Elton John was ‘shy and unexciting but determined to be a star or die trying’

by | Mar 16, 2022

Reprinted from the Mirror by Halina Watts

Record Producer Stuart Epps with long time friend and colleague Elton John

When Rocketman explodes into cinemas next week, film fans are set for a turbulent ride as they follow the incredible rise of rock superstar Elton John.

But today, record producer Stuart Epps – at Elton’s side as he took his first steps to world domination – gives a no less uncompromising snapshot.

And he reveals how Elton went from a shy songwriter happy to gig on other people’s records to a flamboyant performer so hungry for fame he “was prepared to die for it”.

Stuart recalls how, even as a pop unknown, Elton was ready to blow his top at the slightest frustration.

Audio engineer Stuart was 16 when he first worked with Elton at London music publisher Dick James Music.

It was 1967 and Elton was then the 20-year-old Reginald Kenneth Dwight, hailing from the unglamorous Middlesex town of Pinner.

Describing him as a “shy extrovert”, Stuart says he gave no sign of the legendary icon he would become.

He recalls: “He was in his twenties and just a staff songwriter. He didn’t even see himself as a lead singer then.

“He was focusing on songwriting and playing on other people’s music.”

But then a trip to the US lit the fuse of Elton’s stratospheric ambition – leading to a breakthrough gig at West Hollywood nightclub the Troubador.

Stuart says: “He saw if he wanted to be successful like his idols – Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and The Rolling Stones – he had to put on a show.

“In the UK, he’d just sit at the piano and sing, and maybe say, ‘Ello’. There was nothing exciting.

“But when he got the opportunity to go to the Troubador in 1970 with a three-piece, he’d decided enough was enough.

“If he’s got this opportunity, he wasn’t going to let it go, he decided to do more of a show.”

Stuart admits he was not easily won over by Elton’s new stage presence. He recalls: “When they came back, I went to see them.

“Elton stopped playing the piano and stood up and started walking around, dancing about. I got totally embarrassed. I thought, ‘This is terrible, what’s he doing?’ He was banging a tambourine on his bum – I had to hide my eyes.

“But people were applauding. He developed his showmanship to take him to the next level. It was a risk, but he was incredibly brave and prepared to die or make it.

“But at 22 you’d never have thought that was on the cards – you didn’t know that character was in there.”

At 18, Stuart joined Elton on his second US tour as his PA, working with him until 1974. And he witnessed first-hand the tantrums and dramas for which Elton was to become notorious.

Stuart, who has also worked with Oasis, Led Zeppelin and George Harrison, explains: “He used to blow up, he had a terrible temper. If someone was annoying him, I’d think, ‘He’s going to go in a minute’.

“He’d just explode in a tirade of expletives. He’d make them up, with words I’d never heard before. He’d go absolutely bananas, screaming. I remember him doing it when his mum was there. She said: ‘Reg, stop it.’

“Then, half an hour later, he totally forgot it. I thought, ‘That’s brilliant’.

“Later on he got more extravagant with his anger. I just had to make sure people around him didn’t upset him.”

Stuart quickly realised the secret to keeping Elton on an even trajectory.

He explains: “He gets bored easily. If cars are ordered and they don’t turn up… he’s impatient. It was all about the now – he likes his own world, to make it the way he wants it.”

But while Stuart says Elton – who had a rift with his late mum Sheila – had his “ups and downs”, he adds: “He got through it all, whether it was with family or those he worked with.

“At the end of the day what was most important was him as the artist.

“That’s his business, his career. That always comes first. It’s tough when you have family and associates, but everything has to come in its place.”

In Rocketman – directed by Dexter Fletcher – Elton is played by 29-year-old Kingsman star Taron Egerton.

Egerton portrays the singer in his childhood and through the wild years up to 1990 when, at 43, he entered the drug rehabilitation unit that helped him into sobriety.

The movie will also explore Elton’s four-year marriage to Renate Blauel, who he wed in 1984. He came out as gay in 1992. Stuart said: “That was definitely secret. People didn’t walk in and go ‘I’m gay, what are you?’

“It was a different time. I worked with him when he was married to Renate. He met her and fell in love. It was a genuine love, absolutely.

“Elton’s a genuine guy, he always tells the truth. He has no reason to do otherwise. He’s an Aries and has to say what he feels.”

Elton, himself an executive producer on Rocketman, later had a relationship with his manager John Reid – who is seen in a negative light in the movie.

Stuart says he recently spoke to Reid, 69, who lives in Australia – and claims the former music boss agrees he was “a bad guy”. Stuart says: “He was a bit of a bad guy. I saw him recently and he said, ‘Yeah, I was’. I was his first assistant. He felt he had to be the tough guy.

“He wasn’t liked everywhere, but that was the same for a few managers. And he said, ‘I had to be like that’.”

Stuart says his highlight with Elton was the “incredible moment” John Lennon joined him at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1974, after Lennon lost a bet about his Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.

Stuart said: “John wasn’t that crazy about it, he hadn’t gigged for years. But when he walked on, it took off.”

Despite the tantrums, Stuart insists living in the moment was Elton’s way to handle pressure. He says: “If you want to be at the top that’s how it is.

“The film will show the glamorous side but then, I’m sure, it will show at the end of a gig when he has to go back to his room and he’s on his own.

“It’s a lonely existence being a superstar. But I’m sure there were many more highs than lows – that’s why he’s still doing it.”