'I've never stopped enjoying singing it': Elton John on 'Your Song' at 50, new rarities box set

Patrick Ryan

Before they could write infectious classics like "I'm Still Standing," Elton John and Bernie Taupin had to first find their footing. 

Together, the songwriting partners of 53 years have penned some of the most recognizable hits of the past half-century, including "Candle in the Wind," "Tiny Dancer" and "Your Song," John's 1970 U.S. breakthrough. But many of their earliest songs from the late '60s were left on the cutting room floor – until now. 

"Jewel Box," out Friday, is a sprawling collection of nearly 150 demos, B-sides and deep cuts, 60 of which were previously unreleased. The box set charts John's musical evolution from 1965, as a member of soul group Bluesology, to his earliest collaborations with Taupin in 1967. They were first paired up by Liberty Records after responding to the same advertisement seeking songwriters and wrote more than a dozen songs remotely before meeting face to face. 

"I was a bit reticent to listen to these old things because I haven't heard them for years and years and years," John tells USA TODAY. "Then when I got to listen to them, I was quite pleasantly surprised that they weren't as awful as I thought they might be because they were made at a time when we were just starting out. I was touched by the sweetness and naiveté, and it brought back so many memories. It surprised me that I actually like them so much. I was dreading it."

Lyricist Bernie Taupin, left, and singer-songwriter Elton John pose for a portrait in November 1970 in New York City.

These rarities range from Beatles-inspired "psychedelia" to "middle-of-the-road pop ballads," Taupin says, as they tried to write for other artists before John launched his own singing career. 

With this box set, "you can understand the big arc of our work and those baby steps that were taken," Taupin says. "There was a lot of floundering around and learning to swim, but when Elton became the focal point as the artist, everything changed totally." 

John, 73, and Taupin, 70, discuss "Jewel Box," their longtime partnership and more: 

Pop singer Elton John poses for a portrait in London in 1969.

Question: "Scarecrow" was the first song you wrote together in 1967. Do you remember how that one, in particular, came about? 

Elton John: Not really because I wrote a lot of those songs without ever having met Bernie. It was just very easy for me to look at a lyric and write a song. I have a unique talent for looking at something on the written page and being able to write a melody to it. I knew that my own words weren't very good. "Come Back Baby," "I Can't Go On Living Without You" – they don't really hold much of a candle to Bernie's stuff. But I was excited because I was still in Bluesology and I was writing these songs. I never thought in a million years it would lead to me being Elton John, the artist. I thought we would write songs for other people and that was the way it would turn out.

But of course, it didn't turn out like that because the songs we wrote initially for other artists like "I Can't Go On Living Without You" and "The Tide Will Turn for Rebecca," I didn't really like very much. I wanted to write things like "Scarecrow" and "Regimental Sgt. Zippo" and "Angel Tree" because I was listening to things like Procol Harum in the late '60s and the Beatles. You listen to "Regimental Sgt. Zippo" and it's a double pastiche on what the Beatles were doing, but they were our first efforts.

Q: Did you ever reuse any early lyrics or melodies in later songs? 

Bernie Taupin: We referenced "Scarecrow" in a song later on. There's a line in "Curtains" (from 1975 album "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"). It says, "I used to know this old scarecrow / He was my song, my joy and sorrow." That was a tip of the hat to the very first song we wrote because "Captain Fantastic" was an album about our early trials in the music business.

Q: "Your Song" was released 50 years ago last month. What does that song mean to you now?

John: It's a song I've never stopped singing and I've never stopped enjoying singing it. The thing with Bernie's lyrics is, as I've gotten older and I've sung them so many times, I see more meaning in them now. For me, it's always been quite incredible how he wrote "Your Song" when he was 18. They're such beautiful lyrics, and so moving and adult. And he was a kid! I don't know how he did it. It's one of those things where the first song that cemented you in the public eye is a song that stayed in the public eye forever, and you think, "God, how are we going to repeat that?" But I never set out to write singles, so it was easy to repeat. I had a great lyric writer who followed it up hundreds and hundreds of times over.

Q: Did you know you had something special from the get-go? 

Taupin: I never had any doubts about it. It's one of those songs you write and go, "Yeah, this could stay around for a while." It's just got something about it. It has a timeless quality and it's an innocent song. It was written in a very innocent time, and luckily it's retained its innocence. And I think that's the beauty of it and that's what people relate to. And it has a killer melody. I think everybody thought it was a special song from Day One. When John Lennon said, "This is the best thing since us," that's high praise indeed. 

Q: Elton, looking back on your 50-plus-year career with your biopic (“Rocketman"), memoir ("Me") and now this box set, is there an achievement you’re proudest of?

John: The thing I'm proudest of was getting sober and getting my life back on track, and then meeting my husband and having children. That's my proudest thing. But what (those projects) showed is my wonderful relationship with Bernie. It's lasted for 53 years and it's as strong as it ever was. We're closer now than we've ever been. Looking back on this journey reinforced the fact that he's been the linchpin in my life that's held me together. So I'm proud of that lasting relationship. Without him, I wouldn't be here. 

Q: Bernie sent you lyrics for your new album a while back, although you haven't written any melodies yet. Have you found it difficult to get creative during quarantine? 

John: Well, it was my idea. I said, "We're on tour for three years on this farewell tour. I'm going to be in Australia and New Zealand, and I'm gonna have a piano in the house. Send me some lyrics and I'll write some songs." We did nearly 40 shows, which is a lot down there, and I didn't write the songs. And then COVID happened. I just don't really feel motivated to write songs at the moment. I mean, I've done some records with (Lady) Gaga, Surfaces, Gorillaz and Charlie Puth. I've been quite busy in that respect, but I haven't felt the urge to do anything Elton-y at all.

I've been spending time with my children and that is the silver lining in the dark cloud. So I have the lyrics, they are really great lyrics and one day I will get around to doing it. I just don't feel motivated. No one needs another Elton John album at the moment and I only want to write another Elton John album when I feel really, really motivated. 

Sir Elton John, left, husband David Furnish and songwriter Bernie Taupin after the Oscars earlier this year. John and Taupin took home best original song for "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" from John's biopic "Rocketman."

Q: How have you and your family been spending time at home? (John and his husband, David Furnish, share two children: Zachary, 9, and Elijah, 7.) 

John: It's been lots of Snakes and Ladders and jigsaw puzzles. We had a great summer here in England. We have a nice house with a big garden, so we did lots of things with the boys outside. That time is precious because they're at an age now where they're 7 and 9, so they're growing and changing and becoming little men instead of boys. It's been a joy to have this time with them, and that's why I really haven't been interested in going to the piano and sitting there and writing a song. I've been more interested in spending time with them and David. 

Q: You recently told Dua Lipa that you've been listening to her new album, "Future Nostalgia," in lockdown. What else have you been enjoying? 

John: Dua Lipa was very clever in putting out something that was so up, which people needed. Gaga's album, "Chromatica," was exactly the same. There's an album by Jessie Ware ("What's Your Pleasure?"), which is wonderful. There's an album by Róisín Murphy ("Róisín Machine"). I've been mostly listening to dance records, to be honest. I'm mostly trying to listen to joyful stuff.