“From the time we met, we were pretty much inseparable,” Bernie Taupin says of the start of his chart-busting songwriting partnership with Elton John
They say that luck plays a crucial role in show business success, and that’s doubly true in the case of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. 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.
In 1967, the future rock icon was known as Reggie Dwight, the keyboard player in an R&B combo called Bluesology. Though they had regular work backing American soul stars and London blues belter Long John Baldry, the 20-year-old Dwight had grown tired of the seemingly endless string of lackluster shows. “I was in a mediocre band and I was getting fed up playing to people eating fish and chips and the cabaret thing,” John recalled in 2017. “So I thought, ‘What can I do?’”
One day that summer he spotted an advertisement in the New Musical Express soliciting songwriters. Dwight answered the ad and stopped by the London music publishing office. “The guy behind the desk said, ‘What do you do?’ I 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.
“We basically were, in a nutshell, thrown together,” Taupin tells PEOPLE. Just 17 at the time, Taupin was still living with his parents in the Northern English town of Linconshire when he applied to the same ad that had caught Dwight’s attention. The pair wrote a handful of songs separately, as sort of musical pen pals, beginning with a track called “Scarecrow.”
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 Linconshire and moved in with Reggie’s mother and stepfather. The pair shared bunkbeds 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 Taupin, 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.
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 — and a wedding standard forevermore.
The success of the song would earn John a string of dates that August at Los Angeles’ hugely influential Troubadour night club. Neil Diamond, members of the Beach Boys, Quincy Jones and John’s hero, Leon Russell, all turned out to see the hot new pianist make his American debut. The incendiary shows lit the fuse that sent John and Taupin into orbit. “That was such an emotional power shift,” Taupin recalls of the exciting time. “These two kids from England were suddenly thrown into this incredible vortex of all our idols. We were too busy soaking up the atmosphere we were surrounded by to be overly aware of what was happening around us. Our tastes were pretty simple and we felt lucky just to be here, and being given a chance to put what we did out there.”
Fame came as fast as the pair could write — and songs rarely took more than an hour. “Rocket Man,” “Honky Cat,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Daniel” all immediately shot into the Top 10 in rapid succession. By 1975, they were responsible for 2 percent of all records sold on the entire planet. That same year they released Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which became the first LP in history to debut at the top of the Billboard chart. The album was a semi-autobiographical work, retelling (and occasionally mythologizing) the early years of their days together. “It’s really based on a couple of years of our life when we were struggling to survive and really honing our craft,” says Taupin. “It’s about us bonding and making music. That is the crux of the whole album. It’s about two young men, and all they have is each other. They’re doing the only thing that they feel that they’re good at, and that’s writing songs, writing stories and creating melodies.”
The emotional centerpiece of the album, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” recounts a 1968 incident when John made what he later admitted to be a half-hearted suicide attempt. Taupin found him with his head in the kitchen oven, resting on a pillow. Though the gas was turned on, the windows in the room were all open, rendering any death short of pneumonia a moot point. At the time, Taupin couldn’t help but laugh. Despite the ridiculous scene, he recognized that John was making a very real cry for help, and years later he would channel the pain of his confidant and musical ally into one of their most intimate and vulnerable songs. “’Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ is a life lesson,” Taupin tells PEOPLE. “It’s how friendship can save you in a fleeting moment. There were many of those.”
For Taupin, now 69, the “inseverable bond” between them has endured John’s struggles with substance abuse, his hard-won sobriety, lovers and spouses, children, and the kind of ultra-intense fame that few have ever known. Even after half a century, they 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 Rocketman — the new big-budget biopic that brings their remarkable story to the big screen.
More importantly, their personal love remains just as strong as ever. “Our relationship has always been something that I don’t think anybody can truly define,” Taupin reflects. “I don’t think anybody will ever understand it 100 percent, no matter what is said or done or shown or presented. On one level, it’s extremely, extremely personal, because it goes back so far. We’ve shared the highs and lows together, and we’ve shared different highs and lows separately. There’s a fine line running through our whole career. I don’t think either he or I totally understand it, but it’s become so inherent in our day-to-day life. I don’t think we take it for granted, by any means, but I think it’s quite extraordinary.”
For more on Elton John’s astonishing rise to fame and new biopic Rocketman, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands Friday.
John’s belated transition into parenthood — the 72-year-old shares sons Zachary, 8, and Elijah, 6, with husband David Furnish — has added a new dimension to his union with Taupin. “One of the most pleasurable aspects of my life has been to see him become a father, because he’s a wonderful father,” he says of John. “He absolutely adores his kids. He puts them before anything. We have children that are relatively close in age. And so, in a mundane sense, it just gives us one more thing to talk about — which we do: what our kids are doing, swapping pictures. We’re like any other parent. We show off and boast about our kids.”
Taupin and his wife Heather, as well as their daughters Charley Indiana, 13, and Georgey Devon, 11, are never strangers to the John-Furnish home. “His kids are wonderful. They are perfect little British gentlemen. They’re adorable. And he adores my kids. It’s Uncle Bernie and Uncle Elton, just the way it should be.”
Aside from the warm family gatherings, Taupin cherishes the rare moments when he and John are alone, just like the days in the tiny room that had been their world. “In the insanity of our lives, there’s nothing better than the times when we get to sit down, just together. Like those moments in the dressing room, about a half an hour before he goes on, when I’ll go in and see him and there’s nobody else in there, and it’s just he and I. The calm before the storm. It all comes back. When we’re just alone with each other, it seems like a frozen capsule of time that everything we’ve ever done together inhabits. That’s magical to me.”