Elton John singing Cole Porter ... and doing duets with drag queen RuPaul and pop confessor Leonard Cohen on an upcoming album?
It’s no more unlikely than John--whose last Southern California concerts were at Dodger Stadium and the Forum last year--performing to just 800 people on Thursday night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
But it’s all happening.
John’s 90-minute performance at a dinner at the hotel and a tennis extravaganza tonight at the Forum are benefits for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Among the pros on hand at the Forum will be Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Tracy Austin. The concert is sold out, but tickets are available for the tennis event.
On the eve of the benefits, John, who seems rejuvenated since breaking a lengthy cocaine dependency three years ago, spoke about the new album--titled “Duets” and due around Thanksgiving--and the factors that led him last year to start the foundation, which he hopes will raise $2.5 million this year.
Question: Let’s start with the new album: How did it come about?
Answer: The record company in England wanted to put out an album of all my old duets for Christmas, and I felt I’ve had enough of the old records coming out. I wanted something new. At first, I kind of compromised and agreed to do new tracks with Bonnie Raitt, Tammy Wynette and k.d. lang. It was great fun so I thought we should do a whole album of duets.
Q: How did you go about choosing the vocal partners?
A: I wrote down a list of the people I would love to sing with . . . and most of them came through. The album starts off with k.d. lang, followed by duets with PM Dawn, Little Richard, Don Henley, Kiki Dee, Chris Rea, Tammy Wynette, Nik Kershaw, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, RuPaul, Marcella Detroit from Shakespear’s Sister, Paul Young and Leonard Cohen. The album ends with the George Michael duet on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which hasn’t been on an album before.
Q: What about the songs?
A: It’s a combination of some new songs I wrote with Bernie (Taupin) plus a song by PM Dawn, a song by Stevie Wonder and old favorites, including some Motown things. Leonard Cohen and I sang “Born to Lose,” the old country hit for Ray Charles. With RuPaul, we did “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”
Q: What about the Cole Porter song?
A: Kiki (who teamed with John for the original “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) and I did “True Love,” which Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly sang in the film “High Society.” I’ve always loved it.
Q: Who were some of the singers on your list that weren’t available?
A: Bono from U2, James Taylor, Neil Young . . . Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses. They were either touring or in the studio themselves. Stevie Winwood, for instance, was recording. I would also have loved to have done something with Michael Stipe, but I have only just met him and I certainly wasn’t going to ring him up and say, “I know we have just met, but, by the way, would you like to do a duet with me for my next album?”
Q: Let’s talk about the foundation. Why did you decide to start your own organization?
A: I’ve given the royalties from all my singles in England to AIDS charities since “Sacrifice” about 2 1/2 years ago and I started doing the same thing here with the release of “The Last Song” last year. I have also done a lot of AIDS benefits, including one for Elizabeth Taylor’s foundation at Madison Square Garden.
But I’ve wanted to get more involved on a personal, day-to-day level and I felt the best way to do that was to be in control of it. Besides, there have been people from other areas of life--including Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe from sports--sponsoring AIDS foundations, but no one from the music business, so I thought it could be my job to do that.
Q: What do you say about complaints that there are too many foundations . . . that it would be better if everyone worked together in a single agency?
A: There is so much money that needs to be raised that I don’t think there can be too many foundations as long as they are operated soundly. To me, the important thing is making sure the money goes to people and that you don’t take on too much staff. We have a staff of two and I pay their wages. We spend 90% of the money on direct care and the other 10% to education. We work closely with NCAP (the National Community AIDS Partnership in Washington), which advises us on which projects are worthy of support.
Q: How have your charity activities over the years made you feel about human nature? Do you think events like Live Aid and Farm Aid help make people more sensitive to needs or are they just one-day events?
A: I think they help a lot. You are never going to be able to obliterate indifference or intolerance, but you can have a go at it--and it’s important to do something because most of the money for AIDS, for instance, comes from the private sector, not governments.
Q: Do you think there has been a saturation of AIDS messages--that they begin to lose their effectiveness?
A: I don’t think there can ever be too many messages about AIDS. If you stop the education process, then people are going to think the problem is all over and done with. They’ll think that it’s OK to go and have sex again. Education is essential, especially among young people. The more you look at the statistics, the more you realize the problem isn’t over . . . the more you feel the urgency to do something.