During the early part of the 20th Century we had famous music writing teams like Rogers and Hart, George and Ira Girshwin, along with a host of others coming out of America’s Tin Pan Alley.
Then there was the Brill Building and we had Carole King, who worked closely with Gerry Goffin to produce some major hit material. Many other famous songwriting duos have also pleased our ears: Leiber and Stoller, Bacharach and David, Ashford and Simpson, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Simon and Garfunkle, Canada’s Bachman and Cummings, Becker and Fagen – and who could forget Lennon and McCartney.
Enter Bernie Taupin…
Bernard ohn Taupin (born 22 May 1950) is an English lyricist, poet, singer and artist. He is best known for his long-term collaboration with Elton John, having written the lyrics for most of John’s songs.
They say that luck plays a crucial role in show business success, and that’s doubly true in the case of Bernie Taupin and Elton John. Responsible for more than 50 Top 40 hits and over 225 million records sold over the course of their 52-year partnership, the piano man and the lyricist were originally paired together by simple luck of the draw — literally.
To start with we should talk about how they came together. The story is legendary.
In 1967 Liberty Records was soliciting new songwriters and their A&R man, Ray Williams put an ad in a UK music paper, the New Music Express.
One day that summer of ’67, Bernie spotted this ad and answered it.
Coincidentally, a young Reggie Dwight (Elton John) answered the same ad, stopping by the London music publishing office. “The guy behind the desk said, ‘What do you do?’ Dwight said, ‘Well I can sing and I can write songs, but I can’t write lyrics. I’m hopeless.’” The executive grabbed a sealed envelope at random from one of the many stacks of poems that cluttered his desk and told the young melodist to go write music to match. Dwight opened the envelope on the subway ride home and discovered that the words were written by Bernie Taupin.
So began the most successful musical partnership since Lennon-McCartney. “Kismet” is how both men describe it.
They would finally meet face to face a short while later at a London demo recording studio belonging to their publisher, Dick James. A handshake and a hello led to a quick get-to-know-you meal around the corner at a café. They were friends before they paid the bill. “There was an immediate bonding,” says Taupin “I think we were both searching for something. Whether it was the same thing, I’m not sure, but it was definitely two loose orphans in a storm, finding an anchor in each other.”
Taupin soon left home in Linconshire and moved in with Reggie’s mother and stepfather. The pair shared bunk beds in a tiny room where they poured over new records by Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
“From the time we met, we were pretty much inseparable,” says Taupin. “We were all each other had.” For John, who had spent years as a lonely only child, Taupin was more than just his songwriting partner. “He became the brother I never had.”
For young Bernie, away from home and new to the city, Dwight’s fraternal love and acceptance would help him blossom as an artist and as a person. “When I first came to London to meet him, I was very much a fish out of water,” he recalls. “I was an absolute country kid, and people would basically make fun of me because I was very naïve. The thing about Elton was that he never, ever did that. He was very protective of me. He listened to me. He didn’t talk down to me. He wasn’t condescending. He was kind, and his kindness had a great deal of effect on me. I’d never met anybody like that. I’d never met anybody who had any sort of talent, basically. I was extremely impressed, but his kindness was what really kept my strength up, in a time that I was very lost at sea and away from my family.”
It was decided that Reggie would be their musical mouthpiece — but a major adjustment had to be made. “It was obvious that we weren’t going to have a career with a singer called Reg Dwight,” Taupin laughs. Borrowing the names of former bandmates Long John Baldry and Elton Dean, he arrived at his famous moniker. Reggie Dwight was banished to the history books. From now on he would be known as Elton John.
And this is how Taupin wrote Lyrics for Elton John…
The way they collaborated was rather different from most of the song writing duos we have mentioned.
Even after half a century, Taupin and John still write in largely the same — mostly separate — manner. Taupin sends lines of poetry, which John edits and pairs to a melody. Email may have replaced longhand letters, but otherwise they see no need to fix a system that clearly ain’t broke.
Now all they needed was a hit — and it was slow going. “Back then I wasn’t even sure that we were going to make it,” Taupin admits now. “I was going to give it a couple of months, see how it worked out, and if not, go back and do something else.”
Inspiration would come one morning at John’s mother’s breakfast table, as Taupin jotted lines that would become “Your Song.” The simple, heartfelt, and endearingly innocent lyrics inspired an equally elegant piano figure from John. “The marriage of lyric and melody is probably perfect,” Taupin says with obvious pride. Released in 1970, it would become their first chart success and ultimately their signature song.
Lyrics came together very quickly for Bernie and then he handed them to John, who added the music (in about 15 minutes).
1970 / Taupin’s first big hit was Elton John’s “Your Song” /
1971 / Bernie Taupin Spoken words / “The Greatest Discovery”
Taupin was Bernie’s first solo project, a spoken word album of his poetry.
/ Elton John / The Greatest Discovery / Live at BBC Studios
In 1987, Taupin recorded another album entitled Tribe. The songs were co-written with Martin Page. “Citizen Jane” and “Friend of the Flag” were released as singles. Videos of both singles featured Taupin and then-wife Toni Russo, and the “Citizen Jane” video also included Toni’s sister, actress Rene Russo. Once again, neither the album nor the singles made much of a dent in the charts.
1987 / Tribe
Album: He Who Rides The Tiger
In 1996, Taupin pulled together a band called Farm Dogs, whose two albums were conscious (and successful) throwbacks to the grittier, earthier sound of Tumbleweed Connection. While Taupin wrote the lyrics, the music was a collaborative effort among the band members.
Their first album, 1996’s Last Stand in Open Country, received critical praise but little airplay. As mentioned above, the title track was later recorded by Willie Nelson and Kid Rock for Nelson’s 2002 album The Great Divide.
1996 / Last Stand In Open Country /
In 1998, Farm Dogs released its second and final album, Immigrant Sons. Again a respectable effort, the album went nowhere despite a tour of small clubs across America.
Even after half a century, Taupin and John still write in largely the same — mostly separate — manner. Taupin sends lines of poetry, which John edits and pairs to a melody. Email may have replaced longhand letters, but otherwise they see no need to fix a system that clearly ain’t broke. Their most recent composition, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again“, provides the jubilant closing credits to the movie Rocketman — the new big-budget biopic that brings their remarkable story to the big screen.
Collaboration with other artists
In addition to writing for Elton John, Taupin has also written lyrics for use by other composers, with notable successes including “We Built This City”, which was recorded by Starship, and “These Dreams,” recorded by Heart (both of which were collaborations with English composer/musician Martin Page). In 1978, he co-wrote the album From the Inside with Alice Cooper.
2017 / lyrics for Martin Page’s album, “A Temper Of Peace” / Robbie Robertson plays with Page
Taupin has also produced American Gothic for singer-songwriter David Ackles. Released in 1972, it did not enjoy big sales, but the album was highly acclaimed by music critics in the US and UK. The influential British music critic Derek Jewell of the UK Sunday Times described the album as being “the Sgt. Pepper of folk.” Of Ackles’ four albums, it was the only one recorded in England rather than in the United States. Taupin and Ackles had become acquainted when Ackles was selected to be the co-headlining act for Elton John’s 1970 American debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Taupin was mentioned specifically as being one of the reasons American Gothic was selected by the writers and editors for inclusion in the book, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. He also collaborated on the book Burning Cold with photographer Gary Bernstein.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Taupin also collaborated with French American musician, Josquin Des Pres on at least 13 songs in his collection that have been performed and recorded by artists worldwide.
In 2002, Willie Nelson and Kid Rock recorded “Last Stand in Open Country” for Nelson’s album The Great Divide. The song was the title track of the first album from Taupin’s band Farm Dogs. Nelson’s album included two other Taupin songs, “This Face” and “Mendocino County Line“. The latter song, a duet between Nelson and Lee Ann Womack, was made into a video and released as the album’s first single. The song won the 2003 Grammy for best vocal collaboration in country music.
In 2004, he co-wrote Courtney Love’s song “Uncool”, from her 2004 debut solo album America’s Sweetheart. In 2005, he co-wrote the title track to What I Really Want For Christmas with Brian Wilson for his first seasonal album. In 2006, he won a Golden Globe Award for his lyrics to the song “A Love That Will Never Grow Old” from the film Brokeback Mountain. The music of the song was composed by Argentine producer and songwriter Gustavo Santaolalla.
INTERVIEWS WITH BERNIE TAUPIN
1984 / Australian interview (by Glenn Sh0rrock) / Taupin mentions being heavily influenced by Robbie Robertson‘s “Tumbleweed Connection” by The Band
2017 / Interview (1 hour)