Elton John earliest musical memories are of Frank Sinatra era.
In recent weeks all the news about Sir Elton John has focused on his new baby son but in an interview with Rob Fitzpatrick we gain a rare insight into one of the other great loves of his life: music
What was the first music you were aware of?
I was born in my grandmother’s house. My dad was away in the RAF so I grew up with my mum, grandmother and auntie. Dad was a trumpet player but everyone in the house bought records. I had this mish-mash of things from the late Forties and early Fifties.
The first thing I remember was Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, the Billy May Orchestra, big band music. My dad was a big George Shearing fan so there was a lot of piano music in the house.
So it was more records than radio?
Well, those were the days of the 78s. Records were sacrosanct. You looked after them very, very carefully because they easily broke and chipped. We also had a radiogram and listened to Two-Way Family Favourites. The radio was always on, there was always music. It was a music-loving family and there was always this piano in the house.
What were the first records you remember really loving?
I used to love The Tennessee Wig Walk by Bonnie Lou. I don’t know what year that was [it was 1953], but the first 45s I bought were Danny And The Juniors’ At The Hop, Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite. My mum and dad bought me two or three and got me the record player to go with them.
I remember when Pye brought out the plastic 78, which seemed great until you tried to play them in a pile and they wouldn’t play, as they’d make the others skip. I had Little Darling by The Diamonds and all the Lonnie Donegan releases. And I loved Zambezi by Lou Busch, and Johnny Otis’s Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me. I remember so well the day my mother came home with Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel. She said she’d just heard it in the record shop and she knew she had to buy it straight away. So she put it on for us both to listen to and I’d never heard anything like that before in my whole life. It changed the way I listened to music for ever.
What was it in that record that affected you so much?
It was just so primal. Everything before was beautiful arrangements and bands and singers. I’d never been around music like that, music so powerful. I’d certainly never heard an electric guitar played like that. I’d heard Les Paul and Mary Ford but never heard anyone play like that. The echo on the record! Wow! There wasn’t anything else around like that, at least not in my family. There were no obscure blues singers or anything of that kind. The weird thing was, that week I’d been in the hairdressers in Pinner Green looking at Life magazine and I’d seen a picture of this man I assumed must have come from outer space but that was Elvis Presley. When I put the two together it was astonishing. He looked amazing and he sounded amazing and it changed everything for me. It was rock and roll! This was what I wanted to be.
At seven you were sent to see Mrs Jones for classical piano training. Was that too young to focus like that?
I don’t think so. It was my parents’ idea. I won a Junior Exhibitioner’s Scholarship for the Royal Academy of Music when I was 10, which meant from 11-15 you went to school from Monday to Friday, then on Saturday you went to the Academy.
What was your relationship with music then?
I was buying records every chance I could! I’d got the bug by then. By the time I went to grammar school, me and all my mates would go to the Harrow Granada every week to see every single package that came over. It cost either five bob [25p] or two-and-six [12.5p]. I saw Eddie Cochran two weeks before he died. Every Motown revue. Otis Redding. The Kinks. I saw Dusty Springfield and fell in love with her that night.
How did the shows work?
They’d start with Peter Jay And The Jaywalkers. Sounds Incorporated would be the house band. Then someone would come on and do two numbers. You might see Johnny Burnette, Johnny Tillotson, Roy Orbison, Brenda Lee, Buddy Holly or Gene Vincent. It was magical. It was so exciting. When The Beatles happened I would have been 15 or 16 and I’d go and see these new bands at the Railway Hotel in Harrow and the Conservative Club in Kenton. That’s where I first saw Rod Stewart with Long John Baldry, Cliff Bennett And The Rebel Rousers, The Big Three, The Merseybeats, The Paramounts and Faron’s Flamingos. I saw The Nashville Teens backing Jerry Lee Lewis one week. There was just so much to go and see, so much new music. What surprised me was that everyone was good. It was great and glamorous and full of energy. When you see someone in the Harrow Weald British Legion Hall and there’s 300 people in there and the sound is just pulsating. It’s almost indescribable how exciting and moving that is.
You’re clearly still transported by those emotions.
I am; it’s all I ever wanted and those gigs were why I felt and still feel like that. I just wanted to have something to do with music. Even when I was at school and I got my five O levels, it’s all I wanted. I left school before my A levels as I’d already got a job as a post boy at Mills Music. They were a publishing company with a big brass-band catalogue and I used to send a lot of parcels to schools. I would wrap up these great big parcels and take them every night on a wheelbarrow from Denmark Street to the post office. Later, even when I was Elton John, I would go into work for a few hours on a Saturday morning in One Stop Records on Dean Street. They were such good times. I just loved being around music and records. I am mortified that we don’t have records any more, it upsets me a great deal. I’m getting myself a new deck so I can play vinyl again. I was the first person to go to Japan and get a Walkman. I was the first person to get a CD player but I don’t care any more. I hate downloads. I want something tangible in my hand with the double album sleeve so I can read the lyrics. I want to put my headphones on and be taken to another place. When me and Bernie (Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin) used to live together at my parents’ flat in Northwood Hills we would share the records we bought. Our record player came from the Littlewoods catalogue. We had it fitted with another headphone extension so we could both lie on the floor and listen to all these incredible records.
How did you get to know about the records you wanted?
Mainly the radio. I’d listen to John Peel and I remember hearing him play Music From Big Pink on his show and I freaked out. I had to have that record and I had it two days later. I read Melody Maker, NME, Disc but I bought import LPs, import singles and bootlegs: I bought a lot of Dylan and The Band bootlegs. Do you know what was the biggest-selling import record of all time in One Stop? Soft Machine, the one with the green sleeve. I sold loads of them, it was amazing.
Did you catalogue each purchase?
Oh God, yes. I’m such a nerd. I would write it all down. The publisher, the B-side, I knew it all. I kept them in plastic sleeves and I would never lend them to anybody.
How do you buy your music now?
On a Sunday night I get a list of all the CDs coming out in America, then I get a list from HMV on a Monday and I order from them. I go to Amoeba in Hollywood and that’s good but it’s not the same. I am clinging to the last vestiges of life here. I understand why people download and I get the thing about progress but there’s no information there. For instance, The Punch Brothers are my new favourite band and I want to read all the credits and find out who did what where and when. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? I remember cycling to Hatch End to buy Sgt Pepper and I didn’t know what to do with myself because it was a gatefold sleeve! I thought: “How will I get this home without damaging it? How would I carry it? Protect it?” You had to look after your sleeves. Look at it now and it looks pony but at the time it was like making love with the music. It was all about the ritual. Take the Joni Mitchell record out of the sleeve. Put the headphones on, have a nice glass of wine and just get lost in it all. It was sublime, magic. That doesn’t happen now and that’s iPods. **** things they are!
Where do you listen to music now? In the car or at home. You must have to block out a lot of time?
I do, yeah. I got all the new albums last night. I have Kanye West in the car now. Rihanna I’ve not heard as I’ve been away. I have the Temper Trap remix CD and Take That. I have a great system in my bedroom that takes six CDs and a similar one downstairs but I prefer to listen in the car as that has the best system of all!
Do you listen all the way through or chuck them out after a track or two?
With Kanye West I got up to track eight, then changed as I was getting bored. I swapped to Rihanna, then to Take That, then to something else. There’s an Eno album too. I liked Music For Airports but I’ve not heard the new one.
Where is all your music now?
All my CDs are at my house in Windsor. I had a new room built with industrial holders on rollers to keep them in. I have a librarian to look after them. I can’t put them into storage. What if I want to hear something obscure and it’s not there? I’ll go nuts!
That’s why you need internet music sites like Spotify, then you don’t need to find it or store it or own it.
No! I don’t have a computer, a phone or an iPod. David has a computer in Windsor in the office. I look at the BBC News and get the headlines for news and sport. Other than that I don’t care. I don’t need Spotify, I already own it all! I want to buy the whole thing; I don’t want to walk into an art gallery, look at one painting and go. If an artist has made a record you should try to listen to the whole thing, if you can stomach it.
After six decades of listening to music, are you any closer to working out what the greatest record yet made is?
I think as far as what we’ve been talking about, the record that’s closest to that idea, the one that changed my life for ever, was Heartbreak Hotel. It launched a whole new world and it was revolutionary in ways that we’re still dealing with.
Do you still own that record?
No! Bugger. I wish I did…