Guitarist Davey Johnstone Looks Back on His Five-Decade Odyssey With Elton John

The guitarist reveals how Elton wrote some of his most enduring songs, passionately defends the singer’s less-popular works in the Eighties and looks ahead to their final tour

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Davey Johnstone was watching Top of the Pops with his father one night in 1970 when a young singer-songwriter named Elton John came onto the screen. Johnstone was a folkie guitarist into artists like Bert Jansch and John Martyn, but he was still extremely intrigued by this eccentric young piano player. “I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit,'” he says. “‘I love this. This is really cool. We need more of this around!'”

In his wildest dreams, he couldn’t have imagined that mere months later he’d not only play guitar on Elton’s new album, but he’d join his touring band and remain in it for the next half century. Many other musicians have come and gone over the years, but with the exception of a brief 1980 summer tour, Johnstone has been a sole constant presence in Elton’s band, playing well over 2,000 shows and serving as the musical director. As they prepare to kick off their Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, we spoke with Johnstone about his crazy life playing alongside Elton and what fans can expect from the upcoming tour.

How did you actually meet Elton?
I used to play in a group called Magna Carta and Gus Dudgeon was one of our producers. He also worked with Elton. One day he said to me, “Listen, I’m doing this poetry album with this guy called Bernie Taupin. He wants people to show up at the studio and just on the spot come up with some musical ideas that kinda reflect his lyrics. He’s going to speak the words and you guys are gonna make up some music.” It was me and [guitarist] Caleb Quaye and [drummer] Nigel Olsson, who didn’t really play anything but was just hanging out. And, of course, Bernie was there. It was such good fun and I liked all the people involved. I got on great with Bernie and it was wonderful.

Then a few weeks later I got a call that said, “We’ve been trying to do this song ‘Madman Across the Water,’ but we can’t get the guitar part right for it. Would you be interested in coming down and trying?” I said, “Of course,” and came in. When you’re that age, you don’t turn down anything, period. I showed up and there was this quiet, shy little guy behind the piano. Gus said to me, “Davey, this is Reg. Reg, this is Davey.” [Elton’s real name is Reginald Kenneth Dwight.] They played me the song and he played me the riff he wanted the guitar be prominent on. I went, “Well, what about this?” and played a riff and he went, “That’s it!”

He likes to work fast, which is something he’s held on to this day. We immediately connected on that since I like to work fast too. I like my first or second ideas the best since they tend to be the best ones. That same day, we also did “Holiday Inn,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” In those days, you did three tracks a day. That was the deal.

It was a great start. I liked all the songs and I thought, “Wow, this is great!” I was so excited about it because I’d been playing on a lot of other people’s records and now I was playing on stuff I could really relate to. It was like nobody else. They were great songs with great structures and he was willing to listen to my suggestions.

What happened after that?
A couple of weeks later I got a call saying, “Elton would like you to join his touring band of [bassist] Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson. We want to make a more rock-y kind of pop album,” which was Honky Château. I said, “Sure, I’m in.” We went to France on January 2nd, 1972, and immediately started churning out stuff. When we did “Rocket Man,” it was obvious that this was something very exciting and that proceeded to be the first Number One that he had. It was such an exciting time. It just carried on from there. When we weren’t on the road, we were in the studio.

Let’s go back to “Madman Across the Water” for a second. I’ve always loved that song, since it’s so different from everything else in his catalog. It’s almost prog rock.
It’s very unique and I think most of that is down to Bernie. He would bring, say, 15 lyric sheets to a recording session. Nobody would see them before then and Elton would sit down and look through them and go, “OK, I’ll start with this one.” And bang! 20 minutes later we’d have a song. That’s what it is. It’s like a little novella. All these songs are like little stories because of Bernie Taupin’s brilliance, in my mind. All through those early classic records, it wouldn’t be more than 20 to 30 minutes to write the song and then we’d go straight into the studio knowing what the song basically was and record it, and it’d be [the] first or second take. That’s how we made Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a double album, in 16 days. Nobody was doing that shit in those days, but that is how we recorded.

At the core is Elton’s ability to just pull these amazing melodies out of thin air, one after the other. It must be great to just watch them pour out of him.
Oh, yeah. That’s one of Elton’s amazing gifts, the fact that he can take a lyric and know where it should go chordally in order to make you cry or laugh or get you up and want to shake your fist in the air. He knows what works, what’s gonna work best. He does have an uncanny ability to say, “OK, this is what this song should be” without even asking anybody. For example, take “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” He would say, “This has gotta be a guitar tune so come up with a brilliant intro and I’m not even gonna play on this song.”

Then I would come up with the guitar ideas and we’d layer it with eight or 10 guitars and just with me and Dee and Nigel playing live in the studio. Then he would put his vocal on. In the case of that song, I remember saying to him, “Elton, you have to put a piano on the chorus. You have to put a Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis-type rock piano on there. That’s what it’s screaming out for.” He was like, “I dunno, I don’t really want any piano on this.” We said, “Look, try it.” He did and it was awesome.

What are your memories of your first concert with Elton?
That was terrifying. I was already playing on his records before Dee and Murray were. They were his touring guys. He went out as a trio to conserve money. It was brilliant. I loved the 17-11-70 record. But suddenly there was a guitar in the mix, me. We came up with all these different things. The other thing was, vocally, Dee and Nigel and I just hit it off for background vocals so we had a self-contained little rock unit.

The first concert we did was at the Royal Festival Hall. Half it was with an orchestra conducted by the late, great, amazing Paul Buckmaster. I played on both halves of the shows. Playing with the orchestra was a lot of fun and just insane. I was shitting myself. I remember thinking, “God, what am I doing up here? I’m not any kind of rock star. I’m a folk guitar player, basically, who plugged in and came up with some guitar parts.” It didn’t take me long to learn how to assimilate and assemble some of these parts into something that worked on a big stage.

Walk me through an average day of living and working at the chateau in France where you recorded Honky Château, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
One half of the chateau was a studio, the other half was where we all lived. It was a residential area where we all slept and whatever, and had our meals. We’d wake up in the morning, go downstairs and there was a little bare-bones setup with a little amp and a couple of guitars, banjo, mandolin for me, Dee’s bass amp, a small kit for Nigel and an electric piano for Elton. I’d come down and the guys would fall down one by one and we’d have some breakfast, have a baguette with a cup of coffee. We’d then immediately saunter over to the area where our instruments were and Elton would already be looking at lyrics and working out what he was gonna start with.

We would then walk over to the studio, plug in and start running down these songs and recording them. That’s just the way it would go. Day by day, we developed a way of working where nobody had to say anything to each other. Elton never said, “Well, how about you play this?” or “What about playing that?” He’d never tell me to play a part. It happened very rarely, very, very rarely, I think most famously on the Yellow Brick Road record, which we were cutting three, four songs a day in the studio. We’d just done “Candle in the Wind,” the band version that’s on the record. He said, “Davey, I’ve got this great idea for a guitar part,” and he sang me the guitar part. I looked at him and I said, “Oh, no. Fuck me, that sounds a bit cheesy.” I said, “I’ll try it,” obviously.

They ran the song. When the part came up where he wanted me to play this guitar line, I played it, and it worked great. I kind of went, “OK, I’ve got to listen to this guy.” Although he can’t play guitar, he obviously loves guitar. He kind of knows what he wants in certain areas. He really knows what he wants. We’ve continued to have this great relationship over the years about that.

Do you remember making “All the Girls Love Alice?” I love that song.
Oh, yeah, I do. The funny thing is, our current bass player, Matt Bissonette, who is just a monster bass player, he came up to me and he said, because that’s one of the songs that we’re rehearsing for the set, he said, “How did you come up with that part?” I said, “Shit. I don’t know, man. This is what the style was. I just came up with an intro and a riff that made sense to the aggression and the kind of dark side of that song.”

Then we got into doing crazy stuff on it, like using a bottle opener on the guitar and sound effects, like Nigel’s Mini Cooper starting up outside the Chateau. We’d record that shit and just stick it in there. It was all just really great fun. We just used all our tools and what came to us as being, “This is a great idea.”

How was life different at the Caribou Ranch in Colorado where you recorded Caribou and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy?
Caribou was a extraordinary experience because the chateau had become a comfort zone. We’d done three albums there. Then it was like, “Well, we’ve heard about this place, Caribou Ranch.” I was very familiar with Barnstorm, Joe Walsh’s album that was done there. I was like, “Oh, shit. Yeah, let’s go there. That sounds perfect.” We went there in the dead of winter, early January. That’d become a ritual. We’d start the year off with a new album regardless of the fact that we’d done a couple in the middle of the year also. We went there January in 1974, I believe.

There was like 10 feet of snow. We all had our own log cabins. We were told, “Wear this parka or you’ll freeze to death on the way to the studio. Wear snow boots. We’ve got snowmobiles. You guys can go up and try, have fun on these during the day.” When I went out there to the snowmobile area, who should be tuning up the snowmobiles other than Terry Kath of Chicago? He basically took his parka off and I’m going, “Shit, you’re Terry Kath,” and we struck up a big friendship.

The same kind of thing evolved, though. We went out to the studio and Elton would start writing the song, running down his lyrics, and we’d start recording that day. Again, none of the albums ever took more than two or three weeks to record the tracks and most of the overdubs. Then, Gus would take it away and mix them.

How hard was it for you to adjust to a new band on the 1975 tour?
Well, we got into it fairly easily. It was difficult because of the emotional side of things, mainly because of the fact that Elton’s very spontaneous when it comes to stuff like that. He made a decision based on various things. We were sitting together one day and he said, “You know what? I want to have a new rhythm section, but I’d like you to stay on this guitar. Will you do that?”

I’m like, “Well, yeah, but why do you want to change the band now? We’re the biggest thing on the planet.” We just had the first album that’s ever gone straight to Number One on release, which was Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. I’m saying, “You really want to change now?” He was like, “Yeah. I want to change the band. Will you help me?” I’m like, “OK.”

We got Caleb [Quaye], we got [bassist] Kenny Passarelli; Ray Cooper stayed with us. We got [keyboardist] James Newton Howard and background singers. It was quite a trip getting it all happening because it was a very heady time in the business. We’re talking about 1975 and a lot of substances had become the norm, shall we say? I’m not going to go there, but it became pretty crazy. We’d have people like Ringo and Keith Moon visiting during our rehearsal period. It was kind of insane, really, but we put it together and we proceeded to make this band happen.

Everyone always talks about the disastrous Wembley Stadium show.
That was a mistake and I think Elton would agree with me on that. It was a summer day in 1975 and we had Rufus, Joe Walsh and the Beach Boys on the bill. Elton was insistent that we open the show with our entire new album. Picture, if you will, the Beach Boys coming on in the middle of a rare summer’s day in London where it was beautiful weather, and they’re doing “California Girls” and “Help Me Rhonda” and all of this great shit and the audience are going nuts.

We came on and did Captain Fantastic, an album that nobody had heard besides a few diehard fans. For the first hour, it was literally like pulling teeth. Then, we went on and did a few of the crowd-pleasers, like “Saturday Night” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Philadelphia Freedom,” the songs that the audience did know. We managed to save the day, but it was almost a complete fucking disaster.

It’s a great dinner story now. We think back to it and go, “Jesus Christ, we were crazy to do that.” Whenever I bump into Ringo, he still talks to me about it. He was sitting there that night with Elton’s mom and he always goes, “I can’t believe you guys came out and did the whole album that nobody knew instead of crowd-pleasers.” But you learn from your mistakes. We played Dodger Stadium in October of that year and did a regular set that blew people out of the water.

The only tour you missed was in 1980. What happened there?
In 1977, Elton said to us, “That’s it. I’m done. For the good of my health I need to stop and regroup.” And he disbanded the big band we talked about a minute ago. It was a dark period of his life. I stayed close with him and played on his Single Man record, but I did a year and a half on the road with Alice Cooper and then played with Stevie Nicks on her Bella Donna record. That meant I wasn’t available for the 1980 tour.

But at the beginning of 1981 he called me and said, “Look, I really want to put the old band back together because what I’m doing now isn’t working. Would you like to do that with just you, me, Nigel and Dee?” I said, “Yeah, why not?” We went to Montserrat and it all went crazy again. We started having these giant hits again with [1983’s] Too Low for Zero and [1984’s] Breaking Hearts. There’s some things that are magical that you can’t really change. One of the things was that combination of musical minds. We just know, as soon as we start playing together, it’s just crazy good.

How did you wind up co-writing “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” with Elton?
We’d all just make our way to the studio, which was beautiful because the view from the window was just ocean and mountains and stuff. There was a beautiful pool outside. We’re sitting and Elton said, “I’ve got this lyric and I think it’s a guitar song.” I said, “OK.” He showed me the lyric and I went, “Oh, what a beautiful lyric.” We wrote the song right there in about 20 minutes. He said, “That’s it. Let’s record it.” The next day, I think, we invite the whole band in the room. We played them the song and we proceeded to record it and that was it. I mean, when you start with a lyric like that, you’re already halfway there. So I really can’t emphasize enough how important Bernie’s contribution has been over the years through this whole thing.

I’ve heard Elton himself and a lot of fans put down [1986’s] Leather Jackets over the years. What do you think of it?
I don’t know why people have got such a bug up their ass about Leather Jackets. I really think there was some great stuff on it. It was just a difficult period in Elton’s life. I mean, he was going through a lot of changes in every department. And again, I ain’t gonna go there. But I think there was some great shit on that record. And I stand by that statement.

If you’ve produced a number of really great things, people expect the next thing to be amazing. And sometimes it’s not what they expect. And so therefore they go, “Well, what the fuck happened?” I think John Lennon said it best. He certainly said this to me. He said, “Look, an album is really just a little postcard of where you are at that time. If you’re honest enough to put it out like that, that’s what it is. And what people think of it really is neither here nor there, because if you’re a true artist that’s what it’s gonna be.”

Bernie told me he doesn’t like [1997’s] The Big Picture. What do you think of that one?
That’s not one of my favorites, simply because there were so many ballads on it. It was such a down album that I found it hard to relate to it.

I saw you guys at Madison Square Garden in 2005 when you did Captain Fantastic straight through, but you never did anything like that again. Was there ever talk of doing other albums in concert? The fans would go crazy if you did something like a Tumbleweed Connection show.
The subject has come up, and it would be brilliant, I think, to do that. I don’t mean just Tumbleweed, I mean deep cuts off various albums that people love. And there was talk of us maybe at some point doing a tour of smaller venues where we can do these deep cuts and really address them for the real psycho fans. But it just didn’t make sense to do that and to do the kind of tour we’re doing right now as well.

So I’m not saying it’s out of the question and it’ll never happen. Because we all loved the idea. We thought, “Oh, that’d be great to do the Beacon Theatre in New York City or the Paris Olympia or the Atlanta Tabernacle, and just do all deep cuts.” We know that people would love it, and we would love it. But we’d be twisting our brains out of shape if we try and do that and this [farewell tour] at the same time. Realistically speaking, that requires another whole set of rehearsals. I’d have to take the band in again and do a whole other set of tracks. And at some point we’d have to bring Elton in and be like, “Are you ready to do some of these songs you haven’t done for 40 years?” It would be too much.

The band has faced some hard times in recent years. How hard was it to keep playing after losing [keyboardist] Guy Babylon and [bassist] Bob Birch?
God. Unbelievably hard. They were two of my best friends of all time. When Guy unexpectedly passed I was like, “Holy shit, what are we going to do?” Elton called me up and said, “Well, I’m completely gobsmacked and shocked by this whole thing and I’m sitting here in tears, but the reality is that we have to carry on.” What are we going to do? Stop? And he said, “Can you find another guy who does what Guy did?” I was like, “Fuck, that’s a tall order.” But on my short list was Kim Bullard and he’s been magnificent.

It was the same thing with Matt Bissonette when we lost dear Bob Birch. Elton called me up and he said, “Well, listen, we don’t have longer than three weeks to do this.” And I’m going, “Well, shit, you’re asking to get another guy? Another Bob Birch?” And he went, “Well, yeah, because, you know, we have a tour starting in three weeks.” And I’m like, “Holy shit. So I have to grieve and get somebody in the band?”

I knew Matt from his brother Greg. I got him over to my house and I said, “You’re gonna work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. And you’ll see the world about six times over.” And he kind of laughed, and I said, “No, look, I’m being serious.” And about six months ago he said to me, “You know, I didn’t really take you as being absolutely serious at the time, but I now realize you were absolutely telling me the truth.”

But the great thing is that both Kim Bullard and Matt Bissonette came through like gangbusters. And every day I miss Guy Babylon and Bob Birch along with Dee Murray, not to mention Gus Dudgeon, Paul Buckmaster, [producer] Steve Brown and all the people that we have lost in this whole thing.

How did you get Nigel back into the band after all those years?
To cut a long story short, after he was out of the band for 17 years I kind of finagled getting him back as a background singer. I wanted Nigel’s voice because to me Nigel’s birthright is Elton John’s drummer, as far as I’m concerned. That’s who plays drums for Elton John. We’ve had some wonderful fucking players over the years, amazing players. Amazing players. But Nigel’s birthright is playing drums and singing background for Elton John.

And so when I got him back as a background singer, he did that for about six months. And then one day I called Elton and I said, “Look. How do you feel about trying Nigel in the drum chair again?” And he said, “Do you think he has the stamina? Do you think he can do it?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” So we tried it and it worked, and here we are 18 years later and he’s still playing like Nigel Olsson. Nobody else on the planet plays like Nigel. Nobody else has that sound.

Where are you right now? In rehearsals for the tour?
Yeah, we just finished a week of rehearsals with the band. What I normally do is take the band in without Elton. I have a surrogate Elton, as I call him. A guy called Adam Chester who’s a wonderful musician and singer and just loves our music. Around 15 years or so ago I decided, you know what, Elton hates to rehearse so I want to use this guy because he loves to do it and he brings a great thing to our organization.

I don’t want you to spoil anything, but will the show be very different than what fans have seen in recent years?
Well, that’s a very good point because I think when you have certain segments of the audience coming to see an Elton gig, there are some people that are gonna want to hear certain songs, that’s just the way it is. It’s like if they go and see the Stones or Springsteen or whoever, so there’re certain songs that you have to do in the set. What I’ve been trying to do is just put a different twist on a couple of things and also introduce a couple of songs that maybe we haven’t done before, which unfortunately I can’t divulge what those are. There’s a few bits of ear candy and different things where the audience will feel, wow, this is really special, ’cause that’s what it is. It’s a very special event.

This tour is gonna basically be the stuff that most people would like to hear, I think, plus a few surprises thrown in. And, for sure, some radical, very, very high-end technology which is something that we’ve been working on with great people. It’s gonna be different. It’s gonna be very different.

Is it a strange thought that you’re about to start a farewell tour?
No, because it’s a long farewell tour. They’re planning a lot of gigs. In a sense it is strange, but my only real concern as the musical director and the guy who puts the band together is to make sure everybody’s on point with what they’re playing and that we don’t just diss our audience. So we try and play arrangements that are interesting enough where people say, “Oh, fuck, they didn’t play that last time out,” or “That’s new,” or “Oh, wow, listen to that.” I’m more intent on this being an extension of what we’ve always been known for, which is great musicianship and giving a really powerful show. And I think there’s gonna be no problem where that’s concerned.

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