By Lee Zimmerman
There’s been plenty of ballyhoo about the 50th anniversaries of The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Beatlemania. But when groundbreaking singer Kiki Dee marked the same milestone, it slipped under the radar here in the U.S.
It was 1963 when 16-year-old Pauline Matthews began singing with a dance band in the north of England and subsequently was spotted by a record company representative.
In 1970, she became the first white British artist signed to Motown Records. In the U.S., she racked up a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts with Sir Elton John on the 1976 duet “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” on John’s Rocket Records label. Dee fared better on the U.K. singles chart: “Amoureuse” (No. 13, 1973); “I Got The Music In Me” (No. 19, 1974), “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” (No. 33, 1975), “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (six weeks at No. 1, 1976); “Loving and Free/Amoureuse” (No. 13, 1976); “First Thing in the Morning” (No. 32); “Chicago” (No. 28, 1977); and “Star” (No. 13, 1981), according to statistics via Britain’s Official Chart Company.
Dee traded her pop career for the London stage in the early ’80s, starring in shows including “Pumpboys and Dinettes” and “Blood Brothers,” the latter of which garnered her an Oliver Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. She also re-teamed with John to perform their iconic duet before an audience of 70,000 at London’s Wembley Stadium for the historic Live Aid concert in 1985. In the early 1990s, Dee returned to the studio, this time in the company of guitarist Carmelo Luggeri, with whom she has collaborated on “Almost Naked” (1995); “Where Rivers Meet” (1998); “The Walk of Faith” (2005) and “A Place Where I Can Go” (2013).
GOLDMINE: How did you and Carmelo meet?
KIKI DEE: I had a greatest hits album come out on Universal Records, and he was drafted to do some work on it by my manager at the time, Steve Brown. Steve was an interesting character because he was very uncommercial. He used to tell me to be free, “express yourself.” That was interesting, because most managers want you to do the obvious thing. So he hooked me up with Carmelo and suggested that we write together and do some acoustic dates. So we did, and we’re four albums down the line now.
GM: It appears like it was quite a significant change in direction for you.
KD: For me, it was an evolution, because I still get a lot of questions to this day about “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” my song with Elton. I recently filled out a questionnaire for a magazine, and the question was, “‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’: milestone or millstone?” (Chuckles.)
GM: We’d like to know the same thing actually.
KD: (Laughs) It’s quite amusing. But I see it as a milestone, because Elton is an amazing talent. It helped keep my name out there when I hadn’t had such a high profile before.
GM: Because “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was such a huge hit, did it become like an albatross — the only thing that people tend to remember?
KD: Fortunately, I had “I’ve Got the Music in Me” and “Amoureuse,” which were both hits in Europe. That helped. But there were periods in my life where I thought, “Urgh, let me move on. Please let me move on.” But the truth of it is that it’s always going to be there, and it does give me a platform. But I’m very much someone who lives in the present. You wouldn’t expect an actor to play the same part on stage that they did all those years before. You do move on in life.
GM: In the music business, when you have a huge hit, it sets a standard so to speak, and that’s what people remember.
KD: I suppose all you can do is what we do, and that’s to go out and play live and turn people on to what we’re doing. And then they tell other people, and then they come along. We haven’t hit the wider world because we’re not trying to make hit records. We don’t make pop music. It’s a fine line.
GM: You did get together with Elton again in 1993, didn’t you?
KD: We did “True Love,” off Elton’s “Duets” album. I did a lot of theater in the ’80s, so I wasn’t really focusing in on my music. And prior to meeting Carmelo, I was offered a slot on the album, and I took it. It’s a beautiful song, actually. I love Grace Kelly’s version from the film, and I know it’s a favorite of Elton’s. It’s always great to work with him, because he’s so fun to work with. He’s so up, and we always have such a good time.
GM: Do the two of you stay in touch?
KD: Well, we do birthdays every year. I get two bottles of champagne and an orchid, and I send him a donation to his AIDS foundation. It’s this ritual we’ve had for years. We keep it going. He’s kind of like one of those friends in life that you don’t see all the time, but when you do, it’s like you just saw them yesterday. Our lives have gone in different directions, and I totally understand that. I did bump into him a couple of weeks ago at the BBC, and he was showing me his boys on his iPad. He’s very proud of them. That was really sweet, actually.
GM: Is there any possibility that you and Elton might collaborate on another project in the future?
KD: I think he appreciates the fact that I love his energy. And I never say never. You never know, do you? I love his current producer, the same person who produced Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. He’s working with T-Bone Burnett, isn’t he? I certainly would like to work with him.
GM: How did the signing to Rocket Records come about?
KD: If I ever do a book about my life, I should call it “Those Phone Calls” or something like that, because it’s always been about phone calls. I had done an album for Tamla Motown in Detroit in 1969, and that was a phone call, because they wanted to produce a British artist. So I went over there for 12 weeks and did some recordings. And then I came back to the U.K. And although we hit the Top 100 in America with “Love Makes the World Go Round,” we didn’t have the huge hit single I’d hoped for. So I called John Reid, who at the time had been a 19-year-old labor manager for Tamla Motown through EMI Records in London. I said, “I’m not really sure how to proceed.” And he told me, “I’ve just started managing an artist called Elton John, and we’re starting a record label. Would you like to meet him?” And really, basically from that phone call, I got to meet Elton.
GM: The fact that you were the first British artist signed to Motown was quite significant in itself.
KD: Being only 21, I was blown away. Both Elton and I grew up on the duets — Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye and Kim Westin — which is partly why “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” happened all those years later. So I thought, “This is it; I’m going to become a huge star.” (Chuckles.) It was a fantastic experience, one I really treasure.
GM: You had been performing professionally since an early age.
KD: Yeah, I got signed in ’63 after another phone call. I was singing in the north of England with a dance band, and a sales rep from a record company heard me, and then they put me in touch with a manager named Victor Billings, and two weeks after he signed me, he signed Dusty Springfield, who I absolutely adored. To this day, I still love Dusty. So I sang on a couple of her singles, “Some of Your Loving,” by Carole King, and a song called “Little by Little.”
GM: At what point did you know that performing would be a viable career for you? Did the Motown deal cinch it for you? Did you realize it before?
KD: I don’t think I questioned it too much. I managed to survive during the ’60s, and it was 10 years from the time I started to the time I got a hit record with “Amoureuse” with Elton producing. When you’re young, you just keep on believing. You don’t lose heart. And I didn’t have many options, because I didn’t have much of an education. I left school when I was 15. So it was a matter of it’s going to happen eventually (chuckles); I’m going to hang in here, because it’s going to happen. I kept going and kept working and just believed. And I think that takes you a long way, actually.
GM: Your albums on Rocket Records were wonderful.
KD: “Loving and Free” is my favorite Rocket album. Elton played me Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell and encouraged me to have a go at writing. That was very exciting.
GM: And now you’re writing more than ever, if your recent albums are any indication.
KD: Carmelo and I have been writing for a while, and I love it. It’s very expressive. The music becomes more mature, And we keep it quiet, semi-acoustic, because we’re not trying to write pop records. The lyrics are about life and about being 66 years old, and about that journey that we all go through. I don’t want people to think I’m only going to make a pop record. Don’t get me wrong. I love pop music. But you have to make that conscious choice. You can’t be all things to all people. In order to break through in the music market, you have to be seen to have made a connection to one type of music.
GM: Even on your album “Loving and Free,” you were doing similar kinds of things. So there is a continuing thread of sorts.
GM: It may be your 50th anniversary in the business, but compared to other artists celebrating their 50th anniversaries, you look like a youngster.
KD: (Laughs.) It’s all those early nights, you know. Bless you. I’m doing my best. It’s a matter of survival. I’m always saying somewhat jokingly that if I stop, I’ll age back another 20 years. That’s what keeps me going. I’m a working woman, you know. GM