He’s Still Standing: Elton John’s Life in Pictures
I'm still standing better than I ever did Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid … --Elton John
As award-winning reporter and London Times Magazine editor Robin Morgan wrote in his intro to Eltonography, the stunning book by esteemed photographer Terry O’Neill that captures both the public and private persona of Elton John: “There are performers, there are rock stars and then there is Sir Elton John. This is the story of the man and the making of the legend – his life, in pictures, from his earliest adventures on his trail to fame to the hallowed halls of superstardom.
“Of O’Neill, who has used his camera and considerable talents to chronicle the greatest names in show business, Morgan writes, “No one has appeared before his lens more than Sir Elton John. What began as a photo shoot with the new kid on the block in the early ‘70s developed into a friendship and photographic partnership that spanned decades. This book is the legacy of that relationship. It is called Eltonography because it is an exhaustive biography of the landscape of a mesmerizing life.”
Now, straight out of the pages of Eltonography, Gay.com brings you images of the legendary Elton that are as intimate as they are outrageous, spectacular as they are human. We also let you in on our conversation with O’Neill and Morgan, who give us their choice of Elton’s John’s best song, their thoughts on Elton’s evolution as an artist, and their belief that Elton is the “guy who taught Madonna everything she knows.”
Look at him swinging that bat with all his musicians behind him. This is just a great rock-and-roll picture. It just captures him as a musician and a performer. He just rocked at that concert. I’d never seen him so alive.
On the best Elton John song ever:
Robin Morgan: “Daniel” – it came straight from the heart.
Terry O’Neill: “Take Me to the Pilot.” It came out in the ‘70s and was the first Elton John song I’d ever listened to. The Beatles had packed up right before I had arrived in Hollywood, and everyone was wondering who the “next guy” was going to be. Then suddenly I heard this song on the radio, and I presumed at first the singer was American – it was just such an American sound. I immediately rang up the record company to ask if could go around and see Elton. He gave me the tape of “7-11-70” and it turned out to be the greatest music I’d ever heard.
At the time I had made sort of a name for myself shooting the Beatles and The Stones. Hearing Elton’s music made me want to work with him all the time.
Terry O’Neill: He did two days of concerts, where he played to about 75,000 people. I knew that if I could get on that stage and capture him with the sea of people on the other side of him I would have the most sensational images. I said to the manager, “I want to get up onstage. Do you think Elton would get mad?” And the manager said, “He’s concentrating so much on the crowd and his performance -- he’s rocking so hard, he won’t even notice you.”
It turned out to be the greatest concert I’ve ever photographed.
On his evolution as an artist and performer:
Robin Morgan: You’ve got to agree that this is the guy who taught Madonna everything she knows. He was trained as a musician, but he’s not just a musician – he’s as much a performer and a composer. He’s never been satisfied. He’s always looking for new ways to grow, looking for new ways to stretch his considerable talent. He went from energetic rock-and-roll to something more glam. Then he became more personal.
It’s his knack for extending himself rather than re-creating himself that has kept him going. He feels like he needs to change his direction, not just in terms of the music, but in terms of the act.
Terry O’Neill: This is just one of the incredible sides of Elton. I’d been shooting him for years and we never discussed beforehand what he would be wearing or what he’d be doing. I just went around to his house one day and he came out with the leopard.
To this day I’ve never seen his whole range of clothes or glasses or looks. This is just Elton: He’s part rock and roll and part Madonna and part Liberace. You have to mix a lot of great names to get Elton John.
On Elton being the biggest openly gay celebrity in the world:
Robin Morgan: After “Captain Fantastic” came out in 1975 Warner spent something like ten million dollars – which was an even huger amount back then -- on a cartoon feature film based on the album. But around that time word started in the tabloids that Elton was gay, so Warner pulled the plug on the movie. In the ‘70s you couldn’t be a mainstream entertainer and be openly gay. You just couldn’t.
Now of course there are many openly gay celebrities, and that’s thanks largely to Elton. He publicly married his longtime partner David, and they’re very open. And he’s finished the stage production of “Billy Elliot,” which speaks to the theme of learning to be yourself. “Billy Elliot” will be a number one show – guaranteed.
Terry O’Neill: I’d gone out to visit him. It was just a regular day and I found him shaving. I always knew to have my camera out, because that was the way to get him. You can tell he’s found success just by the sheer number of aftershave bottles. The bottles staggered me. There were more bottles there than there are in all of Bloomingdale’s.
Robin Morgan: This picture speaks to the relationship between subject and journalist. You see an honesty, trust and friendship between a photographer and a huge star. You would never see that today. The image-makers decide what you see of the stars of today. You never get the kind of intimacy that’s captured of Elton by Terry’s camera.
On Elton being photographed:
Terry O’Neill: He’s actually not a great person to photograph because he hates being photographed. He just puts up with it. I don’t think he ever felt attractive enough to be photographed, but he’s always been polite, and he always slugged it out, and we always did a good job in the end.
Terry O’Neill: That’s the day I first met him, 40 years ago. The meeting took place at his little flat., which, by the way was by no means a fantastic flat. He had this ring with an eye on it, and I snapped him showing it to the camera. Nobody wanted to publish this picture because they said he wasn’t good-looking enough, but Vogue finally published it, and that was the start of his pictures being published in newspapers and magazines.
Robin Morgan: There’s something quite innocent about the photo. He’s just starting out on this long road to success. He’s not long out of the Royal Academy of Music. He’s very pensive. He’s just starting to get a name for himself, but he’s not sure what’s ahead of him. The photo says he’s just on the edge of greatness.