Howard Morehead, 79; Photographer of Jazz Musicians Broke Color Barrier

Times Staff Writer

Howard Morehead, pioneering African American photographer who captured jazz greats for album covers and such international leaders as Nelson Mandela for newspapers, magazines and television, has died. He was believed to have been 79.

Morehead apparently died July 13 at Veterans Memorial Hospital in West Los Angeles of complications of cardiovascular disease, said Tom Reed, a longtime friend and producer and host of “Black Accent on Los Angeles” for KSCI-TV Channel 18. Morehead had no known relatives, and friends were uncertain about the exact circumstances of his death.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 25, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 99 words Type of Material: Correction
Morehead obituary -- The obituary of photographer Howard Morehead in Thursday’s California section said he was believed to have been 79. In fact, he was 76. Morehead became the first West Coast staff photographer for Johnson Publications in 1953, not 1958, as stated in the obituary. It said he had no known relatives, but he had several cousins in Los Angeles and Topeka, Kan. The obituary also provided an incorrect name for the location of a memorial service for Morehead. It will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at Wilfandel House, 3425 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles.

Reed said Morehead had taken about 30% of the photographs illustrating his 1992 book, “The Black Music History of Los Angeles -- Its Roots.” Among those was the moody cover photo of saxophonist Dexter Gordon, which Morehead shot in 1957.


A native of Topeka, Kan., Morehead served as one of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and later studied photography at Los Angeles City College and motion picture photography at USC. He worked as a news photographer for the Los Angeles Sentinel in the 1950s, and in 1958 became the first West Coast staff photographer for Johnson Publications, which showcased his work in its Jet and Ebony magazines.

In 1970, Morehead became the first African American staff cameraman to work at a Los Angeles television station -- KTLA-TV Channel 5. Later that decade he switched to KABC-TV Channel 7 here.

“It’s not that I was the best, but I just happened to be the first,” Morehead told Los Angeles Scoop in 1994. But he said it wasn’t easy achieving that breakthrough.

“I would go to the TV stations and they would tell me, ‘Well, we can’t hire you, you’re not in the union.’ I would go to the union and they would say, ‘Unless you’ve worked with a TV segment, we can’t let you in.’ ”

He said he broke the impasse by shooting background footage in the Fiji Islands for Raymond Burr’s “Ironside” television series -- a job he later described as “a vacation you would pay to go on.”

Morehead both excelled and reveled in photographing the musicians he loved to listen to while he worked. His favorite subject was Ray Charles, who disliked being photographed, but was put at ease when Morehead played recorded jazz during their sessions.

The photographer captured Charles for covers of several albums, including “Rhythm and Blues Meets Country and Western,” “I’m All Yours Baby,” “Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul,” and “Just Between Us.”

He shot Charles in his studio, in offices, in a private home before a raging fireplace, at the Hollywood Bowl and on the set of the “Dinah Shore Show.” He photographed Charles with Shore, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Liberace and others.

“I wish all of the musicians and models I have photographed were as easy as Ray to direct,” Morehead once said.

Other top-rank musicians who came before Morehead’s all-seeing cameras were Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Bobby Short and Mel Torme.

Stephanie Evans, another friend, said a memorial is planned for Monday at the Whiffendale Club, Adams Boulevard and 5th Avenue, Los Angeles.