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  • Tony Harris

WHEN THE OLD JOANNA PLAYS


For a long time, keen chart observers were regularly notified about the fact that Elton John had never had a solo number one in the UK. Then in 1990, he finally achieved it with the insipid "Sacrifice" which seems a very underwhelming way for an artist of his magnitude to break his duck. If you doubt his achievements, only Elvis Presley has had more Top 40 hits in the US and in the UK he has had over 70.


In the US, at the height of his fame, he was hitting the number one position fairly regularly - "Bennie & The Jets", "Philadelphia Freedom", "Crocodile Rock", "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and even the rather slight "Island Girl" all ascended to the top of the charts.


But in the UK (and all over the world), he had only made it as a duet performing the rollicking "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" with Kiki Dee - and very much deservedly so. The solo #1 kept eluding him however and this was always made out to be something of an anomaly - and his subsequent relationship with the number one spot seems a rather strange and chequered one, to be honest.


Only "Sacrifice" could really be considered a number one from a current release and even then it was a reissue coupled as a double A-side with the more powerful and satisfying "Healing Hands" from the album, "Sleeping With The Past". Both had been issued as singles in their own right and flopped and so were resurrected by the Radio 1 DJ, Steve Wright who championed it. To be fair, both Elton and Bernie Taupin are particularly proud of this song but for me it is the kind of mawkish ballad that always manages to spoil one of his albums, though the UK public clearly disagreed with me - please note this was at the height of the Stone Roses/Madchester scene so, go figure.


Curiously, it was his first solo number 1 single in France as well.



His next number one single would be another duet and a cover (of his own song) - this time of "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" with George Michael. This had become a staple of George's set since he had sung it so movingly at Live Aid and this live recording (complete with "Mr Elton John" introduction) was a powerhouse delivery from both of them.


He would repeat this rehash of an old hit for a number one slot with "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" with largely forgettable boy band, Blue in 2002.


In between, he would, of course, release the world's best selling single "Candle In The Wind '97" in tribute to the passing of HRH Princess Diana, as a charity release. This is however, the third time he released a version of this as a single - in 1975 from "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and again in 1987 from "Live In Australia" with the the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Third time lucky, I suppose...


Then bizarrely, in 2003, a little known (but enjoyable nevertheless) track, "Are You Ready For Love" from a 1979 EP, "The Thom Bell Sessions" - where he had recorded with the Philly Sound - also hit number one. It had been remixed by Ashley Beedle and featured in a Sky Sports commercial. The next thing you knew another of his old recordings had been spruced up and hit the top spot.



And finally, three years later, another of his more obscure tracks "Indian Sunset" from 1971's excellent "Madman Across The Water" was sampled on 2Pac's posthumous release "Ghetto Gospel".


Three duets, a reissue, a re-recording, a remix and a sample seems a strange #1 return for such an established artist.


But this is only one half of Elton's #1 legacy because he has several other (some very accomplished) appearances in the top slot. He was of course part of two charity ensembles - "That's What Friends Are For" (with Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder & Gladys Knight) which made number one in the US in 1985, which was well-intentioned but I can happily live without; and as part of the BBC Children In Need congregation performing a really impactful cameo during the Lou Reed cover of "Perfect Day".


However, his number one involvement does not end there because he has played on several other particularly notable number ones, often with their own back stories.


In another blog, I referenced Elton's earlier career as a session musician which had enabled him to cover the hits of the day on the bargain bin "Top Of The Pops" releases in the late sixties and early seventies as his career was just taking off. However, he also performed as a session musician on genuine artist recordings and so his vocals and piano playing can be heard on "Lily The Pink" by The Scaffold who were a Liverpool comedy band featuring Mike McGear (Paul McCartney's brother) which hit number one in Autumn 1968 (and is one of the first records I ever remember hearing). Elton also appeared on the follow-up "Gin Gan Goolie"!


Once more, go figure...


At the same time, he also played on Tom Jones "Delilah" which was a number one across the world but only #2 in the UK but he did land as a performer on another #1 single, the epic "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" by The Hollies from 1969. This didn't make number one first time round but was another reissue success for Elton (though he was certainly still Reg at the time of the recording) when, after being used as a soundtrack for a Miller Lite commercial, the record hit number one in 1988.



Interestingly, he also sang backing vocals and performed on the Hollies follow-up "I Can't Tell The Bottom From The Top" as well. This would be a song he would cover as the lead during his "Top Of The Pops" cover sessions. Curiouser and curiouser.


By 1974, Elton John had become one of the world's most successful acts and this brought him into exalted company as he met up with John Lennon and they worked on each other's recordings for a while. Lennon (as Dr Winston O'Boogie) played guitar on Elton's #1 single, the terrific Beatles cover "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds".


In return, Elton played on Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Thru The Night" from "Walls And Bridges". During the recording, Elton bet Lennon that the single would reach #1 and if it did he would have to come onstage and play it with him and his band. At this stage, Lennon was the only one of his former band not to have a number one record as a solo artist in the US.


He accepted.


Not least because it wasn't Lennon's immediate choice as a single release.


However, towards the end of 1974, the decidedly funky "Whatever Gets You Thru The Night" hit number one in the States and as good as his word, Lennon came onstage at Elton's Thanksgiving concert at Madison Square Garden where they played their two respective number ones and a version of "I Saw Her Standing There" which was rather ironically one of his former partner's lead vocals.


There is a rather patchy recording (called "28th November 1974") that was released in 1981 in the aftermath of Lennon's death. It is however, a very important historical piece because this was the last time Lennon would ever appear on a stage in public before his assassination.



This is not his only brush with the Beatles although this next one only reached #1 in Ireland and broke a #1 sequence in the UK. This time for T-Rex for whom he played piano on the magnificent "Children Of The Revolution". In one of the great live performances - from the movie "Born To Boogie", directed by Ringo Starr - they play the song on stage with the director himself joining in on drums.


It's quite the supergroup...



Earlier, we discussed how Elton had hit the number one spot with a live duet of his beautiful "Dont Let The Sun Go Down On Me" with George Michael in 1992. Elton had accompanied him on piano at Live Aid during this breakout performance (Andrew Ridgeley joins on backing vocals too). Often overlooked is the fact that this was actually Elton's set and he wanted to show support for George's fledgling solo career.


Clearly, there were great similarities between the two artists professionally and personally both in terms of their successes and their travails. Musically, their styles overlapped too and although they were prone to the odd spat, there was genuine affection between the two great talents when they collaborated , although I have felt that the single "Wrap Her Up" would not be exhibit A...



Elton has always been generous in his support of younger talents and he was an early sponsor of George. So much so, that there he is playing piano on Wham's final single "The Edge Of Heaven" - another number one before his solo breakthrough - in 1986.


Finally, when the Scissor Sisters released "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" from their second album "Ta-Dah" in 2006, I could have sworn it was an old Elton John track. The piano boogied on with a mid 70s Manhattan rhythm - like the Four Seasons - and Jake Shears vocal delivery shifted between Elton and his 70s contemporary, Leo Sayer.


It felt like the best Elton pastiche ever.


No surprise then to find that he was a co-writer of the song and, naturally, played piano too. No wonder it was so convincing.



I will be honest with you, I have never been a particularly devoted fan of Elton John, enjoying bits and pieces of his work and really not liking others. I've always enjoyed his simpler performances and so have grown very fond of his earlier albums especially "Honky Chateau" and "Madman Across The Water". I struggle when he becomes more overblown both technically and emotionally.


What cannot be doubted, however, is that his influence and duration is really far-reaching. His collaborations and supports for younger artists is a testimony to a love for what he does. The revisiting of his back catalogue is a reflection of much of its timeless quality, whilst his appearance across genres and decades shows his ability to be relevant by allowing himself to become part of the musical legacy of others.


Some of his #1 appearances may seem circuitous but there is no doubting his durability, his musical open-mindedness and deserved place in the annals of pop history, having been part of so much of it across so many styles and most notably in so many forms.


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