By Geoff Stanton
John Olson is best known for his time as a Vietnam War photographer, notably his five days in the terrifying furnace of the Siege of Hue. His war images were confronting, immortal, framed in death.
So it was a surprise that he was commissioned by LIFE Magazine to take a series of portraits featuring rock stars with their parents. “A hell of a lot more difficult and unrewarding than war photography” Olson recalled. The assignment took over a year, and carried Olson from the suburbs of London to San Francisco Bay and Brooklyn.
“Everyone had told me that Frank Zappa was going to be really difficult, and he couldn’t have been more professional,” said Olson. “My father has ambitions to be an actor,” Frank told LIFE in 1971. “He secretly wants to be on TV.” Zappa’s mother had different tabs on her son. “The thing that makes me mad about Frank,” she said, “is that his hair is curlier than mine — and blacker.”
“I got a lot of the drug stories, a lot of the rock & roll stories, and a lot of the anti-war stories” explained Olson to LIFE.com. “So when this story came up, I guess I received it because of my age.”
He had also worked for the rock promoter Bill Graham for several years and had some experience in dealing with rock stars’ egos and unprofessionalism. “But” he said, “without exception, the performers behaved like regular human beings as soon as their parents were around. They were polite, on time and not stoned. That’s the primal power of parenthood, I guess.”
Olson also travelled to Surrey, England, to visit the home of Eric Clapton’s grandmother, Rose Clapp, where her grandson’s lifestyle had brushed off onto her parrot. “Eric’s grandmother left the room, and the parrot talked. It said, ‘Fuck you!’ Mrs. Clapp came back and I said, ‘The parrot talks. What does he say?’ And she said, ‘He says “Gobble gobble.”
So Eric came and we’re talking and I asked, ‘Hey, what’s that parrot say?’ and he looked at me like I was crazy. He said, ‘The parrot says “Fuck you.” “Delaney and Bonnie had stayed in the house for a while and taught the parrot to shout ‘fuck you!’ at anyone who walked past the cage,” Olson told the Guardian. “That was about as rock’n'roll as it got.”
“It was very controlled,” Olson said of the Jackson shoot. “As I remember, they followed my requests to a T, and were incredibly polite. The dad was pretty stern.” Joseph had been a crane operator only three years before, but was now relentlessly pushing his kids towards fame – the quest that would shape Michael’s strange future. “It wasn’t hard to know they could go on to be professionals,” Joseph had told LIFE at the time. “They won practically all the talent shows and I wasn’t surprised when they did make it. Because, you see, we were trying awful hard.”
“I had worked with Ginger Baker before, I think I had worked with Joe Cocker before, I had worked with Grace before — and some of these people, especially Ginger Baker, the first go-round had been really difficult, nasty,” Olson said. “But when they were with their parents, they were totally different people. Ginger Baker, who had been terribly obnoxious before, acted like a grown-up. I don’t think it had anything to do with respect for me, so it must have been the parents.”
The photos eventually made it out as ‘The Rock Family Affair’, in the September 1971 issue of LIFE Magazine.