Elton John -or how I met the Wizard of Oz on his Yellow Brick Road...

In late 1971, I met the music of Elton John.
I fell instantly in love with that music.

The Elton John albums of the Seventies, from John’s Empty Sky debut album, cornerstone of the singer’s incredible “yellow brick path”, paved with so many dazzling albums, to authentic masterpieces such as Elton John (nicknamed the "Black Album" because of his sleeve), Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot me I'm Only The Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy and Blue Moves , orchestrated my late teens. Between my fifteen and twenty-somethings, this music led me to create a whole series of small paintings inspired by what I perceived of the artist and that which I truly loved: his voice, his piano playing, his composer’s talents like no other, his extraordinary sensitivity and his so endearing personality, and of course his creativity pushed to the extreme, sublimated by the so legendary British eccentricity: a lifetsyle magnified by stage costumes each more extravagant than the other, as well as by some flamboyant attitude free from all standards of good morality and the other rivets and bolts that the Seventies took charge of dynamiting while freeing society from previous decades’ inherited stiffness.  It was something that at the time I could only applaud.  Firstly, because through the example of artists like Elton John I discovered that what I felt that I was – that is, how different I was from other boys -  was definitely not the stigma of a unique, infamous and isolated illness, and secondly,  it was because I was a teen, thus obviously a young idealistic and radical moron systematically breaking up with the rules and taboos of previous generations, like any teenager who respects himself should – at least, the teens were like that in the 70s, no question.

Between 1972 and 1976 I loved Elton John’s music so much that I painted a lot of things, inspired by his looks and his albums, whenever I could, basically, whenever I was not sleeping, eating or doing my school homework. That is to say, most of the time.

And then in December 1973 I had the amazing opportunity to meet him, after which, a set of my gouaches was presented to him. Here is how that happened.

A few months earlier, through painstaking research in the British music press, I had succeeded in locating Elton John’s mansion.  Whenever I had the chance to return to the United Kingdom in the summer of 73 it allowed me to make some reckies (which lasted several days, knowing only the name of the locality where John’s property stood), and eventually when I  found the place, to walk around the house of the singer.

Six months later I was in England again, spending the Christmas holidays with my friends Pierre and Isabelle from Nice, at the home of the Matusiaks, a friendly English family who lived in Derby.  Having taken all my paintings with me, I travelled by train to London, with all the works rolled up in a tube, and arrived back at the place, in this very chic suburb of the British capital, where Elton John lived.

 

Once at the gate (indeed, this could only be the place,  as several luxury cars including a Rolls were parked in the courtyard ...), I found myself scared to death and did not dare ring the bell; I had remained petrified for hours, by this gray, cold and foggy afternoon, waiting, frozen to the bone, in the hope that someone might eventually exit or enter.

A vehicle finally stopped by the gate, and the visitor, intrigued by this very young man carrying a large roll in his arms, who appeared to be desperately trying to hide himself behind it, asked me what I was doing there. Blushing and stammering, I replied that I was a French boy who wanted to show his drawings to Elton John. The man (who turned out to be Tony King, a great friend of  Elton John and a personality in the British music business, who later became RCA Creative Director and also publicist for the Rolling Stones) had grinned, amused by the incongruity of the situation, and had then asked to see some, which I laboriously pulled out from my roll. Tony King must have taken pity on me, because he very kindly offered to take the entire roll, promising me he would show my art work to Elton John, and then asked me for my phone number in Derby, just in case.

Tony King kept his word, and even today I have very loving and grateful thoughts of this man because without him nothing of what happened next would have happened at all. The phone rang in Derby a few days later and I was invited to go to Elton John’s place to meet him because he wanted to thank me for my drawings. This is how I met Elton John on December 31st, 1973.  We chatted in his living room for about twenty minutes (beyond that would have been a feat, because the conversation was de facto very limited: Elton John being someone who was straight away sympathetic and extremely kind, but particularly shy and reserved, and me being on the verge of apoplexy and handicapped by a fundamental standard of English...).

At the end of this visit, Elton John gave me an autographed copy of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, his legendary double album that had been released the previous October, a copy of which was lying on the coffee table in his living room…
Yes, dreams can sometimes come true, this is proof.

Later on, during the winter of 1974, I was informed by his management that Elton John had decided to use a selection of these works for material for his 1974 US & UK tour, a huge tour, planned to begin by early summer 74, roaming through all of the United States’ major cities and ending with a few UK dates in December of same year.

In addition to the selected works, I was asked to create a painting for the tour’s poster and T-shirts. In spring 1974, I brought my gouache, entitled The Fantastic Elton John Band to the singer’s management at Rocket Records’ Audley Street offices, in London...

Trembling at the thought that what I had done might not appeal to Elton John, if only because of his status as a mega-hyper-super international star, whom he was (except in France, especially then ...), a parameter that could be a problem, given that the type of representation I had designed was, one could say mildly ... rather irreverent.

But this was not the case; one must believe that Elton John loved what I had produced since a few months later I received copies of all the printed materials, tour-book, poster and t-shirt featuring my paintings.

Elton John's management used as well some additional paintings for other usages (one was used for an ad in the US Billboard magazine for the Bitch Is Back single's release, and also for The Bitch Is Back's sleeve in Portugal (Caribou album, june 1974). Another one was used for the invitation to a giant party in Los Angeles given at the MCA/Universal Studios to celebrate the success of the L.A. dates of the 1974 US Tour.

Thus, a little miracle.

Even today, I sometimes have difficulty believing that this really happened, because the least one could say is that those paintings did not show Elton John in a particularly flattering light, not to mention the members of his group - even less so ...! But this indeed is what always characterizes Elton John beyond his musical genius: his amazing sense of humor and the ability to distinguish kindness and tenderness under the fun of the cartoony caricature.

These publications represented, along with my personal encounter with Elton John, one of the most exciting moments of my life. And it is certainly that meeting with Elton John that determined later in my mind the will to try and approach artists like Joni Mitchell, David Bowie or the French singer-songwriter Véronique Sanson.

I have already said, especially in the section of this site dedicated to that part of my youth work inspired by Joni Mitchell, how my meetings with her and all the works I did after had been instrumental in my becoming a painter. And that is true.

But it is certainly my meeting with Elton John that made me understand that before becoming a painter there was simply a young man who happened to be a different being, for whom art and creation would become the essential bases of his existence.
I owe Elton John that, very simply.
In addition, of course, to the constant reaffirming pleasure of listening to his music in loop for the past forty years; an immense work, of an artistic creativity and a profusion that never dried up, which the passage of time makes us appreciate even more every day, and that remains to me a source of emotions always magnified. And intact, as in the first days of listening to the Madman Across The Water or Blue Moves vinyls – amongst others.

In the years that followed, I saw Elton John a few times again in Paris and London, especially during a session of portraits he permitted me to do in 1976, showing once again extraordinary generosity towards an ordinary French school boy who was producing a series of portraits as part of his Art in plastic studies ...
I chose Elton John as the subject of these portraits. Elton John chose to say yes, something quite extraordinary when retrospectively one measures the obligations and activities around the world of an artist who, at the time, had by far surpassed in notoriety - and number of discs sold - the Beatles achievements ...

However, when my pictures were presented to my teachers and fellow students at my school my disappointment was great: no one recognized Elton John, nobody could believe that I knew him, and that the man whom I had portrayed was the famous bespectacled rock star... Indeed, that man wore no glasses on the photos...
Actually, around the late 70s Elton John had started wearing contact lenses, this explained that. His public image was so much more closely linked to his famous collection of glasses that my school’s students and teachers had not been able to identify this almost thirty something smiling man in “normal” outfits with the world famous bespectacled diva perched on his eight inches high silver platform boots…

In 2004, I gave Elton John, as a contribution to his foundation battling AIDS (Elton John Aids Foundation, aka EJAF) my painting, The Boy In The Red Shoes, inspired by the composition The Ballad of the Boy In The Red Shoes, a beautiful and poignant song that addressed this painful subject and which appeared on the Songs From the West Coast album. I made this gift to participate in my own way, and within the range of my abilities, in the fight against this disease’s ravages, given that the profits from the sale of the art work would benefit the Foundation.

 

The Boy In The Red Shoes was the last work of mine inspired by Elton John’s music.

Regarding the production of the first part of the 70s, almost all of these gouaches disappeared, perhaps kept somewhere by someone – but more than likely  they were just lost or forgotten.

Maybe Elton John himself still  has a couple of them today, lost in the bottom of a dusty box in an attic on the top floor of his property in Windsor! ... In fact, I have no idea where those originals might be and even if they still exist.  I myself have a very small number in my possession, which allowed me to make some decent reproductions for this site (see Works Gallery).

All that remains of the rest of this work are negatives of small pictures taken with my Kodak instamatic of the time, to keep track of them before sending the originals to London or the United States. A trace of quite poor quality, fuzzy and faded in colors.

I have included a few on this page, below. Funnily enough, I sort of discovered them anew, as I could not remember having even painted the majority of them ...

 

So here ends my story with Elton John.

Or does it? Assuming that during these past forty years, every time that I have slipped one of the thirty two studio albums of this unrivaled composer, pianist and singer into my CD player, immediately his smile, his eyes, his sensitivity, his talent and his unique voice were there, clear, present, and totally moving, as back to this day of 1971 when I put on my record-player the first disc of Elton John that I ever listened to, the Madman Across the Water album.

Today I look back and I contemplate the wake of the Madman, these storms that passed and finally the quieter waters that I sometimes fortunately cruised.

And as Elton John sings in the beautiful and moving Someone's Final Song (from the Blue Moves album, with lyrics by the great Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist since their mutual career’s very beginning):

 

But if I had my life again
I wouldn't change a thing
I'd let nobody, I'd let nobody
Stand inside my shoes.

 

Indeed.
I would not.

 

Empty Sky
1969
Elton John
1970
Tumbleweed Connection
1970
Madman Across
The Water – 1971
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - 1973
Honky Château
1972
Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only
The Piano Player – 1973
The Matusiak family in Derby, with my friend Pierre (right side) and my friend Isabelle
(picture on the left) -Jacques Benoit

Elton John’s Gate

"Looking for the Emerald City,
with my friends Hélène and Pierre, The Raiders of the Lost Mansion… "
- Summer of 1973

French pop n' rock magazine "Salut les Copains" - 1973
Elton John's living room - 1973.
(Documentary "Me, Myself & I" by Brian Forbes)
Caribou
1974
Captain Fantastic
& The Brown Dirt
Cow Boy - 1975
Rock Of The Westies
1975
Blue Moves
1976
A Single Man
1978
Twenty-One at
Thirty-Three
1980
The Fox
1981
Ice On Fire
1985
Sleeping With The Past
1989
Reg Strikes Back
1988
Breaking Hearts
1984
Jump Up
1982
The One
1992
Leather Jackets
1986
Too Low For Zero
1983
Wonderful Crazy Night
2016
The Union
(With Leon Russell)
2010
The Big Picture
1997
Songs From The West
Coast
2001
The Diving Board
2013
The Captain And The Kid
2006
Made In England
1995
Peachtree Road
2004
A selection of a few photos of the London Session, taken on December 12th 1977 – Jacques Benoit
April 2016

Welcome Back Bitch!
1974 US Tour
(Photo Emerson/Lowe – Publication
Elton John. Five Years of Fun)

Record World Magazine
Issue January 31, 1976

MCA Invitation - October 6, 1974
Within this list of the Elton John 70s’ masterpieces, I have deliberately not included Caribou (1974) and Rock Of The Westies (1975). Yet both are really great albums, each with its share of stunning pieces: Caribou offers the (probably) grandest, deepest and most beautiful composition of all by the John/Taupin team, Ticking, and of course the indispensable Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me. As of Rock Of The Westies, it contains jewels like Grow Some Funk Of Your Own and I Feel Like A Bullet (in The Gun Of Robert Ford), both sublime. But, simply, those two albums are more "intermediate" ones, each of them having been recorded in between unquestioned masterpieces, and therefore as a whole do not bear the aura of albums like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Captain Fantastic or Blue Moves.
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Review of
« Blue Moves »
by Mick Brown
for « Sounds »
October 23, 1976
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