100 Greatest Artists

49

Elton John

Illustration by Charles Miller

Elton John defines himself as a rock star, and he really lives it. More like a Roman aristocrat rock star. I've noticed when we've toured together that backstage you'll see young men with togas, dressed as centurions, with little fig leaves around their heads. Inside Elton's dressing room there are a thousand pairs of sunglasses, a hundred pairs of shoes and about 50 Versace suits laid out. He's fucking royalty, and I love it. My dressing room looks like the back of a deli. I have one of those meat platters that sea gulls circle around.

Elton kicks my ass on piano. He's fantastic — a throwback to Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and Little Richard. His spontaneous, improvisational playing always challenges me. And that is his contribution to rock & roll and pop: his musicianship. Before him, rock was a bunch of James Taylors — guitar-based singer-songwriter stuff. Elton brought back fantastic piano-based rock. Elton knows what his instrument is capable of. The piano is a percussion instrument, like a drum. You don't strum a piano. You don't bow a piano. You bang and strike a piano. You beat the shit out of a piano. Elton knows exactly how to do that — he always had that rhythmic, very African, syncopated style that comes from being well versed in gospel and good old R&B. Elton and Bernie Taupin did some brilliant songwriting during the first part of his career, from Elton John to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

The first time we met we were in Holland, at a hotel in Amsterdam. It was in the mid-Seventies, and he was at his peak — it was the height of the Elton John era — and I was just starting out as the "Piano Man" guy. We went into a private room and we just talked. I told him what a fan I was, and he said he knew my stuff. I thought this was so cool: There were a thousand guitar players, but there were only two of us. The English piano player and the American piano player. And, seminally, rock & roll was not just guitar. Elton gave a funny-looking guy like me — and so many others — an opportunity to be a singer-songwriter. When Elton was in his first band, Bluesology, he never thought he could be a rock star. Same as me. I didn't look like Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney or Jim Morrison. Sure, we thought we'd be piano players for big rock bands, but funnily enough he ended up with big, silly glasses and crazy outfits, and I ended up with my dopey stage behavior, both of us rock stars. To this day we laugh about that. And he keeps going on and on. I haven't put out a song since 1993, and he asks me, "Billy, why don't you write some new songs?" I say, "Elton, why don't you write less new songs?" At $200 a ticket, you can't shove new stuff down people's throats. So much of his stuff is amazing, though: "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Bennie and the Jets," "Tiny Dancer," "Your Song" and "The Bitch Is Back." That's what they want to hear.

Any melodic songwriter owes a debt to Elton John, the supreme melodist. I don't know shit about new bands, but anybody who plays the keyboard and likes melody must give a nod to Elton. Like Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Carole King and the Beatles, he carries on the rich tradition of writing beautiful melodies.

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