On the release of Elton John’s new album, Jonny Brick celebrates the life and work of one of his heroes.
I was born at Watford General Hospital just over 28 years ago. A few miles away in a world where polio was still a risky proposition, Reginald Dwight was born in 1947.
Worryingly, that same man turns 69, the age which saw both Alan Rickman and David Bowie recently expire, in March. For a couple of years in the 1970s, while Bowie was wanting to be a ‘hero’ in Berlin and John Lennon was raising a kid and a little hell in America, the world knew Elton Hercules John as the biggest and best rock star.
In a run that mimics both Bowie and the Beatles, and echoes the success of fellow keyboardist Stevie Wonder, Elton had hit record after hit record, including an amazing six American number one albums. David Bowie never had one of those in his lifetime. Only Elvis and The Beatles have been more successful in America.
Writing in his memoir Oh, What a Circus, Tim Rice compared the early careers of himself and his mate Andrew Lloyd Webber to their labelmate, ‘a newcomer like us who had been almost totally ignored in his native England.’ On seeing him live in 1970 (‘he was brilliant’ and already had Your Song in his set), Tim was jealous because the record label promoting Jesus Christ Superstar seemed to put all their eggs in the Elton basket.
Elton has won Grammies, Oscars and Tonys for his score (lyrics by Sir Tim Rice) to The Lion King. He has also acted as himself in many TV shows; on film, he wore huge platform shoes in Ken Russell’s Tommy. His concert films also sold well, and it’s no surprise that he has recently become the top draw in Las Vegas.
No man had ever been such a star except perhaps Liberace, the extrovert pianist portrayed so well by Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra. He binged on drugs, played to thousands and headlined Wembley Stadium all on his own.
Elton was a surprise guest when fellow DJ Paul Gambaccini celebrated his BBC career in 2014 with a discussion show. He’s very short, and did not look 67, even from the balcony of the Radio Theatre.
Nobody in the audience twigged that Elton’s music over the PA was being played to herald the great man, in London for a charity engagement. Paul once made a programme for the BBC about Elton, where the American Paul got to know the Brit Elton. The musician spoke fondly about the old days of the BBC, and gave Paul great quotations. It was during his Big Rock Star period of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Honky Chateau and Your Song.
Coming up to 50 years since his debut release, Elton is still loved in America and Britain. He splits his time between the two, living with husband David Furnish and his two kids, who like him support Watford FC, whose stadium I always say was the first thing I saw as I was taken home from hospital.
Still in his twenties, Elton bought the football club and kept it until 1990, when it was losing its appeal for him. He once said that he used to tour “to be able to buy a centre-forward”, and indeed gave annual concerts in Watford, including one inside the stadium itself in 1974.
Elton re-assumed ownership in 1997, and thus became the only rock star to bankroll a Premier League team when Watford finished last in 1999/2000. He is now honorary life-president, and the club named a stand after him, which he opened himself in 2014.
Recently he has become a stellar DJ on Apple’s Beats 1 Radio service, curating two hours of music and chat wherever he is in the world. The show goes out on Monday nights in the States and Tuesday afternoon in the UK.
Elton spoke with Zane Lowe, the main voice of the station, to promote the new album, revealing that he’d hit his husband if he asked Elton to entertain guests by tinkling a little on the keys.
‘I am singing and playing better at 69 than I was at 23. But everything’s about the half-term holidays now. You have to accept that this is the time for Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. I had a good run!’ he notes, even as he continues his 40-year rivalry with Rod Stewart. He has been advising Ed Sheeran, whom his company Rocket Man manages, to be wise with his ‘gap year’ in 2016. ‘I love him. I want him to have a career 30 years down the line.’
Ditto Lady Gaga, godmother to his kids, whose next album could, and should, be the modern-day version of Carole King’s Tapestry. He was also generous to US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, praising his band as the best late night band, and gave shoutouts to Christine and the Queens, as he did with Zane. Elton is well-versed in current music, praising Bieber for his new ‘great pop record’.
Bernie Taupin wrote lyrics to which Elton set music, and the partnership is in good health again with the release of Elton’s 33rd album Wonderful Crazy Night. There are ten tracks on the album proper, with four more for the special editions, all produced by the world’s most rootsy ‘man behind the desk’, T-Bone Burnett, whom you may remember from such acts as Counting Crows and Elvis Costello.
Elton’s last album, 2013’s The Diving Board, was a T-Bone production as well, as was his award-winning 2010 collaboration with Leon Russell, The Union. As evidenced on the latter, Elton has always appreciated American sounds and musicians, which makes him beyond a British ‘national treasure’ (which he is).
The band recruited to back Elton on this album, as seen at the Royal Variety Performance at the end of last year, are all men of vintage years: Nigel Olsson on drums, Davey Johnstone on guitar and Ray Cooper on all types of percussion. The first two of those men played on those Golden Age records, and Johnstone has played over 2000 shows with Elton. That’s a lot of Crocodile Rocks.
Elton suffered some nasty nodules on his throat, which meant he had to change his singing style, but his piano playing, honed in his teens at the Royal College of Music, has never altered. Nor has his ear for a choon, and there are a few of them on the new album.
Speaking to Brandon Flowers of The Killers in a video, he said that songs from the last ‘nightclubby’ album weren’t ‘arena songs…[they were] for the toilet break’. He told Bernie ‘to write some uptempo lyrics, it’s time to make a joyous record’. Elton always goes in blind with Bernie’s lyrics, and he gravitated towards Blue Wonderful, a ‘great title’ and the first one written for this new album.
That track has a classic feel, with a loping melody and a clear vocal. It could even be an off-cut from Billy Elliot, the Elton musical about to end a 15-year run in London’s Palace Theatre, Victoria. Only something with fifty years’ experience in pop songwriting could knock this off before the school run.
The title track is classic Elton, made for his Vegas set which also sounds like a tune Jools Holland could have written (I would pay to see Elton and Jools at two pianos at the ‘Eltonanny’). Looking Up is Jools-friendly, with a great sequence of chords and a fun little riff, while the rest of the album is rocking good fun, full of great lyrics by Bernie set to choons by Elton.
He has been plugging Wonderful Crazy Night on the BBC, playing a session for Radio 2 (to whom he left a white piano ten years ago), appearing on Graham Norton’s show and sounding brilliant on new tunes and old. Your Song, first released in 1970, is a timeless pop standard, while Tiny Dancer has had a second life after being used in that great rock film Almost Famous.
Elton still loves life, which comes through on this, his finest solo album in at least ten years. He spoke with BBC 6Music’s Matt Everitt about his love of boogie-woogie and ragtime music, particularly the pianist Winifred Atwell (‘this beautiful smile. I met her in Australia. She played the piano so joyously’). ‘There was always music in the house. Every Saturday I used to work behind the counter at a record store in Berwick Street. I was fascinated by what people bought!’
Elton, a blues pianist, left his first band because he didn’t like playing the same set every night. Matt, as we all do, marvels at Elton singing the same songs for fifty years, but never ‘phoning it in’. Elton enjoys ‘singing Bernie’s lyrics…you never get tired of singing them. Great lyrics are great lyrics, like Gershwin. The more I sing the lyrics, the better they get.’ The track sampled in Ghetto Gospel is called Indian Sunset, and Elton sings the song to crowds who do not really know a deep album cut.
In the way that people are vocal about their love of Morrissey or The Boss, I don’t know anyone completely besotted in every area of their life by Elton. His kids ‘know what I do but they couldn’t care less! They’re more interested in playing with the lights and the drums,’ he added when speaking to Zane. ‘Play that one again, papa!’ they cry, too young to know what their dad did in 1975. ‘They’ll be telling me, “Do you remember this?”’
The world will always remember Circle of Life, Candle in the Wind and tens of other hit songs. Elton deserves to be as revered and respected as The Beatles and Elvis, and is more commercially successful than every other act apart from those two. He’s playing outdoor gigs in the kids’ summer holiday, and is a Knight of the Realm.
Let’s enjoy him while he is still with us.