Last year, Elton John celebrated the 30th anniversary of his 1975 opus Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (Island) with an expanded deluxe edition on Island. Captain Fantastic was the high point of John’s collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin and the peak of a climb to success that began in 1972; besides its positive critical reception, it was the first album to debut on the Billboard album chart at No. 1.
Unbeknownst to many, it was also the culmination of a remarkable period in the life of bassist Dee Murray, whose rhythmically inventive and melodically memorable bass work anchored 15 Elton John Top-10 hits and six number-one records between 1972 and 1975. And while his career included work with numerous noteworthy artists like Steve Winwood, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, and Alice Cooper, his tenure on bass during the most prolific period of Elton John’s songwriting partnership with Taupin remains mythological.
Born in Kent, England in 1947, Murray first tasted success in the mid-Sixties singing and playing guitar in the Mirage, a band whose harmony-laden approach was anchored by Dee’s vocal prowess. In 1968 he joined the Spencer Davis Group to handle 4-string duties on the album Funky (One Way), and his roots as a singer and guitarist clearly resulted in an indelible sense of melody on the bass. In the spring of 1970, Dee and fellow Spencer Davis alum Nigel Olsson became Elton John’s live rhythm section, though it would take months of clamoring before producer Gus Dudgeon allowed John to use Murray in the studio. In the meantime, Murray, Olsson, and guitarist Davey Johnstone appeared on John’s records as vocalists, even if they were not featured on their respective instruments.
1971’s live 11-17-70 (Island) stands as one of the best examples of Murray’s tuba-like basswork; his harmonic and melodic interplay with John provides scintillating interpretations of now-classic jams like “Burn Down the Mission.” 1972’s Honky Chateau would be the first of seven consecutive No. 1 albums on Island, six of which are augmented by Dee and his 1961 stack-knob Fender Jazz Bass: Honky Chateau (1972), Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973), Caribou (1974), Greatest Hits (1974), and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975).
Citing the need for change, Elton fired Dee in 1975, but the bassist rebounded quickly, recording Rick Springfield’s 1976 album Wait for Night (RCA) and playing with Procol Harum on 1977’s “Something Magic” tour. He rejoined Elton in 1980, just in time to perform in front of 500,000 fans, and he appeared on John’s Jump Up! (MCA, 1982) and on 1983’s Too Low for Zero (Island), which reunites the classic core of Elton John’s heyday – Olsson, guitarist Johnstone, and Murray, as musicians and vocalists – on hits like “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing.” Though Dee was dismissed again in 1984 after the making of Breaking Hearts (MCA), he would resurface four years later, reassuming his stature as an incomparable background vocalist on 1988’sReg Strikes Back (Island).
In the late Eighties, Dee moved to Nashville, where he embarked upon a career in the country music scene, supporting the likes of 1970s hitmaker Johnny Rodriguez. Diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter, Dee died on January 15, 1992. That March, John performed two tribute concerts at the Grand Ole Opry to raise money to support Murray’s family.
Drummer Nigel Olsson, upon reuniting with the pianist in 2004 to record Peachtree Road (Universal), reflected upon the absence of his longtime bandmate: “We will never again create anything as wonderful – as inspirational – without Dee’s presence.”
Thanks Chris Frances, and Jill McMahon for the typing