Sunday, August 24, 2008
Elton & Keek
When Liz Hurley married Indian businessman Arun Nayar in March 2007, it involved not one but two weddings.
The first at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire; the second at Umaid Bawan Palace in Jodhpur, India.
Chief among the A-list guests at the first ceremony was Sir Elton John accompanied by his long-time partner, David Furnish.
But Elton was nowhere to be seen at the second bash, attended by a solo Furnish. And no one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain the non-appearance of the great man. Until now, that is.
On a tempestuous August afternoon, Kiki Dee is to be found in the surprisingly calm headquarters of EMI Records in West London.
She's a strikingly good-looking woman, her shiny hair still a defiant shade of red - her hairdresser sister, Betty, she says, continues to colour it for her - her frame trim and toned. You'd hardly guess she'd celebrated her 61st birthday in March.
Which prompts her to recall the 'surprise' party that was thrown for her 60th. An artist friend, Hazel Walker, was in charge of organising the event.
'I was touring with the Seventies group 10cc, actually performing on my birthday which pleased me enormously,' says Kiki. 'The alternative would have meant sitting alone at home wondering what I should be doing.'
Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons hotel restaurant in Oxfordshire had been chosen as the venue, 20 close family and friends already invited.
When Kiki arrived on the appointed day, it was suggested that before she sat down to eat, she might first enjoy a tour of the kitchens. 'Naturally, I said that that would be lovely, although I did think it a bit odd,' she recalls.
She was duly ushered through the green baize door. 'I was led past the metal worktops. I was asked to admire the gleaming pots and pans. And, all the time, I was thinking: "Why are you showing me this?"
'Then, I turned a corner and there was Elton, standing with my family. I practically passed out.'
It was only later that Kiki realised what he'd given up to be there.
'When Hazel had got in touch with him and realised that Liz Hurley's Indian wedding clashed with my birthday party, she immediately said that, of course, I'd understand why he couldn't be there.' But not a bit of it. 'Apparently, Elton had said: "No, no, I'm coming to Keek's 60th," He always calls me Keek,' she chuckles.
'Not bad, is it? Liz Hurley being stood up for little old me.'
The evening was a huge success. 'Laughter, tears, the lot,' she recalls. 'Everyone I loved was there. And there was Elton chatting to my brother, David, about football. It was the best night.
'Elton also gave a glowing speech, praising me to the skies and then finishing, typical him, with the throwaway line: "And, if you believe that, you'll believe anything!"'
In fact, when Elton had arrived by helicopter for the party, the local farmer whose field he landed on said: 'If I had known it was you, I'd have charged you more than £50.'
From the earliest age, Kiki knew she could sing. The youngest of three, Pauline Matthews (her real name) would belt out songs to any visitors to the terraced house in Bradford where she was raised with her older brother and sister.
Her father, Fred, was a weaver; her mother, Mary, a homemaker. 'She was very kind, very calm, very much a nurturer. Dad, by contrast, was frustrated. He wanted to do things with his life that he never achieved.
'I think he'd have liked a business of his own. In time, he began to live vicariously through my achievements.
'I've got my mother's acceptance of things and my dad's drive - not such a bad combination.'
As soon as she could, the young Pauline started singing with dance bands in and around Leeds. One night, a scout from a record company tape-recorded her by leaning over the balcony in a dance hall; the result was a recording contract with Fontana.
'I was only 17. It was a fantastic break but I wish now I'd waited until I was 21 and had a bit more experience under my belt.'
In the event, it was a case of too much, too soon. In 1969, Kiki was the first white European-to be signed by the mighty Tamla Motown label. She spent 12 weeks in Detroit and made an album.
'I don't regret a moment of the experience but no one seemed to know what to do with me. I never even met Berry Gordy [Motown's founder]. Everything just seemed to fizzle out.'
The Motown connection did throw up one lucky connection, however. John Reid, its label manager in London at the time, was a friend (later his manager and lover; ultimately his sworn enemy) of Elton John. Reid introduced Kiki to Elton. It was, she recalls, one of the more bizarre evenings of her life.
'We went round to Elton's flat on Edgware Road. Neil Young was there as was Elton's mum. Elton and I clicked immediately despite a rather unpromising start.
'At one point, he asked me to go into the kitchen and fetch some wine glasses. He was already a star by then and had started investing in lovely bits and pieces. The glasses must have cost a fortune.
'I went to the cupboard, carefully reached in and promptly knocked a whole row of them on to the floor where they smashed into a thousand pieces. I was mortified.
'Elton came in to see what had happened and burst out laughing. He thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen. I've loved him from that moment on.'
He's certainly been very good to her, both professionally and personally. 'There's always been a special bond between us and I honestly don't know why. He's three weeks younger than me but we're not at all alike. And yet, there's a sort of chemistry, something you can't explain.'
When Kiki was signed to Elton's record label, Rocket, she was keen to feature some of her own material on her first album.
She won't easily forget, she says, the first time she sang Loving And Free to Elton, by then living in Virginia Water. 'I was very nervous. I launched into the opening lyric, "Bound, I am bound, like the knots in a string", and managed to keep going to the end without making a mistake.'
There was an awkward pause. Then Elton coughed. 'He'd really liked the song, he said, but he was a bit puzzled by some of the lyrics. What had I meant by, "Bound, I am bound, like an ox in a stream?" He felt it didn't make any sense.'
Their collaboration on this first album produced her breakthrough hit Amoureuse in 1973. Others followed, like I Got The Music In Me and How Glad I Am, but it was 1976's duet with Elton on Don't Go Breaking My Heart that went to No 1 in the UK, the U.S. and many countries round the world.
She and Elton were booked to perform seven straight nights at New York's prestigious Madison Square Gardens. 'So I rang Mum and Dad. They'd never been on a plane, never been out of England,' Kiki says.
'I said to Mum: "How about flying to New York first class, staying a week at the Waldorf Astoria and sailing home on the QE2?"
'There was a pause. Then Mum said: "We'd love to, Pauline, but we've just booked our caravan holiday." In the end, they did change their dates and flew to the States.'
The mid-Seventies, says Kiki, are what she now refers to as 'the madness'. In 1974, she was the support act on Elton's U.S. tour. 'It was crazy. We had a police escort everywhere we went. I felt like I was riding Elton's rainbow and it was exciting, but it wasn't me.'
She insists, though, that Elton can 'do' normal. 'Well, as much as anyone whose life has been so extraordinary. He's been such a very big star for such a very long time.
'We don't hang out, though. We can't. We're in different orbits. But that's all right. As soon as I hear his voice, we go right back to wherever we were the last time we chatted.'
Those phone calls follow a familiar pattern. 'He comes on the line and says: "Hello, Keek, how're you doing, darling?" He pretends he's my stalker. Heaven alone knows why.'
It's no exaggeration to say that Elton has been the main man in Kiki's life.
'We've known each other so long, we're more like brother and sister. If I were ever in trouble, I know what would happen. Elton would ring me because he'd have found out. He's the most loyal friend anyone could ever have. It's one of his greatest attributes.'
Throughout 'the madness', Kiki lived with Davey Johnstone, a guitarist in Elton's band. 'He was 24 and I was 28. I thought he was The One. It took me a long time to get over the end of our relationship.
'Looking back now, I think he was simply too young to commit to me and there was an endless stream of willing young girls he met on tour.
'I don't blame him, although it hurt me terribly at the time. The first cut is the deepest and all that. But we're great mates now.'
There have been other lovers along the way. 'I have my odd little dalliances,' she says. 'But because I've never married, a lot of people think I'm gay. I'm not. I'm just a sensitive little soul who's put so much into her career that I haven't had enough energy or time left over to sustain a relationship.'
Not that she's seriously complaining; not any more, anyway. 'To be honest, it did bother me that I was on my own when I was 40. Would I ever get married? Or have a child?
'In my late 30s, I flirted with the idea of having a child without necessarily being in a steady relationship. But I've never had a strong maternal urge, and then I got cancer of the womb - luckily caught at an early stage - so that put paid to that.'
And, throughout it all, she's had her career. Two years ago, Elton gifted her the master tapes of the five albums (the last never released) that she recorded for Rocket. Kiki took them to EMI to see if it might be interested in repackaging them. Indeed, it was, and, while she was about it, did she have any other material it could hear?
For A dozen years, Kiki had been working with acoustic guitarist Carmelo Luggeri, producing three albums: Almost Naked (1995); Where Rivers Meet, a fusion of East/West influences, three years later; and 2008's The Walk Of Faith.
'It's a ten-year deal,' she says. 'Which is a great boost at this stage in my career. It would have been so easy for me to put a band together and tour the country, churning out the old stuff. But I wanted to move on, to try new things as a writer and singer. And I'm so pleased I did.'
It was quite a gamble and a very different way of performing from what she'd been used to.
She remembers vividly her first gig with Carmelo on a tour with Vanessa Mae. 'It was in Newcastle. I walked off stage and burst into tears. The pressure of performing accompanied by just one acoustic guitar had felt so alien. I wasn't in control. There was no hiding behind a wall of sound.' But she quickly got used to it.
To this day, not everyone understands why she continues to shun the offers of trading on her so-called celebrity. When she lived in Maida Vale, she'd often bump into The X Factor's Louis Walsh. 'Whenever he saw me, he'd say: "Go for the money, Kiki, go for the money."
'I like Louis but we're so different. He just doesn't get me. I've no wish to cash in on what I did 30 years ago. It's about the music.'
Having said that, she's the first to acknowledge that Don't Go Breaking My Heart has been her pension for three decades and more.
A year ago, Kiki decided to let her London flat and move to a cottage in Hertfordshire, in the same village where Carmelo lives with his wife and family, and where he and Kiki already owned a small recording studio. 'The air is fresher,' she says, 'and I'm beginning to write again.'
The change of pace has brought a corresponding shift in her ambitions. 'Performers like to perform and there's certainly no disgrace in entertaining people, in giving pleasure, you hope, through your singing. My work defines who I am. And look at Elton. He's done a number of farewell tours. But I can't imagine him not performing. It's who he is.
'On the other hand, I'm single, I have no children, my whole life is geared around me. I have to keep healthy, otherwise I jeopardise my career. But I can't keep on doing stuff just for me. It seems too self-serving.
'I don't know what it would be, but I'm starting to think that I should be making some sort of contribution to society.'
• Almost Naked, Where Rivers Meet and The Walk Of Faith are due to be released by EMI on September 1.