It's a little bit funny...

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 57, Winter 2018

Page 34

Almost no one thought 'Your Song' was a hit – least of all its creators. Philip Norman tells the story of Elton and Bernie's greatest song

It was the wistful, innocent four-minute ballad that changed everything for its struggling singer and his lyricist. 'Your Song' dates from 1970, when Elton John and Bernie Taupin were penniless and living with Elton's mother, Sheila, in a maisonette in Pinner, Middlesex.

A down-at-heel London session musician in January 1970, Elton was the toast of New York radio by December, with two American top five albums and an impending gold disk, acknowledging $1 million sales of the Elton John album. Any American promoter who wanted to book him had now to be thinking ahead – to 1972.

Things had changed for Bernie, too. Engaged to Maxine Feibelman, he was making plans for their wedding with all the heady haste of his 20 years. She was a catch: blonde and willowy, with the warm-voiced cool of the classic Valley Girl. Her father was an inventor, making scientific breakthroughs such as a microphone that worked by 'ear-tones'. She had a barefoot, earthmother folksiness that appealed to Bernie's romantic nature. She was a seamstress: always on hand to do running repairs on badly stitched gig clothes. Thanks to the largesse of Dick James – boss of Elton's record label, DJM – Bernie suddenly owned a car. "It was a silver Mini, which I loved. The trouble was, I hadn't yet passed my driving test. Maxine used to have to drive me around."

It is thanks to Maxine that Bonhams is offering the original manuscript lyrics of 'Your Song', the most important of all John and Taupin's many collaborations, at November's Rock & Roll sale in New York.

Elton – in those days having only recently discarded his real name, Reg Dwight – had been touted by James, the Beatles' former song publisher, as a 'thoughtful' singer/songwriter. None of his flamboyant stage showmanship was yet in evidence. Nonetheless, the opening track on his eponymous second album had initially not been thought good enough for a UK single. It only achieved notice on the back of Elton's surprise success in America at the end of 1970.

In Britain, Elton was just another new attraction, alongside Dave Edmunds, Mungo Jerry, Pickettywitch, Hawkwind and Ashton, Gardner and Dyke. For all the BBC2-ish critical success of Elton's albums, only one had left the faintest mark on the charts. Nor had he yet made the hit single by which, in Britain, pop success was then still ultimately judged.

The disparity between abroad and home was underlined by the American and British record press end-of-year popularity polls. In American Record World magazine's poll, Elton was named Top Male Vocalist. On the basis of several important US cover versions – notably Aretha Franklin's version of the first single from the Elton John album, 'Border Song' – Elton and Bernie were named Best Composers of 1970 by the New York-based Circle of International Music Critics. Yet in the annual New Musical Express poll, Elton was only number 14 in the categories for World Male Singer and World Musical Personality, behind obvious giants such as Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones and Paul McCartney, but also less obvious ones like Andy Williams and Glen Campbell. Even in the British Vocal Personality section, he was rated only ninth. His solitary win was in the New Disk Singer category, pipping Dave Edmunds, Cat Stevens, Gilbert O'Sullivan and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant.

What had eluded him in Britain for almost three years happened in America, almost while nobody was looking. As part of the runup to his second tour, Uni Records decided to put out a second track from Elton John. This was the pensive ballad 'Your Song'. Bernie Taupin had written the lyrics in 15 minutes around the breakfast table in Pinner. Though an integral part of Elton's stage show, charming all who heard it, no one at DJM had ever considered it remotely chart material.

'Your Song' was released in America in October 1970 and, at first, attracted little notice. The impact of Elton's second tour, however, pushed it into the Top 40 in time to be a farewell present on his return to London in mid- December. By January 1971, it was number eight.

Though Elton badly needed to put out a British single – not having done so since the disastrous 'Rock and Roll Madonna' six months earlier – Stephen James (Dick James's son and the man who gave Elton his stage name) still balked at 'Your Song'. It seemed no part of current taste, with its quiet mood, downcast eyes and tone of tongue-tied bashfulness.

Elton has always claimed it was about a rather serious girl with glasses whom Bernie briefly worshipped from afar in Lincolnshire. Bernie himself insists he had no one specific in mind. "It was just an idea that came to me one morning at Elton's mum's place. I remember writing it in the kitchen, after a plate of bacon and eggs, with Elton in the bath in the next room. The original lyrics have got an egg-stain on them."

The song had been among a batch of album tracks sent out by Stephen James to the various BBC radio disk jockeys. There was an instant and surprising response from Tony Blackburn, host of Radio One's hugely influential breakfast show. Blackburn said that if DJM put out 'Your Song' as a single, he would make it his Record of the Week.

The uphill work was in convincing Elton who, with such a stack of failed British singles behind him, still did not believe this could be the one. Dick James prevailed, and 'Your Song' was released in Britain on 8 January.

Tony Blackburn kept his word and made it Record of the Week. On 23 January – a year and a day after its recording – it entered the British Top 50. By early February, it was number seven. This overlooked little track would turn out to be Elton and Bernie's longestlived success, their equivalent to the Beatles' 'Yesterday'. Over the following two decades it would generate some 45 cover versions by, among others, Andy Williams, the New Seekers, Cilla Black, Lena Horne, Jack Jones, Sacha Distel, Roger Whittaker and Buddy Greco.

Few songs have so perfectly suited their moment. After the long era of psychedelic pretentiousness, Bernie Taupin's simple lyric was a breath of fresh air that seemed almost revolutionary. So, indeed, the greatest of all pop revolutionaries considered it. John Lennon later remembered hearing 'Your Song' in New York, where he had sought refuge from the Beatles' terminal lawsuits and Britain's persecution of Yoko Ono. Lennon was typically open and generous to the new performer who, in future years, would prove a staunch friend. "There was something about his vocals that was an improvement on all the English vocals till then. When I heard it, I thought 'Great! That's the first new thing that's happened since we [the Beatles] happened.'"

Many other people shared this sense that a new musical era was taking shape at last. No longer clanging guitars, but a quiet piano. No longer clichés being sung in chorus, but individual, intelligible thoughts.

By pure coincidence, 'Your Song' ushered in a new pop genre. The sound of piano keys, a quiet voice in an empty room, became a recurring feature of both British and American charts. By the end of 1971, John Lennon had released his own piano soliloquy, 'Imagine'. The songwriter Carole King had emerged from Brill Building anonymity with her solo album Tapestry.

'Your Song' also gave Bernie Taupin his first serious public recognition. It intrigued the music press to discover that the shy hits did not spring from the head of their shy- sounding vocalist, but from a separate lyricist with a name almost as unhip as Reg Dwight. Not since Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin had there been someone famous for writing lyrics only. And neither Hart nor Gershwin had ever been taken round by the performers they supplied, and proudly shown off as '50 per cent of the music'. 'Your Song' introduced the world to the do-ityourself geniuses of pop.

Philip Norman is author of the definitive Elton John biography. His latest book is Slowhand: the Life and Music of Eric Clapton (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

Sale: Rock & Roll Memorabilia
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Monday 19 November at 10am
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