It started with an ad in the paper: “LIBERTY WANTS TALENT: Artistes/Composers, Singer – Musicians, to form new group.” Newly -minted Elton John (Formerly “Reginald Dwight” of Long John Baldry’s band Bluesology) was handed an envelope by Liberty Records talent agent Ray Williams containing lyrics of a hungry poet from Lincolnshire, England named Bernie Taupin. He didn’t know it at the time but that envelope held a future filled with riches, fame, sex, drugs, rock n roll, and, most importantly, an intangible fortune.
It’s almost pointless to attempt to convey the success Elton John and Bernie Taupin had built together in such a small period of time. A seemingly endless array of hits poured out of the two, helping to define pop music of the early ’70s and laying the foundations of a music career that would make Elton John a household name for over five decades.
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These songs were born from an unconventional writing approach: a marriage of lyrics and music separated by two rooms. Bernie would write the lyrics, present them to Elton, and a musical direction would be fine-tuned around them. This unorthodox style exemplified the beauty of their chemistry. Their bond was great and dependency on one another even greater. But through all the success it took separation to bring complete awareness to it.
The latter part of the decade would start to tell a contrasting image than that of the first. John saw his reign of dominance start to close when the lengthy double LP Blue Moves became his first album to fail to top the charts in four years. An attempt to rejuvenate his career led to a series of drastic moves that only quickened the declination. After creating his own record label John decided to stop touring, fired his backing band, and, blasphemously, parted ways with the lyricist that put him on the map.
Newly hired lyricist Gary Osbourne contributed lyrics to the ensuing release (and coincidentally titled) A Single Man. The release showed modest success at best and continued John’s slip down the charts. John’s next Taupin-less release was nothing short of a critical failure. Victim of Love was a perfect storm of increased drug use, disco pandering, and John’s utter lack of effort. “You can tell it’s just not coming from an honest place,” John said in retrospect. The album became John’s third-lowest charting album of all-time and is widely considered his worst offering in his long-reaching catalogue.
In 1980 Elton John went into the studio to record his 21st album, released at the age of 33 (aptly titled 21 at 33). An uncertain future lay before him in more ways than one. Not only were his sales and recognition wavering, so was his passion for music.
Bernie Taupin found himself in similar territory. For the past two years he was working with hard rocker Alice Cooper and, although the two admired each other, the fit wasn’t necessarily the best. John hated admitting it but seeing Bernie’s name next to Cooper’s made him feel jealous.
Through all the jealousy, failure, and experimentation the two modestly shattered the silence of the previous few years and agreed to work on a few songs together.
Out of the chaos and creation came a tune that exploded out like wildfire eloquently titled “Two Rooms At The End of The World,” a symbolic take on their writing style. The lyrics portrayed the repressed feelings of their relationship they were too proud to show. No amount of monetary value or tangible success could measure the meaning of what they meant to one another.
After a few albums of toying around with some additional collaborations, the two decided to reunite for good on 1983’s Too Low for Zero. The rest poetically wrote itself. The album relaunched Elton’s career spawning massive hits in “I’m Still Standing” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Elton soon retained regular radio play and released a string of hits under the classic “(Elton John/Bernie Taupin)” accreditation. Seeing the importance of their relationship not only to their success but to each other, Elton and Bernie decided to remain songwriting partners for the rest of their careers.
Bernie Taupin unfortunately was never inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Elton inevitably was in 1994. During his acceptance speech John declared “I kind of feel cheating standing up here because without Bernie there would be no Elton John.” John promptly called up Taupin to the stage to give the award to him in a symbolic gesture and a defining moment of his career.
That fateful envelope in 1967 is something Elton John thinks about often. He wonders what would have happened if he didn’t open it. But he did. And what he found wasn’t the fame, eminence, or lyrics, but the key to a second room.
Photo: Pop singer Elton John poses for a portrait with his lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1969 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)