HUNTLEY, IL -- Jim Summaria got the idea for “Classic Rock: Photographs from Yesterday & Today” in about 2008, but the book’s long and winding road began some 40 years earlier.
At age 17, Summaria started bringing his Kodak Instamatic camera to rock concerts, where security would let him approach the stage and take a few quick shots before returning to his seat.
“The photos started getting better and better,” recalled Summaria, who grew up in Oak Park. “Eventually the guy at Lion Photo said, ‘You should get a 35mm camera.’”
Summaria bought a basic 35mm from Sears and a telephoto lens and suddenly his photos looked professional. His shots of guitarist Jimmy Page and lead singer Robert Plant from a 1973 Led Zeppelin show caught the eye of a manager at Flip Side, a record store chain that also presented concerts.
Later that year, Summaria became the company’s official photographer and began shooting its concerts, his photos lining the stores' walls for several years. Eventually he sold some to a few bands and rock magazines such as Hit Parader, but in 1979 Summaria became a commercial photographer, doing more corporate and private jobs.
He left his massive collection of concert photos in the hands of a photo service that agreed to sell them on his behalf. Summaria occasionally received royalty checks for $20-$50.
That was almost the end of most of the photographs that fill “Classic Rock,” a 124-page photo history of 60 bands that inspired “That Classic Rock Show,” which premiered in March on WHRU 101.5 FM in suburban Huntley and can be heard online 24/7.
In a bus depot locker
Many years later, Summaria was reading Popular Photography magazine and came across a story about the same photo service, which had stopped paying its clients and placed their photos in a locker at a bus depot.
“Popular Photography investigated it,” he said. “If they had not, I would not have gotten my photos back. They were in the bus depot for well over a year.”
When he got them back in the 1990s, Summaria “didn’t do much” with his old rock photos. But when digitization became available, he converted thousands of them. “I’ve sold more now since 2000 than in all the previous years,” he said.
Summaria’s rock photos have appeared on the Grammys, at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in a Smithsonian Institution book, on posters, on CD sleeves, on websites and even on a Canadian postage stamp sheet.
Summaria, now of Algonquin, got the idea for “Classic Rock: Photographs from Yesterday & Today” when guitarist Johnny Winter bought an old photo to use on his new CD cover. Summaria shot Winter at his next Chicago area show and decided to compare the vintage photos of his aging subjects with more recent images.
At about this time, Arcada Theater in St. Charles began a series of classic rock shows featuring many of the same bands Summaria had shot in their prime.
“I started shooting a show every other week, if not more,” he said. “The book started to take shape photographically.”
Bring in the writer
Summaria enlisted his old friend and fellow ’70s concert goer Mark Plotnick, a recently retired copywriter form Libertyville, to write about each of the featured bands.
“He said, ‘So much for your retirement. I have an idea for a book,’” Plotnick laughed.
At the request of publisher Amherst Media, Plotnick reduced his voluminous biographies of each band to a series of bullet points marking key facts and lesser known details.
“We focused on the music, instead of things like their problems with drugs,” Summaria said. “Mark tried to find facts that were a little more unknown. It’s not just, ‘Paul McCartney was in the Beatles.’ Everyone knows that. He made it more interesting.”
For example, Plotnick writes that the American trio ZZ Top is the only band to perform longer with its original line-up than the Dutch band Golden Earring and that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” has received the most plays of any song on album-oriented radio without ever being released as a single.
“Classic Rock” sold strongly in its initial release and enjoyed its best quarter during fall 2020, but has struggled with sales during COVID and has still sold less than 100,000 copies, according to Amherst.
“Plotnick and Summaria capture the passion and energy of rock & roll.” -- The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was so enamored with the book that it added “Classic Rock” to its archives and sells it in its souvenir store.
“Many of the books in our library and archives and those sold in our store spotlight our inductees and other artists whose contributions have played an integral role in rock history,” said Andy Leach, senior director of museum and archival collections. “Plotnick and Summaria capture the passion and energy of rock & roll.”
The book took shape during several lunch dates where Plotnick and Summaria argued about topics such as who the best bass players and guitarists were and why they believe classic rock is the best genre not only of rock and roll but of all popular music.
“We would dissect and delve into trivia the average person does not care about,” Plotnick said. “We can talk for hours about music, even beyond the classic rock era. We really click on that level.”
Radio a 'natural step'
Although the two have no previous radio experience, the radio show seemed like a “natural step,” Summaria said. Jim Eggers, executive director at WHRU, invited the two to propose a weekly one-hour format and “have fun with it.”
The show expands on the classic rock of the book by digging through the vaults of rock and roll from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. The authors, who are still a bit awkward yet charmingly amateur as DJs, present a different topic each week, exploring songs and artists not typically played on traditional classic rock radio.
“You won’t hear ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ on our show,” Summaria said. “I love those songs but they’re already played to death.”
Two recent shows focused on underappreciated guitarists and on the fertile ’60s music of the Laurel Canyon scene in Los Angeles. The songs they choose demonstrate the pivotal roles that often overlooked artists played in shaping classic rock.
The episode on underappreciated guitarists included eight guitarists not included on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the all-time greats. Ronnie Montrose carves the roots of heavy metal in the jump blues classic “Good Rocking Tonight,” while Robin Trower mines the unique style of Jimi Hendrix unlike few others on “Day of the Eagle.”
Upcoming shows will focus on great piano and keyboard players and on what the Beatles’ next album might have sounded like had they not broken up.
Plotnick says they have a “lifetime” of show ideas: protest music, glam rock, the San Francisco sound, the Chicago sound, Southern rock, heavy metal, prog rock, the 10 best bass players, great live album songs, great drummers, Jimi Hendrix. The list goes on and on.
“A lot of people don’t realize, Hendrix started with James Brown and then the Isley Brothers,” Summaria said. “We’ll track those songs down.”
'Passing it forward'
Feedback so far has been positive, Plotnick said. “We’re learning on the fly, getting professional guidance,” he said. “We’re honing our act, so to speak, as we go, but the feedback has been very positive from station executives and the people we’ve talked to. We’re trying to get a little better at integrating our personalities on the show.”
The Illinois Rock & Roll Museum, under construction in Joliet, has invited Plotnick and Summaria to broadcast a show from the museum and chose two of Summaria’s photos to adorn its outside walls.
A lifelong classic rock fan who grew up in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, Plotnick hopes their book and show preserve and pass on the history of their favorite music -- locally and beyond.
“We wanted to do a book not just to appeal to the memories of musicians of our generation, but we wanted to pass the information forward to Generation X and millennials, who seem to have a very short idea of history,” he said. “We wanted to make not just a celebration, but a primer to educate younger listeners and readers.”