Godmothers of Pop: Kiki Dee
By Classic Pop | August 1, 2019
Kiki Dee – born Pauline Matthews, in Bradford – began her recording career on Fontana as a 16-year-old in 1963. She went on to become the first female British artist signed to Tamla Motown.
It was only after she switched to Elton John’s Rocket label in 1973, however, that her career took off with a string of hits including Amoureuse, Loving And Free and I’ve Got The Music In Me. In 1976, Kiki duetted with Elton on the first No.1 for either of them, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Dee’s solo hits continued into the 1980s with Star and she performed in the West End musical Blood Brothers. New 3CD boxset Gold unites Kiki’s hits with her earlier recordings for Fontana and Motown.
How did you get your stage name?
Mitch Murray, who wrote my first single, Early Night, came up with the name Kinky Dee. It was the era of Kookie Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb), the actress Sandra Dee and kinky boots – that 60s vibe. Being young and inexperienced I kind of went along with it, except I said to my dad, “I don’t think I’ll be singing in five years if my name’s Kinky Dee,” so we shortened it to Kiki.
How did you meet Elton John?
After my Motown album came out, I called John Reid who was 19 at the time and label manager for Tamla Motown in London. I told him I wasn’t sure how to move forward with my career and he said, “I’m managing an artist called Elton John. He’s starting a label. Would you like to meet him?” I went to Elton’s flat and it was a bit exciting because he was already a big star. Not only was I going to meet him but I knew Neil Young would be there and also Elton’s mum! It was like, bloomin’ ‘eck! At some point, someone asked me to go into the kitchen and get some Champagne glasses. Elton had a glass-fronted cabinet at head height. I thought it was closed, so I swept my hand across it and accidentally knocked all the glasses onto the floor. Elton walked in and cracked up. That was really the beginning of our friendship. We just hit it off and connected straight away.
What was Elton like in those days?
He always looked very cute. He used to wear Cuban heel boots, had a hippy bag slung over one shoulder and his hair was fairly long. He was always very gregarious and fun to be in the studio with. Elton was the one who got me to write songs. He’d send me albums by Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and suggested that I take a listen, because that whole California singer-songwriter thing was happening; he felt that would suit me. So I wrote a batch of songs and one of them became the title track of the album that he produced for me, Loving And Free.
How did you come to duet with him on Don’t Go Breaking My Heart?
It wasn’t going to be a duet, initially. It was going to be a song that Elton was going to sing. His producer Gus Dudgeon suggested that he did it as a duet with me. There was actually a version floating around, which I wish I still had, with Elton singing the high parts, so I’d know which parts to sing. We actually sang it in different countries, him in America and me in the UK. I didn’t know it would be a single, but the first time I heard it on the radio I thought, “That is a great radio song.” I do a slowed-down version of it today, just voice and guitar. It’s more like a tender ballad. I always say to the audience, ”If you want to hear the original, we can sing it in the bar afterwards when we do the meet-and-greet.”
In 1995, you released an acoustic album, Almost Naked, backed by guitarist Carmelo Luggeri. Are you still working with him?
I decided to concentrate on the Kiki and Carmelo thing because I’d kind of achieved everything I wanted to commercially and I thought why not spend my time doing what I want to do, take some risks musically, and see where it takes me? We’ve been working together for 25 years now, made four or five quite experimental albums, and built up a bit of a fanbase. We do an autumn tour of the UK every other year, plus some summer festivals. This year we’re going to Australia for six weeks.
You’re also doing a couple of band dates?
I never felt that anybody ever really heard that many of my 1960s recordings, because they never charted, but there was a track called On A Magic Carpet Ride that went on to become a hit on the Northern Soul scene. So this year I’m playing at a couple of Northern Soul gigs (Southport Motown Weekender, 6 September and Whitby Motown Weekender, 14 September), singing the songs I did on Motown and Fontana.
Kiki Dee’s Gold is released by Crimson Productions and available now. For Kiki’s tour dates, visit kikiandcarmelo.com