Terry O’Neill’s famous shots include the ”Jumping Dog” image used for the promotion of David Bowie‘s Diamond Dogs and a poolside photo of Faye Dunaway.
As for Elton, there are too many to name here, but one of the top contenders must be the star in a Bob Mackie sequined baseball uniform at Dodger Stadium. So would Elton’s Muppet Show performance. Also unforgettable are album covers such as A Single Man, where the musician poses on the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park.
The aforementioned are part of a new book called Elton John by Terry O’Neill: The Definitive Portrait, With Unseen Images. The photographer shared a Preview with EJW, as well as his thoughts about his long and rewarding career.
EJW: Congratulations on making the Queen’s List this year! What was the day like?
TO: It was incredible, it really was. I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest, but considering how many people were there and the amount of protocol, it all ran very smoothly. It was a great honour.
EJW: You have taken at least 5,000 photographs of another artist who has been recognised by the Queen. He’s also the subject of your latest book. It all began when you heard his voice on the radio and decide to ring up his manager. Unfortunately, you didn’t know Elton when he first appeared in America, at the Troubadour. But he returned five years later to the L.A. club to do three benefits for the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. Were you at any of these performances?
TO: I don’t think I was there – the most memorable live performance that I went to was Dodger Stadium, of course. I’m reading Elton’s memoir now – a terrific book – and I just got to the part about Wembley [in 1975 when he headlined an all-day concert called ‘Midsummer Music’], which I was at, too. I didn’t realise he didn’t think much of his performance. But somewhere in my archive, I do have some great shots of Elton dancing along to the Beach Boys.
EJW: Many people might not be aware that you’ve taken pictures of Janis Joplin.
TO: I did – but just briefly. Tom Jones had a long running television variety show – and I heard that Janis was going to appear. So I rang up Tom – whom I’ve known for years – and asked if it would be alright if I came along. I thought she was a terrific blues signer and wanted the opportunity to work with her.
EJW: Early in your book, there are some photos of Elton in striped pants with suspenders. First he’s standing on top of the piano; the next thing you know, he’s up in the air, resembling a trapeze artist. What do you remember about this?
TO: I was always amazed at his stage presence – Elton always put on a great show and in the early days, especially, that included performing some terrific jumps on and off the piano. I don’t know how he did it – those flying leaps! – but he did and I captured a few on camera.
EJW: How about the images where the entertainer is wearing a denim jumpsuit with fur sleeves? Didn’t one of these become a poster?
TO: You might know better than me! I was horrible at tracking where my images were used, or how they were used. Even today, when I do signings or attend a gallery opening – there are occasions where someone will bring in something like a tour program from the ’70s and proudly show me my photographs inside!
EJW: You were once asked to travel to the Caribou Recordng Ranch Studio in Colorado for an Elton John project. Why do you think
Caribou attracted so many stars? And how did a white cat wind up in an alternate Rock of the Westies shot?
TO: Well that’s hard to say – I mean, it was a state-of-the-art recording studio, so that certainly was one main reason. I also think having a studio like that situated against the background of Colorado didn’t hurt – it was a beautiful setting. The Caribou Ranch was also relatively close to Los Angeles, where a lot of the rockers were living at the time, so it was a pretty convenient place to go – without being in the hustle and bustle of L.A. I suppose sometimes it must have been nice for a group of musicians just to get away for a bit – away from home – to work. And about that cat – he (or she) just showed up and I kept taking pictures.
EJW: You’ve written that Elton often didn’t indicate what he’d be wearing for a session with you, Also, although you are fond of the cover photo for your book–where the singer’s eyes are closed–this may have actually been an accident. Can you think of other unexpected moments with Elton, his band, or Bernie Taupin?
TO: There were always happy accidents! When I worked with Elton, I’d usually have a few ideas in the back of my mind – but he did his wardrobe – and that always led to some interesting shots. I will tell you – later in the book – there’s a sequence of shots that I took of Elton and Bernie in Paris. We were just finishing up and headed back to where we were staying when we happened upon Aux Deux Magots on the Saint-Germain-des-Pres.The rain had just stopped and the staff were just starting to put out the tables and chairs for the morning rush. I had Elton and Bernie sit in the front – brought out the papers – and took a few snaps. I’ve always loved these photos.
EJW: Not long ago, Backstage Auctions had a yellow safety helmet once worn by Elton aboard the Starship, a plane you knew well. There weren’t really any safety issues, were there?
TO: I’m sure there were plenty of safety issues, but I wasn’t aware of them! I was looking at Michael Brennan’s photos the other day – he’s a terrific photographer and worked with Led Zeppelin when they were touring on the same plane, the Starship. In some of those photos, the band is sitting next to a fireplace! On the plane! I don’t think it was lit – but there you go. Rock and roll!
EJW: There are so many settings where you’ve worked with Elton: TV shows (including the first Rock Music Awards); promoting his Sotheby’s auction in 1988; for album covers and inserts; at venues ranging from the Hammersmith Odeon in the seventies to Madison Square Garden in 2000; even in bed! Was any one place or situation your favourite?
TO: It’s the Dodger Stadium – for many reasons, but to be given that sort of access – you don’t get that anymore. What star would allow it? At the time, in 1975, his albums were going straight to number one and he was selling out stadium after stadium – and recording, interviews, press junkets, television appearances – so to give me that freedom was really astounding. Elton was – and still is – incredibly generous. Not only with gifts and such – but he was generous in how he treated other professionals or creatives. He allowed me to do some of my best work. I was backstage, at rehearsals, sound checks – we even played a bit of football [soccer] on the field. Then when it came time for the show – I was able to go onstage with the rest of the musicians and that enabled me to capture some amazing moments from those two days in October. I never liked being onstage, people are paying to see the star, not for watching me run around. But by being on-stage, I was able to capture what it might have looked like from Elton’s point of view – looking at the capacity crowd – all loving, roaring and singing along.