the late longtime Murray’s steakhouse maître d’ has been working on me since Prince died to do a story about his avocation as a concert photographer. Smith saw Prince in concert nine times. Prince’s “1999 Tour” stop at Met Center was most notable; Symbolina threw a microphone stand at Smith when he realized unauthorized photos were being snapped. Betty Smith, his late mother, was Tommy’s original connection to great concert seats. She worked at Donaldson’s back when fans could get great seats just by being first in line.
Smith, who recently moved back to the Twin Cities from Crosby, Minn., is a restaurant worker who is trying to figure out how to write a book about his experiences as one of the best concert fan photographers you probably never heard of. He said Tina Turner told him she loved him during a First Avenue appearance. His painted photographs will be among works from 20 artists the Hennepin Theatre Trust is featuring in a Nov. 10 art show from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on the first floor of City Center.
Q: How did you become a photographer?
A: I always loved music growing up and going to the shows with my family. In high school I had a chance to buy a camera, ’cause I was working, making a little money and I had tickets for concerts. It was a passion from the word go. I loved capturing the moments.
Q: You took a lot of pictures of Prince?
A: I saw Prince in concert nine times. From [what they call] “the Rolling Stones warmup gig.” That’s his first big crack at the major league, and they had the dress rehearsal show at First Avenue for $2. I was front row snapping pictures all night.
Q: Do you think you own these pictures?
A: Every band’s a different story. I know I took them.
Q: Why didn’t they stop you from taking pictures?
A: That show, they never really cared. The next one was “1999,” it was a whole different story. Next was “Purple Rain,” which I saw three times and the movie’s premiere night at First Avenue. I saw the Time film “Purple Rain” down there.
Q: You often had front-row center seats. How did you manage that?
A: My mom worked at the store that sold the tickets. In the old days they preprinted tickets. Nowadays, it’s all on computers. My mom knew the girls [who] split the tickets and what store had what tickets. I had what we’ll call inside information.
Q: What concert was it that they took everybody’s camera but yours?
A: The “1999” show at the old Met Center. I was front row, center. Prince had a wall of security. That was his album that got him into the big time. They really wanted to protect the home show. His security did a great job that night going down the crowd to get everybody’s camera and film. I had preset my lens, was directly in front of him the whole night and snapped two rolls of film while everybody else’s camera was being broken or their film ripped out.
Q: I’m surprised he didn’t stop the show to call out the guy taking pictures?
A: Actually, during one time in the show I have a picture of him singing “Sexuality.” At that song Prince noticed what I was doing and he threw the mike stand at me. I have that picture. Had on that big purple coat and he was looking right at me and he could tell.
Q: You didn’t have the camera up to your eye?
A: No. I had it right in my lap. In those days we used the 55mm, the focus was very true if you were that close to the stage. Sometimes all you need is a great 55mm. Beautiful shots of the red light in his hair when he was singing “Little Red Corvette.”
Q: Did you ever meet Prince?
A: When I was a waiter at the Nankin, my father ran Murray’s restaurant. He’d be seen with the girlfriends or the band or his father. I did get to meet him a few times under those circumstances.
Q: Did you tell him you were the one taking pictures of him?
A: He knew who I was.
C.J. can be reached at email@example.com and seen on Fox 9’s “Jason Show.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.