Dick Waterman, Promoter and Photographer of the Blues, Dies at 88

Dick Waterman, Promoter and Photographer of the Blues, Dies at 88

Dick Waterman, a beacon in the world of blues who as a promoter, talent manager and photographer helped revive the careers of a generation of storied purveyors of that bedrock American art form while lyrically documenting their journeys with his camera, died on Jan. 26 in Oxford, Miss. He was 88.

His niece Theodora Saal said the cause was heart failure. A native of Massachusetts, he had lived in Oxford for nearly four decades.

Through his company, Avalon Productions, which was considered the first management and booking agency devoted primarily to Black blues artists, Mr. Waterman provided overdue exposure — and income — to early blues luminaries like Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and Skip James.

He also shepherded the careers of a younger blues cohort, including Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, as well as one young white artist, the singer-songwriter and future Grammy Award winner Bonnie Raitt.

“Dick Waterman just may be the most knowledgeable man on the history of blues,” the music writer Don Wilcock wrote in 2019 on the website American Blues Scene. Mr. Waterman, he added, “sought out the originators of the genre, pulled them out of ‘retirement’ and presented them to a folk audience that to that point considered blues to be a footnote in the American musical history.”

As a manager and promoter, Mr. Waterman both reaped the rewards of the blues revival of the 1960s and helped usher it along. That movement was fueled not just by stars of the electric blues like B.B. King and Muddy Waters, but also by a generation of white devotees like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and many others.

To Mr. Waterman, even the most traditional rural blues was far more than a relic from a lost era — a point echoed by Ms. Raitt in the preface to his 2003 photography compilation, “Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive.”

“While so many mostly white, middle-class Blues aficionados seem to obsess about only the actual Blues recordings,” Ms. Raitt wrote, “huddling around their hallowed 78s, speaking in hushed tones about this or that obscure song, the living, breathing scions of the music walk among us.”

“Often forgotten,” she continued, “neglected and long occupied in jobs other than music — farmer, porter, you name it — having given up on the idea of recognition or making a living in music, suddenly their lives are transformed by being ‘rediscovered’ during the heralded Folk/Blues revival of the mid-1960s.”

Despite being from Massachusetts, Mr. Waterman eventually established roots in the rich musical soil of Mississippi, settling in Oxford. “Every Southern town,” he said in a 2003 interview with Smithsonian magazine, “has to have a crackpot eccentric Yankee.”

Richard Allen Waterman was born on July 14, 1935, in Plymouth, Mass., the younger of two children of Isadore Waterman, a family physician, and Hattie (Resnick) Waterman, who managed the home.

After a stint as a cryptographer in the Army, he enrolled in Boston University to study journalism. In the early 1960s, he worked as a sportswriter and photographer for newspapers in Florida and the Northeast.

A music lover from an early age, he became enmeshed in the folk scenes in Cambridge, Mass., and Greenwich Village in New York.

He was covering the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1963 for The Broadside of Boston, a folk publication, when he witnessed the power of the blues in a performance by Mississippi John Hurt, who briefly recorded in the 1920s before returning to work as a sharecropper.

“I never saw anything like it,” Mr. Waterman was quoted as saying in the 2019 book “Dick Waterman: A Life in the Blues,” by Tammy L. Turner. “A little old Black man with an acoustic guitar went out in front of 15,000 people and brought them all up on the porch with him. He was magic.”

His career turned after he heard that Son House, a storied blues musician who had vanished from public view decades earlier, might be alive.

He and two fellow blues aficionados, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls, went on an extended scouting mission and found Mr. House living in Rochester, N.Y., retired after years of working as a railroad porter. They coaxed him to pick up his guitar once again, and before long Mr. Waterman was serving as his manager and securing him a contract with Columbia Records.

Mr. Waterman knew something of the business. In addition to his journalism pursuits, he had worked for Manny Greenhill, who managed folk singers like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the 1960s.

He started his own agency in 1965. “I formed Avalon to find work for the old bluesmen because they were the last ones hired with leftover dollars,” Mr. Waterman was quoted as saying in Dr. Turner’s biography. “I wasn’t going to stand for that. I hated that.”

As white artists found platinum success with their own take on the blues, Mr. Waterman took issue with the idea that they were pillaging a hallowed Black genre. “It was more white people who felt young English kids are getting rich on Black people’s money, and they would go to the bluesmen and they would plant the seed of negativity,” he said in an interview with the music writer Bob Gersztyn.

In fact, Mr. Waterman argued, most Black artists he knew welcomed the exposure — and the resulting revenue. “The idea that people were getting ripped off, all of that is about copyright and publishing,” he added. “That’s where the real money is, and a lot of Black people got really, really rich off of white people doing their material.”

As his older clients retired or died, Mr. Waterman shifted his attention to managing Ms. Raitt’s flourishing career during the 1970s.

He settled in Mississippi in the mid-1980s and wrote a column for a local newspaper before shifting to photography. He chronicled powerful moments onstage and intimate moments off with blues artists like Bobby Rush, Champion Jack Dupree and Hubert Sumlin, as well as musical luminaries like Ray Charles, Willie Nelson and Mavis Staples.

He is survived by his wife, Cinda Waterman, and his sister, Rollene Saal.

In the Smithsonian interview, Mr. Waterman dismissed his decades of lens work as “no more than a hobby.” In the same article, his friend Wiliam R. Ferris, a folklorist and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said that Mr. Waterman was being a tad too modest: “That’s like Faulkner saying that he was a farmer, not a writer.”

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