August 31, 2013

Tin Pan Alley: The Rise of Elton John

Elton John Bernie Taupin 1971


By Harvey Kubernik

Soundcheck Books has just published the wonderful and educational Tin Pan Alley: The Rise of Elton John by Keith Hayward.

The available books on Sir Elton John usually focus on his personal life and hardly describe his musicianship, let alone his pre-fame formative years to 1970, around the retail release of his Empty Sky album, and the U.S. launch of the Elton John LP.
Keith Hayward takes us through Elton John’s 1970 commercial arrival who was born Reg Dwight, with stops at Denmark Street and its environs-London’s Tin Pan Alley. His first job for Mills Music, teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin for Dick James Music, followed by their songwriting collaboration for Lulu in a Eurovision Song Contest is also examined.

In 2013, Denmark Street, in London’s west end, was home to Britain’s music publishing industry. It’s now being threatened by “redevelopment Hayward charts the early Reg Dwight a.k.a. Elton John career up to his breakthrough live shows at Doug Weston’s famed Troubadour club in West Hollywood during August 1970.

The book weaves both a tale of musician and the fabled Denmark street. Many of Elton’s old band mates in Bluesology and the Elton John Band are interviewed: Caleb Quaye, Fred Gandy, and Roger Pope.

Hayward also spoke to several music business veterans: Stephen James, Larry Page, Muff Winwood, Lionel Conway, Elton John’s former manager Ray Williams, music publicist Tony King and Tony Taupin, (brother of Bernie), Russ Regan, and
Danny Hutton.

Old stalwarts of Tin Pan Alley also chatted with Hayward: lyricists Bill Martin and Gary Osborne, songwriter producer Tony Hatch and music publisher Cyril Gee.

There are some never-before-seen photos of Elton John and the book jacket was specially designed by David Larkham, who created many Elton John album covers and provided art direction and occasional photography for him in the seventies.
Keith Hayward is a renowned music collector, expert and historian, and manager of Roger Pope. He is currently working on a multi-media project, tentatively titled 2020 Vision, with arranger, conductor and composer Martyn Ford. Tin Pan Alley: The Rise of Elton John is his debut book. Hayward resides in West Sussex, England.

Hayward is also scheduled to appear during October 4-6th at the Elton John Fan Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Tuscany Suites Hotel.

Elton John on stage

Elton John, Live at Liseberg, Sweden, August 7, 1971

Q: What was the genesis or idea of your book before research, let alone a publishing deal?

A: I had been working with an author as a researcher on a number of books about the entertainment business and one of them was a book called Elton John: A Visual Documentary for Omnibus Press. Being an admirer of the early work of Elton I was fascinated with some of the information I had found and wanted to investigate more but to speak directly with the people who were there at the time witnessing what was happening.

“At the same time I realized that there was no history of Tin Pan Alley in the U.K. from 1964 until its almost demise in 1970, (although it still existed up to 1976 when the last publisher left).

“This was a pivotal period in the history of the UK music business and played a significant role in the careers of not only EJ but Cat Stevens, David Bowie, Marc Bolan; the singer songwriters who were moving away from Tin Pan Alley songwriters like Bill Martin, Tony Hiller and the like; and the emergence of producers as a significant force as well as the final transition from sheet music to records.

Q: As your book unfolds we really discover Denmark Street and the U.K. music publishing scene. The London Tin Pan Alley world that Elton John initially emerged from.

A: Young Reg Dwight decided to leave school just before he completed his final exams because he had made his mind up that he wanted to work in the business in some way; especially as he had this inherent talent to hear sounds and create his own music from them. At an early age he was listening to music and buying records all the time so he was absorbing all of this music that would soon need a creative outlet. He went in search of a job in the centre of the British music scene in London in Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley.

Cover Elton-John“This was where all the greatest songwriters of the time were working, composing songs for artists of the day and for publishing into sheet music. They were working in a very formulaic way with few songs lasting more than 3 minutes and were specifically written for the masses to play themselves on the piano or at home.

“For instance, he was able to hear the so called underground music coming from the U.S. before anyone else in the UK and being the absorber of music that he is it was it gave him the opportunity to create the Elton John sound.

Q: Your revealing interviews with the old school players of Tin Pan Alley are insightful. Did you know you were on to a great book when these characters really talked Music and not gossip?

A: I suppose I was in awe of these people sitting in front of me allowing to delve into their memory archives and tell me what it was like working in the business at a time that my own interest in music was emerging. For goodness sake these people wrote some of the best songs around at the time.

“I must add the name Roger Greenaway to your list because he was prolific in his songwriting during the late sixties and was one of the first to take his songs to your lovely Country. He was a good friend of our mutual friend Russ Regan and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Roger had identified the talent that Reg had for songwriting and when Russ needed some guidance about whether to sign Reg to UNI, Roger was there, at the Continental Hyatt Hotel for breakfast, to give it. It is also important to say; morbid though it is; that these people have a lot of stories to tell that will be lost if they are not told now.

Q: Since every book on Elton John concentrates on his personal life, his musicianship and talent gets overlooked in most of them. Elton also seems to veer away from this period, never really going at length about Mills Music or his Dick James stint during interviews. But it is the backbone of your book. Elton over the years seems to have distanced himself from his Mills Music and Dick James world.

A: Thanks for spotting this. The book is a music history book focusing on a pivotal time in music history in the U.K., which arguably had as much influence on the American music scene as the Brill building had on the British music scene. It would have been quite a tome to just write about the British music scene in the U.K. at the time so I decided to Elton John as my example of how it all worked.

“In fact there is a volume two that has already been written that contracts Elton’s rise to the demise of Denmark Street and the emergence of corporate music.

Empty-Sky-Elton-John“Dick was an important person in the history of Denmark Street not least because he managed to get the publishing for all of the Beatles songs and formed Northern Songs and then take a chance on Reg Dwight. But it was Dick’s contacts, as is normally the case in all business, that helped de-risk the risks and smooth the path to success.

Q: Your book, for once, really dissects the role(s) arranger Paul Buckmaster played in the developing the initial Elton John sound. Elton went into the retail world when the word arranger still existed in pop and rock music.

A: Arrangers and producers were extremely important in the UK at the start of the 1970’s, sounds were becoming more complicated and it was now longer just a song that consisted of drums, bass, guitar and vocalist ala the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Orchestras were introduced more into the world of popular music and these need to be arranged and produced to meet the changing tastes of the popular music buying public. Alongside Denny Cordell and George Martin came a new school of producers like Gus Dudgeon who had started using arrangers like Paul Buckmaster on iconic projects like Space Oddity by David Bowie.

“Both Cordell and Martin were approached to produce the second Elton John album, (the black one), but were eventually overlooked to bring in Dudgeon and Buckmaster.

“Buckmaster was new to arranging and he was ripe to experiment in all sorts of things and was one of the first to use synthesizers, which are used on the Elton John album.

“What also helped was that Elton gave Buckmaster complete creative control and so that comes across in that early but life changing album. The relationship between Buckmaster and Dudgeon was as much an influence on the Elton John sound as that of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

Q: Like Burt Bacharach with Hal David, there was a lyricist involved with Elton, Bernie Taupin. Can you elaborate on his part in the Elton John history? Your book discusses this. What did Bernie bring to the table?

A: Elton is a writer of music but struggles to write commercial lyrics. The partnership was an odd one in that, unlike Tin Pan Alley songwriters, its words first and music second.

Tin Pan Alley The Rise Of Elton John“A lot of the early John Taupin songs come from poems that Taupin has written that may once have had a beginning, a middle and an end but had been chopped about by Elton to fit a piece of music that he had written. Whilst some purist Tin Pan Alley writers may sneer at this approach we must remember that the late sixties and early seventies saw the advent of psychedelic music and the sort of lyrics that had emerged from Elton’s songs were right for that time.

“As I said earlier Elton’s music is influenced by an eclectic set of sounds that he had stored up all his young life. He was listening to all sorts of music and one of his early influences was actually Winifred Attwell as well as the jazz blues music.
“Rock and Roll also played a big part in the Reg Dwight household. Taupin was into the same rock and roll music as Elton but he was an avid reader of Tolkien and authors of that ilk and his creative writing was more influence by his grandfather Poppy.

Q: What did you learn about him after interviews with Lionel Conway, Muff Winwood and Larry Page?

A: The main thing was the frustration that Reg felt about the lack of outlet for his songs. He was frustrated that DJM wanted him to write Tin Pan Alley formulaic songs for other artists and he just could not do that. Few wanted to buy them even though some of the more progressive bands like Three Dog Night could see the point in his songs.

“Let’s not forget that in the U.K. this period was still steeped in TPA formulaic work and with the exception of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles most artists relied on TPA for hit songs. Reg and Bernie were not writing hits songs. Lionel, Muff and Larry could see the potential of the songs but could not see how it would work under the thumb of a traditional TPA publisher and therefore went about trying to get Reg away from DJM to other more independent labels like Island Records.

“Dick was not to be persuaded though and, you can put this down to another quirk of fate, allowed Reg to record and release his own songs and the rest is history. Having said that if you listen to the     first Elton song called “I’ve Been Loving You,” you will hear a classic TPA song which is why it flopped. Incidentally Reg is reported to have written to words for this song even though Lionel and Steve Brown claim that it was Don Black. Don denies any involvement. Bernie distances himself from the song as well.

Q: Elton was in Bluesology and the interviews with former mates, some of them were later in the initial Elton John Band and LPs, (Roger Pope, Caleb Quaye, Fred Gandy) were rather detailed. I see no sense of spite or unhappiness with former band mates, but at times it seems Elton was so desperate to have a real debut LP chart he was a master at manipulation. I always felt some of the tunes could have been co-writes. I felt it was akin to a situation like with the Doors and more of a group collaboration. However, your book shows no sense of bitterness. Am I on to something?

A: Yes you are and what you will no doubt understand as an author yourself there is a lot of research that end up on the lawyers or the proof editors floor. There is no doubt that Caleb Quaye was a massive influence on Reg’s creativity in the early and formative years and wrote many songs with Reg during the pre DJM years; as did Kirk Duncan.

“However just like Buckmaster’s control over the arrangements it’s my opinion that Reg’s and then Elton did allow a lot of creative scope to people like Roger Pope and latterly Davey Johnstone, James Newton Howard and other band members to influence the Elton John sound without a significant amount of credit or financial gain. At the time it was not about money; they were just musicians who were enjoying creating new sounds and jamming in the studio.

“There was no real management doing deals behind the scenes. This is something that Roger has mentioned to me from time to time but there is no bitterness now. I am sure he would benefit from a royalty though,.

Q: Your book also points us to bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, who I still think are overlooked in the early work on record and in concert, plus radio broadcasts and seminal TV appearances, especially in the U.K.

A: Although Dee and Nigel were the Elton touring band in 1970 it was really Hookfoot with the likes of Roger Pope, Caleb Quaye, Ian Duck and Dave Glover, who were Elton creative recording band. Hookfoot also played the very early EJ live gigs to showcase his early songs that ended up being on Empty Sky, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection. This was a bit of a frustration for Dee and Nigel, as they weren’t really needed in the studio at that early stage. Once Hookfoot decided to do their own thing then Nigel and Dee became more prominent both in the studio and live. I still think that Roger Pope and Caleb Quaye are the best musicians Elton has worked with!

Elton John LettersQ: I saw Elton at the Troubadour. I know Russ Regan of UNI/MCA Records called everybody in town to attend. Neil Diamond who introduced Elton from the stage, Danny Hutton, Elton’s U.S. mentor, Jerry Heller, Elton’s booking agent, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Graham Nash, Leon Russell, Mike Love, Van Dyke Parks Randy Newman, Denny Cordell, and Brian Wilson were in the house. Norman Winter’s Totem Pole Public Relations invited music writers and columnists to spread the word.

A: Well according to Ray Williams it very nearly didn’t, but thankfully it did. Elton had put in some hard work touring the U.K. playing small venues, which culminated in a wash out festival on the gloomy Yorkshire Moors. Despite the miserable weather Elton’s set went down a storm, (excuse the pun).

“Meanwhile back at DJM Ray was talking with promoters in the U.S. and the only one who was prepared to take a risk was Doug Weston, no doubt influenced by Russ Regan and Danny Hutton. Again Dick James took a risk and having just spent a lot of money on two poorly selling albums and a tour of the U.K. agreed to invest in a small promotional tour in the U.S. to promote his new artist but also the Elton John album.

“Russ Regan was an important person in that initial period but we have to thank Roger Greenaway for singing EJ’s praises at the Continental Hyatt. Let’s not forget that Larry Utall at Bell Records had the first option on EJ material in the US and let it go and it was Russ’s educated risk taking that made it happen. At the time Russ was one of the new breed of record executives and could spot a new style hit. But let’s also not forget that Danny Hutton played a big part in that early U.S. success and then Brian Wilson and at the time they could both do know wrong in the music business.

Q: Who was this Reg Dwight person from 1967-1969 in the U.K? And, who was this Elton John 1970-1975 person we later heard and saw in the U.S?

A: The person between 1965 and 1969 wasn’t Elton John! It was a shy and rather staid young man called Reg Dwight who was an amazing piano player and potential songwriter but wasn’t Elton John. Reg wanted     to be Elton but it was someone who was currently trapped and subdued inside Reg Dwight. The freedom created by the likes of Paul Buckmaster, Gus Dudgeon, Steve Brown, Bernie Taupin and eventually Dick James, allowed Elton John to emerge from the skin of Reg.

“It was like a butterflying emerging from a chrysalis. Getting the sort of praise that he received from people like Bob Dylan, Quincy Jones and his hero Leon Russell gave him the confidence after he played at The Troubadour to emerge more fully as the Elton John that was on show during 1970 to 1975.

Tin Pan Alley is at:

Harvey Kubernik’s “Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972” will be published by Santa Monica Press. This century Harvey Kubernik penned the liner notes to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s “Tapestry,” Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” the “Elvis Presley ’68 Comeback Special” and the Ramones’ “End of the Century.”

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