This is the story of Elton's personal redemption, through the prism of the song 'Passengers', the UK top 5 hit single with the unique songwriting credit - Elton, Bernie, Davey and South African musician Phineas Mkhize.
This episode follows Elton from the lows of being placed on the UN's cultural blacklist in 1983, for playing at Sun City, to the highs of being recognised as Harvard's 'Man of the Year' for his charity work, particularly in Africa, in 2017.
At the heart of the episode is an email interview with Phineas' son Bennett. His story helps us to connect Elton - the megastar who wanted to make a statement about apartheid - with Phineas - the maskandi musician who hated politics.
Another treat - an interview with David Larkham – the man who controlled the visual element of the classic albums, liaising with Steve Brown, Bernie, Elton and others to bring their ideas to life.
David was there at Steve Brown’s house in 68/69 with Bernie and Elton, hanging out; he was there at the Troubadour, taking photos; he was out there in Jamaica, waiting for the studio to be ready like everyone else; on tour; in Caribou… You name it – he was there. He’s still involved in bringing together the imagery that is central to Elton’s farewell tour – Elton wouldn't have anyone else doing this work for him!
The episode image (which you can download from here) is an illustration of David's from late 1968, which was used as the front page of Elton’s first press pack, up until the release of Empty Sky. The interview about the sleeve for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which is mentioned in the podcast, can be found here.
I was lucky enough to be able to spend more than an hour in the company of the brilliant Caleb Quaye. Without Caleb, there would be no Elton John as we know him. He got Elton and Bernie the gig with Dick James, and it was his audacious approach to using Dick James' studio that made it possible for Elton to take his first, extraordinary musical steps there in 1967 and 1968. His guitar work is legendary - the man is essentially a virtuoso - and it's his playing that makes those first four Elton John albums sing.
Please show Caleb your appreciation by putting some money into his GoFundMe. He is raising money in order to get the rights to use some archival footage in the documentary of his life that he has put together, entitled 'Louder than Rock'. Put your hands in your pockets now - there'll never be a better chance than this to show Caleb how much you value the work and the magic that he put into Elton's career.
This episode features a slew of indescribable rarities and forgotten tracks. The image of the tape box that Caleb takes a look at with me can be found here.
Stuart Epps is Elton John royalty! He was a huge part of the team that worked together to bring Elton out from the sidelines of Tin Pan Alley, into megastardom. He saw that process first hand, working in a variety of different roles. Here he tells his story.
Stuart's brand new audiobook can be ordered from his website.
The rarity that I play in the episode is the Steve Brown produced version of 'Take Me To The Pilot' from Olympic Studios, recorded in something like August / September 1969.
In his formative years as a session musician, in fact even after the recording of his third album, Elton earned some extra cash recording cover versions of the hits of the day, anonymously, for budget record labels. These long player albums retailed at around the same price as a regular single, and they would be rushed out to share the shelves with their 'legitimate' counterparts. Until the record labels worked out that they could make money by making compilations out of the actual recordings, these records sold in their millions.
For years, these records sat at the back of people's collections, and in piles in charity shops, before Elton's fans started going through them. More than 50 recordings featuring his voice have since been identified, and many more remain to be discovered.
In these sessions, Elton sang and played keyboard along with many now-familiar names, including David Byron, who went on to front Uriah Heap, and Dana Gillespie.
Dana's biography is long and impressive, taking in connections with Jimmy Page, Donovan, Dylan, Bowie and Lionel Bart. She was also the original Mary Magdalene in the Jesus Christ Superstar stage show, and a four-time British Junior Waterski champion. Dana very kindly agreed to be interviewed for this episode, and her recollections are here, bringing the story of these sessions to life.
Featured in the episode are recordings that did not find their way onto the collections that came out under titles such as 'Reg Dwight's Piano Goes Pop' in the nineties. I've tried to find less commonly-heard recordings, and in the process I have uncovered a couple of recordings that are new to YouTube (and uploaded them to my channel).
I am indebted to the work of all the Elton John fans who have researched this material. The hall of fame must include David Bodoh, whose 'Eltonography' website hosts a wonderful list of the tracks that Elton is throught to have contributed to. Thanks also go to the gentleman who compiles the tobekompleated discography. His discography features images and track-listings of many of the records that collectors might want to investigate.
Here are the other links that I make reference to in the episode:
A recording of Dana tackling 'That Same Old Feeling', a beautiful song, a top 10 hit for Pickettywitch in January 1970.
The full playlist of tracks on '28 International Top Songs'. Here's a blog post about this record.
The first of a two-part biography of Davey Johnstone's early musical history.
Just three years after getting his first guitar, a 14-year-old Davey could be found in folk clubs around Scotland, a class apart from the groups of seasoned musicians who welcomed him. At 17 he moved to London. He quickly found his home on the road and in the studio, where he was becoming an in-demand session player.
I would like to thank the YouTube channel 'The Sessions' for very kindly giving me permission to use their interview with Davey. Their channel can be found here.
This episide features an interview with Russell Laing, the son of the leader of Davey's second band, The Fife Reivers. I would like to thank Russell for sharing his wonderful memories of those days. Here is a link to Russell's story about David Bowie that I mention in the episode. Russell still makes otherworldly music, some of which can be found here. I also mention the fascinating booking diary for Russell's dad's folk club, one of many fascinating documents and photographs collected by his dad. The image for this episode comes from that collection, featuring Jim, Davey and Russell doing their party piece.
Thanks as ever to Keith Hayward, who has written two of the best biographies of Elton. Plenty of information relating to Magna Carta and Noel Murphy comes via the second of those books.
It has been rather a large interim this time - things should be back to normal now, whatever normal is.