Written and researched by John F. Higgins
If you were to ask a random person on the street to name an Elton John song, most likely they would reply with something off the list of titles that Gus Dudgeon produced. The Dudgeon catalogue pretty much defines what has come to be known as the Classic Years in Elton’s career. In fact, of the 25 songs that make up Elton’s current concert set list, all but four of them are titles that Gus originally recorded.
Between the years 1970-76, and then 1985-86, Gus oversaw for Elton 13 studio albums (with one-off singles, b-sides, and subsequently released tracks, the total song count comes to 176) and three live albums (63 songs there, including the Midsummer Music Festival material released in 2005 on the Deluxe Edition of Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy). No other producer even comes close to that amount of Elton credits, even though the two men worked together for less than ten years out of a career that now spans over 40. In that brief but crucial period, the collaboration resulted in seven #1 albums in a row, two of those entering the Billboard Album Charts at the top spot (something no act had ever done before); 12 Top Ten albums; six #1 singles; 21 Top Ten singles… Suffice to say, Gus Dudgeon set the gold album standard when it came to producing Elton John.
Gus was born on September 30, 1942 in Surrey, the bucolic county just south of London where he would return to live in the 1970s. His career began when he worked as a teaboy (now more commonly known as a ‘gofer’) at Olympic Studios — one of the premiere recording facilities in London. Within a short time, Gus had advanced to a position of sound engineer and moved on to Decca Records’ studios at West Hampstead. There he got to work on sessions with artists signed to the record label, or hoping to be. His role on these dates would be to lay cable, plug things into things, and position microphones…all in support of the session producer. It was this training that Gus would use as a basis for his approach to production in the years to come.
Decca’s stable of artists included a wide range of musical styles: from Davey Graham, a folk guitarist whose blues-based style would directly influence Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, to The Rolling Stones, Lulu and Tom Jones — whose label auditions Gus worked on. He also engineered The Zombies’ She’s Not There (a hit in both the UK and US), which used a bass and drum core riff that would pre-echo future Dudgeon productions, as well as seminal albums by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, which helped further the career of guitarist Eric Clapton.
Gus’s first credit came as producer of a live album for Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band called Zoot! Live At Klook’s Kleek, London (recorded on May 31, 1966 for EMI Records). An opportunity soon followed to co-produce, with Mike Vernon, the eponymous debut album by Ten Years After. This 1967 Decca release included the song Losing The Dogs, which Gus co-wrote with bandleader Alvin Lee. Well on the road to establishing himself as an independent producer, Gus worked on two albums by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, an avant-garde musical comedy band (think Monty Python with songs instead of skits) that had, as its drummer, “Legs” Larry Smith, whom Gus would use a few years later to tap dance on the Elton track, I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Gus produced albums for The Strawbs and Ralph McTell, as well as the project that originally brought Gus to Elton: David Bowie’s 1969 single, Space Oddity. The international hit was a collaboration between the artist, the producer and the arranger: Bowie, Dudgeon and Paul Buckmaster, respectively. At around the same time Space Oddity was garnering attention, Elton’s team was looking for a producer to helm the pianist’s next sessions — having had limited success with Empty Sky. Steve Brown, Elton’s A&R man at the time, asked Buckmaster if he would like to be the arranger for the upcoming project. When Paul said yes, he was then asked if he knew of any producers who might be suitable for the material. He did not hesitate to recommend Gus Dudgeon.
This fortuitous connection would not only bring the stability to Gus’s work that he had been looking for, but it also launched Elton’s career as a true recording artist. While Elton and Bernie’s song writing had become more mature over the past months, it was not until their material was married to the talents of Gus and Paul that it truly came alive. Although it was originally conceived as an elaborate songwriter’s demo, soon after its release in 1970, and in conjunction with some breakout performances in America, the resulting Elton John album generated the chart success and critical attention that Elton and his management had found so elusive.
Elton’s contract called for a mind-numbing two albums per year for the next five years. Gus kept pace and produced them all, expanding Elton’s aural landscape to the extent that rarely did two consecutive studio albums sound like they had been recorded within the same twelve month period, let alone by the same artist. From the orchestrated Elton John album to the The Band-influenced Tumbleweed Connection…from the polished Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy to the raucous Rock Of The Westies; each album, and the songs within it, was given what it needed…not what had been successful the last time.
During this fierce run of remarkable creativity, Elton demonstrated an enormous level of trust in his producer: when he had finished recording the piano and vocal parts to a song he would often leave the rest of the session for Gus to sort out and complete — seldom staying around to participate in, or even observe, things like instrument over-dubs, backing vocal sessions or orchestra recording dates. The two men respected each other’s talents and had a very close friendship based on a shared quick wit, passion for music and desire for perfection.
During the whirlwind of the early-to-mid 1970s, Gus somehow also found the time to produce records for other artists, some of which were signed to the Rocket Records label — which Elton, Gus, Steve Brown, manager John Reid, and lyricist Bernie Taupin formed in 1972. These included Elton’s guitarist, Davey Johnstone, and drummer, Nigel Olsson, as well as Kiki Dee (Gus produced the 1974 album I’ve Got The Music In Me), Colin Blunstone and the band Solution. In addition, Gus produced a Top Ten hit for South African musician John Kongos, He’s Gonna Step On You Again, in 1971 (listed in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the first song ever to use a sample); Joan Armatrading’s debut album, Whatever’s For Us, in 1972; a pair of records by Magna Carta (during which he met a young multi-instrumentalist named Davey Johnstone); and Bernie Taupin’s 1971 album of spoken poetry.
Gus left Rocket Records and discontinued producing Elton after the release of Blue Moves in late 1976. At around this time he purchased an abandoned watermill in Cookham, England, and turned it into one of the most modern recording studios in the world. Called The Mill, it was originally meant to be a place where Gus could re-mix Elton’s albums for quadrophonic release, but that project never materialized. The Mill instead hosted sessions for various acts, most notably Lindisfarne (their UK Top Ten hit, Run For Home) and Chris Rea, for whom Gus produced the album Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? (which included the hit single Fool (If You Think It’s Over)) in 1978. The Mill, at times called Sol Studios, also was where Elton’s A Single Man, Ice On Fire, and some songs on Leather Jackets were tracked. Gus also produced the 1981 Elkie Brooks album Pearls, which reached #2 on the UK charts and was for a time the biggest-selling album by a female vocalist in Britain.
Gus’s last album with Elton was Live In Australia With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, recorded in December 1986 and released in June 1987. It spawned the single, Candle In The Wind, which reached #5 in the UK charts and #6 in Billboard…making it the first time a single producer has had a song reach the Top Ten with a live version after having also reached the Top Ten in its original studio version.
Gus produced two tracks for the 1991 album Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin — Bruce Hornsby’s Madman Across The Water and The Beach Boys’ Crocodile Rock. One of Gus’s most notable credits of the 1990s was the XTC album Nonsuch (1992). However, Gus was unhappy with the record — as bandleader Andy Partridge had taken Gus’s final mixes and changed them drastically before release. Gus, conversely, was quite proud of the 1997 album Somewhere Someone’s Falling In Love, which he produced for Danish country singer Henning Staerk.
In 1995, Gus began re-mastering the bulk of Elton’s catalogue on CD, starting with the albums he had originally produced, but then extending to the rest of the collection. Sometimes taking six or seven hours to re-master a single song, Gus also took this opportunity to transform two of Elton’s live albums, 11-17-70 and Here And There, both sonically and structurally. A full 16 songs were added to Here And There, which resulted in all three songs John Lennon performed with Elton on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 finally being officially released.
Early in the morning of July 21, 2002, Gus and his wife of 43 years, Sheila, died when their car went off the highway while coming back from a party. A memorial service was held on August 1st in Cobham, where the couple had lived for many years, in a delightful home called Mole Cottage.
Elton dedicated Your Song to Gus and Sheila at his concert at the Royal Opera House in London on December 1, 2002 (a concert that Elton had asked Gus to record for future CD release), saying, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Gus’s ability as a producer and an editor…and a friend.”top