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Interview: Elton John

After three gold albums and the praise of millions, what’s to say but thank you

Elton JohnElton John

Elton John performs in concert at the San Francisco Civic Center in San Francisco on May 9th, 1971.

Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

I’ve got no time for love affairs. You wake up in the morning if you have a day offends the phone will ring: ‘Can you come into the office? There’s something I want to talk to you about.’ Your solicitor will phone you up, for a start, or your accountant, or your manager, or your publicist will phone you up. Then you have the day-to-day things to worry about, like your car will go wrong so you have to take it in. Or the stove will blow up. It’s amazing how many things go wrong in life.”

The first time I heard Elton John was the first day I met Norm Winter, his hard-driving American publicist. It was early last summer, in the West Hollywood offices of Unix “a division of MCA” Records. At that time few people in the industry even knew of Elton John. But most of them knew of Norm Winter, Unix’s erstwhile veteran flack, whose dedication to the traditional values of promotion and stunt publicity were unmatched by younger colleagues in the record biz.

Uni’s offices actually were housed in the Sol Hurok Building, in that row of towering music and entertainment empire buildings that make the Sunset Strip such a fun place to stroll these afternoons. The Sol Hurok building, however, is a little older than the others, and only two floors high; still, embedded in its stucco facade of faded brown, there’s somehow a flavor of history to the place. (Gable? DeMille? Who knows how many of them have driven past the building?) Also there’s free parking–that’s another nice thing about it.

Norm’s office was situated at the rear of the reception hallway, near the Coke machine. He had asked me to come meet the members of Timber, four decent looking young men who were seated on the couch opposite his desk when I entered.

“Hey, there’s something you gotta hear,” said Norm, shaking my hand and picking up an album from his desk. “This is gonna blow your mind. You gotta minute?” I introduced myself to Timber, as Norm, bending over the turntable and revealing a small rip in his sky-blue Catholic school bell bottoms, tested the needle loudly with his thumb and set it on the record.

It seemed strange to be listening to the music of a group sitting only a few feet away. But in a few moments I realized it was stranger not to be.

“This guy’s name is Elton John,” explained Norm with a chubby, what-me-worry smile. “We just signed him. I wouldn’t try to hype you. I just want to get your opinion. Isn’t he unbelievable?”

The cut was “Your Song,” and it did sound pretty good, all those nice strings and that nearly classical piano. But somehow I failed to grasp the PR logic of promoting one act by playing the music of another. Timber appeared equally mystified, the men gazing nervously at themselves and various furniture. Norm played nearly the whole first side.

“Don’t give me any bullshit, now, what do you think?” he asked. But before I could reply he yelled, “Shelley! Shelley!” Norm’s secretary, a tall, flush-faced kachina doll in a floor-length gown, appeared at the door. “Tell him what you think of the Elton John album, Shelley. Go on.” Obviously the girl was embarrassed. “It’s. . . all right,” she said with a shrug. “Shelley can’t stop playing the goddamn thing. Tell him, dear,” corrected Norm, poking her in the ribs. “Nor! Man!” she screamed, delivering a swift elbow chop apparently perfected in the months she had worked at Uni.

As she scurried from the office, Nor Man Winter stepped up to a bulletin board by his desk and beckoned with his finger. “There’s something I want you to see.” The board was covered with snapshots and 8-by-10s, each depicting a celebrity of some sort, plus Norm. There was Lee Marvin and Norm, Johnny Rivers and Norm, George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and Norm. Lots of others. In most of the poses Norm would gaze at the celebrity and the celebrity would reciprocate by gazing at the camera. Sometimes there were plaques. “You recognize this guy?” Norm asked, pointing to a shot of a vintage World War II Frank Sinatra, complete with greasy kids hair. Standing next to him was a tweedledumpish individual in an Army uniform, looking something like a stuffed Boy Scout. I recognized the guy.

“Just wanted to show you how long I been in the business,” said Norm with humble pride. Shortly after that Timber got up and left the Sol Hurok Building. And shortly after that they left MCA and joined Elektra.

* * *

And shortly after that, in September, Elton John came to America. He was to open at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and that afternoon I dropped by Norm’s office to pick up some tickets. To my utter shock, Norm appeared to have shrunk several feet. Of course it wasn’t Norm at all – he was taking a break – but some bloated little kid on the phone at Norm’s desk. He couldn’t have been more than 11, but he spoke with a frightening kind of executive authority.

“Have those delivered first thing in the morning. Right,” he ordered over the phone, then switched to another line. “Look, I’m coming over right now. We’ll discuss the matter then.” He slammed down the receiver, picked up some papers and split. I never did find out who he was. Must have been from New York; they say kids burn out pretty early there.

Just then Norm bounced in, leading a thin, unhealthy looking man in a green sport coat. “This is Pierre, my photographer,” he said. “He’s from France. We’re working on a film together. He just came over to discuss lighting, camera angles, all that shit. Hope you don’t mind.” Pierre appeared to be a pleasant enough fellow, but he spoke little English. He also spoke little French. I found out later he’d been in America about 20 years.

“Hey, did you hear about the bus?” asked Norm. “Well, Elton’s in town now, you know. I picked him up at the airport. The guy’s beautiful, man. He just can’t believe this is all happening to him. Anyway, get this: we picked him up an authentic English bus. I kid you not. I rented a bright red English bus, you know the kind they have in England with the two decks? And I put a big sign on it: ‘Elton John has arrived.’ It just blew his mind. He really dug it.”

Norm Winter had been working out, that’s for sure. Already the Los Angeles stations were playing cuts from the album, record stores everywhere had it on display; and that night, a Tuesday night, the Troubadour was packed. Norm was there, of course, handing out press kits at the door. So was Pierre. Norm had fixed him up with a set of floodlights and cameras, and everytime a celebrity or some Uni executive would sit down, Norm would drag Pierre over to get a shot. Some people thought all that a little gauche, but I enjoyed the nostalgia of it. It was the sort of Cairo’s trip you just never see at the Troubadour.

Most of the people there were Uni employees or the music press, but it didn’t matter. Elton’s performance was one of the great opening nights in Los Angeles rock. During “Take Me to the Pilot,” Odetta, to everyone’s delight, got up in the back row and danced, strutting and twirling that famous huge body around like a matronly dervish. Leon Russell, supreme among Elton’s many pop idols, sat near the front and made Elton so nervous he almost blew the last number, which, as usual, was “Burn Down the Mission.” Every time he started to play a cut off the album, the audience gasped and applauded.

“They clapped at the start! I couldn’t fuckin’ believe it,” said Elton in his hotel the next day, obviously impressed. “That never happens in England. People over here are ridiculous.”

Compared to the Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis acrobatics that he went through during “Burn Down the Mission,” Elton’s demeanor in the hotel seemed oddly subdued. He was extremely friendly but appeared shy, almost fragile. To this day he rarely looks at the person he is addressing. I asked him what he thought of the flashy promotion, of Norm Winter.

“Norm Winter – well, that really sums it all up, doesn’t it,” he said with a slight grin. “Actually, he’s worked bloody hard. They really have worked hard. Every store I’ve seen in Los Angeles has had a window display–that’s probably bought, but they really tried, you know?”

“But that bus. I found that extremely embarrassing. Everyone was sort of getting into a crouch and trying to hide below the windows. I don’t know, it seemed like a cheap trick. I really couldn’t believe it, I didn’t think it was happening. I mean, I’m a great lover of things that are done with taste . . . and double Decker buses don’t qualify.”

“But as I say, it’s the first time over here and I just can’t–you can’t be rude to people. I’d rather go through with things, really sort of suffer inside and grin and bear it than be really nasty to people.”

There were the usual questions about the future.

“I don’t want the big star bit,” claimed Elton. “I can’t bear that bit. What I want is to do just a few gigs a week and really get away from everything and just write; and have people say, ‘Oh, Elton John? He writes good music.’ That’s all.”

But as we now know, that wasn’t all at all. The next day Leon Russell had Elton over to his house to jam. “I thought he would tie me down to the piano and say something like, ‘Now this is how to play,'” Elton said later, “but he was so pleasant.” That morning Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times hailed Elton as the first rock superstar of the Seventies. Before leaving the country he played the Troubadour in San Francisco and two small gigs back East, each time earning the same wild praise. The wheels were starting to turn for Elton John. And Norm Winter.

* * *

Within two months Elton was back in the States, this time for his first major tour. It covered primarily the major cities and was extremely strenuous. In the Los Angeles area alone he gave five auditorium concerts – San Bernardino, Riverside, Anaheim, Santa Monica and UCLA – an unprecedented number. In Chicago he had to be hoisted in the air by police and whisked through crowds. His album and singles turned to gold. Dylan came to see him. The Band flew down in their private plane. He even got to perform with Leon Russell.

His act and appearance got wilder. So did Norm’s. At Santa Monica, Elton wore a Jagger top hat, cape and purple jumpsuit. Norm wore a Captain America combination and a budding razorcut pageboy. During “Burn Down the Mission,” Elton kicked away the piano stool, ripped off his jumpsuit and finished with a series of giant bunny kicks in purple pantyhose. The crowd, to use Elton’s term, went mental.

Yet again, after the show was over, there was that strange contrast. At a huge backstage party, while scores of writers and industry people consumed tons of champagne and catered goodies, Elton stood off to the side, costumed, alone and silent.

Just before Christmas he returned to England. He was scheduled to perform there five nights a week but his doctor ordered him to cut two nights out. “I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown,” Elton recalled later. “Now I’ve got to have three holidays a year.”

And to think, the Christmas before he was working in a record store.

* * *

In the meantime and the months that followed, a number of changes – some of dubious heaviness – went down for Elton and his friends. Uni Records moved from the Sol Hurok Building to their parent building at Universal Studios – a giant black structure that overshadows North Hollywood like some refugee from a Japanese robot film. Shelley quit; Norm said the tour was too much work for her or anyone. Pierre returned to France.

Bernie Taupin, Elton’s elfin lyricist, started believing his own material and got married. Bernie and Elton brought out another album, Tumbleweed Connection, that included “Burn Down the Mission” and, for the purist audience, the authentic version of “Country Comfort” (the lyrics were slightly adulterated in the Rod Stewart cover). Bernie and Elton also finished the soundtrack album for a film called Friends.

Then Warner Bros. hired Elton and Rod Stewart to produce an album by Long John Baldry, the colorful British blues singer who, ironically, discovered Stewart and used Elton for backup years ago. Dick James, Elton’s famous owner-manager, hired Chartwell Artists to represent Elton in America – the folks who had booked the Ali-Frazier gig.

Finally, Norm Winter left Uni and returned to the Sol Hurok Building with his own publicity firm called Totem Pole. Leon Russell left Hollywood and returned to Oklahoma. Elton rehired Norm. Norm rehired Shelley. Ali blew the fight. Elton cut his hair, shaved off his beard. Norm’s 13-year-old son formed his own group called Mother’s Pride. There was that earthquake out near Universal Studios. And, somewhere along the line, someone – Norm or Unix or Dick James or Chartwell – announced another American tour for Elton, this one to last ten weeks and hit 55 (count ’em, 55) cities. It started in April and ends sometime in June.

* * *

“Sixty Years On” is not the best number on the Elton John album, but it’s one of the most dramatic he does on stage, pitting thunderous waves of bass and drums against dainty solos in the highest octaves of the piano. And when he played it again last week in San Francisco, Elton went out of his way for effect. Nigel Olsson appeared to have piled on another layer of drums – 15 in all – which now was obliterated the poor fellow completely save an occasional mad flurry of hair. Dee Murray boosted his bass full volume. After each doomsday interlude, Elton paused so long that the audience thought the number over and applauded.

I hadn’t realized before how much he grimaced when he played, particularly during loud or more difficult passages. Sometimes he would stick out his lower lip like Stan Freberg used to do, or grit his teeth, or pucker up his face like Alvin Lee. Sometimes he would recoil from the keyboard, his mouth falling open in horror, as if his ass had been shot full of lightning.

Most of the other numbers were less heavy, of course, and when he finally ended with “Burn Down the Mission,” Elton turned it into a sporting event. He spun away from the piano and clapped his hands, like a center breaking from a huddle. He leaped and ran across the stage, shaking random hands with the crowd that had zoomed forward. At one point he actually leaped on top of the grand piano and pranced around in giant white tennis shoes that had these sort of wings attached to the side. It was, as he called it, the supreme moment of the show for him, absurd and triumphant at the same time.

Backstage I ran into Norm wearing a black leather jacket. Since I’d last seen him he had learned Elton’s real name – Reginald Kenneth Dwight – and was using it with ease.

“You remember Reg, don’t you,” said Norm, leading me to a back corner of the tiny dressing room. Elton looked up and smiled, but said nothing. He had just come from Maui and a week in the sun, and his forehead was peeling and blotchy, giving his face a prisoner-of-war quality. His knees were bruised and dirty from scampering about the stage that night. Later he told me why he grimaced at the piano.

“I bang the piano a lot. It’s hard work. Like the start of the tour, the first three days, my hands were hell. They bled every night. And my nails broke. Once you’ve got over the first three or four dates, your hands harden up, the skin just hardens up. My nails split, right? That’s beginning to split there. And that’s beginning to go again. My hands by the time I go home will be ruined.”

As we drove over to meet Elton the next day, Norm spoke of that first night at the Troubadour and how it changed his life. Norm had changed, no doubt about it. In some ways he had grown more likable; maybe he had just grown. He seemed to be developing a capacity for embarrassment and self doubt. Now, when he used a particularly awful phrase, he would often precede it with a kind of subconscious disclaimer.

“Let me put it to you this way,” he confided, “I’ve been in the PR thing since 1960, that’s like ten years, 11 years, and I have never – like they said up there, what the hell was it? the cliche they kept using? – the rest is history. Because like I’d never seen anything happen in one night like that. Everybody I think came off well as a result of it. This was a real – what is the cliche again? – heavy-type happening, because Reg was really prestigious.”

“And so it’s done a lot for Uni, it’s done a lot for me, it’s done a lot for everyone who’s been around Reg. And Reg – to use a corny sounding piece of shit – has been grateful, and he’s remembered everyone that was there at the beginning.

“I’ll tell you one of the reasons I was motivated. For one thing, we got vibes immediately, and on the strength of those vibes we decided we were gonna go all out. Secondly, he was so goddamn grateful. Like the second night after the show, in front of all my people from MCA – this was not the New York story I told you, this was at the Troubadour – he dedicated ‘Your Song’ to me. I couldn’t believe it, like I was almost embarrassed. And then in New York he pulled that shtick where he said in front of the people who run MCA, he said, ‘Nigel and Dee and I would like to dedicate the entire show this afternoon to Norm,’ which I thought was unbelievable.”

I asked Norm how his life had changed personally. He looked down at his blue jean cowboy jacket with the red satin stars on it, then replied:

“Well for one thing, I’m not trying to emulate Reg by wearing, say, funky threads – is that what you call ’em? – but when you go to some of these beer halls or, you know, places they play, and you’re over 30, they think you’re the fuzz unless you wear denims. So consequently I’ve gone the other route, and I kind of enjoy it.”

“And, yeah, there’s a lot of bread coming in. But I still drive the same car I always did. An XKE.”

I wondered how old he was, and it kind of disturbed him for a minute. “Oh, do I have to really tell? Oh God.” Then he leaned forward and said under his breath, as if he was revealing Nixon’s withdrawal date from Vietnam, “Thirty-five.”

* * *

Elton John possesses 5000 albums, 2500 45s, 100 EPs, 60 78s, 500 eight-track cartridges and 300 cassettes. Or, perhaps, they possess him. He’s into pop music, that’s all there is to it. He’s an absolute scholar on the matter, particularly American pop music, going clear back to Doris Day and Pat Boone.

So naturally his first request was to stop at a record store in downtown San Francisco, where, after rummaging around for 45 minutes, he bought albums by Albert King, Leon Russell, Gordon Lightfoot, and the Flamin’ Groovies; plus cassettes by Spirit, John and Beverley Martyn, the Velvet Underground, Santana, Harry Nilsson, Marvin Gaye, David Crosby, the Voices of East Harlem and Seatrain.

“I just listen to everything that comes out,” he explained. “If I like a record, I’ll buy it. The only trouble with pop records is they play ’em so much you get fed up with ’em. There’s fewer good pop records coming out now than there was five years ago. I mean you could go into a store five years ago and you wouldn’t know which one to buy. You’d say I must have that one and that one and that one. And now there’s only a few.”

How come?

“I don’t know. Probably my taste has changed. But it’s more to a formula now. They’re done more on a business basis rather than a fun thing. But I’m not an expert. I meet some people and they can tell you the number of every record. I know the label pretty well, but they know the numbers and everything.”

“Music fascinates me, the history of records. There are so many good pop records. The Shangri-Las are a great event in the history of music. Their records are incredible.”

I asked him what artists he felt deserved more attention.

“Howard Tate. David Ackles. A lot of soul people – Don Covay seems to have faded away. The Dillards. Spirit. Redbone. The trouble is, there’s not enough young kids around. I’ve always said that. Elvis Presley’s 36, 37. The Beatles are all over 30. The Stones. I’m 24 and I’m considered quite young; but I feel quite old.”

“In England, football seems to have taken over. A lot of people follow football more than buying records.” While Elton was in the store, a tall, curly-haired fellow brought him a copy of his new live album and asked him to autograph it. Then the guy sort of hung around, complimenting him and asking a bunch of tiny questions like where he was playing next and how his last show went. Each time Elton would smile, answer and turn away, smile, answer and turn away. It seemed very awkward, and I inquired later if that sort of thing bothered him.

“I don’t mind people coming up and saying hello and will you sign something. That’s great, that’s important to me. It’s embarrassing, I don’t know what to say. You can only say thank you. But at least it gets you in contact with them. If someone says I really like your record, you only say thank you – unless you’re a supreme egotist and get into how you made the the record and how great you think it is. You can only say thank you, and I always go a bit red.

“That’s why I shake hands with them at the end of the show. With me it’s as if the kids think I’m the boy next door who’s fat and podgy, who’s got no sort of right to be a rock and roll star but there he is playing the piano – like cousin Arthur up the road who’s just made it. That’s my image and that suits me fine.”

“I vowed when I started on the road, I said right, if I’m gonna be an entertainer (which I didn’t want to be, I really didn’t want to go on the road as Elton John, but I had to because the records didn’t sell), I vowed I was really gonna try and give it everything I got.”

Elton’s still single – he almost got married once, but it turned out the girl wasn’t pregnant – so I asked him the usual smutty questions about groupies.

“I don’t have any trouble with groupies, I couldn’t stand that sort of thing,” he said. “Nigel has a groupie in every town, but there’s no sort of plague. Anyway, they seem to be more sophisticated now. They’ve become – how should I put it – they’ve become less sluttish.”

“Bernie and I do seem to attract weirdos. I don’t know why, because we’re not really weird ourselves. People give me pineapples. And some girl gave me her knickers. Yeah, in Scotland, some girl took off her knickers and threw them on stage – along with a bowler hat, can you get that one together?”

“What upsets me are people who are really spaced out. Like last night there was this guy, as we were driving out he was clinging onto the car, going, ‘I must go home with you! Let me be a person!’ What can you do, you know? You can’t be rude to people. I couldn’t say anything nasty to him because he would have completely – we left him sobbing on the ground. That really disturbs me.”

Elton began rubbing his forehead where it was peeling. He looked tired and dazed.

“I’ve got about eight close friends and that’s it. I haven’t got any hangers-on, I couldn’t bear that. I don’t go to clubs. I sit at home and listen to records mostly. I hate parties.”

“I’ve got no time for love affairs. You wake up in the morning–even if you have a day off – and the phone will ring: ‘Can you come into the office? There’s something I want to talk to you about.’ Your solicitor will phone you up, for a start, or your accountant, or your manager, or your publicist – somebody will phone you up. Then you have the day-to-day things to worry about, like your car will go wrong so you have to take it in. Or the stove will blow up. It’s amazing how many things go wrong in life.”

“I think sometimes of pulling out. I think sometimes, ‘Oh shit, what does it mean?’ But then I think, if I pulled out I’d be bored to tears. I would. I couldn’t do anything else now.”

And that’s it. He just doesn’t do anything else. Oh, sometimes Elton takes in a game of tennis or squash, but mainly he has, with monastic zeal, devoted his life to music. He is a perfectionist. The few mistakes he’s made, like the time he had to start over on “Burn Down the Mission,” will probably haunt him for the rest of his life. Elton talked briefly about some of the rock people – perfectionists and others – he’s dealt with in his brief career. About Dick James:

“Dick is a straight, right-down-the-middle, Jewish publisher. To me he’s been like a father. If there’s any problem, Dick will sort it out for me. If there’s anything I need, Dick will sort it out. He’s always telling me to take holidays. On the other hand, Dick’s sort of, you know, Dick’s very . . . very aware of money. But I’d rather have Dick on my side than anybody else, because Dick is honest. To me. Dick used to be a singer. Did you used to get the Robin Hood series over here? You must have had Robin Hood on television. Remember? [sings] ‘Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Riding through the glen.’ That was Dick James singing. Now he’s bald on top and wears straight suits.”

And Eric Burdon: “I had a big scene with him. I went to this French festival, a gala, and Eric Burdon and War were on before me. And everybody had 15 minutes, sort of a big meeting of everybody in the music publishing world. But Eric Burdon went on for an hour and a quarter so I couldn’t go on at all. I just stomped around, I was furious. I was really miffed.”

“Then somebody pursuaded me to come back and do the second show. We did the last number. And before we finished it the curtain came down. I mean the French are just useless. The French can’t organize a piss up in a brewery. I just went mad. I just went out on stage and said, ‘Whoever organized this fucking thing is a fucking idiot,’ and everyone applauded and walked out. Since then I’ve regarded France with apprehension.”

And Bill Graham: “I’ve never worked for anybody who’s as professional as Bill Graham or his staff, either at the Fillmore West or Fillmore East. It’s the musician’s dream gig. If you don’t make it at the Fillmore West or the Fillmore East, no matter what the audience is like, you’ll never make it anywhere. Bands take it for granted they’re playing the Fillmore, they don’t think about the fact that they’re getting the best PA system, the best sound and the best lighting, the lighting is just incredible. I won’t have a word said against him, as far as I’m concerned. He’s always been on my side, and I’ll work my guts out for Bill Graham. People say, ‘Oh, he wants to be the sole hero for rock and roll.’ Well, why not? People should never put ambition down. I’m sad to read about the closure of the Fillmore East. I think he has something up his sleeve.”

And, of course, Norm Winter: “He’s the hyper of all time, but there’s something about him I like. He did an incredible job for me. I couldn’t stand to be around him all the time. I finally had to tell him literally to fuck off and leave me alone and stop bullshitting. And what I like about him is he didn’t have a big thing about it. He said I’m sorry and he stopped bullshitting and left me alone.”

As for the future, with a stint at the Greek Theater in Hollywood and a tour of college campuses scheduled for this fall, plus a later American tour planned with full string orchestra, it seemed he had hardly avoided the “big star bit.”

Elton thought for a moment, then said, “I’ve got to do everything in three years. After three years you just have to assume it’s gonna go down. Realistically I don’t think I can be any more popular than I am now. And I don’t want to sort of work that hard while I’m, you know, going down and getting less money and working myself dead. I just want to quit at the top, not quit, but quit working hard.”

Then what?

“Who knows, when I’m 45 years old there might be an Elton John renaissance and I can come around doing the Hoagie Carmichael bit.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Elton John


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