Music Video Pioneer Stanley Dorfman Recalls Bowie, Sinatra and Lennon

Stanley Dorfman - S 2016
Courtesy of The LODGE

Stanley Dorfman - S 2016

A member of the U.K.'s St. Ives School of art in the 1950s, the 'Top of the Pops' director has a new exhibit of paintings at the Lodge in East Hollywood.

As original director/producer of the U.K.’s seminal pop show Top of the Pops, Stanley Dorfman stood astride the portal through which every mainstream act had to pass in the '60s. David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra — the list is a pantheon of pop icons. Dorfman cemented his position further when he relocated to Los Angeles in 1974, taking over for Dick Clark’s In Concert series, later directing music videos and concert films in the 1990s.

Now in his 80s, Dorfman has come full circle. No, he’s not returning to rock 'n' roll, but to his life before rock when he was a struggling artist. His show, Now and Then, opening Thursday at the Lodge gallery in East Hollywood (1024 N. Western Ave.) and on view through March 5, offers 10 recently completed paintings as well as works from before anyone ever had heard of rock 'n' roll.

After training at Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts and Academie Julian in the 1940s, Dorfman arrived at the Cornish town of St. Ives, England, where he joined husband-and-wife artists Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in what became known as the St. Ives School, a vanguard collective of abstract and modern painting.

Stanley Dorfman, Across The Bay, 1954

“There’s a sort of connection,” Dorfman tells The Hollywood Reporter about hanging his early work next to his new canvases. And no, there are no rock 'n' rollers or shades of '60s psychedelia. Just art-school drawings, landscapes, nudes and mostly abstract paintings.

“Why aren’t you painting?” he was asked by artist Shane Guffogg, a former assistant to Ed Ruscha, some time back in the '90s. Dorfman didn’t have a good answer. In the old days he stopped painting because he got a real job at the BBC as an art director. That was after fleeing the social and political unrest of his native South Africa, where he worked for a time on mosaic and sculpted wall constructions in architecture.

New to London and married with kids, Dorfman was barely making ends meet, so he took the job at the BBC, which eventually led to six years directing and producing Top of the Pops just as rock was becoming mainstream. It wasn’t long before he was splitting his time between London and Los Angeles.

“Everybody used to hang out at the Roxy,” he reminisced about an era when rock stars were more accessible. “Drinks with Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson and Jimmy Webb, they were just guys. And there was no pressure like we put on the artists today, which is insane. Los Angeles was like a village. It was really nice. You could go up to Jimi Hendrix and say hey.”

The decades flash by in a blur. There’s the time he shot four Bowie videos (including “Heroes”) in one woolly week in Paris. And a little while later when the Thin White Duke joined him and the crew for beer and billiards after a concert in Texas.

“Nobody came up to him and bothered him at all,” Dorfman recalls of chill-time with Bowie. “He was a really good painter. We had that in common. He was a sweet man.”

Stanley Dorfman, "Impressions Red," 24"x24," Acrylic on canvas 2015

Dorfman puts Sinatra in the same category, recalling a dinner at Princess Margaret’s castle following a 1970 charity event at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Arriving for dinner, they entered to a very long table with elegant guests. When Sinatra was seated alongside the Princess, he stunned the room saying, “What do you mean seating me over my director?” Dorfman thought it was the end of his career as they fetched a seat for him beside Sinatra. “Everybody looked askance,” he laughs. “But that was Frank.”  

Behind the camera, the director’s tenure parallels the seismic shift in the industry created by music videos, a minor bump for someone who pioneered the genre on Top of the Pops. If a song by a U.S. group entered the top 10 and they weren’t in town, Dorfman and his crew ran around London filming kids dancing at clubs or acting zany in the streets, then cut the footage to the song.

He did the same for Yoko Ono when she asked him to plow through miles of videotape shot by John Lennon. The result was a handful of music videos including the unreleased “Grow Old With Me,” featuring out-of-focus home movies of Lennon and Ono walking in Central Park, Lennon dancing and other intimate moments. “Being John, they were beautifully shot and interesting and funny,” Dorfman smiles. “It’s a shame. With MTV not really doing anything anymore, the music videos have become long commercials.”

That might be why he doesn’t seem to miss it much. Instead of the soundstage, Dorfman's haunt is Pharmaka Gallery in the arts district, boasting shows by renowned artists like Ruscha as well as unrenowned artists like some of the local homeless population. It’s no coincidence that Guffogg is one of Pharmaka’s partners. “He said you just have to join us and start to paint," Dorfman shrugs. "I said okay, I’ll try. He really was the cause of me starting to paint again.”