Elton bought me a yacht for my birthday, so I gave him an emerald ring worth a million
As two new movies celebrate his life, the extraordinary story of the welder’s son from Paisley who launched the Rocket Man ... and made Freddie Mercury a star
EIGHTEEN years ago, John Reid sat impassively in a packed London courtroom as a severely irritated megastar denounced him from the witness box.
‘I trusted him,’ said the celebrity. ‘I never thought he would betray me but he has betrayed me.’
The recriminations went on: ‘Money does strange things to people,’ said the witness, who was a fine one to talk. He had just admitted running up a £293,000 florists’ bill.
He went on: ‘I led a lavish lifestyle and there was a competitive edge to Mr Reid’s relationship with me. The more I bought something, the more he bought something.’
Almost inevitably, the man giving evidence was Sir Elton John, Britain’s richest rock star after Sir Paul McCartney. The grey haired, sober-suited Scot he was lambasting was his former lover and, for much longer than that, his manager.
Now, 20 years after the pair were estranged, the tumultuous early relationship that Sir Elton referenced in the High Court is to be brought to the silver screen in the film Rocketman, with Bodyguard star Richard Madden playing Reid.
By curious coincidence, this is not the only current biopic depicting Reid’s involvement with a flamboyant star from the glam rock era. Bohemian Rhapsody, released last week, tells the story of the late Freddie Mercury and his three bandmates from Queen. Guess who managed them in their mid-70s pomp.
In this film it is Game of Thrones star Aidan Gillen who plays the A&R man who, while still in his 20s, found himself in charge of two of the world’s biggest rock acts.
The retired pop Svengali is now 69 and living relatively quietly – if not entirely modestly – in a £6million London apartment. But both films will recall an age groaning with decadence and excess in which he was a pivotal figure.
A welder’s son from Paisley, Renfrewshire, Reid decamped to London because, he once said, he was tired of being ‘the only gay in the village’.
There he became Sir Elton’s first male lover long before the star was open about his homosexuality.
There, too, he was among the first people Freddie Mercury confided in about his sexuality.
‘We went to dinner in a restaurant in Fulham Road, just me and Freddie,’ recalled Reid of an early meeting with the Queen frontman in 1975. ‘We sat down and we were just talking. He was very funny and he had a habit of touching his top lip and I said, “Maybe you should look at getting your teeth done”, and he said, “I’ve had them fixed!”.
‘So we’re having dinner and in the middle of the conversation I said, “Look, Freddie, there’s one thing I think you should know and I hope it doesn’t make any difference to you or the rest of the band; you do know that I’m gay?”.
‘He dropped his knife and fork and said, “So am I, dear, we’ll get on swimmingly”.’
It was five years earlier, when he was 21 and working at EMI, that Reid first met the 23-year-old songwriter who had recently changed his name from Reginald Dwight to Elton John. ‘I remember this hip, shy young man. There was a gawky sweetness about him,’ recalled Reid years later.
The singer had already released one album, the barely noticed Empty Sky, but now he had vastly superior songs with which to enthral Reid.
‘The songs were beautiful and it became the Elton John album,’ Reid recalled. ‘I was his first boyfriend and we lived together as lovers for five years.
‘He was my first great love and I was his. I went on to become his manager for 25 years.’
It was between 1970 and 1975, the years which elevated Sir Elton from nobody to international superstar, that he and Reid lived in each other’s pockets and the spending ‘competition’ took root.
‘He gave me a yacht for my 25th birthday,’ remembered Reid.
For his lover’s next birthday, Reid walked into a jeweller in Paris and picked out the largest emerald ring he could find.
‘I gave it to Elton and he loved it. Unfortunately I had misread the price. I thought it was 100,000 francs. It was a million [around £100,000].’
Sir Elton, said Reid, ‘has no concept of money – I have seen him spend a million in an afternoon. “We’ll just make some more,” he would say when I got angry.
‘He doesn’t see it as excess. “You gotta live,” he always told me.’
But while the star was utterly brazen about his spending, he was circumspect, in public at least, about his sexuality.
‘I remember when he told a friend he was moving in with me – I have always been openly gay – the friend said, “What! You might as well hang a flag outside the window”.’
The pair’s first flat together was above a Safeway supermarket in London’s Edgeware Road – where Reid discovered that living with Sir Elton was like ‘trying to hold back a racehorse’.
‘The vast leaps in style were exhausting,’ he recalled. ‘He would go out one day with brown hair and return the next with pink.
‘One day he drove off in his Escort and I said it wasn’t very rock and roll. He returned that afternoon with a purple Aston Martin. I am quite conservative.’
As the money rolled in, the pair appeared locked in competition to own the most houses – at one point Reid had seven – but it was not because of money or Sir Elton’s frequent tantrums that the relationship ended. According to Reid, it ended ‘because Elton had never had a sexual adolescence. He needed to go off and play the field, which he did with gusto. By this time he was the biggest star of the Seventies and we were living in a house in Virginia Water.
‘He said he wanted a bigger house and the split just happened. There were no dramas.’
AROUND the same time, Queen were beginning to appear on Reid’s radar. He had heard of them through the single Killer Queen but needed to see them play live to know whether they would be capable of breaking America.
He rang an EMI associate to see when they planned to tour and was told they were about to go into the studio but that the band would play live for him.
The prospective manager showed up to find the band in their stage garb, a full lighting set up and an audience of one – himself.
‘They did 40 minutes and I was blown away,’ recalls Reid. ‘I didn’t find out until some time later they’d invited three or four other managers and I was the only one who turned up. So I almost got the
gig by default.’ Raising the band members’ pocket money from £20 to £30 a week, Reid told them ‘go away and make the best record you’ve ever made and I’ll sort out the money side’.
The record they made was A Night at the Opera, which contained their monster hit Bohemian Rhapsody, and the band went stratospheric.
Not that all of Reid’s calls were the right ones. In common with almost everyone else at EMI, he thought Queen’s six-minute masterpiece was too long to be a single and demanded a radio edit.
It was on the advice of DJ Kenny Everett, who played the song in full 14 times on his Capital Radio show one October weekend, that the band held firm and refused to shave off a second. Bohemian Rhapsody stayed at number one for nine consecutive weeks in the UK, a record at the time.
Reid managed Queen for the next three years, during which time they racked up hits such as Somebody To Love, We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions and they became a massive live draw in the US. Curiously, though, his contract was not renewed in 1978.
One of the reasons, alleges drummer Roger Taylor, is that Reid was put under terrific pressure by his ‘other artist’.
‘I think Elton felt a bit threatened by the other client,’ said Taylor.
While Queen went on to manage themselves, releasing several more multi-million-selling albums before Mercury’s death in 1991, Reid devoted his energies to his primary charge, with whom he remained the closest of friends.
When Sir Elton made the shock announcement he was to marry a woman, Renate Blauel, in 1984, it was Reid he asked to be best man for the wedding in Sydney.
That was also the year that, at a villa in Saint-Tropez, the two shook hands on a deal which gave Reid 20 per cent of the singer’s gross earnings to run the business side of their partnership. On a personal and business level, the pair seemed to develop an innate understanding of each other’s needs.
WE’VE always helped and supported each other through our problems – especially alcohol,’ recalled Reid a few years ago. ‘Elton made me go and see the wonderful therapist Beechy Colclough at the Promise Clinic in Bedfordshire after he went through rehab in 1990 and when I came out, he helped me through it.’
Not that Reid remained strictly a one-client manager. Over the years he has worked with fellow Scot Sir Billy Connolly, Lionel Richie, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Jackson Five and Kiki Dee – and, with offices in London, New York and LA, he treated Concorde like his local bus service.
He was closest to Sir Elton, however, until a new presence arrived in the star’s life and things began to change. His new boyfriend, filmmaker David Furnish, soon wanted to make a fly-on-thewall documentary about his lover.
Reid objected. ‘I had spent years ensuring his tantrums were never in the public domain,’ he said later. But it was Furnish who held sway and the unflattering Tantrums and Tiaras was released in 1997.
The following year, after auditors discovered a £20million hole in Sir Elton’s accounts, the business partnership and friendship finally collapsed.
It was this financial discrepancy which drove a furious Sir Elton two years later in 2000 to accuse his former manager of getting caught ‘with his fingers in the till’, to call him stupid and suggest that Reid was deliberately evasive about where his money was going.
Sir Elton went further, reminding a court Reid had a criminal conviction. The manager had been jailed for a month in 1974 for assaulting a woman journalist in New Zealand – ironically, for defending his pop star client’s honour. ‘I regret saying that,’ Sir Elton conceded later.
It is likely he regretted the whole court case. He had been suing accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and Andrew Haydon, director of John Reid Enterprises, claiming negligence, breach of contract and breach of duty, but the hearing only served to underline what an incorrigible spender Sir Elton was.
REID had already paid the star £3.4million in an out of court settlement but Sir Elton was left with an £8million legal bill after Mr Justice Ferris ruled against him. Humiliated, the star declared that he would never speak to Reid again.
His former lover was not the only long-term associate banished from the singer’s inner circle during this period. Also removed was his driver Bob Halley, which created friction with Sir Elton’s mother Sheila, who was fond of both men.
The fall-out rumbled on for years, with Sheila alleging her son had tried to order her to have no contact with Reid or Halley.
For his part, Reid settled into a life of wealthy domesticity with his long-term partner James Thompson, selling a string of properties and retiring from artist management. He was, he admitted, ‘quite honestly, fairly exhausted’.
In 2005 he appeared for one season as a judge on Australia’s version of The X Factor, staying in a butlered suite in Melbourne.
He also told friends he was writing an autobiography with the working title Too Close to the Candle. It has yet to appear.
‘I’m fond of Elton and proud of the work I did with him,’ reflected Reid a few years ago. ‘One day I’ll bump into him and there may be hugs and kisses. Or maybe not.’
‘Very funny’: Queen’s Freddie Mercury
‘First great love’: Sir Elton in 1992 with John Reid, his former partner and manager for 25 years Bitter fallout: Sir Elton took Reid to court in 2000 over cash
Friend and client: The late Freddie Mercury with Reid in 1977
Film: Richard Madden as Reid