Elton John is always amused to be reminded how we met. It was 1973 and we were both at a Bee Gees concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. I was a student at Oxford but already writing for the rock music magazine Rolling Stone, the bible of the counterculture.
I knew Elton had become the bestselling vocalist in the U.S., with Crocodile Rock topping the American charts, so when I spotted him in the audience, I was excited. If I could get an interview, it would make a cover story.
This may be a bit shameful, but I seized my chance and followed him into the loo. As he stood there, I introduced myself and said: ‘Would you like to do a Rolling Stone interview?’
He could have been excused for just turning around and leaving. But instead he very politely told me his agent took care of that kind of thing, and I should call to request an interview.
Elton John is always amused to be reminded how we met. It was 1973 and we were both at a Bee Gees concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. I was a student at Oxford but already writing for the rock music magazine Rolling Stone, the bible of the counterculture, writes Paul Gambaccini
I’ve supported Elton through those six decades and I can tell you his achievements are no accident
A few days later I was at his house, talking music with Elton and Bernie Taupin, his long-time lyricist, all afternoon. I had no idea this would be the start of one of the most enduring friendships of my life — nor of the truly giant figure Elton John would turn out to be.
This week Elton, 74, made history yet again.
His collaboration with Dua Lipa, Cold Heart (Pnau Remix), topped the Official Charts Company rankings on Friday, making him the first artist to have a Top Ten hit in six different decades. That outdoes Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Cliff Richard and David Bowie, who each had a top ten single in five decades.
I’ve supported Elton through those six decades and I can tell you his achievements are no accident.
This week Elton, 74, made history yet again. His collaboration with Dua Lipa, Cold Heart (Pnau Remix), topped the Official Charts Company rankings on Friday, making him the first artist to have a Top Ten hit in six different decades
Apart from a brief dip in his personal fortunes in the 1980s, which he chronicled in the book Me and in the film Rocketman, he is the hardest-working artist I have known.
He never stops listening to new music. He always knows who is in the charts and tries to get to know those he admires, hence the relationship with Dua Lipa. He recognised her early on as a fine talent and they worked together during lockdown.
I remember sitting with Elton in the mid-1970s, running through the Billboard chart, listening to his comments on each single in turn: ‘That’s dreck. Double dreck. Oh, that’s great . . .’ He knew every song.
Elton and Bernie Taupin have the longest productive relationship in popular music and achieved a historic burst of success in the 1970s: seven No 1 albums in America in a four-year period. No one has done that since.
He never stops listening to new music. He always knows who is in the charts and tries to get to know those he admires, hence the relationship with Dua Lipa
The classic songs are loved by everyone: Your Song, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock . . . I could go on and on.
Elton won a junior scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music at the age of 11, having been encouraged to play the piano by his grandmother. Though he says he has chipolata fingers and finds it difficult to reach an octave, I think his classical training has helped him to explore a wide range of pianistic possibilities, especially in tracks such as Song for Guy.
Though he did go through a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol, it’s a sign of Elton’s innate strength that he picked himself up and got back to writing with Bernie. Their subsequent hit, I’m Still Standing, is a classic.
Our friendship is based on a mutual love of music but it goes way beyond that. That first afternoon I spent at his house mattered to me, as a young, sexually confused man. He was the first gay star I met who made no attempt to give me the impression he was straight.
Of course he made no attempt to seem conventional in public, either. Think back to those outrageous glittery outfits, the feather boas and elaborate spectacles: Elton didn’t so much come out — he was shot out of a cannon.
I saw him perform Your Song in Central Park in 1978, dressed as Donald Duck. Every so often he would make a quacking sound.
Everything about Elton is on a grand scale. When he was involved in a court action some years ago, he was questioned about his lavish spending and particularly how he had come to spend £293,000 on flowers in 20 months.
‘I like flowers,’ he said.
I can testify to that. One evening Elton was supposed to come for dinner at my place, and he cancelled because he wanted to fly to a World Cup qualifier — as everyone knows, Elton is a lifelong football fan.
When I got home, I found he hadn’t just sent a bouquet to my flat — it looked like a measurable percentage of Kew Gardens, accompanied by a gift card that read ‘From the star of Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner’.
He is the most generous person I’ve ever known, and the greatest philanthropist. The Elton John Aids Foundation, founded in the U.S. in 1992 and in Britain in 1993, has raised more than $600 million for education, treatment and support for people living with HIV. Elton appeared at Live Aid in 1985 and has also supported the charities of his friends. In 2016 alone, he donated £26.8 million.
He is the most generous person I’ve ever known, and the greatest philanthropist
Part of our bond is that he and I, in our own ways, have been involved in the fight against HIV and Aids for more than 30 years. He volunteered to do a short set at a Terrence Higgins Trust fundraising dinner I held.
Yes, he has his ‘Tantrums and Tiaras’ side, as evidenced by that infamous 1995 TV documentary made by his partner David Furnish. But as our mutual friend Tony King, a creative director, says, you have to remember that Elton is an artist. He is very particular and sometimes gets upset about things that don’t bother other people. So if you accept that — and don’t cross him — you don’t get exposed to it.
What makes me happiest for him is the contentment he has found with the love of his life, David, and their two young sons Elijah, ten, and Zachary, eight. Back in the 1970s, Elton told me he wanted children. Yes, he had musical success but ‘my real goal now is to have a son and heir’, he said.
Maybe that’s partly what prompted him to marry in 1984. But no one should ever think that his first, short-lived marriage was a sham.
I was in Sydney in 1984, where he was touring, and I met his engineer and his tape operator over breakfast.
The tape operator was an attractive young man and the engineer was a woman. I thought: ‘Gee, this man is someone Elton would admire.’
It turned out it was the engineer he was interested in, Renate Blauel. I know it was for real because he called a mutual friend and said: ‘I’m here in the bridal suite, I’m looking at the most beautiful woman in the world.’
He actually thought it was going to work. Until it didn’t.
I always knew that union was doomed but Elton’s desire to have children was so great, it drove everything. Some of the advances in reproductive medicine did not exist then and adoption was very difficult — and discouraged. If you wanted children, the only way to achieve that was by having a biological child with a woman. And Renate was a nice woman. It’s just that she had met someone who was the wrong man for her.
So, miracle of miracles, by the time Elton met David in 1993, it was possible — and more widely accepted — to have children with a surrogate. To some people it may still seem a surprise to see the great diva as a contented family man, but that was what he yearned for.
Lastly, I’d like to say that Elton is my hero for standing by me during my recent difficulties with the police
The reason he started on what has become the world’s longest farewell tour (delayed by Covid, and now a hip injury has forced him to put next year’s European dates back to 2023) is that he wanted to be at home when the boys had their important growing-up moments. His and David’s Christmas cards always have his sons as their focus.
Lastly, I’d like to say that Elton is my hero for standing by me during my recent difficulties with the police. [Paul Gambaccini has successfully sued the Metropolitan Police for wrongfully coming under investigation during the notorious Operation Yewtree, which was looking into historic sexual offences. He was never charged.]
When I thought it might be useful to have letters of personal recommendation from people who knew me, in case I had to go to trial, Elton wrote a beautiful letter. He said he’d known me forever and the only excess I ever had was a love of music.
Ever since, he has supported our efforts for police reform and legal reform.
So: a solid citizen, the greatest philanthropist in the history of popular music, a devoted family man and the first artist to have Top 10 hits in six decades. Congratulations, Elton. You deserve every bit of that success.