By Alan Richard
Elton John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin were completely star-struck. One by one, the members of The Band filed into John’s dressing room after a gig in Philadelphia. Just 23 at the time, John only recently had displayed his newfound on-stage flamboyance in his first American show, in 1970 at The Troubadour in Hollywood.
The Band and the rock-and-soul duo Delaney and Bonnie were mainstays on the studio turntable as John recorded his self-titled second album (the one with “Your Song”) at a studio in France.
John and Taupin had marveled at the imaginative music of Arkansas native Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson on “Chest Fever,” “The Weight,” and others.
“A year (earlier), we were dreaming of trying to write songs like them and now they’re stood (standing)… in front of us, asking us to play them our new album,” John writes in his entertaining, blunt and often hilarious new autobiography, Me.
“Like Leon Russell’s piano playing, their songs felt like someone switching a torch on and showing us a new path to follow, a way we could do what we wanted to do,” John wrote.
“They were white musicians making soul music without covering ‘In the Midnight Hour,’ or doing something that was just a pale imitation of what black artists did. It was a revelation.”
Indeed, these country-tinged, soulful rock ‘n rollers were central influences on the soon-to-be superstar, who later would become a gay icon (although not as early as some of his fans might have hoped).
John was captivated by Leon Russell, the long-haired, bearded, freaky Oklahoman who already was a studio veteran (Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, The Byrds), sang like Ray Charles (and wrote Charles’ classic, “Song for You”), and was or would be musical partners with the likes of Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and many others.
“He’d somehow managed to synthesize all the music I loved–rock and roll, blues, gospel, country–into one, perfectly natural style,” John wrote.
A soulful start
John’s first full-time professional gig was as the piano player with the British R&B band Bluesology, fronted for a time by early mentor and openly gay–or pansexual–singer Long John Baldry. The group also was hired by R&B artists touring England at the time.
While contemporary out artists such as Brandi Carlile consider John a hero for his style, outrageous outfits, and great music, John had been inspired in the same way by Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.
As John recorded that second album, Elton John, which would send him to stardom, American soul artists were foremost in his mind.
“Something like ‘Border Song’ or ‘Take Me to the Pilot’ had a sort of funk and soulfulness that I’d picked up backing Patti LaBelle and Major Lance, but they also had a classical influence” from his teenage years at London’s Royal Academy of Music, he wrote.
The gospel-inflected “Border Song” from Elton John didn’t make much of a splash as John’s first single stateside, but soon would be covered by Aretha Franklin and holds up beautifully today. (Check out Willie Nelson’s version on last year’s album of John-Taupin covers by country artists, Restoration.)
For 1972’s Honky Chateau, John went funky, jazzy (and a bit bizarre) musically, on “Honky Cat,” lyrically speaking to the experiences of many Americans in leaving their country roots behind–and lamenting that they must:
“They said, stay at home boy, you’ve got to tend the farm
Living in the city, boy, is going to break your heart
But how can you stay when your heart says no?
How can you stop when your feet say go?
You better get back, honky cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And, ooh ooh ooh ooh, oh, the change is gonna do me good.”
Then there’s the funky, unforgettable “Bennie and the Jets” from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which John writes that he allowed to become a single only after R&B stations started playing the song in Detroit.
A bit later in the decade, Elton John took his sound to Philadelphia, most obviously on 1975’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” a soul-disco salute to his friend Billie Jean King–but also reflecting the Philly Soul movement at the time (The O’Jays, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes with the great singer Teddy Pendergrass, and many others).
In 1977, Elton John spent time in Seattle recording with songwriter-producer Thom Bell, one of the fathers of Philly Soul. Not all of their work together was strong, although the song “Are You Ready for Love?” was a result of that partnership and hit No. 1 in England 27 years after its initial release.
John’s American hit from those sessions, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” featured The Spinners on backing vocals and wasn’t released until an EP of some of those tracks appeared in 1979. “Philadelphia Freedom” obviously follows the same style, with orchestral arrangements with horns and strings and sweeping melodic choruses that make you want to strut on the dancefloor.
I was a teenager during John’s more pop-oriented years, but even those lighter (and often drug-induced) days had their soulful and twangy moments: “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” with brilliant harmonica by Stevie Wonder, the radio-pop-designed but passionately delivered “Club at the End of the Street” from 1989, the gospel-influenced “Amazes Me,” and the heartbreaking soul-pop of “House” (reflecting the journey of persons with AIDS) from 1995’s Made In England, and the pop-soul smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” with Atlanta’s Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Wonder, which raised money for AIDS charities, among others.
Bob Dylan stopped John and Taupin on the steps leading to the stage at John’s 1970 appearance at the Fillmore East in New York, telling them he liked Taupin’s lyrics to “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun.” The opening track from John’s flat-out country-themed third album, Tumbleweed Connection, the song’s music and story obviously drew on the country-and-soul groups that were their current inspirations.
“Ever since he was a kid, he loved gritty stories told about old America, and that was what The Band told,” John wrote of Taupin, citing another classic by The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
John, in fact, eventually would call the American South his stateside home, especially in the gay 1980s and 1990s when clubs and eateries catering to gay and lesbian clientele thrived in the city. While he and longtime husband David Furnish and their two boys now primarily live in England, John has said he still prefers to spend any extended time in America at the multi-level, high-rise condo that he owns on Peachtree Street in the Buckhead neighborhood.
A look at some additional country-flavored tracks of John’s:
“My Father’s Gun”: Another swamp-country song on 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection, obviously influenced by The Band. The track shows Taupin’s growing obsession with the American West, where he’d eventually live. Also see “Burn Down the Mission.”
“Tiny Dancer”: from 1971’s Madman Across the Water, this classic was revived by the film Almost Famous and features steel-guitar and John’s delivery that somehow balances his British brogue with a soulful accent that makes him sound Southern.
“Honky Cat”: From 1972’s Honky Chateau, this cut bridges the gap between country-goes-to-town storylines with jazz and funk.
“Dixie Lily”: This tune about a riverboat, from 1974’s Caribou, would have fit on country radio stations in the era–cheesy saxophone solo included.
“Georgia”: An overlooked gem that’s perhaps more Ray Charles than George Jones. From the 1978 album A Single Man, written with Gary Osbourne during a break from work with Taupin.
“Big Dipper”: Also from A Single Man, this cut resembles Dr. John’s amalgam of New Orleans creole, jazz, Cajun and blues music, complete with a love-everyone message, “Everybody’s got song to sing.”
“A Woman’s Needs”: John and Taupin wrote this piano-driven country tune for John and Tammy Wynette for Duets in 1993. The Queen of Country Music, known for “Stand by Your Man,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and her impassioned duets with the great hard-country singer George Jones, featured the cut on her 1994 duets album, Without Walls.
A blessed musical union
In 2010, John would join with musical hero Leon Russell for the duet album The Union, produced by the imminently cool and strange T-Bone Burnett. While the record is not the masterwork that Burnett’s album was with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (the strange and wonderful Raising Sand), it features Krauss singing passionately to his woman on Little Milton’s (!) “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson”.
The Union merges John and Taupin’s love for country, roots-rock, soul and blues music better than maybe any John record since the 1970s. It’s one of my favorite Elton John albums. I especially dig Russell’s opening number, “If It Wasn’t for Bad” (which could have been a classic), and the country-bounce of the duet and Taupin’s lyrical storytelling in “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,” written with Burnett:
“I’m looking at a funeral wagon rolling down
A two-lane highway winding past a desert town
A big blue canvas painted by the Master’s hand
The shifting clouds above and endless miles of sand
In that mirror maybe that’s what’s left of me
Wheezing like a freight train hauling sixty tons of steel
Air ’em out’s the best release and get some rest
Carrie don’t wait up for me the brakeman’s going West
In this room all alone, I dream of you
In this drawer I found someone
I never knew
Now I pop a top and stay up late with Gideon
And fall asleep to visions of Meridian.”
Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream:
John speaks during Russell’s Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame induction:
On “Gone to Shiloh,” sung at times in a triad with Russell and Neil Young, John and Taupin revive their Civil War ballads from their early 1970s albums, hearkening back to, yes, The Band:
“April’s come, and the air smells fresh with rain
They watched his shadow fade around the bend
He’s headed for a different kind of thunder
And the stunned surprise in the eyes of dying men
Gone to Shiloh for the Union
Shoulder to shoulder
Side by side
Gone to Shiloh
Time passes slowly
When flags and bullets start to fly.”
I once reviewed John’s show on Oct. 15, 1997 for The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, where I was a reporter at the time. Embarrassingly, I wrote that “whoever thinks Elton John is old” should have seen him perform and bang on the piano on stage at the Carolina Coliseum.
I’m just about as old now as John was then. If only this bitch could go back. (Elton’s foundation called and thanked me for the review the day after, though. I was in awe.)
Rock on, you magnificent, country- and soul-loving queen.