The Caribou Ranch Memorabilia Auction Was Pretty Insane, As Auctions Go

Elton John with Frank the cat at Caribou Ranch.
Elton John with Frank the cat at Caribou Ranch.
Courtesy of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers

Legendary Denver bluesman Otis Taylor, chilling in the hall outside the hectic Leslie Hindman auction room at the Denver Design Center late last month, scoffed when asked whether he was bidding on any of the nearly 500 pieces of memorabilia up for auction from the Caribou Ranch recording studio. "Everything is going for three or four times the estimate," said Taylor.

Just browsing the 8,000-square-foot showroom at the Denver Design Center was a music-geek treat. Among the items on display were the Fender Rhodes that Earth Wind & Fire played on "Shining Star" and the piano on which Elton John recorded "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me."

See also: Rock and Roll History Is for Sale at the Caribou Ranch and Studio Memorabilia Auction

But as Taylor pointed out, actually purchasing something at the auction -- which saw a "Keep Out" sign go for $500 and an ashtray-and-matches set from Caribou open at $800 -- was unrealistic for most of the nearly 1,000 Colorado music lovers who showed up to pay homage to the legendary recording studio, which operated outside Nederland from 1972 to 1985.

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Among the attendees were a few people who actually played at Caribou Ranch. Kenny Passarelli -- chiefly a bassist -- is featured on memorable tracks by Joe Walsh, Elton John, Stephen Stills and many others. Before the auction, Passarelli said that Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way" was his favorite song recorded there because "even today, when it comes on the radio, the drums and bass kick ass."

"My brain cells are up at that studio," said Passarelli, who wasn't really worried about finding something at the auction; he already has his memorabilia. "Right before [James Guercio] sold the place, he handed me a music stand, and I saved that," he said, "and some bark off a tree.

"The one thing [Guercio] absolutely had to keep was the 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' piano, which was actually Bessie Smith's."

Plenty of rock history was made at Caribou Ranch. The staggering list of songs and albums recorded or mixed at the studio from 1972 to 1985 includes everything from Frank Zappa's One Size Fits All to part of Michael Jackson's Bad. Forty-five albums that made Billboard's top ten and twenty number-one singles were recorded there.

So the overflow crowd of old hippies, high-class Coloradans and generally curious music geeks at the Design Center on Saturday wasn't a shock. Nor, according to Maron Hindman, who serves as managing director for Leslie Hindman's west and southwest office and led the actual auction, was the sale price of such items as the Steinway piano featured on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," which eventually went for $100,000.

There were about 1,200 bids made via Internet or phone before the auction started at 3 p.m. Saturday, and hundreds of people showed up in person. The small room where the actual bidding eventually took place was crammed by 2:10 p.m. The antsy audience participated in a Caribou-history pop quiz to pass the time.

Hindman led the proceedings tirelessly and with good humor. "Seriously," she said at one point, "will you come to our normal auctions? That would be awesome. We're usually lucky to get sixty or seventy people."

"Colorado, baby!" someone shouted in response from a crowd that doubtless featured many more Broncos hats and Eagles concert T-shirts than any previous Leslie Hindman auction.

Before bidding on the 480-some items began, Hindman joked that she wished the auction could start with the first few bars of "Rocky Mountain Way." A hopeful buyer pulled up the song on his cell phone and handed it to Hindman so she could play it through the microphone. The enthusiasm continued through the afternoon and well into the evening.

"It was a nine-hour marathon that ended around midnight," Hindman said the next day. "Everything sold except maybe one item. Nothing went for lower than we thought [it would], but the small things were what surprised me. We sold a bell from the ranch for $11,000."

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