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416 - Geen Elton John zonder Bernie Taupin?

Vijftig jaar geleden, in januari 1971, wist Elton John in eigen land voor het eerst in de hitlijsten door te dringen - met de single ‘Your Song’. Eindelijk, kon je wel zeggen. Want het jaar daarvoor had hij al veel indruk gemaakt met zijn optreden in de VS en door de single ‘Border Song’, die ook in Nederland in de top 40 verschenen was.
    De Britse pers besteedde nu niet alleen aandacht aan Reg Dwight, met welke naam Elton geboren was, maar ook aan Bernie Taupin die, zo schreef Caroline Boucher in Disc & Music Echo, in de schaduw van de artiest opereerde. “Next time you’re at an Elton John gig, look around and you might find you’re sitting next to Bernie Taupin”.
416 1 Elton John Bernie Taupin 1970Elton John en Bernie Taupin in 1970
Bernie en Elton
Bernie had de teksten gemaakt voor de hits van de nieuwe ster. Sterker nog – Elton John schreef pas muziek als de teksten af waren. Maar Bernie stond niet zelf op de bühne. Anders dus dan bij de Beatles, waar John Lennon en Paul McCartney, samen op de proppen waren gekomen met liedjes als ‘Love me do’, ‘Please please me’, ‘From me to you’, ‘She loves you’ en ‘I want to hold your hand’.
    Taupin: “We never collaborate on anything. It’s purely a matter of giving him the lyrics, him working on them and then getting together afterwards. It wouldn’t be easier to do it the other way. If he had a tune and said ‘write something around this’, I wouldn’t be able to explain things, I wouldn’t have room to say anything”.
    Een bijzondere vorm van samenwerking dus. Zonder de teksten van Bernie Taupin zouden er geen Elton John songs komen, zou er misschien nooit een Elton John geboren zijn. En dan te bedenken dat de twee totaal verschillend van karakter waren.
    Dat bleek nog eens toen een verslaggever van Beat Instrumental hen opzocht op het kantoor van Dick James, hun uitgever en platenbaas. Bernie woonde ver weg van Londen, het centrum van de Britse muziekindustrie. “He was living in the flatlands of Lincolnshire and was doing various farm labouring jobs”.
    Elton daarentegen was de flamboyant geklede vertolker die altijd in het middelpunt van de belangstelling stond. “The offices of DJM records in new Oxford Street give the feeling of being a shrine to the glory of Elton John. Button-size stickers are stuck on each one of the stairs announcing Elton John until you reach the second floor where the walls are decorated with long and short-haired pictures of Elton. Elton leaping, Elton smiling and... Elton with Bernie Taupin”.
Elton John vertelt over zijn carrière aan Charles Shaar Murray
In 1975, vier jaar na zijn internationale doorbraak gaf Elton John opening van zaken, hoe het allemaal gegaan was. Charles Shaar Murray tekende het op in de popkrant New Musical Express. 
    Elton ging terug naar 1964, toen hij voor het eerst in het openbaar optrad. “I was just sixteen. I sang and played piano in the public bar of the Northwood Hills Hotel every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for a whole year. And, during that whole period, I don’t think that I ever missed a gig.
   I used to sing Jim Reeves songs, Cliff Richard songs, anything that was popular – and also play things like ‘Roll Out The Barrel’, Cockney songs, ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’, you had to play ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ otherwise you’d get a pint of beer slung over you. Al Jolson songs were also very popular”.
   Twee jaar later was hij werkzaam bij muziekuitgeverij Mills Music. “Making the tea. And I used to take all the parcels to the post office, which was a mile away. I’d work in the packing department wrapping up the parcels and take them on a wheelbarrow to the post office in Kingsway near the Oasis swimming pool”.
Als lid van Bluesology mocht Elton Amerikaanse zwarte artiesten begeleiden in Engeland. “We got a tour backing Major Lance and that’s the point when we all decided to turn professional. From then on, we used to back visiting American acts like Patti LaBelle & Her Bluebelles. The things that they went down best with were ‘I Sold My Heart To The Junkman’ and ‘A Groovy Kind Of Love’ and ‘All Or Nothing’”.
   Billy Stewart [‘Summertime’] really was the greatest. He was absolutely brilliant on stage, incredible. His timeing, showmanship and voice were just great. When we played the Ricky Tick Club at Windsor, Georgie Fame had a hit record with Billy’s ‘Sittin’ In The Park’ and when Billy started singing it half-way through his act, some mod in the audience kept on yelling out, ‘Georgie Fame Georgie Fame’ and Billy – who was a really huge guy – suddenly leapt off the stage and chased this guy right out of the club.
   That’s the sorta guy Billy Stewart was, the kinda guy who would travel up the M1 and when we
stopped would take a leak for about 12 minutes. We’d all sit in the car waiting for him to finish”.
   We played The Cavern Club in Liverpool twice and it was definitely one of the worst places for getting your gear nicked, so bad that we had to keep someone placed all the time. And the overflow from the men’s toilet was so disgusting. But it was still a great place to play”.
416 2 BluesologyBluesology (Elton John tweede van rechts)
De meeste leden van Bluesology waren niet erg ambitieus om verder te komen. Elton wel. Bovendien werd hij door zijn moeder aangemoedigd. Binnen de groep kwam hij niet aan zijn trekken. Stuart Brown was de zanger en muzikaal leider van de groep.
   Elton: “I didn’t really want to be the lead singer in the group, I just wanted to do backing vocals, ‘Ooos’ and ‘Ahhhs’. But I wasn’t really even allowed to do that. Bluesology were always one step behind in everything we touched. I remember seeing the Move rehearse at the Cedar Club in Birmingham when we were working with Doris Troy, and I just knew there and then they were going to make it big. And I thought Christ, I’ve been on the road four or five years and there’s this unknown group rehearsing in the backroom and they’re just going to go out there and make a name for themselves, simply because they’re doing something that’s positive”.
   Regelmatig keek hij uit naar ander werk. Zijn vader had hem er al eens toe aangezet om te solliciteren bij British Airways en Barclays Bank. “I started looking around for other things. I applied for a job as a record-plugger for Philips Records because I was quite desperate. But they turned me down”.
Sollicitatie bij Liberty Records
Elton bleef uitkijken naar een betere toekomst. Een Amerikaanse platenmaatschappij, Liberty Records, timmerde aan de weg in Engeland. “I saw the Liberty Records advert in the New Musical Express about wanting new talent. I fixed up an appointment and went along and told them that I thought I could write songs but not lyrics. Then they asked me if I could sing and I told them, of course I can sing.
   I went along to the Regent Sound Studios in Denmark Street to record five numbers. As I never sang in the band, the only songs I could remember were the ones I used to sing in the public bar of the Northwood Hills Hotel, so I did some Jim Reeves material: ‘I Love You Because’, ‘I Won’t Forget You’, ‘He’ll Have To Go’. I even sang ‘Mammy’ [hit van Al Jolson].
   Of course, once they heard them, Liberty shrieked with horror and said ‘No’”.
Elton was niet de enige die gesolliciteerd had. “Someone stepped in and said ‘There’s this guy in Lincolnshire called Bernie Taupin who writes lyrics’. I got some of them, looked them over and thought they were alright, quite good”.
   Helemaal onder de indruk was Elton niet. “But I was grateful and I just went home and wrote songs to most of the lyrics that he’d sent in. Actually, I didn’t meet Taupin until about six months later. By which time I’d written about 20 songs to fit his lyrics”.
Ray Williams
Ray Williams was de contactpersoon bij Liberty, het bedrijf dat liet weten geen belangstelling voor hem als artiest te hebben. Ray bleek echter meer petten op te hebben. “Ray said ‘I have an interest in a publishing company called Gralto over at Dick James Music’”. Dat was het bedrijf dat ook uitgeverij Northern Songs, van de Beatles, runde.
   Elton: “I went over there. I started doing demos of the songs and Caleb Quaye was the studio engineer”.
   Tijdens het vervaardigen van demo’s maakte Elton voor het eerst kennis met de persoon die de teksten schreef, op basis waarvan hij melodieën gecomponeerd had. “One day while we were recording, this bloke suddenly appeared and sat down in a corner and after we’d finished he said ‘I’m Bernie Taupin’ and I said ‘Hello’. Then we went and had a coffee in the Lancaster Grill on Tottenham Court Road and decided that we would write songs together”.
   Een van de liedjes, ‘One Time, Sometime or Never’ was door Spencer Davis (1939-2020) voor de plaat vastgelegd, vertelde hij in 1975.
416 3 Ray Williams en Elton JohnElton John en Ray Williams
Hoe ging dat nou, die samenwerking, wilde de popjournalist weten.
   Elton legde het uit. “When he originally started, his words would never be in verse form; there’d just be 115 lines and I’d think ‘Where the fuck do I start?’ But it didn’t seem that difficult once I’d got used to it. In those days, the songs were much more complex because the form in which Taupin wrote wasn’t the verse chorus style. ‘Bennie And The Jets’ was the same sorta thing”.
   Bepaalde teksten lagen hem niet. Maar hij gebruikte ze toch. “I could never identify with ‘Take Me To The Pilot’ because I didn’t know what the fuck it was all about even though it was one of the most popular songs we did around that period”.
   Elton besefte wel waar Bernie zijn ideeën vandaan haalde. “Taupin was going through a period of reading Michael Moorcock books and things like that and it all came out through ‘Take Me To The Pilot’, ‘The Cage’ and ‘Bad Side Of The Moon’ which showed the influence he got from reading all those science-fiction books”.
   Lang niet alle songs die ze samen schreven werden gebruikt. “Originally we were signed to Gralto and they didn’t do anything with that material”.
Dick James
Als je hoorde wat Elton John vertelde moet het een zootje geweest zijn in de studio van Dick James, waar ze de demo-opnamen maakten. Iedereen deed maar wat. “Then one day, there was a mass clear-out up at Dick James Music because a lot of groups were going in there and cutting demos for nothing without Dick ever knowing about it. When Dick eventually discovered what was happening he had this great purge”.
   Caleb Quaye, de studiotechnicus, zorgde ervoor dat Elton en Bernie de zuivering overleefden. “Caleb more or less went into Dick’s office on his knees and said Reg and Bernie are worth fighting for”.
   Dankzij hem kreeg het tweetal in 1968 een contract voorgelegd. “Dick signed us to a contract, after he had heard some of our songs. So we’ve really got Caleb to thank for that. It was a three-year contract at ten quid each a week – and we were so knocked out!”
   Dankzij die vaste inkomsten, hoe weinig ook, was Elton in staat om afscheid te nemen van Bluesology, een groep zonder ambities. “I knew that Bluesology would never get anywhere”.
416 4 Elton John en Caleb QuayeElton John en Caleb Quaye
Door hun contract met Dick James waren Elton John en Bernie Taupin gedwongen om mee te werken aan projecten waar ze niet achter stonden. De investering van de uitgever moest immers terug verdiend worden.
   Elton werd bijvoorbeeld ingeschakeld bij het maken van cover-albums. Maar zo kreeg hij wel kansen om als sessiemuzikant wat bij te verdienen. “Ten quid a week might have been alright to just live on, but I really wanted to get involved in doing session work so as I could play with other people and also earn some more bread, because obviously ten quid didn’t go very far.
   Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway used to use me on a lot of their demo sessions. I played the piano on The Hollies ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’. I sang backing vocals on Tom Jones’ ‘Daughter Of Darkness’. I did the original demo for The Brotherhood of Man’s ‘United We Stand’”.
Als Dick James een liedje voor iemand nodig had, liet hij Bernie en Elton opdraven. “Dick James used to have Taupin and I in his office and tell us that we had to write Top 40 material for Tom Jones and Engelbert. So Taupin and I tried”.
   Het tweetal werd door de muziekuitgever in 1969 met ‘I can’t go on living without you’ bovendien naar voren geschoven bij de voorrondes van het Eurovisie Songfestival. “It was just a fluke. It was one of our old songs that was lying around the office and Dick entered it in for the Song Contest and it got into the last six and came last”.
   Desondanks maakte George Martin er met Cilla Black een single van.
Elton John vond niet dat Bernie en hij in die jaren goed door Dick James aangestuurd werden. “To give him his due, he did give us a lot of freedom but on the other hand he did keep on saying ‘You’ve got to write Top 40 material for Cilla Black and Engelbert Humperdinck’, which we wasted two years of our lives trying to do”.
Een nieuwe aanpak, dankzij Steve Brown
Een nieuwe medewerker van Dick James, Steve Brown (1958-2021), zette Elton en Bernie op het juiste spoor. “Steve joined the company as a plugger and told us that our stuff was alright but not quite there as yet. It wasn’t as good as we could do and he asked us the reason why: so we told him that half of us wanted to write things that we really wanted to write while the other half had to do what Dick wanted us to do – and that was write hit songs. For the life of us we couldn’t write a hit song.
   In the end, Steve said ‘Fuck Dick’ and told us to write what we liked”.
416 5 Steve Brown Steve Brown
Vanaf dat moment werkten Bernie en Elton voornamelijk aan muziek die ze zelf de moeite waard vonden. “The first thing we wrote after that was ‘Skyline Pigeon’ and then ‘Lady Samantha’. From that point on we’ve never written a song that we haven’t liked”.
   De opnamen die ze nu maakten gingen verder dan het demo-stadium. In 1968 verscheen de zanger voor het eerst op de plaat. Maar niet onder zijn eigen naam, Reg Dwight.
   “Caleb and I flew back from a gig [nog met Bluesology] in Scotland and on the BEA bus from Heathrow to London, I said to him. ‘If I’m going to make records I most certainly don’t want to be Reg Dwight. It sounds dreadful, so what can I do?’
   I liked the name Elton because Elton Dean was our sax player at that time. It’s a good name and there ain’t too many people called Elton.
   Caleb said ‘Why don’t you take [Long John] Baldry’s name?’ That gave us Elton John”.
In april 1970 wist de nieuwe artiest met ‘Border Song’ zoveel aandacht te trekken dat Len Goddard hem in de Engelse popkrant Record Mirror aan het woord liet. “Elton John and Bernie Taupin composed ‘Border Song’, which is receiving wide acclaim of late”.
   Elton legde uit: “Bernie writes all my lyrics and I write the songs. This has worked out well and some songwriters and artists have given us a lot of support in our efforts. I’m on DJM (Dick James Music)”.
   Elton moest er nog aan wennen dat zijn songs op waardering konden rekenen. “When Dusty Springfield came up to me and said she thought ‘Border Song’ was a good record, I felt embarrassed - I didn’t know what to say”. Dusty bood zich zelfs aan als sessie-zangeres als Elton weer in de studio vertoefde.
   Ook Cat Stevens was positief. “At the moment I’m a big fan of Frank Zappa and Elton John”, vertelde hij in een interview met Chris Charlesworth.
   Maar niet iedereen was even enthousiast over alle songs waar het duo zich mee presenteerde. In Melody Maker liet Richard Williams zijn lezers weten dat ‘The Border Song’ het zwakste nummer was van het album ‘Elton John’ op DJM. “He and Bernie Taupin craft superb songs. If Elton has a fault, it’s that he sometimes sounds rather too much like José Feliciano”.
Goddard vatte de carrière van de artiest kort samen. “Elton has been doing the circuits in one form or another for about five years. With Bluesology, he was in danger of becoming a forgotten organist and never having room to write. Then he left and teamed up with Bernie Taupin. Their ability to work together evoked interest in the Dick James Music outfit, so they signed up and made LPs and LPs worth of demos. Nobody liked them”.
   Elton was het er helemaal mee eens. “Actually, they were pretty horrible”.
Amerika (1970)
Dankzij de nieuwe aanpak ging Reg Dwight onder de naam Elton John optreden. Met name in Amerika had hij succes. Taupin ging met hem mee. Aan Richard Williams vertelde Elton na zijn terugkeer: “We went over to play the Troubadour in Los Angeles. The money was really bad. Dick James put up the bread for it, because the record company in the States said that the time was right, and Dick must have lost a bomb on it.
   Before we got the offer to go, I was on the point of packing it all-in and joining Jeff Beck, believe it or not. But that fell through. We went to the States expecting nothing at all.
   From the moment we arrived, it was just pandemonium all the way. The first night at the Troubadour was hype night, with all the record company people and the press. The first set was incredible and it stayed that way. We got unbelievable reviews – I didn’t see one bad one”.
Heel wat beroemdheden kwamen luisteren. “Gordon Lightfoot was there most nights, the Beach Boys and Bread were in a lot, and Quincy Jones brought his entire family down to hear Elton.
   One of the most rewarding things for Elton was when Leon Russell came in, and was completely knocked out. ‘He’s my idol as far as piano playing, and there he was sitting in the front row. My legs turned to jelly. I mean, to compare my playing with his is sacrilege. He’d eat me for breakfast.
   But he said that he wants to record with us, and he told me that he’d written ‘Delta Lady’ after hearing one of our songs’”.
Iedereen wilde het meemaken. Mike Gormley: “Bob Dylan came to see him one night and liked the show so much he brought his wife back the next night”.
   In het interview van Bernie Taupin met Caroline Boucher kon je lezen hoe die dat zelf ervaren had: “One American’s compliments Bernie won’t forget is Dylan. After one gig, Reg told Bernie to come up to the control room. Somebody wanted to meet him.
   ‘I went up and there was this guy in a long mackintosh and a brief case and an umbrella looking just like a clerk.
   Reg said: ‘I’d like you to meet Bob Dylan’, introduced us and then just went out and shut the door grinning. I didn’t know what to say, he’d been my idol for so long I just stuttered. But he was really nice, so shy and friendly and gave us his phone number and said we must come over whenever we liked”.
In de pers werd Elton weldra aangeduid als ‘the great white hope’ en ‘the first big rock music star of the seventies’. Taupin deelde mee in het succes. “He writes the words that Elton John sings. The two have worked together for three years, sharing a flat for two of those years, and whatever Elton John is about to become, Bernie Taupin is half”.
De erkenning die Elton John kreeg leidde er zelfs toe dat Aretha Franklin een opname maakte van de Taupin-John compositie ‘The Border Song’ en daarmee in de Amerikaanse hitlijsten belandde. “I felt very guilty about it, because she’d had six gold records in a row and ‘Border Song’ only got to about No. 23 and then dropped. Despite its chart placing I think she did a great job on it”, vertelde hij later aan Charles Shaar Murray.
416 6 Aretha Franklin

Veranderingen in de samenwerking
Langzamerhand was Elton John eraan gaan wennen hoe hij om moest gaan met de teksten van Bernie Taupin, bekende hij in 1975. “I could always relate to things like ‘Your Song’ and ‘I Need You To Turn To’ because I knew all the things Taupin was going through.
   For Chrissakes, we lived together and I was around when he went through that period of being Lincolnshire obsessed. Taupin’s changed a tremendous amount as a person, because at one time he was very deep and a very hard person to get to know”.
   Elton vertelde er niet bij hoe Taupin hem zelf gered had toen hij zich min of meer gedwongen voelde om formeel met een vrouw, Linda Woodrow, te trouwen.
Door het huwelijk van Bernie Taupin met Maxine Feilbelman in 1971 (Elton John trad op als getuige in Lincolnshire) kwam er een ander soort teksten. Dat was direct van invloed op het repertoire van de artiest. “A tremendous difference. You see before that he was very narrow-minded – but then I suppose, so was I. But then even now, Taupin is a very stubborn person and he often says the wrong things at the wrong time, but his marriage has helped him to unwind and free him from his prejudices”.
   Volgens Elton John was Taupin een bijzonder iemand, vol vooroordelen. “He only does about one interview a year, he says some ridiculous things that he doesn’t really mean. But I think that he really gets hurt when somebody attacks our records because he gets more criticism than I do because he is the lyricist I think he sometimes feels a little bit left out of things”.
417 7 Bernie huwelijk Taupinhuwelijk Bernie Taupin
Volgens Elton John in 1975 had Bernie Taupin onvoldoende gedeeld in de inkomsten die het grote succes gegenereerd hadden. “Let’s face it, he’s earned least out of the whole Elton John escapade than anybody.
   Despite what a lot of people say, songwriting is the least lucrative of anything when you compare it to record royalties and performance fees. It doesn’t even compare, but now Taupin gets royalties from the records as well, because he’s part of The Elton John Band”.
   Elton had er blijkbaar voor gezorgd dat zijn tekstschrijver meer was gaan verdienen aan het succes. De grote internationale ster besefte meer dan ooit hij het zonder Bernie Taupin misschien nooit gemaakt had…
Candle in the wind
Bernie Taupin en Elton John bleven samenwerken op de manier zoals ze dat gewend waren te doen. Taupin schreef de teksten van al die grote hits als ‘Nikita’, Daniel’, ‘Rocket Man’, ‘Crocodile Rock’, ‘Don’t let the sun go down on me’ – en ‘Candle in the wind’ - 1973.
   In 1997, 24 jaar later, trad Elton John op bij de uitvaart van prinses Diana (1961-1997). De originele versie van ‘Candle in the wind’ was een ode aan actrice Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962). Bernie Taupin werd gevraagd een aangepaste tekst te maken, deze keer dus gebaseerd op een al bestaande melodie.
   Het optreden van Elton John maakte indruk, zelfs op mensen die niet alles even mooi vonden wat de zanger daarvoor gedaan had. In NRC Handelsblad schreef Frits Abrahams: “De dienst moest beginnen, en ik zag met angst en beven het moment naderen waarop Elton John ‘Candle in the wind’ zou inzetten.
   Wees een flinke jongen, fluisterde ik mezelf in, je moet maar denken: het is kitsch. Op die gedachte zweefde ik moedig het eerste couplet binnen, maar bij het refrein ging het meteen hopeloos mis. Elton zong het te goed om er weerstand aan te kunnen bieden”.
417 8 Candle in the wind 1997

Bernie Taupin in Californië
De tekstdichter van Elton John ontwikkelde ook andere activiteiten. Tijdens hun beider verblijf in Californië had hij zijn eerste vrouw Maxine leren kennen. Het optreden daar van David Ackles (1937-1999) had eveneens indruk gemaakt. Taupin werd aangesteld als producer van het Ackles album ‘American Gothic’, dat niet ver kwam in de Billboard album top 200.
   Bernie schreef bovendien teksten voor Starship (‘We built this city’), Heart (‘These dreams’), Alice Cooper (‘From the inside’) en Willie Nelson (‘Mendocino County Line’). Sinds tientallen jaren woont hij in Californië (Santa Barbara). Hij treedt vooral als schilder naar buiten. Een van de kopers van zijn werken is Elton John. “He has about four of them. He’s got good taste. The last one he bought was fantastic. The minute he saw it, he said, ‘I want that’”, vertelde hij in 2016.
417 9 kunst van Bernie Taupinkunst van Bernie Taupin
Harry Knipschild
13 januari 2021
Lon Goddard, ‘Elton John: Good Laugh’, Record Mirror, 18 april 1970
Richard Williams, ‘Elton John: Elton John (DJM)’, Melody Maker, 25 april 1970
Chris Charlesworth, ‘Cat Stevens Is Back’, Melody Maker, 11 juli 1970
Richard Williams, ‘Elton Storms The States’, Melody Maker, 26 september 1970
Penny Valentine, ‘Elton John: The Great White Hope’, Sounds, 17 oktober 1970
Robert Greenfield, ‘Elton John Steams ’Em Up’, Rolling Stone, 12 november 1970
Jacoba Atlas, ‘Elton John: New Superstar’, Circus, december 1970
Mike Gormley, ‘Elton Sings ‘Your Song’ and Finds Himself New Star of the 70s’, Detroit Free Press, 19 december 1970
Caroline Boucher, ‘Bernie Taupin – in the shadow of Elton spotlight’, Disc and Music Echo, 16 januari 1971
Steve Turner, ‘Bernie Taupin: The B-Side of Elton John’, Beat Instrumental, februari 1972
Charles Shaar Murray, ‘The Life And Times Of Elton John’, New Musical Express, 22 februari en 1 maart 1975
Frits Abrahams, ‘Elton John’, NRC, 8 september 1997
Paul Zollo, ‘Bernie Taupin’, Musician, januari 1998
Noelle Bodick, ‘Songwriter Bernie Taupin on His Paintings and the Harmony of Music and Art’, Artspace, 16 mei 2014
Degen Pener, ‘Bernie Taupin Sets L.A. Gallery Exhibit of American-Flag Art: My Day Job Is Being an Artist’, Hollywood Reporter, 6 juni 2019


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