40 Years Ago: ‘The Blues’ Gives Elton John a Comeback
After spending several years in the wilderness, Elton John enjoyed a much-needed comeback with his 17th studio album Too Low for Zero and its Top 5 single "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues."
John hadn't enjoyed a No. 1 album since 1975's Rock of the Westies – his sixth in a row – and he'd collaborated with several musicians outside the classic-era Elton John Band in the interim, even breaking temporarily with lyricist Bernie Taupin. Dwindling sales and lukewarm reviews reflected John's own distracted approach to music: He'd lost interest in touring for a while and was admittedly more interested in being chairman of his soccer club, Watford F.C.
After a series of misfires, John longed to try something new – or old – on Too Low for Zero. He brought stalwart guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson and percussionist Ray Cooper to the island of Montserrat for studio sessions, armed with an album's worth of lyrics by Taupin. It wasn't long before they realized the old magic was still there.
"We each had a villa on the island, and then we'd all come down and meet at the studio and start work for the day," Johnstone recalled in 2021. "I took to walking there every day … the couple of miles or whatever it was, and get to the studio just around the time that Elton's getting there. And we'd sit around and talk about stuff, and this one day, he had said, 'This track, I think, should be written with guitar.' And he told me the title."
The song was "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," and Johnstone had gotten a rare sneak peek at the lyrics on the flight from California while getting "very, very drunk" with Taupin, who wrote the tune as a love letter to then-wife Toni Russo. "It was like, 'Wow, another killer. Another brilliant, moving thing,'" Johnstone enthused. "And that was before any music was written. So I hadn't been thinking about the music until Elton said, 'Let’s do a guitar-based song.' So we sat down in the studio and we wrote it in 20 minutes, I think."
Watch Elton John's 'I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues' Video
John also convinced Stevie Wonder to perform a harmonica solo on "The Blues," marking one of several collaborations between the pair. "That was the run-through, by the way," John told Billboard in 2021 of the take that made the record. "When Stevie plays harmonica, you break into a smile, because Stevie's music and his soul is all about joy."
Released as the first single off Too Low for Zero in April 1983, "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" became John's biggest hit in several years, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The album's next two singles, "I'm Still Standing" and "Kiss the Bride," reached Nos. 12 and 25 on the Hot 100, respectively, and helped push Too Low for Zero to eventual platinum status.
Decades later, John still spoke fondly of the album and its lead single, which he chose as one of his 20 most meaningful songs. "Bernie was back on Too Low for Zero – we wrote everything on the album," he told Rolling Stone in 2013. "Also, it was the first time I met Renate [Blauel, later to be his first spouse], because she was an engineer on that record. It really was a return to form. Even though 'I'm Still Standing' was kind of an anthem, 'Blues' is the one for me because it's just a great song to sing. It's timeless."