As Auction Nears, Jim Guercio And Kenny Passarelli Share Caribou Rock Star Tales

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Editor's note: Nestled in the foothills outside Boulder, Caribou Ranch was once a creative haven for rock superstars -- Elton John, Chicago and Joe Walsh, just to name a few. This month, the ranch will be inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, along with Walsh and his band, Barnstorm. In the meantime, here's a listen back to a Colorado Matters conversation about the ranch's history. This story first aired Jan. 21, 2015.

It was the frustration of producing “Spinning Wheel” that led Jim Guercio to Colorado. While finishing up work on the song by Blood, Sweat & Tears, an engineer hit the record button, erasing parts of the song's master tape. Guercio was forced to improvise, creatively filling a blank space in the song with whimsical notes. Though the 1969 song won a Grammy for best instrumental arrangement, Guercio had had enough of irritating experiences in recording studios.

“It drove me absolutely crazy,” Guercio says.

So he went on to build his own near Nederland in the foothills west of Boulder. Guercio dubbed it Caribou Ranch, and throughout the '70s and early '80s, the studio was a magnet for greats. Among the artists and visitors: Elton John, Chicago, Joe Walsh, Stephen Stills, John Lennon, Billy Joel, Waylon Jennings, Amy Grant, Michael Jackson and many others.

It all came to an end in 1985 when the studio’s control room was destroyed in a fire. Last year, the ranch was finally sold. Now hundreds of items from the studio and the surrounding cabins where musicians stayed are being auctioned off. Among the items are a Gibson Thunderbird bass guitar often used by Terry Kath of Chicago, original album art, a piano that both Elton John and Michael Jackson played on, and loads and loads of ranch furniture.

“Well, the ranch was sold,” Guercio says. “And there’s enough furniture for what? Five or 10 houses?”

Five percent of the proceeds will go to the Colorado Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame, Guercio says. And Caribou Ranch, which produced 18 Grammys, 45 Top 10 albums, and 20 No. 1 Billboard hits, will be inducted into the hall of fame this year. So too will two acts that recorded there: Joe Walsh and his band, Barnstorm, and Dan Fogelberg.

Building a studio

Earlier in his career, Guercio played guitar with bands and then went on to produce hits like “Hey Baby, They’re Playing Our Song” by The Buckinghams.

By 1972, he had purchased the property outside Nederland -- cabins and a big barn on a beautiful stretch of land overlooking the mountains. In the early days, it was far from a top-flight recording studio. Joe Walsh, who lived nearby, had just left the James Gang and was trying to record an album when he ran into problems with his mixing board. He approached Guercio and they recorded Barnstorm -- literally in the barn, which at that time didn't even have a bathroom. One hit from those early years was “Rocky Mountain Way.”

“Being in the Rocky Mountains, looking around where we were -- that’s how the song came together, really kind of a blues riff,” says bassist Kenny Passarelli, who co-wrote the song with Walsh and drummer Joe Vitale. “It was also political, too. ‘Bases are loaded. Casey’s at bat.’ That was Joe’s comment on Nixon. When we played live, we’d say that it’s time to change the batter.” 

Passarelli, a Denver native, played with many of the other artists who came through Caribou, including Stephen Stills and Elton John.

What drew Elton John to the ranch were the sounds of Barnstorm and another Caribou artist -- Rick Derringer -- on “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo.”

“[Elton John] was playing in Denver and he took a limo up to see the ranch and he decided that’s where he wanted to make his record,” Passarelli says.

Elton John recorded several albums at Caribou, including, “Caribou,” “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” and “Rock of the Westies.” Elton John also brought in John Lennon for background vocals on his cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Lennon wanted to get cowboy boots and a hat, Guercio says. “He went right into Nederland and nobody said anything.”

That’s in contrast to a trip Elton John took to the now-defunct Red Barn burger joint in Boulder. The famous musician showed up in a limo and got out to buy hamburgers and hot dogs. “You wear... pink glasses and a pink fur coat -- I said, ‘Elton, if you want to be discreet, this is not the right wardrobe,’” Guercio says.

On Michael Jackson’s visit after the Thriller tour

Guercio: We had to build a dance floor. We had to put plywood or Linoleum down because this guy worked out every day, four to six hours on his steps. I liked him very much. He wanted to buy the ranch.

On the unique Caribou sound

Guercio: [Renowned music producer and physicist] Tommy Dowd... was on the Manhattan Project. He figured it out.

Passarelli: As a physicist, [Dowd] figured out... the sound hits the tape a certain way as it is recorded and there was a sound that only came from 8,600 feet and that’s what it was.

On the fire that destroyed Caribou in 1985

Guercio: You kind of had to take a spiritual look at the thing. What are you going to do?

Why Guercio didn’t rebuild

Guercio: I was kind of tired of having people around and I was raising my kids. And I did not -- I could see what was, you know, I kind of saw transitions and ridiculous spending and economics of the business. It was either feast or famine, you know. There was no apprenticeship for talent. You either blew it out and sold five to 10 million units or you were in a bar. It was much more difficult for talent to evolve and I was very frustrated by that.

The auction takes place at the Denver Design Center Saturday, Jan. 24.