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willie mays, george livingston and others in richmond

Notes of a Richmond native son

on July 12, 2011

George Livingston Jr. vividly remembers the day when he pivoted headlong into his life’s pursuit.

“It was 1974 at the Cow Palace,” Livingston Jr. said. “James Brown was scheduled to perform and I was there, with a big, three-inch scrapbook full of clippings and pictures of him, the Godfather of Soul.”

Livingston Jr. drew a deep breath. The mere recounting of the story still triggers a sense of wonder.

james brown

James Brown, pictured with George Livingston, during a Bay Area visit in the 1970s. (photo courtesy George Livingston Jr.)

“After the show—it was a great show—I waited for him in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying, and when he got there I showed him my scrapbook,” Livingston said. “He was so interested in it that he asked me to leave it with him, he wanted to look over my scrapbook.”

Livingston pauses once more before delivering the big climax to his story: “A member of his entourage called me the next day and said James was up all night looking at my scrapbook!”

Livingston and his sister were invited by Brown to attend his next concert, in San Jose.

“We accepted,” Livingston said.

Livingston, 58, is a born and bred Richmond celebrity historian, a man who has spent decades amassing a trove of photos, clippings and other memorabilia relating mostly to celebrities and entertainers who have swept through Richmond. Livingston has made a living selling the rights to his historic files to television programs and media productions including TV-One, UNSUNG, E-True Hollywood Story and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but said he hopes his unique collection can ultimately find a home in a museum.

george livingston jr.

George Livingston Jr., pictured here near a former blues club on Cutting Blvd.

And what a collection it is. Hundreds of pounds of file cabinets, Livingston said, packed tight with tens of thousands of photos, scrapbooks and clippings.

His materials have appeared on a host of cable programs and niche magazines. Some of the jewels of his collection include shots of legends like B.B. King, Willie Mays, James Brown and Bobby Brown. He distributes his work through his company, Livingston Entertainment.

The son of George Livingston, a powerful Richmond leader since the 1960s and the city’s first elected African American mayor, the younger Livingston came of age in an era when Richmond was still frequented by famous musicians, athletes and other entertainers.

Richmond in the 1950s and 1960s was experiencing its turbulent postwar heyday, charged with a new, young and diverse population but marred by postwar de-mobilization and chronically high unemployment.  But it was a place that drew the greats, and Livingston took notice from the beginning.

“In his heyday, Willie Mays would come to Richmond, oh yeah,” Livingston said. “I can remember the March of Dimes charitable events at Nichol Park, and Willie and guys like the Cincinnati Reds’ Tommy Harper and Chicago White Sox’ Jim Landis would come out and play in a little pick-up game with local guys who worked on the waterfront. I have a picture with him and my dad that I really cherish.”

Livingston said he owes a special thanks to Richmond photographer James Powell for snapping the photo, and family friend Willie Reed for finding it. The photo was misplaced in Livingston’s files for years.

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A news report of Livingston Jr.'s first meeting with James Brown (courtesy George Livingston Jr.)

By the 1970s, while his dad was ensconced as one of many within Richmond’s growing ranks of young African American political leaders, Livingston worked as an usher at the Oakland Coliseum. “I remember I would see shows, great shows,” Livingston said. “Al Green, the Jackson 5, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles—I had the opportunity to be in the presence of legends and up-and-coming artists who would become legends, so I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world.”

Around that time, Livingston evolved from mere autograph collecting, clipping and scrapbook making into the field of photography. Stevie Nicks, the regal singer of Fleetwood Mac, was Livingston’s first target. “She was coming out of her dressing room after a show at the Coliseum,” Livingston said. “I asked if I could take a picture, and she said yes. That was it, that’s how that started.”

Livingston has trouble pinpointing the origin of his fascination with all things celebrity—images, memorabilia, even moments—but he acknowledges that his dad, his hometown and his era all may have had something to do with it.

Growing up in a modest home on 39th Street near downtown, the son of a father who may have been the most recognized man in town at the time, Livingston was always near the limelight. “Dad used to photograph me and my siblings a lot and videotape us a lot,” Livingston said.  “I can even remember that my dad’s campaign aide gave me my first Instamatic camera.”

The elder Livingston, now 78 and enjoying a quiet retirement in the same Richmond home where he’s lived for decades, said that at first he didn’t understand his son’s infatuation with celebrity, but now he supports it. “He’s always had a thing for collecting, pictures, clippings, whatever,” Livingston Sr. said. “It’s gone from hobby to profession, and what’s better than doing what you love to do?”

But while his dad’s political star may have sparked his interest in celebrity, Livingston’s interests always angled toward the music and sports more than politics.

bobby brown and george livingston

Livingston Jr. photographed Bobby Brown, left, with his father, then Mayor George LIvingston, in the 1980s. (courtesy George Livingston Jr.)

“Dad exposed me to the political arena, city council meetings and the campaigns,” Livingston said. “I can even remember when my dad took me to see Hubert Humphrey, who came to Richmond on a whistle stop in 1964, near MacDonald Avenue. There was press, there were cameras and flashes and energy—in some ways it’s the same, but my interest has always been for the performers more than the politicians.”

Looking ahead, Livingston said he is in a bit of a quandary. He loves his collection and has made a decent living selling the rights to his work, but while there are still flashes of youthful exuberance, the ride has tapered off a bit. He spends more time thinking about what to do with what he has rather than going out and getting more.

“I’m older now, more subdued,” he said. “ The celebrities of today, the Akons, the Tyreses, they’re great, but they don’t quite have that certain something that the oldies had, that James Brown had.”

Ultimately, he wants his collection to benefit future generations, especially those in Richmond. Sometimes Livingston toys with the idea of an employee or an intern to help him digitize his collection, a process he estimates would take years. Mostly, though, he thinks about selling his prizes to the Getty or another prominent museum.

But for now, Livingston says, he still has love for what he does. “I’m 58 and I still get excited when I see celebrities,” he said.

For more information about Livingston, visit his website, connect with him on Facebook, or call 925.754.4155

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