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Best Individual Artist: Elton John

We explore The Rocket Man's dynamic duos as he is voted Best Individual Artist in this year's Readers' Choice poll

The Rocket Man and his dynamic duos

By Dave Thompson

Elton strikes a glamorous pose at his piano. AP photo

Elton strikes a glamorous pose at his piano. AP photo

In a career that has now extended more than four decades (2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the release of his still-timeless debut “Empty Sky”), Elton John has built his reputation at least partly on his ability to collaborate with others. Indeed, when he first emerged as a power in the land, it was in seamless partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, and it would not be an exaggeration of their talents to state that the team of Taupin-John might well have been the Lennon-McCartney of the early 1970s.

When we think of Elton’s work alongside others, however, we usually look toward his onstage or record appearances — sharing hit vinyl and concerts with acts as far apart as Millie Jackson, Billy Joel, Tim Rice, George Michael and, most recently (2010’s “The Union” album), Leon Russell. In fact, a full discography of every collaboration he has involved himself in would be as large as many other artists’ full career output, particularly once you begin delving into realms that only the most avid collectors or ferocious biographers have ever paid attention to.

Here, we do a little of both, to present not a guide to Elton John’s most successful, or even best-known collaborations, but rather, a glimpse into five of the most fascinating and — perhaps sadly — unfulfilled unions to have spangled his star-studded life.

All are available for the casual listener to discover; all present our hero in a light that he may or may not have been wise to have pursued further. And one, the second shot in our survey, could have completely changed the face of popular music for the 1970s and beyond.

Long before he became Elton John, the pianist was better known as Reg Dwight, ivory pounder with one of the multitude of club bands playing the London circuit of the early 1960s, Stuart Brown’s Bluesology. And it was as a member of that band that he experienced his first brush with stardom, when the group was plucked from nowhere to become the backing behind one of the key British blues singers of the day: Long John Baldry.

Baldry had just completed touring behind his second album “Looking At Long John,” when he met the band at the Cromwellian club in London. He was not immediately impressed — Dwight played a Vox Continental organ at the time, which Baldry dismissed as “particularly horrible.” But Bluesology remained alongside him for much of the next year, and, when, by 1970, it was Dwight who was the star and Baldry who was looking for his next break, Elton agreed to return the favor.

Rod Stewart’s manager, Billy Gaff, was managing him at the time, and Stewart was already planning to produce Baldry’s next LP. “But that Christmas,” Baldry recalled, “Rod and I went over to Billy Gaff’s apartment in Pimlico for a party, and Elton was there as well. We all got chatting, and I mentioned I was about to start the album with Rod, and Elton says ‘Oh, I’d love to get involved.’ He got very excited about it, so we arranged things so that Rod would produce one side of the album and Elton the other.”

“It Ain’t Easy,” released in 1971, was a great album, recapturing much of the magic that Baldry seemingly lost during his period of late-1960s pop stardom. Both Stewart and Elton brought their regular bands in to play along, and both “It Ain’t Easy” and its 1972 follow-up, “Everything Stops For Tea,” stand proud in both producers’ period catalogs as prime examples of their art. But the peak of the period has to be the appearance of both Elton and Rod alongside Baldry on British TV’s flagship pop program “Top Of The Pops.”

His latest single, “Iko Iko” (taken from the Elton-produced side of the second album) was on the edge of the chart, and Baldry recalled, “Rod and Elton were both appearing on the show that week, promoting their own records, and when it came my time to perform, they both got up on stage with me to do the backing vocals...”

In March 1970, guitarist Mick Ronson was still newly installed in David Bowie’s band, at the same time as continuing to work with folkie Michael Chapman, with whom he had recently recorded the “Fully Qualified Survivor” LP. So when producer Gus Dudgeon invited Chapman and his band along to the Trident Studios sessions for Elton’s upcoming second LP, “Tumbleweed Connection,” Ronson inevitably accompanied him.

Chapman later recalled recording as many as five tracks with Elton before label head Dick James called a halt on the session, complaining it all sounded “too psychedelic.” Gudgeon, too, spoke highly of the recordings, and while he could not recall how many other songs were attempted, he, too was disappointed when the plug was pulled on the project. He even recommended that Elton consider offering Ronson full-time employment behind him, but again, Dick James nixed the notion.

Just one of the tracks recorded at this session has ever been released (on Elton’s 1992 “Rare Masters” compilation), an eight-minute version of “Madman Across The Water,” which, even allowing for all that the guitarist would subsequently accomplish, is quintessential Ronson, wildly inventive over a wash of piano and sundry acoustics, a symphony of imagery and intelligence. And, all was a very far cry from the sparse piano-slinger that Dick James, head of Elton’s DJM label, thought he had signed.

Ronson returned to Bowie, and Elton (though he would later augment his approach with a full band, and a great guitarist, Davey Johnstone) returned to basics. And it’s unlikely that either had any complaints about how the next few years panned out. But, for one glorious moment, the entire course of rock ’n’ roll history could have been altered.

JOHN LENNON joins Elton John onstage at Madison Square Garden, New York City, Nov. 28, 1974. Photo by Steve Morley/Redferns/Getty Images

JOHN LENNON joins Elton John onstage at Madison Square Garden, New York City, Nov. 28, 1974. Photo by Steve Morley/Redferns/Getty Images

So much has been written about this show, John Lennon’s last-ever live performance, that it is sometimes easy to forget whose concert it was. The climax of Elton’s latest American tour, the Nov. 28 date at Madison Square Garden, was sold out long before Lennon conceded defeat in a little wager he and Elton had cooked up — if the ex-Beatle’s latest single, “Whatever Gets You Through The Night,” reached No. 1, John would break his self-imposed retirement from the concert stage to appear as a special guest at the show.

Lennon later admitted that he was scared to death before he took the stage, and the reception from the audience, staggered by Elton’s introduction, reduced both star and guest to tears. They prepared three songs – “Whatever Gets You Through The Night,” the reggaefied version of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” that was Elton’s own last hit, and the old Beatles rocker “I Saw Her Standing There.”

“I was so glad we did that,” Elton reflected. “Originally I said, ‘Let’s do two numbers, but you’ll have to do another — why not do ‘Imagine.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, boring. I’ve done it before. Let’s do a rock ’n’ roll song.’ So I thought of ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ which was the first track on the first Beatles album, and he’d never sang it. It was McCartney who sang it. John was so knocked out, because he’d never actually sung the lead before.”

This same version of “I Saw Her Standing There” would become the become the B-side of Elton’s next single, February 1975’s “Philadelphia Freedom;” the other two songs performed that momentous evening have since been released on both the John Lennon box set and as bonus tracks on the CD remaster of Elton’s “Here And There” live album.

It could be Elton’s greatest performance ever. They were certainly his greatest boots, and if the spectacles weren’t quite as spectacular as some he’s sported over the years, the sheer exuberance that he brings to the otherwise lackluster landscapes of The Who’s movie, “Tommy,” goes a long way toward forgiving the entire affair.

Elton was one of the first people asked to appear in “Tommy,” once director Ken Russell got the production underway, and it took him some time before he agreed — not until he was offered the role of the Pinball Wizard, in fact. He compensated for his recalcitrance, however, by prompting Russell to remark of the three-day shoot, “He was no problem whatever.” In fact, Elton’s only demand was that he be allowed to keep the monstrous boots that he wore, vast Doc Martens that raised him high above all surrounding action, to which his legs were attached by huge metal calipers.

Blazing out of both soundtrack and cinema, Elton’s “Pinball Wizard” is arguably the greatest version of that song ever recorded — even including The Who’s own prototype. Certainly Rod Stewart, with whom Elton had enjoyed a friendly rivalry for the best part of half a decade, must have hung his head in shame when he compared his version, recorded a few years earlier, with Elton’s, and the spring 1976 single became Elton’s biggest hit in three years — a status it would retain for just four more months.

Kiki Dee had already launched a reasonably successful career via Elton’s Rocket Records label when she got together with the head honcho to record what remains one of the most exuberantly happy love songs of the Seventies, 1976’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”

A trio of hit singles — the plaintive “Amoreuse,” the raucous “I’ve Got The Music In Me” and a cover of Nancy Wilson’s “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” — established her among the best-loved female singers of the era, while rock historians praised her for becoming the first white British woman ever to sign to Motown, in the late 1960s.

Elton, on the other hand, was arguably on the wane. His last couple of albums, “Caribou” and “Rock Of The Westies,” had both proven less than convincing; his singles were scarcely following in the footsteps he had once trod so deep. “Pinball Wizard” had made the U.K. Top Ten, but eight singles prior to that had struggled to break the Top Teens. When one considers that included such classics as “Candle In The Wind,” “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” and “Somebody Saved My Life Tonight,” it’s clear that it wasn’t Elton who was fading; it was his audience’s attention. At least in the U.K., predictions of his commercial demise were coming fast and furious — even if his record sales were still outstripping almost every other comparable performer of the age.

He, himself, was newly signed to Rocket, his old DJM contract having finally ended, and his first release for the new label was what he jokingly tried to put across as a cover of a forgotten Motown-style duet — “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was credited to the unknown writing duo of Ann Orson and Carte Blanche, Elton and Bernie of course, but well disguised regardless.

The song itself was buoyant and bouncy in the same way that those old Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell duets used to be — Elton and Kiki batting the lyric back and forth, and sounding so convincing that “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” made its way into even the sourest of souls.

That summer of 1976, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” became Elton’s biggest worldwide hit yet. It remains his most contagious.

For the results of the Readers' Choice poll, click here.