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Two people sit a few feet apart on a stage.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden interviews Gershwin Prize winner Bernie Taupin last week. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Gershwin Winner Bernie Taupin in Conversation

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The word “extraordinary” came up a lot in the Coolidge Auditorium last Thursday evening. Bernie Taupin took the stage on March 21 to speak with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden about his songwriting journey with Elton John.

The night before, the duo accepted the 2024 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song during an all-star tribute concert in Constitution Hall.

The concert itself was extraordinary, Taupin said, as were the renditions of his and John’s songs.

“Metallica, come on!” Taupin exclaimed of the metal band’s raucous performance of “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.”

“He just tore it up,” he said of Billy Porter’s version of “The Bitch Is Back.” And of Jacob Lusk’s “Bennie and the Jets”: “He just was preachin’ now!”

“Hearing all of those songs from those wonderfully diverse acts last night, it was, I mean this from the bottom of my heart, it was really, really extraordinary,” Taupin said.

But perhaps most extraordinary of all, in Taupin’s telling, were the collections of the Library itself, which curators shared with him and John in the days before the concert.

“The things that I’ve seen since I’ve been here are just completely staggering,” Taupin said. “It boggles the mind to know that they exist still — things that influenced me, influenced Elton, influenced us as a unit together.”

Taupin spoke of the lyrics to Marty Robbins’ Western ballad “El Paso” on Robbins’ album “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.”

“It’s still one of the most important records to me in my life,” Taupin said.

Growing up in rural England in the 1950s and early 1960s, Taupin didn’t hear much country music on the radio. When he became acquainted, he was hooked.

“When I heard those songs, I went ‘Wow, there’s a way here that you can actually tell … stories and sing them,’” he said. “What I needed to do was find somebody who could create the other 50% of the magic.”

“Well, that worked out,” Hayden quipped.

Taupin met John in 1967, when they each separately answered a newspaper ad from a record company. Soon, they established a pattern: Taupin writes lyrics, then gives them to John to set to music.

Since the 1969, the duo has sold an estimated 300 million albums and made Billboard history multiple times over. Last year, John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour became the highest-grossing concert tour of all time.

They weren’t an overnight success, though.

At first, Taupin said, “I was flying by the seat of my pants.”

His lyrics “all came out on a page, and Elton had to decipher what was what.”

But over time, he became musically proficient. His process now, Taupin said, is “guitar, legal pad, computer, finish.”

He plays a few chords on a guitar, sings a little to himself, then scrawls lyrics on yellow legal pad. Periodically, he types the lyrics into a computer to assess their flow.

He works quickly, but his reputation for speed writing is overstated, he said.

“I didn’t write ‘Your Song’ in 10 minutes,” he joked. “It was probably 15.”

Taupin insists he is a storyteller, not a poet. “I loathe it being called poetry,” he said of his writing. “I want my things to be regarded as stories.”

For inspiration, he draws on the American West — he’s lived there since the 1970s — and literature.

“I have farmed and mined 20th-century literature,” Taupin said, and the writing of Graham Greene “more than most.”

“A lot of my characters are certainly based on characters he created,” Taupin said.

Meeting Greene by chance “was one of the greatest moments of my life, outside of being given the Gershwin Prize,” Taupin said.

Another almost chance encounter also greatly impacted his life. For his 40th birthday party, Taupin — a huge jazz and blues fan — asked his managers in jest to invite Willie Dixon, “probably the greatest blues songwriter of all time.”

To Taupin’s surprise, Dixon came.

“We just hit it off,” Taupin said. “There are a handful of people who were huge, huge influences on my life. … He was so generous, just an extraordinary man.”

After Dixon died in 1992, Taupin found out Dixon hadn’t yet been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Taupin threatened to give back his own awards if Dixon wasn’t added “straight away.” He was.

A visual artist since the early 1990s, Taupin spends more time on his art these days than songwriting. In the early 1970s, he and Elton made two albums a year.

“Now, you’re lucky if we make one record every 10 years,” he said. “Visual art is a huge part of my life.”

Before Taupin took the stage, ticket holders were treated to a special exhibition in the Whittall Pavilion of some of the treasures he and John viewed.

The American Folklife Center and the Recorded Sound Section displayed items tracing the history of the song “Rock Island Line” from a 1934 recording John Lomax made in an Arkansas state prison to a 1940s Lead Belly rearrangement to a 1955 chart-topping skiffle reinterpretation by the English singer Lonnie Donegan.

When Taupin saw the original 78 by Donegan at the Library, he said it brought him back to “a little house in the suburbs of London where I discovered that 78 when I was 12 years old.”

Other items on display included a 1966 ad for a London gig in which John’s then band, Bluesology, opened for The Move, later known as Electric Light Orchestra; a 1967 copyright application filed under John’s birth name, Reginald Kenneth Dwight; and words and phrases Ira Gershwin jotted down in 1926 while brainstorming “Someone to Watch Over Me,” recorded by John decades later.

At the end of the evening, to commemorate Taupin’s Gershwin Prize experience, Music Division chief Susan Vita presented him with a facsimile of Gershwin’s first draft of the lyrics to “Love Is Here to Stay” beside a typewritten final version.

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Comments (4)

  1. I wonder if Mr. Taupin is aware that many stories are poetry and vice versa. The Iliad springs to mind as does Clement Moore’s A Visit from Saint Nicholas, not to mention Paul Simon’s The Sound of Silence. Poetry, songs and stories are not mutually exclusive.

  2. WOW. I didn,t want to read this article. But, it was GREAT!! And its not really my favorite music. I can enjoy this type of music immensely. Thank you for a great piece of writing. Thank you.

  3. Typo!!!

    Conversation, not “coversation”

    • thank you for the catch! went right by me.

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