Written By: Bill Syken

The photos in this collection of LIFE’s greatest concert photo covers a wide variety of performances. We have Leonard Bernstein at Lincoln Center and Minnie Pearl at the Grand Ole Opry. We have the Beatles making their U.S. debut and Marian Anderson at Carnegie Hall. We have The Doors rocking out at the Fillmore and Jack Benny cracking up the troops in Korea.

And that’s just for starters.

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, 1966

Ray Charles performed at Carnegie Hall, 1966.

Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Ray Charles at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1966.

Ray Charles at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1966.

Bill Ray; Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Harry Belafonte performing at the Coconut Grove nightclub, 1957.

Harry Belafonte performed at the Coconut Grove nightclub, 1957.

Ralph Crane The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Two days after their U.S. TV debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the Beatles play for 8,000 fans at their first American concert, at the Coliseum in Washington, D.C., on February 11, 1964. Ticket price: $3.

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/Shutterstock

Entertainer Jack Benny performed bits for troops stationed in Korea, 1951.

Michael Rougier/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Errol Flynn entertained troops in Korea with Jack Benny, 1951.

Michael Rougier/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Rock group The Doors performing at the Fillmore East. (Photo by Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

The Doors performed at the Fillmore East, 1968.

Photo by Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Minnie Pearl at the Grand Ole Opry, 1956.

Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

George Harrison and Bob Dylan at the Concert for Bangladesh in New York, 1971.

Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Tina Turner, 1970

Tina Turner and band, 1970.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Tina Turner, 1970

Tina Turner, 1970.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jimmie Rodgers, 1958.

Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Duke Ellington, New York, 1943.

Duke Ellington, New York, 1943.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Singer Margaret Truman performing with a big band at the Hollywood Bowl, 1947.

Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Louis Armstrong at the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1958.

N.R. Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Louis Armstrong and Tyree Glenn performing “Hello Dolly” at the Steel Pier, 1965.

Leon Gard/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Elvis Presley in Florida 1956

Elvis Presley in Florida, 1956.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Frank Sinatra at the Eden Roc, Miami, 1965.

John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Frank Sinatra, 1965.

John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Dean Martin (right) joined Judy Garland on stage, 1958.

Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, New York, 1949

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the Copacabana, 1949.

Ralph Morse Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, New York, 1949

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the Copacabana, 1949.

Ralph Morse Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Singer Rudy Vallee performing at a nightclub, 1949.

Cornell Capa/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Leonard Bernstein at the podium for the first performance ever at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall in New York, 1962.

Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Singer Marian Anderson, Carnegie Hall, New York, 1947.

Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Sidney Bechet played his saxophone in a small basement club in Paris, 1952.

N.R. Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

One hundred metronomes performed Liget’s ‘Poeme Symphonique’ at the Buffalo Arts Festival, Albright-Knox Gallery, 1965.

Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Woodstock Music & Art Fair, August 1969.

Overcome by the driving rhythm, a flutist abandoned herself to dance during an impromptu amateur performance in the woods at Woodstock, 1969.

Bill Eppridge/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Woodstock Music & Art Fair, August 1969.

Woodstock, August 1969.

Bill Eppridge/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Woodstock Music & Art Fair, August 1969.

Woodstock, August 1969.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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