Thursday, October 1, 2020

Meanwhile...


While the big guns of 1970 were 60s' icons (The Doors had 3 LPs in the top 100, the Beatles and Stones were in the top spots), there was plenty of new talent on the horizon (understatement of the year, 1970). Maybe you'll recognize this one.

As a young boy, Reginald Dwight spent five years at the Royal Academy of Music, his natural talent leading to an audition that left everyone awestruck. But Elvis and Buddy Holly would change the direction he'd take as a teenager, and then, in 1968, as part of a band called Bluesology, Reg answered an advertisement that read, "Liberty Wants Talent."

In the audition for Liberty Records, he was asked his name and chose Elton, just because he liked it, and John because of John Lennon. He was handed a stack of hand-scribbled poems by Bernie Taupin and asked that he write the music for them, the most famous among them, "The Border Song," truly classic Elton. His collaboration with lifelong lyricist, Bernie Taupin, had begun, and they'd never even met.

Fifty-one years ago, Elton's first LP, Empty Sky, was released in the U.K., an album that would not be released in America until 1975. The moderate success of the first LP left him doing session work for acts like The Hollies. Elton's debut in the States was his sophomore effort, Elton John, which had three hits in "Take Me To the Pilot," "The Border Song," and most famously, "Your Song," which remains as popular today, if not more so, than 50 years ago - the song has been streamed more than 100,000,000 times on Spotify alone.

A tremendously influential series of live performances at L.A.'s Troubadour proved that John - who'd been a huge Jerry Lee Lewis fan - could rock as hard as anyone, and before long his solo career was taking off on stage in both the U.K. and the U.S. and in the studio.

Bernie Taupin  was born in 1950 at Flatters Farmhouse in the southern part of England. He was anything but a diligent student yet showed an early flair for writing and an appreciation for nature, for literature and narrative poetry, all of which influenced his lyrics.  At age 15, he left school and started work as a trainee in the print room of the local newspaper, The Lincolnshire Standard with aspirations to be a journalist. He soon left and spent the rest of his teenage years hanging out with friends and hitchhiking the country roads. At age 16, he answered the advertisement that eventually led to his collaboration with Elton John.

Bernie's unique blend of influences gave his early lyrics a nostalgic romanticism that fit perfectly with the hippie sensibilities of the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun," the lead song on Tumbleweed Connection, Elton's third LP, addresses the concerns of a man arrested for unspecified crimes yet showing deep remorse when he's thrown in prison by the Pinkertons. That kind of dusty verisimilitude seeps into "Song of Your Father" and "Talking Old Soldiers," and of course later in songs like "Sweet Painted Lady," "Roy Rogers" and "Have Mercy on the Criminal." Funny that Americana is captured so well by two nerdy Englishmen. Taupin's romantic lyrics are superb and brought to life with Elton's rising and falling piano chords, the mark of incredible teamwork. Elton, of course, is the voice and the music, but for me, as a writer and a teacher, it's Taupin's lyrics that bring me back and lately, bring me to tears. I love the storytelling in songs like "Blues For Baby and Me," kind of a follow-up to Springsteen's "Born to Run," about a young couple who run away by Greyhound, like in Paul Simon's "America."

50 years ago we had not yet heard or heard of Elton John, but six months later, we'd start singing "Your Song" and never stop.

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