Interview: Terry O’Neill and his ROCKSTARS

Interview: Terry O’Neill and his ROCKSTARS

Before digital cameras and the option to view and retake imagery within seconds, photography was magical with each developing negative a heart stopping moment. In this time true photographers were cherished and lauded – particularly by performers – who reveled in this capture of their artistry. One such champion was London born Terry O’Neill whose ability to capture a moment it’s entirety saw him photograph everyone from Elvis to Frank Sinatra. Ahead of his ROCKSTAR exhibition at the Cidade Jardim Mall in Sao Paolo, Terry shares his anectdotes behind some of his most famous and iconic photos.


Terry O’Neill on David Bowie


I was in Los Angeles in 1974 when David was working on his diamond Dogs Album and tour. I had to photograph David in striking poses that an artist could use create the album cover, that made David look like a reclining half-man, half-dog. It was painted by the Belgian artist Guy Peellaert (see below) using my photographs as the model. During the photo sessions I had an idea to do publicity shots and we brought in this giant Great Dane. It was supposed to pose at his feet but suddenly reared up in the studio. Everyone jumped out of their skins – except David who remained calmly posing for the camera.

Artwork by Guy Peellaert


Terry O’Neill on Elton John

“I heard this guy singing on the radio in 1971 and I thought he has to be a great new young American musician because his voice and his mastery of his music seemed so native to American rock n Roll. I discovered he was a young emerging singer-songwriter not yet famous and went along to the studio to photograph him. In those days I had a reputation for discovering young talent in the music industry. And there was this crazy kid called Elton John. We’ve been pals ever since and I’ve done five album covers for him swell as photographed him over 40 years.”

“Four years later, in 1975 Elton was the biggest star in the world, and flying around with his band and entourage in a huge private tour place, on a global rock concert tour. He was the first rock star to play behind the Iron curtain – in Leningrad – now St Petersburg. I was on the tour plane and backstage with him here at the dodgers Stadium when he pulled off what must be the greatest rock n roll concert of all time – 70,000 people packed into the stadium and elton, even though he was suffering from stress and exhaustion took rock to new levels with his great costumes, music and energy.”

Terry O’Neill on Elvis


“Back stage in Las Vegas in 1971 my friend Tom Jones introduced me to Elvis. I had less than two or three minutes to grab photographs before he went on stage. He was surrounded by managers and people protecting him from fans and the limelight but I knew this would be perhaps my one and only opportunity to get one of the greats at work.”

Terry O’Neill on Paul McCartney & Ringo Starr

“Paul has been a pal since the very start, way back in 1963, so too is Ringo. This was at Ringo’s wedding in London in 1981. I was a guest but I took my camera. During the wedding reception at a small private club, Paul suddenly took over the piano with his wife Linda and began serenading the guests. It was a very private, informal, intimate moment.”

“Ringo was always a fan of Winston Churchill and he’d adopted this manner of always copying Churchill’s V for Victory sign. He’d use to acknowledge his fans, on stage and still does. It’s like saying hello and goodbye. I took him to the Prime minister’s residence in London and posed him outside No 10 downing St. In those days there was no terrorism so the public could just walk past the front door. Today it is guarded by police with guns and huge steel gates and barriers and nobody can get in without security clearance.”

“The Rolling Stones first television appearance on British pop show Ready Steady Go in 1963. They appeared in their casual clothes – which was unheard of then. Even The Beatles were expected to dress formally in suits and ties when on television. The Stones broke the mould. They were called scruffy, neanderthals.”

Terry O’Neill on The Rolling Stones


“I took the Stones out into Soho in London to make them look like a big touring rock band. In fact then, in 1963 they were still playing in a few London pubs and clubs and hadn’t got a recording contract.”

I wanted them to look like they were on the road. I asked them to carry luggage and bags. Keith Richards says this was the first suitcase he’d ever owned.


Terry O’Neill on The Who

“These two shots were taken at a film studio outside London where the James Bond were shot. I was asked to do the album cover for their next big album Who Are You. The colour shot was chosen and the B&W [Main Image] was used for publicity. This was 1978 – the drummer Keith Moon died two months later from drugs – I was the last photographer to work with him.”


Terry O’Neill‘s Rockstars exhibition is currently on display at the Cidade Jardim Mall until May 7th.

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