Bernie Taupin Takes On Gershwin

(l-r) Bernie Taupin and Elton John. @PBS


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PASADENA, CA-Created in 2007 by the Library of Congress, with Paul Simon being the first recipient, the Gershwin Prize honors composers and performers for their lifetime achievements. The Prize is named after George and Ira Gershwin, whose iconic songs include I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You, Nice Work If You Can Get It,” They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, and I could go on and on and on.

And this year the Prize goes to … Elton John and his writing partner Bernie Taupin, who have penned such memorable songs as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Rocket Man, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, Benny and the Jets, Candle in the Wind … and I could go on and on and on!

“Elton John and Bernie Taupin: TheLibrary of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” premieres on PBS on Monday, April 8, 2024, 810 p.m.Bernie Taupin dropped by the TV Critics Association tour to talk about this great honor.

Q: Are there lyricists you look up to?

Bernie Taupin: Other people that I respect? Of course there are. They’re everywhere. Do I want to be them? Not necessarily. I’m quite happy being me. But yes, there are people in the past, and there are people now.

I’m probably going off-topic here. But when people say that the music today is not as good as it was in our day, that’s complete bulls**t. There are so many great young artists out today. And I feel it necessary to say that. There’s so much innovation going on. And it’s wrong to think that only good music was the generation you particular came from. There’s great music now, and I want to go on record for saying that.

Q: What makes a great song?

Bernie Taupin: The test of a good song is when you strip everything away from it and just have one instrument and the vocal. And if it stands up then, you’ve got a good song.

That’s why songs are so great because I love the fact that our songs keep getting reinterpreted and reinvented. That was absolutely the beauty and still is the beauty of the Great American Songbook. All of those songs are still sung and known today. Everybody knows those songs. Whether it’s “Rhapsody in Blue” or “Someone to Watch Over Me,” the Gershwin’s, man, they wrote “Porgy and Bess.Whether it’s the Gershwins, Cole Porter or Harold Arlen, I can just reel them all off. But that body of work is absolutely phenomenal and it still sounds phenomenal today.

Q: Do you and Elton meet on a regular basis?

Bernie Taupin: I talked to him this morning. Geographically, we always seem to be on opposite sides of the world.  Whereas we would just talk on the traditional phone for years, with the beauty of Facetime it’s like we’re in the same room together.  So yes, we talk probably once or twice a week.  

Q: One of the more unusual things you did in your career was rewriting “Candle in the Wind” in 1997, after Princess Diana’s death. Was that difficult to do or something you felt was needed to do?

Bernie Taupin:  I did it as a favor to my friend because he was close to Diana. I’d never met her. Obviously, it was a huge tragedy, but it was definitely done because [Elton] asked me to do it. I’m not sure if this is correct, but I think the idea maybe at first was to write a completely different song, something new as a tribute. I think we basically thought because time was of the essence,that it needed to be done, and I think somebody on the periphery had suggested reworking “Candle in the Wind”. The interesting thing about that is I wrote it very quickly. That’s not unusual, because it was an easy rewrite and the ideas were all glaringly obvious. But, at the same time, that song was performed only once, and that was at the funeral. Elton went directly from the funeral to record it with George Martin, and that was the last time he sang it.

The interesting thing about “Candle in the Wind,” it wasn’t originally going to be [about] Marilyn Monroe. It was going to be Montgomery Clift because I had seen “The Misfits,” and I appreciated his character in the movie. I already had the title of “Candle in the Wind” from a Solzhenitsyn book called “Candle in the Wind”. I thought it was a great idea about a life snuffed out too soon, and I wasn’t really a Marilyn Monroe fan, especially in that movie because she kind of whined the whole movie. But ultimately I made a much better choice because I just figured people would relate more to Marilyn Monroe than Montgomery Clift. People wouldn’t even know who he was at that particular point in time.

Q:  It ended up being the biggest selling single of all time.

Bernie Taupin:  You mean the rewrite? I think there’s a debate about whether it’s “White Christmas” or that one, but they’re on the same level, yeah. So it was worth doing because it created a great deal of money for the right cause, and it wasn’t me! (The global proceeds went to Princess Diana’s charities)