By Drew Olson Special to Published Jul 22, 2009 at 8:21 AM

You could say that Robert Cavallo had a front-row seat for some of the most important moments in Milwaukee's rock and roll history.

You could say it, but it would not be 100 percent accurate.

Cavallo did attend most of the biggest concerts from 1972 to ‘82, but he didn't occupy a seat.

He was too busy taking pictures.

When his band, The Messengers, broke up in 1971, Cavallo put away his drumsticks, picked up a camera and joined his father's photography business. Then, when he wasn't shooting portraits and weddings, Cavallo became a regular at area concert venues.

"My father knew all the promoters and I started to going to every show," Cavallo said. "I never bought a ticket. They would let me in and if they needed anything, they'd call me. I was never on anyone's payroll.

Cavallo photographed shows by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, Queen, Patti Smith, Southside Johnny, David Bowie, The Who and dozens of others.

"A lot of times now, I sit back and look at the pictures and say ‘Man, it's a shame that I was working.' I missed all these shows, in a sense."

Many of his pictures will be displayed this weekend at Light Ideas Gallery, which is located in the lower level of the historic Marshall Building at 207 E. Buffalo St.

The exhibit, entitled "Backstage Pass," will debut on Gallery Night Friday and run through Labor Day weekend.

"I think this is going to be very popular," said David Bernacchi, who started Light Ideas Gallery with Mark Bertieri in 2005.

"There is so much good stuff here. I think these pictures are great, but they really mean something to people who were at the shows.

"These artists toured the country. One night they'd be in Milwaukee and the next night they could be at Cobo Hall in Detroit, wearing the same outfit. But, these pictures were taken in Milwaukee. That adds a certain gravitas."

Unlike today, when performers often limit photographers to shooting only the first three songs, Cavallo was permitted to arrive hours before showtime and stay until the end, often with backstage access.

"I would always start out at the back of the hall," he said. "Having been a performer myself, I realized that I didn't want to be in the front for for the first song. By the time I got to the front of the stage, these guys were really sweating and working.

"I would start outside, taking pictures of the fans in line. It really was a documentary of the venue and the marquees. A lot of times, I'd get to a place before the 18-wheelers were unloaded. I'd take pictures for insurance purposes. I'd get there before the security guys did, and they would look at me and say ‘I don't know who he is, but he was here before I was. I'm not going to ask him to leave.'"

Cavallo stopped going to shows in the early 1980s, when the industry, the working conditions and even the music began to change. He saved all his film, though, and began looking through it when he began a book project and a friend started a concert photography Web site,

"The whole idea of the Web site was to provide a platform for photographers to take another step," Cavallo said. "Take your wares and do with them what you want.

"I had saved things for 35 years. I had it all in Kodak film cans. A friend asked me, ‘How many moves did you make?' but I always held onto those two cans. I had 14,642 images on them. I wrote labels on some of them, but some of them faded.

"There was some stuff in there that I didn't know I had. There were times when I would process the film and never print anything. It was virgin negatives."

In order to check dates and venues, Cavallo consulted two colleagues he saw at nearly every show -- veteran concert photographers Robert Zimmerman and Rick Kohlmeyer. "Those guys were there a lot, shooting for different outlets," he said.

All three were present at a show that provides a centerpiece for the upcoming gallery exhibit -- Springsteen's famous "Bomb Scare" show Oct. 2, 1975 at the Uptown Theater. Roughly 45 minutes into the show, officials cleared the hall because of a bomb threat. Springsteen and friends, along with Cavallo, went to The Pfister Hotel for refreshments. "We drank ourselves silly," Cavallo said.

The show resumed at about midnight and became one of the more memorable nights of Springsteen's legendary performing career.

"That was an amazing night," said Cavallo, who is planning to publish a book of photos from that night. "I'd like to find someone with a ticket."

Bernacchi doesn't think that will be a problem. "My experience with Gallery Night is that you get a lot of traffic, but not a lot of people are buying," he said. "With these pictures, people are going to say ‘I was at that show.' A lot of people will ask to buy a print and they'll want to frame it with their ticket. It happens all the time."

Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.