It’s Wednesday and I hope this week has been kind to you. Time to take another look at a song I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. My pick for this installment is I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John. A search of the blog for this tune came up empty – hard to believe, given I’ve loved this tune since 1983 when I first heard it, and it remains one of my favorite ’80s pop songs.
I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues was composed by John and his longtime guitarist and collaborator Davey Johnstone. The lyrics were provided by Bernie Taupin, who first became John’s lyricist in 1967 and for the album resumed his full-time partnership with John, which had been paused in 1977 and had only partially been restored since the early ’80s. And, yes, that beautiful harmonica was played by the great Stevie Wonder. The song first appeared in April 1983 as the lead single for Too Low for Zero, the 17th studio album by the English music artist.
Following three non-charting singles in 1982, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues marked John’s return to the international charts. In the U.S., it climbed to no. 2 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart and no. 4 on the Hot 100. In his home country, the tune peaked at no. 5, the same as in Ireland. It also made the top 30 in various other European countries, including Switzerland (no. 12), Belgium (14) and Germany (no. 22). Elsewhere, it reached no. 4 in Australia, no. 12 in New Zealand and no. 9 in Canada.
Too Low for Zero also did well, marking a comeback for John, whose previous four albums had failed to yield many enduring international hit singles and had disappointing sales. In each New Zealand and Australia, the album climbed to no. 2. In Europe, it was most successful in Germany (no. 5) and Norway (no. 6). In the UK and the U.S. it reached no. 7 and no. 25, respectively. Too Low for Zero became one of John’s best-selling records in the ’80s, especially in Australia where it was certified 5x Platinum. In England, Canada and the U.S., it earned Platinum status.
The above original music video was directed by Russell Mulcahy, an Australian film director who also directed 19 other videos for John. Filmed in the Rivoli Ballroom in London and at Colchester Garrison Barracks, Essex, the video tells the tale of two 1950s-era lovers. They get separated when the man needs to leave for National Service in the armed forces. After going through trials and tribulations there, he is finally reunited with his girl.
I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues became a fan favorite and a staple of John’s concerts. Later, he also performed the tune live with Mary J. Blige and separately with Luciano Pavarotti. Here’s a clip of John and Blige captured at New York’s Madison Square Garden in October 2000.
Following are some additional tidbits from Songfacts:
Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote this song as a love letter to his wife at the time, Toni Russo, who is the sister of the actress Rene Russo. In the album credits, Bernie wrote, “Hey Toni, this one’s for you.”
Discussing the meaning of the song, Bernie Taupin said: “I wrote this in Montserrat, an island that, tragically, no longer exists. [Devastating volcanic eruptions in 1995 left the entire southern half of the Caribbean island uninhabitable – CMM] Basically, it’s a letter home with a small tip included about making the most of time, not wishing it away just because you can’t be with the one you love. Time is precious; read books, paint a picture, bake a cake. Just don’t wallow, don’t be content.”
Too Low for Zero was the first Elton John album since Blue Moves in 1976 with Bernie Taupin as the exclusive lyricist. During their time apart, each had success working with other artists. Taupin collaborated with Alice Cooper, and Elton turned to Gary Osbourne for lyrics.
…This song contains one of the few lyrics that Bernie Taupin regrets. He said: “The whole ‘loving you more than I love life itself’ is something I would never say now. It’s kind of a crass sentiment and totally false. It’s quite another thing to love someone deeply with your whole heart without stooping to this kind of lie. I loathe giving songwriting advice, but were I pushed, I’d say, ‘Never say you love someone more than life or that you’d die for someone in a song.’ It’s just such a disservice to your own spirit. I’d like to think that I’d lay down my life for my children, but until you’re faced with the reality, it’s kind of a moot point. Rambling, I know, but relative nonetheless.”
The Too Low For Zero album has special meaning for Elton, as it reunited him with Taupin and is also where he met his first spouse, Renate Blauel, who was an engineer on the sessions. Elton cites this song as his favorite from the set, telling Rolling Stone, “It’s just a great song to sing. It’s timeless.”
The album also reunited John with the core of his backing band of the early ’70s: Johnstone (guitar, backing vocals), Dee Murray (bass, backing vocals), and Nigel Olsson (drums, backing vocals). Perhaps that explains at least in part the album’s great sound!
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube