Terry O’Neill’s photos of iconic performers displayed at SLS

Terry O’Neill always wanted to be a musician.

Instead of sound, however, he got into the picture business — and wound up photographing musical icons instead.

Sinatra — as in Frank. Judy — as in Garland.

The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. Elton John. David Bowie. Bruce Springsteen.

Along the way, the award-winning O’Neill also focused on movie stars legendary (Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, Steve McQueen) and somewhat less so (Raquel Welch).

He was even married to one: Faye Dunaway. She’s the star of one of his most famous images, which shows her breakfasting at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool in 1977, the night after she won an Academy Award for her performance in “Network.”

O’Neill’s too much the gentleman to tell tales about his ex-wife. But every other picture tells a story — and he shares plenty of them while holding court at SLS Las Vegas’ Iconic Images gallery.

Although the gallery also features the work of other photographers — including Douglas Kirkland, Gered Mankowitz, Michael Moebius and Baron Wolman — O’Neill’s images dominate the gallery. (As well as the rest of the hotel-casino, where additional photographs pop up as part of the SLS decor.)

When O’Neill — whose Cockney accent betrays his London origins — first picked up a camera in 1958, he still hoped to become a jazz drummer. But he wound up working for a British airline’s photographic unit at London’s Heathrow Airport.

“I just wanted to get to America,” O’Neill says.

Instead, his photo of a passenger sleeping at the airport (who turned out to be a British cabinet minister) led to other opportunities behind the camera.

“They said, ‘We want somebody young, because we want to do a lot of things with pop people,’ ” the photographer, 76, recalls during a gallery preview.

Even better, O’Neill already knew — and liked — the pop people who were about to change music forever.

That explains how O’Neill found himself in the backyard of London’s Abbey Road Studios, taking the first major group portrait of Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, who were recording their first album, “Please Please Me,” inside the studio.

“It’s so amateurish,” O’Neill says of the photograph now. (A limited-edition print of the portrait is featured at Iconic Images, priced at $3,000.)

O’Neill remembers when he, the Beatles and other aspiring rockers — the Rolling Stones — would gather at London’s Ad Lib Club to discuss “what job we were going to do when all this was over,” he remembers. (Ringo, for example, planned to open a chain of hair salons.)

“We all thought it was going to come to an end,” the photographer explains, noting everyone’s attitude, which he sums up as:

“Can you imagine Mick Jagger singing at 40?” (Mick’s still singing — at 71.)

The Beatles were pals when O’Neill first photographed them, which may account for his lack of anxiety while photographing celebrities.

“In a funny way, I did start at the top,” he says, “because the Beatles became the biggest thing in the world.”

But it was another musical giant — Sinatra — who “taught me the greatest lesson,” O’Neill says.

In 1968, O’Neill was in Miami, on assignment for a Life magazine article: “Night and Day With Frank Sinatra.”

Sinatra’s night involved singing at the famed Fontainebleau hotel.

By day, he was playing gritty detective Tony Rome in the movie “Lady in Cement.” (Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals had pulled the same night-and-day routine in Las Vegas years before when they filmed “Ocean’s Eleven” while performing their legendary “Summit at the Sands.”)

One problem: O’Neill didn’t know Sinatra. But he did know Sinatra’s ex-wife Ava Gardner, who by then was living in London.

Gardner wrote a letter of introduction that O’Neill presented to Sinatra — who recognized Gardner’s handwriting, read the note and announced, “ ‘The kid’s with me.’ ”

For the next three weeks, O’Neill says, “we hardly talked to each other, but he let me go everywhere with him and he never questioned me. He rounded out my education.”

Before that first collaboration, “I didn’t realize how big a personality he was,” O’Neill says of Sinatra. “You knew if you worked with him, you were working with the best — the top of the tree.”

The Iconic Images gallery features two Sinatra images O’Neill recently retrieved from his archives: shots of a 1975 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, featuring the singer facing an audience that included such front-row VIPs as the screen’s new James Bond, Roger Moore.

But “this was a shot for him,” O’Neill says of Sinatra, who advised the photographer, “ ‘Tonight, Ava’s coming.’ ” (Limited editions of this image are $2,300; prices for other photographs range from $2,300 to $25,000 for a 72-by-72-inch version of Dunaway’s breakfast with Oscar.)

Working with Sinatra naturally led O’Neill to Las Vegas — where he wound up photographing other famous faces, from Tom Jones (at the Riviera) to Connery on 007 duty for 1971’s “Diamonds Are Forever.”

These days, “there’s no big stars anymore,” O’Neill observes — unlike the days when Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and others “were all singing all the time.”

Besides, “it’s all different nowadays,” he says. “They want control.”

No wonder he considers himself “lucky to be allowed” to capture such famous faces in a less guarded era.

He remembers the time, in London, he arrived to photograph teenager Liza Minnelli — and, to his astonishment, Minnelli’s mother, Judy Garland, opened the door. (“The funniest woman I’ve ever met,” is how O’Neill describes Garland.)

He also recalls a 1975 day in Hollywood, on the Sunset Strip, “and who comes down the street?”

None other than Bruce Springsteen — in town to promote his new album, “Born to Run,” and on his way to Tower Records to see how it was selling. (You can see a “Born to Run” billboard in the background of O’Neill’s Springsteen-on-the-street shot.)

There’s only one star O’Neill wishes he’d had the chance to photograph: Marilyn Monroe.

But the images of such jazz greats as Miles Davis on display at the SLS gallery weren’t taken by O’Neill — who admits he was always too in awe of his idols to ever photograph them.

These days, “there’s nobody I want to photograph,” O’Neill says. (One notable exception: a portrait of soccer legend Pele, in connection with the recent World Cup in Brazil.)

Considering everyone O’Neill’s already captured on film, there may be nobody left for him to photograph.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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