At his 1970s peak, with seven US No 1 albums in four years, Elton John was a regular at Colorado’s Caribou Ranch studios.
In 1974, he recorded Caribou in the winter snows, returning in August to make Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. John had begun work on the music in July on a voyage to New York on the SS France (after which he popped down to Philadelphia to play tennis with Billie Jean King). In a cable to his PR at Rocket Records, Caroline Boucher, he told how he was summoned to see the captain after throwing a tantrum when his Yves Saint Laurent bow-tie fell apart: “Looking quite the perfect English gentleman (except for my green hair) I swish up to the Riviera Bar for drinks. I decide to break my no-alcohol rule and have a glass of Mumms – excellent. Someone says in a rather grand voice: ‘That man over there is Elton John – he is famous but I have never heard of him.’”
When told on a ship-to-shore call that Caribou had gone platinum, another dietary restriction went overboard: “I break my no-carbohydrate rule and I have one pretzel.”
Ten months later he returned to Caribou to record Rock of the Westies. He had ditched almost his entire band, and the carbs also seem to be back on the table here, with John looking rather uneasy in his hat – a recent addition to cover his hair loss. “He hated being photographed,” Terry O’Neill later said. “The costumes were what he hid behind.”
The frugal breakfast wasn’t entirely in keeping with the diet at the studios. John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin once said it was “all Jack Daniel’s and lines on the console” during this recording. Jim Guercio, Caribou’s owner, later recalled John taking a trip in a limo to a burger joint in Boulder – in pink glasses and a pink fur coat. “I said, ‘Elton, if you want to be discreet, this is not the right wardrobe.’”
This was one of the most downbeat shots of the many of Elton that O’Neill took in the 70s. The two shared a love of football and a similar sense of humour. But, as Boucher recalls, he nearly didn’t get the gig. “I’d originally wanted Patrick Lichfield but he never rang back. So I got hold of Terry and he worked solidly for us during Elton’s big hit period.”
The shot’s co-star is Frank, the studio cat. “I don’t know what he’s doing there,” says Boucher. “Elton always preferred dogs.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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