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A Look Back at an EJW Interview With a Photographer Now Starring in ''Melody Makers''

Written by Chief Editor.

Barrie Wentzell was the chief photographer of England's renowned music publication, Melody Maker, from 1965-1975, one of the most important decades in the history of popular music and the peak of the British Invasion. He took shots of many unknown performers who would later become legends, Elton among them. So he's an important part of a new documentary called Melody Makers, Should've Been There.  What's more, the director tells EJW that the movie includes stories and pictures of the Rocket Man.
 
This Web site will have more about this in the future. Meanwhile, we are revisiting our 2010 interview with Barrie. . . .

EJW: Your first assignment with Elton came about when Ray Williams (known for introducing the former Reg Dwight and Bernie Taupin) rang up to say ''they've got this musician who needs some promotional photos.'' What the session like?

BW: The next day this chap turns up. He didn't look like a pop star and seemed a bit shy. We did a few rolls of film in my studio but he wasn't coming alive so I suggest a walk around Soho Square to loosen him up. At the end of the shoot Elton sat down on a park bench next to a 'Gentleman of the Road,' who was eating his sandwich for lunch. It was the best picture of the shoot. Many years later it appeared in the CD booklet for Rare Masters, along with a few photos from my other sessions.

EJW: Didn't you next work with Elton in Primrose Hill in North London?

BW: Since Elton seemed more at ease doing photos outside of the studio, I said I'd take him up there and see what we came up with. It reminded me of the great photographer Bill Brandt and I seemed to be snapping in his footsteps as he, David Bailey and others had used this location many times before. The shoot went well. I believe one of the images was used for a poster and promotion for Border Song.

EJW: When did you and Elton next meet up?

BW: In June/July of 1970 I did a shoot on Hampstead Heath with Elton, Bernie Taupin, bass player Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, whom I'd photographed when he was with Plastic Penny. It was one of my favourite places for outdoor shoots. There was acres of open heath-land where in legend, Dick Whittington, together with his trusty cat, had paused for a moment to gaze at the city in the distance on his way to becoming the first Lord Mayor of London. Who would have imagined that Elton would go on to become a Knight of the Realm as we took those pictures that day? Some of these were used in the Tumbleweed Connection album.

EJW: Did you get images from Elton in concert as well?

BW: The first time I saw him perform was in July of 1971 at the Crystal Palace open-air festival in South London. This venue consisted of a stage covered as if in a shell with a small lake in front, which the audience was gathered around, though some of the more enthusiastic fans were more likely to find themselves in the water. There was a narrow path in front of the stage a few feet wide, which made it hard to take pictures from, as you had to make sure you didn't fall backwards into the lake. Elton was dancing around and jumping up in the air at his piano. I never would have imagined such a change, such a far cry from the rather quiet chap who'd turned up at my studio just a year before!

In March 1973 Elton played the Sundown Theatre in North London. I couldn't shoot from the front because as there was a sea of young girls in front of the stage, so I shot from the back, dodging the camera crew and trying not to get in the way. Elton and the band were terrific and he was outdoing Jerry Lee Lewis with his gymnastics. The Melody Maker ran a picture on the front page of the March 31st issue with the headline, ''Elton's Now a Teen Idol!''

EJW: Tell us about your other Melody Maker jobs with Elton.

BW: In December 1972 Chris Welch and I went down to visit him in his new home near Virginia Water. Elton welcomed us with a glass of champagne, which I spilled on his Persian carpet. I apologised and Elton just laughed and said, ''Don't worry. I had Keith Moon over last night and he's already christened it.''

I did a few more shoots for MM articles, the last one being for the front page of the Christmas 1974 issue. After taking a few shots in his Mayfair office I asked if we would do some pictures outside, as the editor wanted something with a seasonal flavour for the front page. Fortunately, there was an old man outside in the street selling Christmas trees. We asked if we could use his 'pitch' for  few photos. He said OK and Elton did a few funny poses with a tree so we gave the man a tip for his help and he asked who were were. He said he'd never heard of Elton John even though he was right outside this great musician's office!

Barrie then added that he was interested in doing a documentary, and hoped that Elton, Eric Clapton, Ray Davies and Pete Townshend would participate.