Berkeley photographer and French Hotel regular Kai Mort Shuman, who died last week at 85, and his wife Jan McClain. Photo: Bobbie Garcia

After dropping his daughter off in Berkeley last weekend, Josh Rosenthal was cruising south down Shattuck Avenue when a sign advertising books and records for sale caught his eye. As the owner of San Francisco-based Tompkins Square Records, a label dedicated to reissuing vintage and long overlooked recordings, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to go spelunking through the bins. So he pulled over to see what the Art House Gallery and Cultural Center had to offer.

“There were all these cultural artifacts from the 1960s sort of haphazardly arranged,” he said. “Posters, comic related stuff, books, prints and ephemera. Harold Adler, who runs the place, was playing all this classic rock through a very good speaker system. He started comping on the piano, playing along with Traffic, sounding so soulful. The whole thing felt like I was dreaming.”

Rosenthal didn’t find much of interest in the LP bins, but when he got to a box of photographs he hit the motherload. There was a contact sheet from a 1964 Tim Hardin shoot that the quintessential Greenwich Village folkie had autographed on the back. He found 8 x 10 images of Delta blues greats Son House and Bukka White, and a shot capturing an impossibly young-looking David Crosby backstage with Odetta. All of the images were credited to the same photographer — Mort Shuman.

When Rosenthal got home with his treasure trove and Googled the name he found a Facebook post announcing that Kai Mort Shuman had died two days earlier at the age of 85. Shuman, it turns out, was a classic Berkeley character who had spent the decade from 1960-70 documenting New York City’s cultural ferment.

He shot the Beatles at the Forest Hills Music Festival on the Fab Four’s first U.S. tour in 1964 and took the iconic image used for the cover of Fred Neil’s second album, 1965’s Bleecker & MacDougal. A buddy of Lenny Bruce’s, he provided the photo of the iconoclastic comic in action featured on the cover of David Skover and Ronald K. L. Collins’ 2002 biography The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Rise and Fall of An America Icon. Nina Simone loved the way he captured her in a moment of pique so much she had it blown up and kept it on her piano.

Those heady days were long gone by the time Shuman arrived in Berkeley. Decades after his Village adventures, looking to relocate to a city on the West Coast, Shuman and his wife, Jan McClain, spent eight months scouting for the ideal environment. In 2005 they choose Berkeley, partly because the city’s cafe culture reminded Shuman of his days as a Greenwich Village denizen. Settling two blocks from the French Hotel, he quickly became a regular at the cafe, where his gregarious nature made him an essential part of the scene.

“For him, Berkeley was an urban village like Greenwich,” McClain said. “His place was with the musicians who’d meet up in the morning at the French Hotel. As everyone aged and it changed, he started hanging out with the evening guys.” More recently, Shuman became a regular with the French Hotel’s afternoon shift of kibitzers.

Album cover shot by Mort Shuman. Photo: Courtesy

During his New York years, he adopted the first name Kai from his Hebrew name Mordechai to avoid being confused with the pianist and songwriter Mort Shuman, who turned out hits at the Brill Building with Doc Pomus. Born in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1935, Shuman “was kind of known as a Jewish cowboy who did rodeo as a teenager,” McClain said. Interested in photography from the age of 12, he used the camera as a vehicle to make his way in the world.

He earned a degree in English from the University of Colorado and did his military service in the mid-1950s as a photographer on an aircraft carrier. After mustering out of the Navy, he worked various jobs in Denver, and by 1960 had made his way east, pursuing his dream as a photographer in New York City. Frequenting folk spots like Cafe Wha? and the Night Owl, “he’d get to know the managers and ask if he could come in and take photos,” McClain said. “That’s how he got to know a lot of the musicians.”

Shulman never quite broke into photography’s elite ranks with regular assignments from glossy magazines, but commercial success didn’t seem like his primary motivation. “He would notice the breath of the musician, especially singers, and coordinate his shooting with that,” McClain said.

“He was almost chosen to shoot for Life. He was one of those almost guys, within one or two of who got chosen. He was self-trained and so aware and precise in how he approached things. People loved to work with him,” she said.

He may have missed the big money, but Shuman made his mark, shooting album covers for Phil Ochs, Eric Anderson, Leslie Gore, the Everly Brothers, and many others, while documenting the leading figures on the Village folk scene, including Dave Van Ronk and Simon and Garfunkel.

On the Fine Art America website where prints of his work are for sale, he told the story of shooting Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall, when she was about to sing Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s fierce fantasy of comeuppance “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera.

“She stepped off stage a moment to put on the red apron, and the audience headed to the bar,” he wrote. “Nina was not pleased at the audience, but loved this photograph and insisted that it replace the album cover scheduled. She kept an enlarged copy at the end of her piano in her home.”

Shuman parlayed his excellent eye for lighting and composition into a sideline in film.

In another moment of serendipity, Tompkins Square Records’ Josh Rosenthal was meandering through YouTube a week ago when he happened to come across the classic “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day,” probably because the star of the spot, Anthony Martignetti, died in August. Shuman shot the documentary-style commercial, which first aired in the fall of 1969 and stayed in heavy rotation for 13 years.

YouTube video

McClain and Shuman met in Denver in 1983 when she was teaching high school English. Divorced, and with a son from her first marriage, she was open to new experiences and enrolled in a class he was teaching on acting in front of the camera for non-actors. Intrigued by his stories and high spirits, she went out on a date with him and, in 1989, they got married.

“People thought, ‘they seem so different,’ but I think we were complementary,” she said. “Kai didn’t marry until he was 54 years old. He did not have any children, but my son is very close to him. The thing about Kai is he had a curiosity about him. He was so intelligent, so curious and knowledgeable. I just finished meeting with some of his friends from the French Hotel and one of them said every time I saw him walking up with his walker, I knew we were going to have a good time.”

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....