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The power behind Rocketman: how John Reid seduced – then betrayed – Elton John

Elton John and John Reid in 1988
Elton John and John Reid in 1988 Credit: Dave Hogan/Getty

Rock managers are often described as the power behind the throne. Nowhere is this more apt than in the case of John Reid, Elton John’s former manager. 

While the new "fantasy musical" Rocketman showcases the rollercoaster life of the musician formerly known as Reginald Kenneth Dwight, arguably the most intriguing character in the film is Reid, played by Game of Thrones and Bodyguard actor Richard Madden. 

An ambitious Scotsman, Reid managed John between 1970 and 1998, transforming the singer from a nobody into a global megastar. He was also John’s lover between 1970 and 1975.

“Small and short-fused”, as Rolling Stone once described him, Reid was the archetypal 1970s rock-manager-as-force-to-be- reckoned-with, along the lines of Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant.

For three years in the mid-1970s he also managed Queen. Power behind the throne, indeed: Reid was played in last year’s Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody by Aidan Gillen, making him the only manager in rock history to be portrayed on celluloid by two different cast members of Game of Thrones (Gillen was Littlefinger to Madden’s Robb Stark).

But, as any citizen of Westeros will tell you, power can be transient. Despite three decades of a professional and personal partnership, Reid fell out with John spectacularly.

A relationship founded on intimacy and cemented over millions of album sales and myriad world tours ended up in the High Court. Reid is now retired and living in Australia, where his last major public appearance was as a judge on the Australian version of The X Factor in 2005. 

So who was this wily svengali? And why exactly did he and John fall out?

The son of a welder, Reid was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, in 1949. He studied marine engineering in Glasgow but left for London in the late 1960s with £50 in his pocket and dreams of entering the music business. He secured a job at EMI Records, moving on to become label manager for the UK arm of Tamla Motown Records, which was distributed by EMI.

The young Reid demonstrated his industry chops at Tamla by releasing a three-year-old song, Tears Of A Clown by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, as a single. It reached number one in the UK, forcing Motown in the US to re-release it there. 

Reid first met John in early 1970 when the singer visited EMI’s offices in London’s Manchester Square to “cheekily scrounge free vinyl copies of the latest releases”, according to Tom Doyle in his excellent book about John’s 1970s imperial period, Captain Fantastic. They met again at London’s Revolution Club when John was showcasing his second, eponymous, album that March.

But it was on their third meeting, in San Francisco in September 1970, that the pair first spent proper time together. John had recently completed his legendary six-night run at Los Angeles’ Troubadour – gigs that helped break the States – and Reid was in California for Motown’s 10th anniversary celebrations.

Richard Madden (right) as John Reid in Rocketman Credit: paramount

The men clicked, and - as depicted in Rocketman - ended up in bed together. "When they tear their clothes off in the movie, that was how it happened," John said recently. "I was a virgin until then I was desperate to be loved and desperate to have a tactile relationship."

Back home, John told friend Steve Brown that he was “definitely gay”, according to Doyle. John and Reid moved into a flat in The Water Gardens tower block off London’s Edgware Road.

“It was my first ever relationship, physically anyway. He was the first person I ever lived with,” John told . While John found the relationship easy to come to terms with, Reid found it less so. He was “never really that comfortable with coming out, as such, as a relationship”, said John, who affectionately called Reid “Beryl” after the actress Beryl Reid.

The relationship deepened, although the men kept it secret from the public. Gus Dudgeon, John’s producer, told VH1’s Behind The Music documentary series that the duo were “in many ways the perfect combination” together. “Both [were] gay… both very up for spending money, partying, having a really good time.”

But John and Reid’s personal relationship was just one side of the coin. Reid was also stewarding the musician to ubiquity in the US and UK. The Scot had initially been reluctant to become John’s manager when the singer’s mother, Sheila, suggested it. “It was ridiculous. I was twenty-one at the time. I didn’t have any money, I had no real experience,” Reid has said. However he quit EMI and met the challenge with gusto.

John Reid and Elton John in 1976 Credit: getty

The situation suited John’s then-record label boss Dick James of DJM. “Who else can we rely on to get Elton out of bed in the morning than the guy he’s in bed with?”, he reportedly said. In 1972 Reid left his role as John’s salaried manager at DJM to form his own John Reid Management company, with John has his first client. 

By this point John’s career had caught fire. After the musician’s first US single, Your Song, reached the top 10 in 1971, John embarked on his first world tour. By the tour’s end, he had four albums in the US Top 40. His Honky Château album of May 1972 would be the first of seven consecutive US number one albums, a feat only bettered by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jay-Z. 

Reid was a fearsome manager who would “kill for Elton”, one colleague told Rolling Stone at the time. In 1974, Reid negotiated what was then the most lucrative recording contract ever in the US. As well as guaranteeing John $8 million over five years from MCI Records ($41 million in today’s money), he secured him an unheard of royalty rate of 28 per cent. Speaking years after the event, John lamented that the blockbuster deal made the record industry “more vulgar”. “I was partly responsible for that,” he said.

The pair enjoyed the trappings of money and success. While John’s on-stage costumes and lifestyle became more outrageous, Reid bought a yacht and called it ‘Madman’, after John’s album Madman Across The Water. But with money and fame came drugs and addiction. Reid also had a temper. In 1973 he smacked a technician following sound problems at an LA playback of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, according to Rolling Stone (John stormed out of the same playback, calling the technicians “bloody c__ts”).

Queen's Freddie Mercury with John Reid, in 1977 Credit: getty

Reid was imprisoned in New Zealand for a month the following year for punching a journalist during an argument about the lack of whisky at a press launch. The manager dismissed these as “isolated incidents”. His employees may have begged to differ. Years later, he temporarily sacked his entire staff because his chauffer wasn’t waiting for him at the airport, according to Captain Fantastic. 

Strains appeared in their personal relationship. In October 1975, two days after a pair of record-breaking shows at LA’s Dodger Stadium, photographer Terry O’Neill found John crying at a party thrown by Reid. The singer revealed they’d broken up. There had been rumours of fights. John later claimed that Reid had been “more unfaithful than I liked”, Doyle writes. Back in London they moved into separate homes. It’s no coincidence that around this time John penned the doleful Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.

But their professional relationship continued. The duo were “always arguing but ferociously loyal to each other”, according to The Daily Record in 1998. The relationship was “like a marriage”, former Simple Minds manager Bruce Findlay – a friend of Reid’s – told the paper.

Reid branched out. He started managing Kiki Dee and in 1975 took on Queen, making him one of the world’s biggest managers. That November he threw a huge party for the release of Queen’s A Night At The Opera album. The shindig was Reid’s way of telling the world that “Queen are in Elton’s league”, according to Paul Gambaccini in Lesley-Ann Jones’s biography of Freddie Mercury. But Reid’s relationship with Queen was temporary: he ceased managing the rockers in 1978 due – suggested Queen drummer Roger Taylor – to pressure from John. 

Through the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Reid saw John through marriage, divorce, addiction, lawsuits against the press, the works. Then in 1997 John appeared in the warts and all documentary Tantrums & Tiaras, directed by his future husband David Furnish. Although Reid was an executive producer on this film he was reportedly against John doing it. The following January John and Reid’s professional relationship hit the rocks after details of the singer’s lavish spending appeared in The Daily Mirror. Stories swirled of a cash crisis. Furious, John suspected someone at Reid’s company had leaked a private letter from his accountants expressing concern over his spending to the press. 

This wasn’t the case. It turned out that a trainee solicitor called Benjamin Pell had rifled through dustbins outside Reid’s office. "Benji the Binman" flogged what he’d found = including credit card and bank statements, plus a letter to from John to Richard Branson denying him permission to use Candle in The Wind on a Princess Diana tribute album - to the press. However the damage had been done. One of rock’s most enduring relationships was irreparably damaged. John became “frosty”, Reid later said. The men parted ways.

The music had stopped. It was an undignified end to a wildly successful partnership. But the relationship had a brutally public coda. John claimed to have found a £20 million hole in his accounts and sued Reid, an associate and accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers. John argued that his management team had not met certain touring expenses out of the “generous” commission he paid them. Reid and John settled out of court – Reid paying John £3.4 million – but the case against PWC and Reid’s colleague Andrew Haydon, both of whom contested the allegations, hit the High Court in 2000.

John Reid (left) hosting Australia's version of The X Factor, in 2005

Faced with tales of eye-catching profligacy (John spent £293,000 on flowers over a 20-month period), the gloves came off. The singer talked of “fingers in the till”, of swindling and of betrayal from the witness stand. Asked in court if he believed that Reid had deliberately defrauded him out of millions of pounds, John referred to his former manager’s short prison spell in New Zealand. "Why would someone with a criminal record be incapable of doing something like that?" John said (he apologised the next day). Thirty years of laundry were being washed in public.

John lost the case and faced legal costs of millions. Reid, who was in court, said it was sad that his long relationship with the singer had ended this way. Although he bore no ill will towards John, Reid said: “Nobody has come out of it very well, particularly Elton, and I feel sorry for him.”

Although he’s currently having his moment on the silver screen, Reid – who has also managed Riverdance star Michael Flatley and R&B boyband Another Level – has gone quiet in recent years. He has certainly proved difficult to track down for his piece. Although multiple sources say he has moved to Australia, some suggest he is living in retirement in a £6m London apartment. 

This clever, cantankerous Scot ceased being the power behind the throne some time ago. Now, he appears to have vacated the palace altogether.