How Elton John Met Bernie Taupin
As the legend goes, in 1967, John, then known by his given name of Reg Dwight and the organist in the band Bluesology, responded to an ad placed in NME by Liberty Records calling for talent. John arrived at the company's London office, met A&R man Ray Williams and played some of the repertoire he could recall from his days as a 15-year-old pianist playing weekends at a pub in the Northwood Hills Hotel.
He failed the audition, but after telling Williams he could write music but not lyrics, Williams gave him a batch of poems by someone who had answered the same ad. On the train home, the pianist opened the envelope and, struck by what he read, contacted Bernie Taupin.
That began a pattern that defined how the pair wrote songs, with Taupin penning the words and John singling out ones that inspired melodies. “When I first started working with Bernie, it was exactly the same as it is now," John said in 2016. "I would get a lyric, I would go away and write the melody and play it to him. That’s never changed. It’s the same thing now and it’s as exciting now as it was then."
John told Cameron Crowe that he hasn't "sung every lyric [Taupin has] given to me. Sometimes I have a block and just can’t do it, no matter how many times I’ve tried, even it’s been a good lyric. I can squeeze more of his words into a line than most other artists, because he didn’t start off writing in verse/chorus/verse/chorus -- they were just lyrics."
But even with their clearly defined roles, John and Taupin have offered input on each other's work over the year. When John wants to record, he'll give Taupin the overall mood he's looking for on the project. "There are a lot of discussions," Taupin told the Daily Mail. "I’ll visit him on the road and we’ll have frequent phone calls. It’s just that both of us prefer to work in a solitary manner."
Taupin's lyrics will often come with suggestions about the music that inspired him, though he admitted his advice is often unheeded.
"We’ll sit down, and I might say, 'I kind of see this as a Gram Parsons kind of song,’" he told the Telegraph. "Or, 'There’s a very Ray Charles feel to this.' He likes bullet points. But then he’ll go off on a tangent and take it totally somewhere else. But I never argue with his melodic stylings, because the guy is a genius, as far as I’m concerned.”
The only thing that's changed in the collaborative process is how Taupin submits his half of the songs. When they lived near each other (or lived together, which was the case in their early days), Taupin would present them in person or send them via mail. Now, with Taupin living on a 30-acre ranch in the Southern California hills, he emails what he's written to John, who splits his time among Atlanta, Los Angeles, London and Nice, among other places.
'“I used to have to fax them," Taupin told the Telegraph. "It took a long time to drag this guy kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and I’m not sure he’s mastered that yet. I’m sure he has somebody print them out. But he’s got plenty of people to do it.”
Even though the pair split up for a few years in the late '70s, John and Taupin have insisted it was more about wanting to work with other people than any personal or professional disagreements. Still, Taupin admitted their output in the late '80s and early '90s wasn't up to their usual standards because "there was a certain amount of distance between Elton and me. I don’t mean in our relationship; I just think we were floating in different spheres. We weren’t communicating enough, and complacency set in."
"It’s extraordinary that we’ve never had an argument or a difference of opinion over a song," John told Cameron Crowe. "It’s quite touching. When you consider all the wonderful relationships that have broken up because of personal or professional differences, and relationships that have prematurely come to an end – [Burt] Bacharach and [Hal] David spring to mind – we have learned to give and take."