With Elton John, Bottom Line Club, New York, sometime in the summer of 1974.
The first time I saw Elton was on August 15, 1970, at the Krumlin Festival near Halifax in Yorkshire, a damp and gloomy affair enlivened only by his confident, fizzy set. He was leading a trio in those days, with bassist Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson on drums, and at the end of the set he threw a load of plastic cups into the crowd and invited one and all to the front where he shared out a few bottles of Courvoisier to anyone who’d grabbed a cup. It went down even better than the songs he sung.
Impressed, I went backstage and knocked on the door of his caravan. He opened it himself and invited me inside where he was polishing off what remained of the Courvoisier with Sandy Denny, no stranger to brandy as I was to discover in the fullness of time. I needed to ask Elton the names of his songs if my review was to do him justice and he was happy to oblige. Indeed, he was delighted that an MM writer was showing an interest in him.
In my subsequent MM report I forecast imminent fame and fortune for this keyboard wizard with big glasses, one of my better predictions. An honourable man, Elton never forgot my early, pre-fame support and as a result I was always made welcome in his company. This proved advantageous when he became a megastar, a term he coined himself incidentally.
Elton was one of those ‘overnight successes’ that in reality had paid plenty of dues but once the doors opened grabbed fame by its coattails and hung on for dear life. A month or two after my Krumlin review I bumped into him in a dry cleaner’s shop on Edgware Road, close to the Water Gardens apartment complex where he shared a flat with his manager John Reid. I lived in Bayswater in those days so we were almost neighbours, and we went for a beer in a pub on Connaught Street where no one recognised him. Then, suddenly, he was huge, his bespectacled face and bizarre dress sense everywhere, and his publicist Helen Walters (wife of radio producer John) was on the phone to me every week, relaying Elton titbits for my news columns in MM. He wasn’t the right shape for a rock star who in the main tended to be skinny, or rugged and maybe a bit windswept, and he was rapidly losing his hair but it didn’t matter – the world was ready for something a little bit different, a little bit funny. At the end of 1970 I saw Elton support The Who at the Roundhouse, and Pete dedicated their performance of Tommy to him, an endorsement he would have valued highly.
From then on Elton just got bigger and bigger, in the US as well, and along with his prolific output became famous for his extravagant lifestyle which in those days was looked on as a loveable eccentricity, as opposed to the arrogance of a rock star flaunting his wealth as would probably be the case today. Nevertheless, he was always friendly to me when I bumped into him in London clubs or backstage at gigs, quite humble too in his own peculiar ‘Is this really happening to me?’ way; the way a fan might behave if he suddenly became famous.
I remember photographer Barrie Wentzell and I visiting Elton in 1972 at his sumptuous home near the Wentworth golf course in Surrey, and his mum, Sheila Farebrother, ushering us into a huge house that was decked out with ornaments and antiques galore. He really was like a kid in a toy shop, and after the interview I gave him a run for his money on the ping pong table.
In Los Angeles in 1973 I was present at the Hollywood Bowl when his concert was preceded by Linda Lovelace, star of the recent porn movie Deep Throat, introducing Elton’s special guests: look-a-likes of Elizabeth II followed by Elvis, Batman & Robin, Frankenstein, Groucho Marx, Mae West and The Beatles, in reality four mop-topped lads in matching suits that brought back the days of jelly-babies and Beatlemania. They all gathered around five grand pianos and, when the lids were opened, hundreds of doves flew out. Elton was quick to learn that ‘putting on a show’ was key to the success of an entertainer who couldn’t rely on sex appeal.
That same weekend in LA I was a guest at John Reid’s birthday lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel where Elton was staying. He presented his manager with a bronze sculpture of a gentleman’s wedding tackle, primed and ready for action, much to Sheila’s amusement. The following day I sat and watched Elton DJ a radio show – ‘EJ The DJ’ – on an LA rock station. I already knew what a record fan he was – he was the sort of nerdy pop fan (like me) who could tell you the B-sides of hits from the sixties, and what label they were on, and what colour the label was. It was a trait I always admired in rock stars (Springsteen was the same), a sure fire way to tell the pretenders from the real thing.
In 1976 MM editor Ray Coleman, knowing EJ was doing a massive US arena tour, asked me to report on it and get an interview with him, so I called his swanky New York PR company and put in the request. By this time Elton was probably the biggest grossing ‘solo act’ in the world. “We’ll put your name on the list,” a minion told me rather condescendingly. “But there’s a long queue.”
CC: “Just mention my name to Elton or someone close to him.”
Something about the tone of my English accent must have set bells ringing because about half an hour later the big chief of the PR company rang back, grovelling unctuously. “How about tomorrow? We can fly you to Chicago to join the tour for a few days, travelling with Elton on his own plane. We'll send a limo to pick you up.” Guess I jumped the queue… thanks EJ.
It was on this trip that Elton vouchsafed to me his plans to ‘retire’, not that it ever really happened. He never told me he was gay though. I just took that for granted and never felt the need to discuss it, let alone ‘reveal’ it. I didn’t care one way or another.
Among the towns I visited on this trip was Cleveland where the backstage guests included Eric Carmen, who’d just had a big hit with ‘All By Myself’. He introduced himself to Elton who responded, quick as a flash, with: “On your own, are you?”
As was the case with almost all the rock stars I befriended during my MM years I lost touch with Elton after I left the paper in 1977, but 22 years later I decided to send him a copy of Dear Boy, the Keith Moon biography Omnibus published. I figured Elton would enjoy it because Moon was brought up in Wembley, not far from Pinner where Elton was raised, and would therefore identify with the first few chapters. A week or so later I got a thank-you postcard from him. Always was a nice bloke.