The Beatles’ most trusted photographer was a friend, not a fan.
At 27, Henry Grossman—then employed by Life magazine—was first invited to shoot the pop stars during their 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. A New York City–born opera singer in training, Grossman didn’t like their music, but he loved them. By far the youngest photographer shooting them, he forged a lasting friendship with the group, landing him unprecedented access to their lives, which he captured in 6,000 images, more than any other photographer.
In his latest, limited-edition, book, Places I Remember: My Time With the Beatles, Grossman unveils more than 1,000 photos never before seen by the public. He tells Abby Haglage what it was like traveling the world with the most popular band of all time—and what, 50 years later, he’s still remembering.
What was it that made you connect with them so well?
Well, I liked them! I found them witty, charming, fun, intelligent. They were bright guys—and they were only about four years younger than me. Most of the other photographers were much older than me, so I think that was part of it. But also, as a Life magazine photographer, we were taught to watch. We didn’t set up a lot of pictures, I simply captured their lives. I didn’t want things from them. As a result, it was a lot of fun.
But were you a Beatles fan at the time?
Well, I did not particularly care for Rock music, at all. I loved opera. I didn’t listen to their stuff. Some songs, like “Yesterday,” I loved. But I wasn’t a fan of their music, I was a fan of them. I never had the adoration, the awe that their fans had. I recognized the greatness I was around, definitely, but they were my friends. That made it different.
Is it true that they tried to stop you from running the first intimate photos you took of them?
Well, Brian Epstein [their manager] called me when Life magazine said they were going to syndicate some of the pictures I had taken of them in their home, and he said, “Henry, please don’t do that.” The next day, I got a cable from him that said: “Please disregard phone call. I’ve just seen the pictures. Can I have a set?” So that was good news.
When you imagine a moment with them now, what comes to mind?
I was always singing along the beach in Nassau with them, Oh, what a beautiful morning—simply because I loved that song! They caught on to that quite quickly and began singing it to me whenever I would show up to meet them. Even years later, I had a cable from George, and he started it with “Oh, what a beautiful morning!”
That’s hilarious. It seems like you were really able to see their goofy sides.
Absolutely. When I was shooting the cover for Life magazine, I said to Ringo, “I wish I had the guts to wear a tie like that.” And he came over and fingered my paisley tie, a very quiet tie I’d bought in London, and he said, “Well, Henry, if you did, you’d still be Henry, but with just a bright tie.” I thought that was just marvelous. I loved it.
“George said to me once, ‘You know, we don’t know if this is going to last at all, Henry.’ That’s crazy to me to think about now.”
It’s clear that they really let you into their lives. Can you describe what that was like?
Well, to give an example, one day in Wales, I passed through the group of photographers waiting outside where they were staying and knocked on the door. John peeked out the curtain window, saw me, and immediately opened it and pulled me inside. The other photographers who were waiting in the courtyard were fuming and making a racket about it, saying, “Why does he get to go inside!?” When John heard them, he leaned back out to explain it: “He’s a friend of ours. He’s traveled around the world with us. If you’d traveled around the world with us, you might be inside too.” I thought that was funny.
Of the four guys, who were you closest with?
I became closer friends with George. When I would end up in London, I would call the office and leave a message for him that I was in town and he'd get back to me. We’d arrange to meet the next day or whenever. One time when I went over to George’s house, he had an instrument hanging on the wall that I didn’t recognize—it was a sitar. He took it down and told me, “I can’t get anyone to teach me how to play it.” I told him that he had enough money to find the best sitar teacher in India and ask him to come stay for the summer to teach him how to play. He took my advice but went further—and headed all the way to India!
What about Paul?
I remember one day I was standing with Paul by the water in Nassau, and I looked down and saw what appeared to be a fossil. It was a piece of coral, I think. I picked it up and handed it to Paul and said, “Look at this, you know how many millions of years it took for this to end up this way?” And he picked it up, looked me in the eye, grinned, and tossed it as far out into the ocean as he could. Then he turned to me laughing and said, “Wow, I guess we set that one back a few million years, didn’t we, Henry?”
It seems like you captured so many light moments like that. In all the time you spent with them, did you ever see them upset?
I never saw any dark days. Maybe that’s just me. I see the best things in people, and I try to capture that. But I can honestly say, I never saw a nasty or biting look from any of them. They were charming. The only time that I really saw them down was the day Brian Epstein died. I left with Jane Asher and Paul for the car ride back to London after they got the news, and the press was surrounding him trying to ask “How do you feel?” and “What’s next?” Those were definitely some down times. But I was there as a friend, not an interviewer or photographer.
What about the iconic Bob Dylan image you took outside the Delmonico in New York?
That one is interesting. I knew who Dylan was, but only got one frame off before he went into the hotel. I did not recognize Al Aronowitz until my publishers told me of the importance of that shot. I didn’t think much of the photograph, but when my publishers saw it, they flipped. I said, “What’s the matter, what’s the matter?” And they said, “You don’t understand, that’s the night Dylan introduced them to pot!”
Did you ever see them doing drugs?
No, I never saw any of that. The closest I came to it was David Crosby was smoking something, that night at the party at George’s. He asked if I wanted some. It was hash, I think. I took a smoke of it and never had it again.
Is there anything you realize now, almost 50 years later, that you missed at the time?
One of the things that I think about, looking back now, is the love and excitement that they engendered. They had no idea how long it would all last. They knew how good they were, but they were always wondering how much longer they had. George said to me once, “You know, we don’t know if this is going to last at all, Henry.” That’s crazy to me to think about now.