SALISBURY — Photographer Hope Powell was a pistol. But, boy, did it pay off.
If a sign said no parking, she parked there anyway. If a celebrity were on the other side of the room, Powell had a way of sauntering up and becoming part of his or her conversation.
She made sure to attend the clubs, concerts, parties and award shows. Somehow she always ended up backstage or behind the scenes, making friends with the stars.
Powell shot and colorized their family portraits or covered their weddings and reunions, and before any shot was over, she made sure there was a picture of her with her famous subjects.
Powell’s business card and Yellow Pages ad for her Music Row photography studio in Nashville, Tenn., said, “If Hope can’t do it, it’s Hopeless.”
Nancy Owen worked for Powell’s early photography studios in Salisbury in the late 1950s and through the 1960s.
“Hope always had the desire to be somebody,” says Owen, who became a lifelong friend. “She was out to make a name for herself. … Hope was somebody who just barged in — she was something else.”
Last weekend, the 90-year-old Powell traveled to her hometown of Salisbury from her long adopted city of Nashville. Caregivers and friends from Nashville, Mariah Neff and Debbie Hampton, mapped out her various stops and overnight stays in North Carolina.
In Salisbury, Powell visited with her niece, Joyce Sachs, met at a restaurant with Owen and drove by many of the places from her past — Boyden (now Salisbury) High, her parents’ old house on North Church Street and her former studio locations on West Innes and South Main streets.
When she spotted Owen for the first time at Applebee’s, Powell pushed her walker aside and cried out, “This is my Nancy, my Nancy.” It warmed Owen’s heart.
Back in her studio days here, Powell won awards for her work from state and national professional photographer associations. In Nashville, she has earned a Gospel Music Association Dove Award for cover art for albums, and she received a 2007 Source Award, which annually honors women in the music business.
Powell was a photographer at the inaugurations of then Alabama Gov. George Wallace and then Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. She covered NASCAR races on occasion. One of her earliest celebrity photographs — and celebrity friends — was of blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield during a nightclub appearance by the actress.
“She would go out in the audience and sit in a man’s lap, and I would take the picture and try to sell it to the guy later,” Powell told UPI reporter Walt Smith in 1974.
By then, Powell had moved on from Salisbury and already was tapped into the country music industry, having first moved to Atlanta, then later to Nashville.
She was shooting candids, family portraits, weddings and album covers of country music stars, most notably the ones whose fame solidified in the 1960s through the 1980s.
Her images were important enough for music mogul Mike Curb and the late Nashville record producer Shelby Singleton to buy her negatives, but what Powell holds most dearly are the photographs she has of herself with the various legends.
“This is my treasure,” she says.
Sitting in the lobby of Hotel Salisbury, Powell positions a heavy scrapbook on her lap and turns page after page, showing her with Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Tanya Tucker, Glen Campbell, Minnie Pearl, Mel Tillis, Kitty Wells, Ronnie Millsaps, Hank Snow, Jimmy Dean, Buck Owens, Porter Waggoner, Marty Robbins, Floyd Cramer and scores of others.
Powell has photographs of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings with and without facial hair. She claims to be godmother to all of Conway Twitty’s children. She recalls explaining to Penny Lane, longtime assistant to Cash, why she was needing to take the Man in Black’s photograph.
Lane and Powell became good friends.
Hampton and Neff insist Powell took the pictures of Johnny and June Carter Cash’s wedding, but Powell disputes their claim.
She turns her attention back to photos, which include her with celebrities such as Richard Petty, the Osmonds, George Gobel, Sammy Davis Jr., Dennis Weaver, B.J. Thomas, Hugh Hefner, Perry Como, Della Reese, Johnny Mathis, George Burns and Roy Rogers.
Powell’s father, Ernest Goodman, worked as a machinist at the Spencer Shops railroad facility. Her mother, Carrie, whose stage name was Betty Lou Demara, once sang with Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.
Hope had a sister, Corine, and a brother, Ernest Odell Goodman.
Powell has memories of playing the violin and singing on stage herself at the age of 3. Her song was, “Have You Seen My Kitty?” As she grew older, Powell also sang at the local Church of God.
Anna Bland, Powell’s grandmother, probably led her into photography. Bland once had a studio of her own in Salisbury.
Hampton says Powell was part of an honorary press corps when she was 19 that toured Europe. “This was when she got to photograph the pope in his chambers and even photographed the queen, while in England,” Hampton says.
At times, Powell’s poetry would be published in the Salisbury Post. Hampton says Powell also could play the piano, violin, saxophone and drums.
Much later in Nashville, Powell became a member — and still is — of the Christ Church Choir, which has given concerts around the world and famously appeared as the background group to Dolly Parton when she sang “He’s Alive” at the Country Music Awards in 1989.
Powell would marry and divorce twice and never have children. Hampton says the love of her life might have been Fred Young Jr. of Salisbury.
Young earned a undergraduate degree from Catawba College and a master’s from Columbia University. He would teach English in Long Island, N.Y., schools for 20 years and wrote poetry and novels on the side. The book gaining him the most notoriety was his “Many Ingenious Lovely Things,” published by Bantam Books in 1984.
Many years after they were older and single again, Powell and Young often would see each other at Christmas back in Salisbury. Young died in 2002.
Powell now lives with Hampton and her husband, Marvin, in an apartment in Nashville. “In moving her from her home and packing away all her things, I’ve read many beautiful love letters between the two,” Hampton says.
Nancy Owen remembers first meeting Hope Powell in 1957, when she operated out of a studio above Earle’s Office Supplies on West Innes Street. Johnny Suther also had a photography studio close by.
Owen and her first husband had moved to Salisbury in 1954. When her daughter was 2, Owen took her up to Powell’s studio to be photographed and have an oil portrait done. Powell somehow talked Owen into trying her hand at being the studio’s colorist.
After Owen’s husband was killed in an accident in 1960, she went to working for Powell full-time, trying to support herself and four children, ranging in ages from 5 to 12.
“We were together constantly then,” Owen remembers of having her children sleep in the studio while she painted portraits into the early-morning hours.
Owen began going to various photography schools in North Carolina and learning the whole business. Powell left Salisbury for Atlanta in 1967 or 1968 — Owen says she can’t remember why — and Owen stayed behind in Salisbury with a half ownership interest in Powell’s studio.
By the early 1970s, Owen had her own thriving studio, but over the next 15-plus years, she regularly helped Powell at various country music awards shows in Nashville.
She remembers dressing to kill for the awards ceremonies, then attending the parties afterward. Owen still marvels at the access they had to the country music stars, before it became more restrictive in the late 1980s.
“We would meet a lot of nice people,” she says. “Nashville has such a hometown feeling to it.”
Owen says Powell became part of her family, and when she came back to Salisbury to visit at Christmas, Powell usually stayed at Owen’s house. Before last week’s visit, Owen had last seen Powell in the fall of 2012.
Owen thinks Powell’s connections to country music took root while she was still in Atlanta, going to clubs and taking some candids.
“It started getting big for her,” she says.
Hampton, who first came to know Powell 20 years ago as a fellow member of the Christ Church Choir, says one of Powell’s earliest breaks in Nashville came when she was testing out a camera at Centennial Park and noticed a young man playing his guitar by the lake.
If he would allow her to take his picture, Powell said, she would develop the photograph and send it to him later. She later included her business card with the photograph, and about a month later, Powell heard back from the musician’s agent, asking whether she could do the cover art to an album for Alabama.
Hampton says the calls kept coming.
After she had an apartment in Nashville, she once tried to strike out in the music business herself, hiring a band and making an audition tape.
Powell told the UPI reporter in 1974 she went straight to Chet Atkins with the tape:
“He said, ‘Hope, you could make it with the right song because anyone could. But you’re such a great photographer, and we need you so, why don’t you stick to photography?’ ”
Mariah Neff is an alto in the Christ Church Choir, while Powell and Hampton are sopranos. Neff, who also tried making it in Nashville as a singer, has been friends with Powell for 30 years.
At a ROPE (Reunion of Professional Entertainers) Awards banquet, Neff says, Jim Ed Brown and his wife, Becky, made a special effort to speak to Hope.
Brown, a 50-year member of the Grand Ole Opry and travel host on The Nashville Network, told Powell how much he and his wife and all the country music industry loved and admired Powell, “because you loved and admired us.”
Hampton says Powell’s last photographic assignment was Hampton’s mother’s wedding three years ago. She also recalls that only six weeks after Powell had both knees replaced in 2002, she served as photographer for Hampton’s son’s wedding.
In September, Powell’s 90th birthday celebration was held at John A’s restaurant in Nashville.
Many of the photographs on the walls at John A’s are pictures of country music stars taken by Powell.
“There’s just a clarity to them and a sincerity to them,” Hampton says. “Hope’s work had that charisma. She wasn’t just a photographer. She loved what she was doing.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.