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Elton John: The Rolling Stone Interview

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Bernie: And Robin Gibb.

Elton: Oh, I did a cover for a Dutch record company of "Saved by the Bell," and I literally did it like that. [Sings his Robin Gibb imitation] They did five takes and by the end, my neck was really red, sort of hanging down there like a chicken.

Then when John Baldry came along and said would you like to join up I said, well, at least it's a step in the right direction. So we backed John for a year, starting off with a soul package, really. It was our singer, who was Stuart A. Brown, Marsha Hunt, another singer called Alan Walker, and Baldry. Baldry had just finished with the Brian Auger thing, and Julie Driscoll, the Steampacket, with Rod Stewart, and he wanted to start another similar thing. It really didn't ever get off the ground, we were never a success, so Baldry decided to make a commercial record and made a hit record with "Let the Heartaches Begin." That changed his life for two or three years and began to change mine, because it meant instead of playing in clubs you played in cabaret, which really drove me around the bend. I think that's the graveyard of musicians, playing cabaret. I think I'd rather be dead than work in cabaret. It's just so depressing.

So I was always getting depressed and it was in Newcastle that I saw the advert in the New Musical Express saying "Liberty leaving EMI, going independent, need singers and talent." I didn't know what I was going to do, I just knew I wanted to come off the road. So I went up for an appointment, I was still with the band. I said I can't write lyrics and I can't really sing well because I wasn't singing with Bluesology, But I think I can write songs. So they gave me this audition, it was in a recording studio; they said "sing us five songs." I didn't know five songs, all I knew were the songs Baldry was singing and the Jim Reeves records I used to sing with at home. So I sang five Jim Reeves songs and they turned me down flat. I don't really blame them. They put me in touch with Bernie, only through letter or by phone, because Liberty didn't want us.

But some guy at Liberty told me to go to Dick James Music and do some demos. I was receiving Bernie's lyrics and writing the songs and doing demos before I even met Bernie. One day I was doing a demo session and noticed him in the corner. I said, oh, are you the lyrics writer, and he said yeah, and we went around the corner for a cup of coffee and that was it, really.

We'd made millions and millions of songs up before anybody discovered we were making demos at Dick James. Dick James had a purge because he discovered that people were using his studios just to make endless demos. So he heard our stuff, liked it, and signed us up. As soon as he signed us up at ten quid a week advance royalties I left the group. That was the best day in my life, when I quit the group.

Was it then he suggested the name change?
Elton: Oh, no, I was coming back from Scotland, or somewhere, after doing a gig with John and Caleb Quayle, who was engineer at the Dick James Studio at the time, and had a lot to do with my early encouragement and played the guitar, for Baldry some of the time, with Bluesology, and I said, I've got to think of a name. I'm fed up with Reg Dwight I can't be Reg Dwight "if I'm going to be a singer, so I've got to think of a name. So Elton Dean's name I pinched [Elton Dean was in Bluesology and later the Soft Machine.] and John Baldry's name and I said, oh, Elton John, there you go.

One report in the national press awhile back said you'd once almost gotten married to a millionairess.
Elton: Me?

And called it off three weeks before?
Elton: Oh, that's true. I wouldn't say she was a millionairess, that's the national press boosting their headlines –"One-Armed Man Swims Channel" or something like that, you know what I mean. It was a girl I met when I was in Sheffield one miserable Christmas doing cabaret with John Baldry. She was six-foot tall and going out with a midget in Sheffield who drove around in a Mini with special pedals on. He used to beat her up! I felt so sorry for her and she followed me up the next week to South Shields – this gets even more romantic, folks – and I fell desperately in love and said come down to London and we'll find a flat. Eventually we got a nice flat in this dismal area. It was a very stormy six months, after which I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I attempted suicide and various other things, during which Bernie and I wrote nil, absolutely nothing.

Bernie: Don't forget the gas.

Elton: I tried to commit suicide one day. It was a very Woody Allen-type suicide. I turned on the gas and left all the windows open. [Laughter]

Bernie: I remember when I told Linda and said, "My God, he's tried to commit suicide," and she said, "Why, he's wasted all the gas!"

Elton: It was just like six months in hell. I got the flat, I bought all the furniture, the cake was made, it was three weeks away, Baldry was going to be best man, and in the end Baldry, we were out in the Speakeasy . . . no, it was the Bag of Nails . . . no . . .

Bernie: It was the Bag of Nails.

Elton: Baldry was there, and one of the Supremes – one of the Supremes used to go out with the singer of Bluesology, how about that for a piece of gossip – Cindy Birdsong used to go out with our singer. Anyway, we're there at the Bag of Nails and Baldry is saying, "You're mad, man, you're mad, you don't love her," and I was saying, "I do, I do," and he was saying, "She beats you up, she smashes you on the face," and we got more and more depressed sitting there until four in the morning setting off burglar alarms when we staggered out and I shouted, "It's over, it's finished!" and then came a couple of days of hell. In the end my Dad came with his Ford Cortina and how he managed to cram all that stuff in there I don't know and my mother said, "If you marry her I'll never speak to you again"– oh, it was just amazing. So she sued me for breach of promise and all that shit. She got away with quite a lot of money in shares.

Bernie: It was so outrageous . . .

Elton: It was outrageous because she was six-foot and she used to beat me up and she used to be beaten up by a midget, so how about that? It was so weird. You know, I have always expected her to show up one of these days.

Of course the worst thing in the papers about you was the Observer's comment about you and Liberace.

Elton: I didn't see that.

Do you want to hear it?
Elton: Yes, yes!

It said that at the Royal Variety Performance Liberace made you look like the musical dwarf you were.
Elton: Well, I think he did, I think he was the only decent thing on the Royal Variety show. I don't mind, I don't find that offensive at all.

I had two numbers to do, which was really great, everybody was saying do "Your Song." and "Rocket Man," you better be nice, Elton John, and do "Your Song." Boring! So we brought "Legs" Larry Smith to tap dance to "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself," and the whole effect was lost on television, but he released balloons that actually made farting noises. Of course the audience was full of the most dreadful people imaginable, and all these balloons were going pfft, pfft, pfft, all over the audience and they were all sitting there in their tiaras going "Ooooh! Oooooh!" [Bernie convulsed with laughter.]

Larry had all these flowers, because he came on dressed as a wedding man, and I thought it was great – it sounds abysmal – we thought we had problems, the poor Jackson Five singing, trying to sing without much amplification in the Palladium – and they were trying to get me to take Larry out of the show, and I was in a panic because I had to fly back to Tulsa to do another show. Liberace was great, he just kept wheeling trunks of clothes in. I just sat there watching him, he kept calm through the whole thing. All these people were badgering him all the time for autographs, and he does the most ornate autographs, he draws a grand piano, and he was great.

You mentioned one of the reasons you did it was to plug "Crocodile Rock." A lot of the critics, especially in America, have had fun trying to identify the songs that influenced you for that song.
Elton: Oh, I've always wanted to write a song–

Bernie: We got sued by the people who wrote "Speedy Gonzales."

Elton: Yeah, but they dropped that. I mean, that's so stupid. But there are the obvious ones, "Oh, Carol"– we wrote one song, "Rock and Roll Madonna," I always wanted to write one song, a nostalgic song, a rock and roll song which captured the right sounds. "Crocodile Rock" is just a combination of so many songs, really. "Little Darling," "Oh, Carol," some Beach Boys influences, they're in there as well, I suppose. Eddie Cochran. I mean, it's just a combination of songs. People say it's like Freddie Cannon. We've written a new one, "Your Mama Can't Twist," and everyone's gonna go, "You've pinched it from Loggins and Messina!"

Bernie: Loggins and Messina? What?

Elton: "Your Mama Don't Dance." Oh, well. It all comes from the subconscious. And there's Del Shannon in there, that high stuff. And I love Bobby Vee.

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