Sitting in a semi busy 24-hour restaurant at 8pm on a Friday night with local music photographer Michael Bush and his wife Beverlie, and I find myself in complete awe throughout the nearly three-hour interview. The man sitting across from me has photographed and been in the company of music legends such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Page, Brian Wilson, Davy Jones, and even Sir Paul McCartney himself (to name just a small handful). Yet, somehow this man isn’t nearly as phased by this as I am. In fact, the Chicago native is much more comfortable (and actually prefers) discussing the musicians themselves rather than talking about himself. While asking question after question until we both finally give in and begin to yawn, I notice Bush can’t help but veer slightly off topic when he answers. Each response has him segueing into one fascinating story after another about the multitude of music icons he’s had the privilege of encountering while standing behind the lens of his 35 mm film camera. I don’t mind, though, because truthfully the only thing more captivating than Bush’s stories are the affection and passion in his voice as he speaks about each artist and every memorable moment he’s been fortunate enough to share with them.
“I tell Bev all the time. There’s stuff I’ve experienced…it’s stuff that you can’t buy,” the now 61-year-old photographer tells me with a reflective grin on his face, as if realizing it all these years later.
Of course, now would be the time for Bush to reflect on his 40 years spent as a successful rock ‘n’ roll photographer, considering he’ll be unveiling his photos (at least a small portion) to the public for the first time in an exhibition he’s calling “61 at 61” which begins Friday, March 15th and runs through Friday April 5th at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport, IL.
What initially started as a hobby and a way for Bush to create his own personal souvenirs for himself eventually turned into a dream come true for the then 21-year-old photographer. With no formal training under his belt, Bush learned along the way by trial and error. What he referred to as “freewheeling” was actually Bush just shooting his butt off and hoping he got the best shot. He did his own thing, always stayed in his own lane, and never stepped on anyone’s toes. Though he was writing and shooting for Night Rock News and other local magazines on nights and weekends, eventually Bush’s photos ended up in front of the artists he was shooting. Before he knew it, the “friendly neighborhood photographer” had found himself in the “inner circle,” as he refers to it in our conversation.
Bush, whose wife describes him as being unusually talkative on this particular Friday night, admits he’s done more interviews in the last month to promote his exhibition than he has in his whole life. And while most people in his position might shout it from the rooftops, Bush doesn’t boast about his accolades. He’s humble but proud, and he doesn’t hesitate to credit his triumphs to his relentless work ethic and the admirable morals passed down to him by his parents.
“In my family growing up, we always treated our friends like family,” Bush informs me. “So, I was raised that way. And that’s why I think you’ll never hear anybody in the world say anything bad about my mom or dad because they were great people. And if people can say that about me, then I did my dad proud.”
It’s these homegrown morals that would later win over the hearts of some of music’s most treasured artists. Bush emphasizes throughout our interview that he’s “just a nice guy,” and explains that that’s why people like Carl Wilson (The Beach Boys), Davy Jones (The Monkees), Gary Lewis (son of Jerry Lewis), and Tommy James (Tommy James & The Shondells) were so drawn to him, and why the notable photographer was able to form lifelong friendships with these individuals. As Bush continues to share personal stories about his time spent among the stars, I’m just sitting in the booth with him and Bev trying to wrap my head around it all.
Referring to himself as a workaholic with enormous energy more than once during our interview, Bush admits he kept himself so busy that he rarely had time to develop and edit his photos.
“I never stopped,” he declares with a laugh. Aside from the artists, hardly anyone outside a few family members and close friends have seen Bush’s photo work. In fact, the 61 photos that will be on display for his debut exhibition are only a fraction of everything Bush has done. What’s really crazy, though, is that he still has film that hasn’t even been looked at yet.
“This is my coming out party, so to speak,” the gentle giant expresses as we discuss his upcoming exhibition that has been a year and a half in the making because he struggled to find the right venue that could fit the number of photographs he wanted to display. The 61 photos Bush finally chose feature the “biggest of the big,” but also aren’t just legends, as he wanted to include something for everyone. As Bush puts it, each photo in his collection tells a story, and at the end of the day, I think he just hopes that what he’s done resonates with those coming out to see his showcase.
The story of Michael Bush, the rock ‘n’ roll photographer, or as Paul McCartney once referred to him as during a backstage press conference, “the Monkees photographer,” reminds me of the movie Almost Famous, which strangely enough, Bush has never seen before. A shy and quiet kid growing up, who was never good at approaching people but somehow later found himself surrounded by those who are historically considered to be some of music’s most influential and brilliant artists. Despite the endless number of stories, he has to share, though, and the long list of performers who will confirm Bush’s loyal friend status, the well-known photographer assures me that through it all he never let it all go to his head. He remained grounded and always reminded himself of something he learned from his father – to have integrity because as Bush says, “Integrity in the music business is not widespread.”
I could sit here for hours trying to relay everything I learned from Bush during my three-hour interview with him. From the sweet and charming things people like Carl Wilson and Davy Jones have said about the man to the hilarious and jaw-dropping anecdotes he shared with me that he witnessed on the road and backstage, there’s enough to write a whole book, which is exactly what Bush’s wife Bev and I suggested he do. I wish I could go on and on about his thoughts on modern music and how believes style over substance is what doomed music for anyone who ever truly loved music, and why he has so much respect for Dave Grohl. Truthfully, though, these stories are best told by Bush himself and can be seen through his photos.
So, I highly recommend going to see his debut photo exhibition, 61 at 61, which you can catch from Friday March 15th to Friday April 5th at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport, IL. For anyone who’s a music fan and art enthusiast, this exhibit is 100% worth seeing. Most importantly, though, this exhibition is an inspiring reminder for anyone with big dreams, like myself, to never give up, to always work hard at what you love, and break down the walls that may stand in your way.