But look through these photos as a whole and you’ll get a sense of what makes a great concert photo. Sometimes it’s the expression of the performer, as evidenced by the photos of Frank Sinatra and Tina Turner. But often it’s the audience that makes the shot—whether it’s individual expression of glee, or the sheer multitude of human beings who have packed themselves into seats in the hopes of seeing something special. In photos as in life, the ‘hot crowd” can make all the difference.
The idea of an audience being central to the performance is amusingly winked at in one photograph in this collection, from an avant-garde concert in which the audiences watched 100 metronomes wind down to nothing. The spectators were the only living part of the show.
But the audience members are the true star of the most famous concert photos in the LIFE archives.
The Woodstock festival featured some all-time great performers—The Grateful Dead, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and more. But what made the concert an essential moment of the 1960s was the 400,000-plus people who swarmed the concert site in upstate New York. The images of those who gathered are what truly defined the moment.
Concerts like Woodstock are rare—”once in a generation” would be underselling it. In most shows, the performers are essential. But the audience can make the moment, or the photo.
Look at the picture of the Rudy Vallee nightclub show from 1949, in which the most prominent figure is not the singer but a woman in the foreground. She’s all dressed up and wearing a fancy hat, and a look of sheer delight. Of course it’s not Woodstock. But she’s the one who’s telling you: there’s something happening here.
Ray Charles at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1966.
Bill Ray; Life Pictures/Getty Images
Harry Belafonte performed at the Coconut Grove nightclub, 1957.
Ralph Crane The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Two days after their U.S. TV debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the Beatles played for 8,000 fans at their first American concert, at the Coliseum in Washington, D.C., on February 11, 1964. Ticket price: $3.
Stan Wayman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Entertainer Jack Benny performed bits for troops stationed in Korea, 1951.