In 1967, two aspiring teenaged songwriters named Bernie and Reginald answered the same newspaper ad placed by a UK record label. Unknown to each other, they were matched when Liberty Records A&R Head Ray Williams handed Reg a stack of Bernie’s lyrics on the way out of his failed audition. Reg took them home, put them to music and mailed them back to Bernie.
Bernie, 17, had grown up in a Lincolnshire farmhouse without electricity. Reg, from his grandmother’s council house in North London, grew up listening to his mum’s weekly record buys — getting hooked on the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and Elvis. He picked up the piano early and at age 11 won a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. By 15, he was the weekend pianist at the local pub and had formed his own blues ensemble, touring as the backing band for the Isley Brothers, Patti LaBelle and Long John Baldry. Meanwhile in Lincolnshire, Bernie had dropped out of school to work as a printer’s apprentice at the local newspaper and thought about being a journalist. Before long he was bouncing between odd jobs and hanging out in the pubs and at the youth dances in the nearby villages. And soon the influence of his mother and grandfather’s literature and classics studies spurred in Bernie a transformation of his own love of narrative poetry into lyric writing.
Bernie and Reg rarely hung out in person. In 1968 they joined DJM Records as staff songwriters and within a year were fleshing out a gospel-chorded pop-rock style and arpeggio-laden balladry oozing with pictorial storytelling, always working separately and in sequence. “I don’t try to analyze it. It’s a strange approach, but it works.” (Elton John)
PS: “And now I know
Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say
I thought I knew
But now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City
Until you’ve seen this trash can dream come true
You stand at the edge while people run you through
And I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you
I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you
While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers
Turn around and say good morning to the night
For unless they see the sky
But they can’t and that is why
They know not if it’s dark outside or light
This Broadway’s got
It’s got a lot of songs to sing
If I knew the tunes I might join in
I’ll go my way alone
Grow my own, my own seeds shall be sown, in New York City
Subway’s no way for a good man to go down
Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown
And I thank the Lord for the people I have found
I thank the Lord for the people I have found” (Bernie Taupin, from Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters)
Esoterica: Since 1967 Bernie Taupin and Reginald Dwight (who changed his name to Elton John in 1968), have collaborated on more than 30 albums. Together apart, they wrote Rocket Man, Levon, Madman Across the Water, Honky Cat, Tiny Dancer, Candle in the Wind, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Bennie and the Jets, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, The Bitch is Back, Daniel, I’m Still Standing, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues, Sad Songs and This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore, among others. Their creative process remains basically the same, with Taupin writing the lyrics alone first and then sending them to John to put to music, arrange and record. Last week at Caesar’s Palace as part of a six-year residency, Elton John told the story of reading the lyrics of Your Song for the first time. “They struck me as very special and mature,” he said before playing it, accompanied by his same band of almost 50 years. Your Song, their first hit, was written when Bernie Taupin was 17 and Elton John was 20.
Did you know you can sign up to be a Premium Artist for $200 a year? Many artists have found this beneficial. Sign up here.
“Read books, discover the blues and don’t Tweet.” (Bernie Taupin)
Reply To Jean Belluz Cancel Reply
I am a painter. I am delighted to be a painter.
Thank you Sara!
Inspiring to hear of the early years of Elton John & Bernie Tuapin, I didn’t know any of this story, but I love Elton John’s music and it turns out – Bernie Taupin’s lyrics.
Going to our places to create, the magic of focus, then to share and collaborate.
Wishing you, your dad and all a great weekend!
Great and informative article! Just wanted to mention that the caption under the first photo of the two guys has the names backwards–Bernie’s on the left, Elton on the right.
Bernie had given up on his writing and tossed them in the trash. His mom retrieved them and sent them off to the record company because she believed so strongly in his talent. And the rest is history….
This is a famous story among many in the industry in which I spent most of my working life. Music Production. Elton and Bernie were, in many ways, the last of an era in music populated by songwriting partnerships. Rogers and Hammerstein. Loerner and Lowe. King and Goffin. The tradition goes back a long way in popular music. Gilbert and Sullivan, anybody? Lyrics by one, music by another. Imagine actually being a painter who is ambidextrous. The range in your brushstrokes would effectively double. Lennon and McCartney, from their first teenage efforts, put both their names to every song. Collaboration, yes, but also a very effective way of avoiding disputes over publishing in the future. Nonetheless, in the enormous Beatles catalogue, it’s often easy to see who’s ‘idea’ it was. John or Paul? What made the working partnership unique with Elton and Bernie was the distance. No images of the two at the piano working on something. I’ve been told that typically, having received a new lyric from Bernie, Elton would sit at the piano with the words before him and see what ‘surfaced’. If after five minutes he wasn’t getting any ideas, he would simply go on to something else. Smart strategy. There’s no thrill in agonizing, whatever your craft, is there?
Think Richter here for ambi-brushwork. The dude abides.
Hold me closer, Tony Danza…
Wouldn’t normally have this info. Thanks for making it available to us. Painters are interested in many forms of art as well as painting.
Thank you Sara,
Inspiration comes in many ways……If the painting didn’t turn out the way you expected today, maybe it’s not for the trash. Possibly, it has to be seen with different glasses……Give it time to settle. Maybe?
Thank you for the article Sara. it’s very informative and interesting. These two are unique in every way and I love their songs. I saw Elton John in Minneapolis a few years ago and was spell-bound. I realized he can actually make the piano talk! What a rare gift they both have and together it’s pure joy to listen to their music.
I cried when I heard Your Song for the first time. A couple of years later someone offered to dedicate it to me.
My painting process is slow. I have spent enough time agonizing over stuff to know when to turn it face to the wall for awhile and then look at it when I’ve forgotten about it. Sometimes it shines with possibilities. Sometimes it’s black gesso time.