Visions of Greatness: Ron Raffaelli

There is a theater in McFarland that stopped showing movies more than sixty years ago; but if you know who to ask, you’ll discover that art is alive and well on the inside. But it isn’t through moving pictures, as they used to call movies—it’s through still images and a man who created them during one of the most important eras of American popular music. 

Raffaelli with one of the “rigs” he used for photographic special effects, like the Rolling Stones’ “nesting heads.”
Raffaelli with one of the “rigs” he used for photographic special effects, like the Rolling Stones’ “nesting heads.”

Ron Raffaelli still has the props and equipment he used to shoot images of Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and more than one hundred other famous musical acts, and they are lying around that theater in McFarland, which has been converted into a living space and studio. 

“I wanted to be an illustrator like Norman Rockwell,” Raffaelli said over chips and salsa in the kitchen area, “but I didn’t have the talent.” 

He did have a talent for composing images.

“I took a photojournalism class at Pierce College that changed my life,” he added. The class gave him access to cameras and, more importantly, darkrooms. 

Raffaelli quickly became a “darkroom wizard.” In the days before Photoshop and other image manipulation software, all special effects had to be done ‘in camera’, or painstakingly in a darkroom.

Bakersfield concert 1968 ©Ron Raffaelli

But the greatest adventures in Raffaelli’s career may have happened during the year that he spent as the personal photographer of one of the biggest names in late ‘60s rock.

“An art director had told me that this British rock star was getting ready to go on tour in the United States, and he needed a photographer,” Raffaelli said, “and I thought it would be cool to go on tour with a rock star, so I went up to this Beverly Hills house to show my portfolio, and when I got there, there were about thirty or forty photographers with their portfolios. 

“When my turn came, I went into this bedroom and there was a Tiffany lamp with red scarves hanging from it, and at the foot of the bed, there was this handsome black man with a blond on either side of him, and one behind him on the bed looking over his shoulder. So I gave him my portfolio, and I recognized who it was. It was Jimi Hendrix. And he went through all thirty of my photos in about thirty seconds. He hands them back to me and says thank you. And I left, thinking ‘what a waste of time that was,’ ” Raffaelli said. 

While Hendrix had taken England and Europe by storm, he was only on the cusp of great fame in the United States.

Bakersfield concert 1968 ©Ron Raffaelli
Bakersfield concert 1968 ©Ron Raffaelli

“A couple of weeks later, I got the call that Jimi chose me, and the next morning I was on a plane to Hawaii to join him,”…where Hendrix was staying with his band on a large island estate in preparation of his debut American tour. 

“The house was right on the point of Diamond Head, and there were guest bungalows where I stayed. I got up at about two in the morning one night to get a snack in the main house, and I saw a figure sitting off by himself in the sand. He gestured to me to come over, and he had sculpted a giant face in the sand with his long fingers. He had connected the eyes and ears and mouth with a tunnel under the sand, and he blew smoke into the mouth and the wet sand held the smoke briefly, and then it slowly wafted out. It was trippy,” Raffaelli said. 

“I asked him to do it again, and we had a good laugh. But then he said he wanted to ask me some questions about my portfolio, which surprised me because he only spent thirty seconds with my photos, but he had specific questions about them. I made the photos so that there were second and third readings. There were layers to them. And he asked about the symbolism, and I realized he had to have a photographic memory to remember the details he was recalling,” Raffaelli explained. 

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