It wasn’t easy to get tickets to the all-star lineup of rock concerts at Illinois State in the 1970s.
But Bruce Nelson ’74 was at almost all of them, front and center, using his full backstage access to meet the musicians, even pick them up at the airport once. And he has the photos to prove it.
Nelson hosted his own contemporary rock radio show Friday nights on WILN (predecessor to today’s WZND). With so many big acts coming through Normal, Nelson wanted to get publicity shots for the station. The speech communication major struck a deal with the Entertainment Committee, letting them use his photos too in exchange for an all-access pass to the concerts.
Through his Minolta SRT 101 35mm camera—long before megapixels and Instagram—Nelson saw Grand Funk Railroad, Edgar Winter, Muddy Waters, Sha Na Na, Gladys Knight, James Gang, Brownsville Station, and many others.
“It was a perfect storm for timely music, relevant music,” Nelson told STATEside. “It was an incredible opportunity, and that’s something that I knew at the time and still appreciate now.”
“The pictures look like they were shot last weekend,” Nelson said.
Nelson came to Illinois State looking to get into television, but photography was always a passion. That passion just happened to coincide with a great run of concerts at Illinois State, mostly held at Horton Field House, a few at Bone Student Center’s Braden Auditorium. Braden’s bookings have picked up again recently, with All-American Rejects playing last semester and Matchbox Twenty coming in February.
Nelson’s junior and senior years (1972-74) are filled with concert stories. Grand Funk Railroad “pretty much defined rock and roll at the time,” Nelson said, and he picked the band up at the airport before the show. Later, as Nelson pointed his lens at Mark Farner’s flashy stainless steel guitar, the Grand Funk lead singer flung his pick into the crowd. The pick landed in Nelson’s camera bag, and he kept it for years.
“It was little things like that that reinforced the fact that you’re supposed to be there,” Nelson said.
From Edgar Winter Band’s “Frankenstein” to Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boys Room, some of the biggest songs of the era were reverberating through Horton. Nelson got to meet (but not photograph) Elton John, and he was pleasantly surprised by folk singer-songwriter Harry Chapin’s Braden show. “It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to,” Nelson said.
Nelson developed his film in a janitor’s closet—he taped the door closed—on his floor at Wilkins Hall. He said he was protective of his concert access and didn’t brag about it around campus.
He retired in 2008 from State Farm Insurance Cos., where he was creative director for marketing and advertising at the insurer’s Bloomington headquarters. He packed his bags and moved to his cabin in Presque Isle, in far northern Wisconsin, where he also runs a downtown studio and gallery.
About five years ago, he started going through his old negatives from Illinois State.
“It’s going to be a long process, going through these,” he said. “But it’s a labor of love.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.