Encounters with Elton John

The whispers started in early 1991.

Was that Elton John zooming up I-75 with a necktie around his head?

Yes, Crawford Productions' Keehln Wheeler was able to surmise as he pulled even with John's Mercedes.

Was that the Elton John on the reservation list for a Sunday meal at Buckhead Diner?

Yes, again — and to accommodate the pop-rock superstar's palate, Gerry Klaskala of Buckhead Diner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he sent a waiter to Harry's Farmer's Market in Alpharetta for whole-wheat bread. He knew that was what John wanted. He ordered three different kinds. "Hey, I've gone to Kroger to get items," Klaskala told the AJC. "It's their party. I'll give 'em whatever they want."

And, yes, that was John and friends riding Thunder River four times in one Six Flags visit. And there he was again at a Buckhead party, in a pink ensemble he had flown in from Europe.

(It was a "pink party," after all. And it was Elton John.)

By the time our own Peach Buzz columnist reported in April 1991 that indeed the Englishman born Reginald Dwight had bought a 5,000-square-foot condominium at Park Place in Buckhead, the whispers and sightings were so frequent, who was surprised that he was a part-time Atlantan?

What's really been remarkable is how at home John seems with Southerners.

As we look to his sold-out homecoming Saturday night at Philips Arena (with fellow piano man Billy Joel), we talked to a few of the Atlantans who've had memorable Encounters With Elton:

• Between 1989 and 1999 Joi Chesnut was a buyer at the now-closed Tower Records in Buckhead, where John faithfully stopped in on Tuesdays (new album release day).

"He would buy multiple copies of whatever came out that day," Chesnut said. "And I remember he would always come in by himself. No security. He was even driving himself.

"He would usually come in early so there wouldn't be a lot of people there. And when he was spotted, people would do like a double-take. He was so gracious — [he] would sign autographs, take pictures, whatever. ... I remember one time when his 'Made in England' record was out, and we were telling him how good it was, he was so flattered. He came back to the store and gave everybody tickets to his show."

"I've always bought my own records, from 78s to 45s to eight-tracks to albums to CDs," John told the AJC in 1998. "Every Tuesday, I'm at Tower Records because it's release day. I still have that joy. In a way, I still can't believe what's happened to me."

• V-103 afternoon announcer Ryan Cameron first made John's acquaintance at Jermaine Dupri's star-studded 26th birthday party at the Woodruff Arts Center in 1998.

"I just wanted to be here because I'm such a big fan of [Dupri's] music," John told the AJC. "I don't get to meet and greet with Atlanta musicians often enough."

Cameron, then at Hot 97.5 (now Hot 107.9), arranged an interview with John. And what was supposed to be a 30-minute visit to the station turned into a 3 1/2-hour, wide-ranging talk at John's Park Place condo.

"He was very candid," Cameron says. "He talked about everything from Princess Diana to giving us a tour of his entire home."

Cameron even got John to do a free promotional spot for a car giveaway his station was doing. "I think it went, 'Hey you — Daewoo,' " Cameron recalls with a laugh.

• John casually walked into the Fay Gold Gallery one afternoon in the early 1990s, and Gold says she was paralyzed. "He knew exactly what he wanted that day. I went out and found it for him," she says. "And from there it was just fantastic working with him."

Gold organized two charity art auctions for John's AIDS foundation, netting some $700,000, she said. She's been to two of his Oscar parties. And she even let him film a Royal Mail commercial in her Buckhead home.

"I am so grateful that I was involved in his photography collection, and glass, long before anybody in town — it seems — knew he was so devoted and so knowledgeable. I think he really loves this city. He's out at the restaurants. He's always shopping. He enjoys himself."

"People always ask me, 'Why do you have a place in Atlanta?' " John said in the 1998 AJC interview. "It's because people here have always been that nice to me. ... I've always been welcomed. I feel at home."