The sea of musicians, backstage crew and hangers-on parts reverentially as Elton John’s mum approaches, making a beeline for the singer in the purple and gilt Versace suit. This dressing room may be on the small side for a superstar, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
At 90, Sheila Farebrother is the guest of honour tonight, and it shows. “Elton” puts down the water he was handed as he came offstage and bends to hug her. Yes, they make an odd couple (she’s wearing neutral slacks and a pastel checked top and carrying a goes-with-anything handbag; he is a walking glitter explosion), but there’s nothing fake about the affection between them.
“Wonderful. Just wonderful,” she says, patting him on the back. They stand for a few moments, beaming at each other, still holding hands. He looks slightly awkward, not quite sure when to break the embrace. She looks like, well, a proud mum.
Then she leans in, strokes his cheek and, with a little laugh, says: “You look more like him every day.” It’s not just a little bit funny, as Elton might sing, but downright barking mad.
For this man may be a singer, and he may be wearing Elton’s suit – Elton’s actual suit; he bought it in one of the star’s famous charity sales – but he is not Elton.
His name is Paul Bacon and he’s an Elton John tribute act coming off stage at the Leicester Square Theatre in London. He’s a decent one, granted – he was voted the best pretend Elton John in Britain, and it’s a crowded field – but still not actually Elton.
Indeed Paul, 54, a perfectly decent bloke who looks more like comedian Clive Anderson once he takes off the Elton wig and spangles, admits that he’s the sort of performer those genuinely ‘in the biz’ sneer at.
In any circumstances it would be odd for a star’s mother to come along to see their tribute act. In this situation – with 68-year-old Elton and his mother not speaking to each other for seven years – it is surreal.
This week it was suggested the relationship between the fake Elton and the real Elton’s mum (who met when she booked him to perform at her 90th birthday in March) is growing curiously close.
He’s had lunch with her “‘dressed as me, not Elton,” he assures me. “I mean, it’s weird, but not that weird”) and they’ve chatted via email.
All very odd, but the headlines suggesting he’s filling an Elton-shaped void in her life are a bit exaggerated, surely? Well, no. Not when you watch them together. Not when you sit three rows behind Sheila as fake Elton performs and witness her reaction to the experience.
For while most people approach tribute acts with scepticism – I marvel at how similar Paul sounds to the real Elton, but am dismayed to discover he can’t play the piano well enough, so mimes to a keyboard player behind him – Sheila is entranced.
She sings along (she clearly knows every word of her son’s songs) and claps and whoops with delight when fake Elton tells the audience that his mum doesn’t particularly like the song Tiny Dancer, “but we don’t always listen to our mums, do we?”
Later, as younger fans dance in the aisles, she shimmies in her seat through Crocodile Rock. At times she looks reflective and lost (In the music? In her thoughts?) and during Your Song I think she’s going to cry.
And I feel that I might cry myself. I can’t decide whether seeing this 90-year-old woman completely surrendered to the music is the most joyful thing I’ve ever seen or the saddest.
I have only been allowed access tonight on the understanding I won’t bombard Sheila with questions about her feud with Elton, but I have to ask what was going on in her head while watching Paul/Elton on stage.
“I was just thinking of how wonderful he is,” she beams.
So what on earth is this relationship and how has it come about? In some ways, Paul, who is happy to chat, is as much in the dark as the rest of us. No, he’s not a surrogate son, he says, but yes, they do have a ‘bond’.
“It’s um, a friendship, yes,” he tells me. “She knows I’m not Elton, of course she does. I liken it to acting. I’m playing a part. When you go to see Helen Mirren play the Queen, you know it’s not actually the Queen.”
Yes, but if you are Prince Philip watching Helen Mirren play the Queen you don’t necessarily invite her for lunch and strike up a friendship, do you?
“No, no. I know it’s odd,” he says.”I’m as surprised as anyone. But she’s a lovely lady. I think for that moment when she’s watching me she can just remember all those times she enjoyed. She was Elton’s biggest fan. She’d spent her whole life going to see him and enjoying every minute of it.
“I do know that when I played at her birthday party I looked down and saw that she was a bit upset. There were tears, yes. I think it was the nature of the event – it was a big birthday, there were a lot of memories”‘.
He hasn’t discussed Sheila’s feud with the real Elton with her, but admits it is always there ‘like the elephant in the room’.
“Obviously we talk about him. She loves telling stories and we’ll talk about the songs and she’ll say “That reminds me of . . .” and come out with an anecdote about some tour or other, or she’ll throw in a reference to Rod Stewart popping round and I’ll want to pinch myself.
“But I haven’t asked about the situation between them. I do feel a bit caught in the middle. I think Sheila is wonderful, but I am only doing this job because I was a big Elton fan to start with. I wouldn’t want to upset him.”
Surely Elton may, indeed, be upset. Or angered? “Yes, he probably is. He might want to punch me, I don’t know. But I don’t want to hurt anyone here, least of all Elton.”
Hasn’t it occurred to him that he is being used? She seems charming, delightful even, but Elton’s mum is no frail little old lady.
She has told her own version of her feud with her son and pulled no punches, particularly when it comes to his husband, David Furnish.
Earlier this year, she berated Elton for turning his back on her seven years ago, recalling the moment she told him: “You think more of that f***ing thing you married than your own mother.”
She’s hurt, clearly, but also capable of dishing it out. Isn’t getting pally with a fake Elton the ultimate way to hurt her son back? “I don’t think she is that sort of person,” says Paul.
He has met Elton, at a concert at Birmingham’s NEC some years ago in interesting circumstances, but before Sheila came into his life.
“I got to meet him backstage and it was wonderful. I was wearing one of his suits and he recognised it.
“I didn’t tell him I did his stuff – you never know how people will take it, do you – but he was lovely. He showed me pictures of his son and everything. He couldn’t have been nicer.”
Oh dear. How awkward. Sheila has never met her grandsons nor had a conversation with Elton about them.
It gets more awkward, too, when you uncover the roots of this strange saga.
For it transpires that Sheila didn’t just decide one night that she wanted a fake Elton in her life and turn to the Yellow Pages. Because not only is the real Elton’s mother striking up a relationship with Paul – but the fake Elton is surrounded by the real Elton’s old back-up team.
Also present at tonight’s gig is Elton’s former close personal assistant, Bob Halley, who is sitting next to Sheila and with whom she remains friends. And, resplendent in a huge hat and an even bigger cache of old showbiz stories, is record producer and industry stalwart Stuart Epp, who used to work for the real Elton – and is now Paul’s manager.
Unsurprisingly, Stuart – who has also worked with Robbie Williams and Chris Rea (‘who was more difficult than Elton ever was, you can quote me on that’) – found his old colleagues were astounded when he started representing a tribute act.
“People in the industry think tribute acts are a load of old cobblers. I did, too,” says Stuart.
“Then I met Paul. We live near each other and he knew I’d worked with Elton. He came up to me in the pub and handed me his card and I said: “P*** off!”
“Then I went to see him play. He came out in the garb and I thought: “F*** me!” Then he sang. The shivers went up my back and I thought: “I have to work with this guy.”
Most people think Stuart’s sold out. “When I started representing him, John Reid (Elton’s manger for 30 years) told me I was shameful. But he was at Sheila’s party and even he was blown away by Paul’s performance. Some old friends won’t speak to me because of it. Elton’s guitarist is livid.”
And Elton? “Well, I haven’t had direct contact, but let’s just put it this way: I’m not expecting a Christmas card this year.”
Stuart’s story sheds some light on the Sheila/fake Elton phenomenon, for when the real Elton was starting to hit the big time, Stuart and Sheila were part of a small team around him – a close “family”.
‘Elton and his mum were so close, but so similar – both quite fiery characters,’ says Stuart, who remembers Sheila worshipping her son. “As Elton got more successful, his mum moved into his house in Virginia Water, Surrey, to look after the place. She did everything, but he was so demanding. They’d have rows. I remember him firing her once.
“He said: “You are fired as my mother.” They made up, though. They always did. I always thought they were more like brother and sister than mother and son.”
As Elton’s success went global, Elton parted acrimoniously with most of the “old team” – including his manager John Reid (their spat ended in court) and one-time trusted assistant Bob Halley.
“Elton fell out with everyone and when Elton falls out with you, it’s not just a quiet row, it’s explosive,” says Stuart.
And one of those casualties was his mother. Sheila has previously blamed part of the feud on Elton’s insistence that she break ties with people like Bob Halley, the other being her hatred of Elton’s partner David Furnish, and her description of him as “that thing”, which sent Elton into orbit.
So it’s telling that Bob Halley is at the gig, sitting beside Sheila. It was through Bob that Stuart got back in touch with Sheila.
“I’m sure Elton feels I engineered it, but that’s just not the way it was,” says Stuart. “I maybe did send Bob a tape of Paul to get his take on how brilliant he was, but then Bob showed it to Sheila and then, blow me, she asked if Paul could sing at her 90th birthday party.
“That was not part of the plan. Who ever heard of anything so mad? My first thought was: “Elton will go f****** nuts.” ”
This was two years ago, when Paul’s tribute act was in its infancy.
“I was in agony about it,” says Stuart. “Elton and I were still in touch then and I knew it could cause trouble. But it’s what Sheila wanted, and maybe it would be a laugh.”
He thought about telling Elton, but never did. And that is not the only thing he kept quiet.
For Stuart arranged the backstage visit for Paul and was present when he met the real Elton – but didn’t tell his old friend that Paul was a tribute act he represented.
“No, I didn’t say: “This is Paul, he not only dresses up like you, but sings like you, too.” I mean, Elton might have laughed. But you never know with him. He blows up. He might have thrown us out or punched one of us.”
(He hasn’t ever seen Elton hit anyone, he says, but he has seen him kick over a table in one of his legendary rages).
So we have an extraordinary – and, perhaps, rather murky – blurring between the real and the fake.
“Well, it looks bad, I give you that,” says Stuart. “But in some ways it’s perfectly understandable. When we were all at Sheila’s party it was like being back in the old days, like one big family. But without Elton.”
Or at least, without the real Elton. For the Elton I see seems to have slotted into the old team – just as the old team have fitted around him. So, since Stuart claims to know all the characters involved in this famous mother-and-son feud, who does he blame?
“Elton,” he says, without hesitation. “Maybe she shouldn’t have said those things about David, but asking her to turn her back on her old friends just wasn’t on. Sheila would never do that. It’s incredibly sad. I saw how close they were.”
Back in the dressing room, Sheila is saying goodbye to Paul.
‘When are you coming down for lunch again?’ she says, adding – with a twinkle – he can bring a “young lady” with him.
They have another hug before she heads off. It’s obvious this relationship is going to run and run.
There aren't any comments yet.
Comments are closed.