Davey Johnstone Interview: New Album, Elton John and John Lennon
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Musicians
Image attributed to Holger Max Hoetzel
Davey Johnstone is best known for his longtime collaboration with Elton John. Their association began when producer Gus Dudgeon asked the British rock guitarist and vocalist to play on John’s 1971 album, Madman Across the Water, after which he was invited to join the band as a full member. Previously, the Elton John band consisted of John himself, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson. Johnstone has also collaborated with Alice Cooper, Eric Carmen, Rick Astley, Kiki Dee, Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks, just to name a few.
On October 1, 2019, Johnstone performed his 3,000th show with John at the first of two Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour stops in Saskatchewan. In 2020, the tour was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Johnstone recorded his new solo album, Deeper Than My Roots, utilizing the incredible talents of his children, plus a few close friends. It is now available on Spirit of Unicorn Records.
"It was really exciting for me to hear his very modest answers. John was a real sweetheart and not a bragger in any way, shape or form."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Davey, I’ve been enjoying the new album. This is your first solo record in about 50 years. Do you think it would’ve happened if there had not been a pandemic?
Davey Johnstone: Probably not. Probably not because most of my time usually is taken up with Elton’s stuff, with getting the band together and keeping them rehearsed, thinking about the next tour and the next setlist or whatever. But with the COVID happening at the beginning of 2020, it just stopped everything for everybody, obviously. But we were right in the middle of the Farewell tour. So suddenly, I wasn’t going anywhere. I’ve always been working. That’s just my deal.
So when I realized I had some time off, I could concentrate on my own music and actually maybe, instead of just writing a little piece of music, I would be able to go, “Okay. That would be a great song. Let me just work on that and finish it up.” So yeah, I was given the freedom to be able to just concentrate on my own music and my own songwriting, and what I wanted to do. The result was an album which I’m actually really proud of.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was the idea behind the record and the inspiration for the songs?
Davey Johnstone: Well, essentially, you can get it from the title, Deeper Than My Roots. It means pretty much exactly that. It takes me all the way back to when I first learned to play guitar when I was 11 years old and living in Scotland with my family. It came to be that I was a very quick learner, so I’d wait by the radio. I’d wait for Beatles or Stones or Kinks songs to come on, and I would learn them as fast as I could listen on the radio. You know, it wasn’t like today where a kid can listen to a song as many times as he wants on the internet. You had to really sit and wait and then learn really fast. So that helped me be a fast learner. But all that music in those days, as I say, mostly Beatles stuff, led me to becoming more proficient on the guitar because I really wanted to become a good player. That was the whole object. Then in my teens, I started listening to great guitar players on the folk scene, people like John Martyn and many great British players, to learn phenomenal exponents of fingerpicking and that sort of thing.
I later on identified one of my idols, John Lennon, as having learned that style, and he used it on many of the Beatles albums. It’s something that he used all the way through to the last recording they did. So yeah, I became a pretty proficient guitar player. I left Edinburgh in Scotland because there was really nothing there. I went down to London and hooked up with a good friend of mine playing folk music for a couple of years, and it just went from there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, folk singer Noel Murphy. I believe that he went to prison for sexual assault in 2018 for something that happened in the 1970s.
Davey Johnstone: I know. I know. I haven’t seen Noel for many years, but I was very sad to hear that. He was a phenomenal folk singer and performer, and he was hilarious. He told these stories and jokes on stage. Yeah. It was sad what happened with him, but I don’t want to dwell on that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You two toured as Murf & Shaggis (laughs).
Davey Johnstone: (laughs) That’s right. Yeah. We also had another interesting name. We were called Draught Porridge for a while as well. But yeah, there’s always been humor in my career, and I’ve always enjoyed that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Deeper Than My Roots is quite the family affair with several of your children singing and playing on the record. How did you end up with a house full of artists and creative people?
Davey Johnstone: I think the reason is that music must be a very powerful gene because it does go all the way to my eldest boy, Tam, who lives in the UK. He is a great drummer, musician and videographer now. But from a very early age, I could hear him playing drums to some Ringo stuff. That was his idol, and I could hear him playing along. It was unbelievable! He was right on the money with what he was doing when he was five or six years old. He had a wonderful sense of rhythm and all the rest of it. So music’s a very strong gene. It seems all of my kids have been given that gift, and it’s wonderful because it was great to have them all contribute to this album.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your youngest child is Elliot?
Davey Johnstone: That’s right. He’s the lead singer.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Elliot has a very nice voice.
Davey Johnstone: Thank you. He does have a phenomenal voice. In fact, Elton called a couple of weeks ago just to have a word with Elliot and tell him, “Listen, man, you look great, and you sound great. You’ve got a career if you want it.” I mean, he’s only 17 right now, so we’ll see what happens. But he’s very talented, and it was wonderful to get such encouragement from Elton.
Of course, all my kids know Elton as “Uncle Elton” basically because they’ve grown up with his music and with me traveling and touring with him, and they have been on the road. They’ve probably been to hundreds of concerts between them. So yeah, it’s wonderful to have that association.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When did you become Elton’s musical director, and how much input have you had in his songwriting and music over the years?
Davey Johnstone: We wrote a couple of songs together on the Rock of the Westies album which were really successful. They came out so well. We used one of them to open our touring in those days. In ’75 and ’76, we’d open our stadium tours with “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” which is one of the first songs we wrote. We wrote an entirely different kind of song called “Cage the Songbird.” We wrote it at the same time at Caribou Ranch, but it came out on the Blue Moves double album. Also on that album, I wrote about five or six other songs with him. So it started in about that period of ‘75/’76.
Then in ’82, we wrote probably the best known song that I’ve written with him, which is “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” That has been an enormous record for us over the years. So it just went on like that. I’ve probably written 20 songs with him, maybe more. I’m not sure. I don’t really count them up. Being his musical director started in the mid ‘80s because in the early days, we were just a tight band. It was just Elton, myself, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson. Then Ray Cooper came in as a permanent member. Then in the 80s when Dee and Nigel were rehired again, and the original band reformed, the same thing happened. It was just the four of us, and then we added Ray Cooper. We had a side guy, Fred Mandel, playing keyboard for a while.
Right about the time of Live Aid when Elton had fired Dee and Nigel for a second time, he wasn’t sure how to put together the band, and I took on that job. It became a constant thing when the band I was putting together became successful. I would find great musicians for him, and suddenly, it was, “Will you be my band leader and musical director?” I was like, “Sure.” So that’s what I’ve done to present day.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve been with Elton for 50 years, which is truly amazing and probably not unlike a marriage relationship that’s filled with ups and downs over the years.
Davey Johnstone: Sure. Yeah. Fifty years. That’s a serious life. To know somebody that long is amazing. I guess it is like a marriage. The beauty of it is we both have entirely separate lives, obviously. Elton is married to David Furnish, his husband/manager. David took on the role of his manager five or six years ago. Now, they have two wonderful children, Zachary and Elijah, that we all adore, too. And, yeah, his lifestyle is different because of his proclivities or whatever else he does in his life.
I’ve been married three times and have seven children. My current wife (Kay) and I have four kids together. We are very happy, and this is our 30th year of marriage coming up in July. So it’s wonderful. I’m very lucky and blessed with my family, my relationships and my friendships. I’ve been very fortunate with all of that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: People that know Elton have said he’s rather shy. Did you notice that the first time you met him?
Davey Johnstone: He was super shy. But I found out there’s more than one Elton, or in those days, he was known as “Reg.” His friend, and my dear friend of many years, Gus Dudgeon, is the one who invited me to play on his records because he was aware of the kind of player I was. Elton’s music is really eclectic. I mean, you couldn’t really say it’s one particular thing. That’s the same thing with his character. I found out there was more than one Elton because on the first studio gig where I was asked to play on his record, he was very shy and very soft spoken.
I think he was also a bit overwhelmed because there were so many people in the studio that day. Apart from Paul Buckmaster, his arranger, there were all these great session players because there wasn’t a band in those days. They always hired session guys to play on the albums. So when I got hired to play the guitar part on Madman Across the Water, I was just another session guy. But I was very young. It was unusual for a person my age to be working alongside all these other great musicians. So I think that distracted him to the fact that I was willing to contribute, not just play the notes they wanted me to play, but actually contribute something that was my own personal style. For example, when I played the part on Madman Across the Water, I told them what I thought it should be, and Elton was immediately blown away and said, “That’s it. I love it.” I also played on “Holiday Inn,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” from that album.
So I got the call a couple of days later saying he really wanted me to join his touring musicians, Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray, to form the four-piece band. That band went on to do all these amazing albums in the 70s and in the 80s. Yeah. It was a wonderful moment when that all came together because suddenly, it was evident you had four musicians all playing together who were all on the same wavelength, and that’s a great feeling when that happens.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve told the story about how John Lennon came to share the stage with Elton and the band on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 at Madison Square Garden. Also that unbeknownst to John, Yoko Ono was in the audience, and the concert ultimately led to the reconciliation of the duo. But after the concert, John wanted to hang out with you in your hotel suite. What did you two talk about that night?
Davey Johnstone: We talked about everything because it was a long hang. I mean, we were hanging out that whole night. We’d known each other through the years. We met in New York when we brought his son, Julian, across from the UK for a visit because we already knew Cynthia, Julian’s mom and John’s ex-wife. Then John came up to visit us at Caribou Ranch, and we recorded some music together. We did “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which went on to be a massive success. It was just such a thrill to have him playing and singing on that track, which is one of his original songs from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the greatest records of all time.
So just that whole year of 1974 was incredible. When we teamed up to play Madison Square Garden, it was as much of a thrill for John because he was super nervous having do to it, and he hadn’t played on stage for quite a while. It was really tough for him, in fact. He was very, very nervous to the point of throwing up. I mean, we had such a great time. We did talk about everything that night. I turned John on to some new music that he hadn’t heard, some bands that he would normally not have thought to listen to. Little Feat was one of my favorite bands of that period. He’d never heard of them. I played him the Al Green record, Call Me, which is a sensational album and one I still love to this day. He hadn’t really heard the whole record. I played several albums like that. I got to ask him about some Beatles stuff. I thought, “I’m like a groupie asking him about this track and that track.”
It was really exciting for me to hear his very modest answers. John was a real sweetheart and not a bragger in any way, shape or form. He was just an absolutely great guy, very intelligent and very funny. Then it went into humor, and he actually did some cartoons while we were sitting around, which were just that typical John Lennon single-line drawings and beautiful stuff. I found out that he used to come up to Scotland to my hometown every year for his summer holidays. I told him that I used to go down to Southport near Liverpool, which he knew very well. So it’s kind of interesting that we had those parallels. It was great to have those mutual things to talk about.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I know you’ll cherish those special memories of John Lennon forever. We’ve interviewed Julian several times, and he’s a super nice guy.
Davey Johnstone: It’s been a long time since I saw Julian. I also haven’t seen Sean for years. Sean and I were friends when he was about 15. You know, Elton’s his godfather. But Sean and I hooked up with Lenny Kravitz, who’s a dear friend of mine, and we did some recordings together. Sean was fascinated by my mandolin, and he asked me to show him a couple of things. So I showed him how to play some things and a few positions on the mandolin. Within a half hour, he had it down. He could get some really good sounds out of it.
There’s another example of the strong musical gene going through from father to son. Julian also had definitely inherited his dad’s musical abilities, and as you know, his voice is eerily similar to John’s when he’s singing. That’s a wonderful thing, too. He probably hates the fact that people liken him to his dad all the time. May God bless him. But Sean is a monster, too. Sean is another great musician.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, Elton isn’t the only artist you’ve worked with, of course. I imagine you’ve got some interesting tales to tell about Alice Cooper and Stevie Nicks.
Davey Johnstone: I’m saving most of them for the book. I have so many great stories. Since I turned 70, I thought, “Oh, Christ, maybe I should remember some of these stories and write them down before my brain gets too fried to remember most of these things.” So I started writing a book about a year ago, and I’m just putting it together bit by bit. But I adore Stevie. I did a couple of tracks for her a few years ago. You know, it was Alice’s birthday the other day, and I contacted him and his wife Sheryl. I love those two. They’re just the greatest. I’m just happy, when I think of Alice and all the hilarious stuff that went on during our association, that he’s fit and well and sober and still doing great shows.
Alice is a monster. I played with him on stage a couple of years ago when I was in New Zealand. We were ironically in the same hotel, and they called up and said, “Look, Alice wants you to come up on stage. Would you do that?” It was a night off for me, and I didn’t really want to. But then he said, “Alice would love it.” I went, “Yeah. I’d probably love it, too.” So I did get up at his gig, and it was great. I got up and jammed on “School’s Out.” There’s a lot of good stuff coming up in the book and also in the documentary I’m doing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How do you feel about artists pulling their music from Spotify because Joe Rogan has allegedly been spreading false information on his podcast?
Davey Johnstone: Well, you know, I don’t get involved in the political side of things. I really don’t. I’m not really interested in Spotify. I don’t do Spotify or those other formats. My daughter, Juliet, who’s a wonderful artist and did my album cover, said, “Come on, Dad. Let’s get you fixed up on Instagram.” So for the last month or so, I’ve been doing my Instagram stuff. I love doing it. I’ve realized I can do this, and I can share with other artists and musicians and the general public. It is great just to see people connecting in that area.
As far as all of that, I’m not really aware of it. I’ve heard so many podcasts with people giving their opinions, and it’s very commonplace in this day and age. Quite frankly, there’s too much of that. I don’t need to hear any more bullshit. I really don’t need any more of somebody else’s views because this is a period of time where people love to spout really obnoxious words and ideas around. Unfortunately, a lot of people bought into them. I just wish that people would shut the hell up again for a while and just listen to other people for a change. Listening would be a really good thing to do.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Davey, will this really be the final tour for Elton John?
Davey Johnstone: This is it. Yes. He’s done with touring after this. He may do other things like make records. I’m sure he’ll continue to play, compose and make records. Who knows what he’ll do? But he won’t be touring anymore. For him, it’s been 53 years of touring. In fact, thinking about it, I’ve been touring and playing concerts since I was 15 or 16 years old. So it’s about the same thing for me. After a lifetime of slogging around from one town or another being on a bus, airplane or private airplane all the way back to greyhound bus, we’re ready for a break. This should be a young man’s game or a young woman’s game. We’re through with this shit, quite frankly.
I feel very much for a younger man who maybe had this COVID two years with no work or maybe they were just trying to get themselves started in their career. They’re the ones I’m concerned about, and I just hope that live music will be followed and championed by as many people that followed our music over the years. I hope that live music finds a place in this music world again because I’m kind of sad with all the people playing to back tracks and stuff. That, to me, is a sad state of affairs. It’s become kind of commonplace again in this current day and age. So that’s a sad factor.
I would love to see musicians become very proficient at their craft again and getting out there and doing the legwork, playing in clubs and playing in small halls and have people really loving what they’re doing. You know, build a reputation up that way instead of on fucking TikTok or something, which I think is a sad situation.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So without the touring, you’ve got time to write a book, write more music and spend more time with family and friends. Did I leave anything out?
Davey Johnstone: All of the above. That’s right. I’ve always been a family guy. One of the most important things for me has been family vacations and stuff like that. I have many children, and they’re all grown up now, even the youngest is 17. That’s pretty much grown up. He’s got his own ideas about what he wants to do with his career. I’m just grateful that most of my children are doing what they want to do in life. That, to me, is a huge gift I’ve given my kids. They can see in me the possibility that you can do something pretty outrageous and pretty outside the box, and you can do this.
As I say, my kids are all very talented in their own way, and they’re all doing what they want to do right now. That is probably the biggest gift that I could’ve shown them. For me, I’ll always write music. I don’t think there’s a musician alive who will say to you, “I’m going to retire and that’s it. I’m not going to play any more music. I’m never going to write again.” That’s just not what happens. If you’re any kind of an artist, you’ll continue to do whatever your art is until they put you in a box and close the lid.
I’m always going to play. I’m always going to do my thing and hopefully, I’ll always get the chance to be with my family and my kids. Those are the important things in life to me. And you know, just being nice to one another is what I’d like to continue doing. If that’s on my headstone, that’s fine. That will do it for me because that’s what it’s all about.
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