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When rock was king in South Florida, this photographer was there

The first time photojournalist Larry Singer met future rock ‘n’ roll royalty, he was wandering backstage at the now-defunct Pirate’s World amusement park in Dania Beach, searching for a woman named Alice Cooper.

“I thought he was a chick, man,” Singer recalls. “I’d never seen the band before.”

Singer, hired as a stringer for the Chicago rock magazine Circus to photograph an Alice Cooper concert, found the man born Vincent Furnier in a dressing room at the end of a hallway in December 1971, drinking beer with bandmates, his eyes framed in spiky ringlets of thick, black greasepaint. When Singer noticed the Alice Cooper stage costume — skintight stretch pants underneath a lace-up leather vest — he felt too intimidated to meet the rocker, and turned to leave. But Cooper, who had a yen for amateur photography, had spotted Singer’s Nikon and Leica cameras, and barked for Singer to stay.

“[Alice is] in full drag, and he yells after me, ‘Hey, what do you want?’ ” Singer recalls. “I dug my press pass out and gave him an envelope of color prints from a recent Who concert I shot, and he said he liked them and I should stay. My ego inflated to roughly the size of Montana.”

Speaking at the art gallery Studio 18 in Pembroke Pines, Singer ticks off the names of 1970s and ’80s rock luminaries he has photographed at a rapid clip: U2. Eddie Van Halen. Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen. The notoriously shy Ritchie Blackmore. The “late, super-great” Chuck Berry. The late, “amazing” Gregg Allman. But with Cooper, Singer says, they bonded over photography, spawning a friendship that would last years. Later that evening in 1971, Singer would capture one of his favorite intimate moments: Cooper sipping a can of Budweiser, his face fixed in an expression of mock anger, in front of a tinsel-covered Christmas tree.

The image is on display in Studio 18’s rock ’n’ roll-themed group exhibit “Rockin’: The Story of Rock ’n’ Roll,” which will open Friday, June 23. The Oakland Park-based photographer’s 17 images, the centerpiece of the show, are striking dispatches from South Florida’s concert scene when the region was lousy with big-ticket bands who fired up the Hollywood Sportatorium, the Sunrise Musical Theatre and Pirate’s World, where Singer photographed most of his rock legends.

“People who were soon-to-be rock stars, I had all this access to,” says Singer, 70, an Air Force sergeant in Vietnam who studied journalism at Broward Community College. “It wasn’t some grand plan. I was just a poor, local boy, not some New York hotshot with a $2,000 camera. I worked a deal to give the Pirate’s World concert promoter copies of my photos for free, and he let me backstage any time I wanted.”

Most of Singer’s anecdotes from those 1971-1984 Circus years, which he recalls with near spiritual reverie, are united by common themes: bizarre encounters, dangerous split-second decisions and obscene amounts of drugs. There was the time, accompanied by Circus freelance writer Jim Esposito, when Singer snuck his cameras into a 1981 Rolling Stones concert at Orlando’s Tangerine Bowl (the last-minute opener: Van Halen). The show banned photography, but Singer had taped a camera lens to his back and stuffed film rolls into his underwear. When security frisked him, they confiscated his lens and handed it to a teenage girl who worked the Lost and Found booth. The girl, bored and distracted, gave Singer his lens back.

During the concert, Singer captured Eddie Van Halen striking a midair pose one second after he leaped off his brother Alex’s drum riser. That image is now on permanent display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Michael Edelberg, Studio 18’s curator, describes Singer’s photographs as “historical documents.”

“To be here in South Florida capturing a hard-rocking era, to know that you’ll never get that perfect image again, that’s stunning,” Edelberg says. “It’s sharing a piece of history, because most of these rock gods aren’t here, anymore.”

Edelberg originally thought Singer’s photos deserved a solo exhibit, but decided “Rockin’ ” should be a more ambitious look at South Florida’s rock ’n ’roll heyday. The show features more than 100 photos, paintings and sculptures by 16 artists, including Ken Davidoff, a photojournalist who captured Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, John Lee Hooker and others at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival.

Other tributes include Ray Lozano’s “The 27,” a guitar sculpture built from clay and mirror shards, the title a reference to the glut of influential rockers who died at age 27. Also in the exhibit is a 1979 dress rehearsal photo, donated by Barry Gibb’s publicist, of the Miami-based Bee Gees posing arm-in-arm onstage at Ebbets Field in New York. Four more vintage photos, on loan from Gloria Estefan’s publicist, show the singer performing under twinkling lights with Miami Sound Machine members.

“You can’t celebrate South Florida music without Gloria Estefan,” Edelberg says. “But everyone here is an icon.”

“Rockin’: The Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll” will open with a reception 7-9 p.m. Friday, June 23, at Studio 18 in the Pines, 1101 Poinciana Blvd., in Pembroke Pines. Admission is free. The exhibit will close Aug. 2. Call 954-961-6067 or go to PPines.com/Studio18.

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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