Elton speaks with Walliams to promote his autobiography
During his Evening With… show at London’s Eventim Apollo Theatre, the singer recalled how their mutual friend Tony King arrived at his house on Christmas morning in 1991, carrying a bulging pillowcase. Elton said: “My drag name is Sharon and Freddie was Melina. In this beautiful pillowcase was this watercolour painting. The note that went with it said, ‘Dear Sharon, I saw this at auction and I thought you would love it. I love you, Malina’. You can imagine how much I cried.”
Elton, 72, speaking to comedian David Walliams to promote his new autobiography Me, also revealed how he had struggled to spend time with Freddie as Aids slowly claimed his life.
“I found it really difficult visiting him when he was dying,” said Elton. “Aids was terrible and he was physically terrifying.
“Freddie loved collecting Japanese art at auctions. When he was dying, he was still buying things at auction. There were medicines around him on the bed but auction catalogues as well. I thought it was astonishing, amazing that this man had such a love of life. He was still thinking about living. He showed no fear to me about dying.”
The 45-year-old singer’s funeral was held at London’s Kensal Green crematorium and, as Christmas came around, Elton’s thoughts, inevitably, turned to the loss of his friend. So he found the surprise gift, a watercolour by his favourite artist, the 19th- century painter Henry Scott Tuke, deeply moving. “He was dying and he still thought of his friends,” he said.
“I still have it on its easel and I still have the pillowcase next to my bed. That is the type of person he was. He was so full of love and life.”
Then Elton turned to tales of his childhood, and how a little boy from Pinner, north London, grew up to become a global superstar. He discovered he could play the piano by ear when he was only three or four. He would go to church on Sunday and then bash out the hymns when he got home.
An unlikely musical heroine was the Trinadian pianist and singer, Winifred Atwell. “I loved her because she loved what she did,” he recalled. “I got to meet her and tell her how much she meant to me.”
Elton with his friend Freddie Mercury
As a schoolboy, he briefly studied classical music at the Royal Academy of Music, but decided to pursue the path of his idols, such as Little Richard, Fats Domino and Liberace.
“I did love classical music but to be honest I didn’t have the hands for a classical player, they were too small,” he confessed.
His big break came when he was working as a jobbing musician and responded to a New Musical Express advert looking for singer-songwriters. He was teamed up with a lad from Lincolnshire called Bernie Taupin and a world-beating partnership had begun.
“He was like the brother I never had,” said Elton, born Reg Dwight. “We sort of clicked. We became as close as one can be without being sexually involved with each other. I didn’t have sex until I was 23 so I certainly wasn’t going to leap on Bernie. We did everything together, the pub, the cinema, we went to shows and we went to see bands.”
The turning point came when Bernie presented him with the lyrics for Your Song.
“I just thought ‘my God’. This is an 18-year-old boy who’s written this song. I just put my hands on the piano and it flowed from there. We’d taken a giant leap forward in our songwriting. I knew we were on to something for the first time.
“It launched me into the stratosphere. I’ve sung it at every performance and as I get older the lyrics get better and I grow into them more. I’m really lucky to have found him.” They’ve had their disagreements, though. When Elton started wearing outrageous costumes paired with outlandish specs, Bernie once asked him: “Why do you have to dress like that?”
Elton John with his husband David Furnish and their two sons Zachary and Elijah
Explaining his psychedelic wardrobe, the singer, dressed in a fetching pink suit, said: “I think most people in showbusiness have a touch of vaudeville about them.
“Freddie Mercury had it in spades. Mick Jagger loved dressing up. The Who dressed up.”
As he made a name for himself, playing ever bigger venues, his confidence was boosted by other stars such as George Harrison and John Lennon. At first he was intimidated by meeting Lennon because he could be abrasive, but they hit it off immediately and the Beatle asked him to sing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
“It was a wonderful friendship which developed because of music,” added Elton.
In New York in the 1970s he was a regular at Studio 54 disco and recalled that once, while he was high on drugs, he took to the dancefloor with Rod Stewart.
On another night the singer Liza Minnelli proposed to him. “She always picked the wrong guys,” he added with a laugh.
Although he has admitted taking huge amounts of drugs, he never believed the hype surrounding his meteoric rise and kept his feet on the ground.
One of those who captured his energetic brilliance on stage was the photographer Terry O’Neill, who died earlier this week. One of his shots is used on the back cover of Elton’s book.
Elton and Bernie at Cannes Film Festival in May
The star recalled: “I had an absolute blast with Terry O’Neill. He took the most iconic pictures of me because he made me feel comfortable. I saw his son Liam and I told him, ‘I loved your dad so much. All we did was laugh’.
“I said he was the most wonderful photographer but I would never buy an old car off him because he was such a Jack the Lad.”
Elton’s list of celebrity friends reads like a Who’s Who of the pop industry of the last half century.
He let slip that Ed Sheeran sought his advice over whether to make an album or take second billing to Taylor Swift on a tour.
Elton told him to join Taylor Swift on tour and use the experience to be ready for when he would get star billing on a world tour himself. Sheeran heeded the sage advice and has just completed the biggest world tour of his life.
Now happily married to David Furnish, Elton is enjoying a quieter life with their sons, Zachary, eight, and Elijah, six, at their home in Windsor. “I love my children so much,” he says. “It’s something I never thought could be possible, to be a father.”
Me: Elton John Official Autobiography
Although the children have a “fantastic” life, he likes to keep them grounded and so they’ve been delivering meals to the needy in Los Angeles recently.
“They get pocket money by doing chores in the house and garden. They earn their money,” he added.
Just like their old man. Elton said this year has been his most successful with the film Rocketman, stamps, touring and the autobiography.
As it was David Furnish’s birthday this week, Walliams suggested he would be taking him to Nando’s for supper after the interview.
“That’s incredibly cheesy but then you do do Britain’s Got Talent,” Elton shot back before exiting stage right, while stifling a laugh.
Me: Elton John Official Autobiography (Macmillan, £25). For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, or send a cheque/PO payable to Express Bookshop: Me Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.co.uk