Honky Tumbleweed Yellow Brick Chateau
Honky Tumbleweed Yellow Brick Chateau
A Q&A with Greg Ransom
Of Bennie and the Jets
By Geoff Gehman
Greg Ransom was minding his own business, performing songs by Jackson Browne and James Taylor, when the hotel owner suddenly asked him to play a tune by a bigger ’70s star. Ransom shuffled through his memory bank, picked a relatively easy number, and offered a relatively uneasy rendition of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” It was only after the show that the hotel owner told him he requested an Elton John song because he thought Ransom sounded uncannily like John, even when he sang hits by Taylor and Browne.
Within a year Ransom had turned the connection into a career. Since 1995 he’s been playing John in Bennie and the Jets, an act dedicated to the 1970-1984 glory period for the former Reg Dwight. Ransom and three musicians mix ballads (“Levon”) with barnburners (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), hits (“Rocket Man”) with curiosities (“Amorena”). Ransom, 43, channels John’s soaring, burrowing R&B/gospel voice, his piano gymnastics, his flamboyant outfits and antics. Even the eyebrow arches are authentic.
Twenty-three years younger than Sir Elton, Ransom has played his role model at clubs and casinos, a benefit for the Elton John AIDS Foundation and military bases in the Middle East. On July 26 he returns with his troops to the Mauch Chunk Opera House for a show of everything from “Madman Across the Water” to “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” Expect a solo session with “Country Comfort” and “Come Down in Time,” a twangy, tangy twosome from “Tumbleweed Connection,” the 1970 Western-steeped album that made John a pop-music gunslinger.
During a recent conversation from his home in Long Meadow, Mass., Ransom discussed everything from the importance of leaving your ego backstage to the importance of not performing for bikers.
Q: What was the first Elton John song that rocked your world?
A: “Tiny Dancer.” I liked the music and the story, although at the time I was surprised to know it was performed by Elton John. Back then [in the early ’70s] I was more of a rock ’n’ roller. I liked Kiss; I must have dressed like [Kiss guitarist] Paul Stanley four Halloweens in a row. My brother dressed as [Kiss bassist] Gene Simmons and my cousins dressed as the other guys. Then I went on to Duran Duran, where I styled my hair like Simon Le Bon did [laughs].
I couldn’t listen to a Kiss record now. Once you become a musician, you realize that Kiss music is just overdubbed bubble-gum rock ’n’ roll.
Q: Were you aware you sounded like Elton when you sang Jackson Browne and James Taylor songs in 1994 in that hotel in Springfield, Mass., your hometown?
A: I was not aware. Because of the bone conduction, you hear your voice a little differently than the person outside your body hears it. I wasn’t even aware my phrasing was similar to Elton’s. The thing about Elton’s singing is that he doesn’t sound British at all; he sounds like he’s having a love affair with American music–and America.
Q: You’ve said that you “fumbled” your way through “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” at the hotel. What else do you remember from that pivotal gig?
A: I remember I wasn’t even the featured act. I was just part of the entertainment for this fake casino at the hotel. For eight to 10 bucks they give you 500 dollars in chips and you can play blackjack without getting in trouble [laughs]. I don’t remember if [the hotel owner] asked me specifically for the song, or if I did it because it’s in G and it’s very simple to figure out. I do remember [the owner] came over afterwards and told me: “The reason I asked you to play an Elton John song is you sound like him when you sing. If I were you I’d get a hat and glasses and go to it.” He was a millionaire who also owned the Peter Pan bus lines, so I decided to listen to him, very carefully [laughs].
I prepared to play Elton by buying the “To Be Continued” box set. It was full of surprises; as I was listening to this litany of songs I went “Oh yeah, he sang that. Oh yeah, he sang that.” When I was putting a band together, I asked a guitarist who had retired from playing bars to find a guitarist for me. After listening to me, he said: “I think I’ve found the guitarist: it’s me.” Dan Moraski has been with me since then; we’re the originals. He plays [John’s longtime guitarist] Davey Johnstone; he even wears his blond hair long like Johnstone does.
Q: Did you think seriously of names other than Bennie and the Jets?
A: We thought about Rocket Man and Captain Fantastic. Bennie and the Jets seemed more natural because it included the band. My manager at the time wanted me to use my name. He thought if we used Bennie and the Jets, another group could come out with the same name and it would be confusing. In hindsight he probably was right, but it’s too late to change
Elton, by the way, was very angry when “Bennie and the Jets” was released as a single; he didn’t want that at all. He felt better when he became the first Englishman to have a number-one song on the black music charts, especially the Philadelphia black R&B charts.
It really meant a lot to him when “Philadelphia Freedom” was played on “Soul Train.” You know, “Philadelphia Freedom” is very popular when we play near Philadelphia, including Jim Thorpe. It’s even popular in Atlantic City; I guess a lot of Philadelphians wander off to Atlantic City.
Q: What’s the toughest part about Elton to nail?
A: Well, I’m nowhere near the piano player he is. And his music can be very tricky, even strange, to play. Most music has a formula you can follow. Sometimes Elton’s music is not normal; sometimes it has no common sense at all.
Take “Burn Down the Mission” [which Ransom plans to perform in Jim Thorpe]. It goes to a jam and then it goes to a slow, methodical part. Then there’s an in-between section and then it’s back to soft and then it builds dramatically like “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” By the end you’re breaking piano strings.
I’m almost living his life up there. But it’s not me; I just turn into this Bennie character. You know, a lot of tribute acts piss me off because they make it about them. My feeling is: People are not here to see Greg Ransom, they’re here to see a portrayal of Elton John. Once you realize that, once you leave your ego backstage, you’ll be successful
Q: Do you have an indelible story about a memorable crowd reaction?
A: Well, we’ve had a few pitfalls along the way. One time we had a show booked in Ocean City, Md., where the owner was a huge Elton John fan—much more of a fan than his audience. It was obvious we were more to his liking when we arrive and see 30 to 40 motorcycles parked outside. It was almost like a scene from [the movie] “The Blues Brothers”; there should have been chicken wire in front of the stage [laughs]. We couldn’t wait for the show to be over. The bikers couldn’t wait for us to get out of there so they could play [Lynyrd] Skynyrd on the jukebox [laughs].
The show was booked by my agent because he wanted to make more money. That attitude irritates me. I’d rather not make the extra money if I don’t fit.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory of your 10-day 2010 tour of military bases in Iraq and Kuwait?
A: I remember [guitarist Dan Moraski] and I went to the Ziggurat of Ur [in Iraq], the temple of Abraham from the Old Testament. We actually got to see it with our bare eyes. Actually, many things really struck a chord. A lot of these troops are young women, who are sweet but have an M-16 strapped to their back, which they have to carry around the bases. I also remember the 126-degree heat and flying with helmets and bulletproof vests. That was pretty surreal.
Q: How about an Elton song you didn’t like that’s now an essential part of your act?
A: I thought “Your Song” was a beautiful ballad that was overplayed; it’s a kind of Muzak elevator thing. I began to appreciate it more as I listened to Elton play it in shows over the years, making minimal changes that brought out the nuances. The words are really clear and touching, especially when you see people singing them with you.
I’ve grown to like “Your Song.” Now it’s a nice part of the show. I use it to thank the audience for coming out and making me a star.
You know, I don’t really listen to Elton in my spare time anymore. I need a break from all the time I spend playing him. I want to avoid the feeling of being like the bear on the unicycle at the circus. But it’s all okay. At the end of the day it’s all very rewarding.
Q: Is there something you appreciate about Elton that you didn’t appreciate as much before you began playing him?
A: The one thing I take my hat off to him, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, is his endurance, the endurance it takes to perform in an outdoor venue or when you’re under the hot lights. One time I saw him perform and I counted 27 songs. That’s a lot for a guy who’s heavy and older than me. I’m really ready to end the show after 20 songs–24 tops. It’s tiresome on your voice and your hands and the rest of your body
Q: Would you like to take Bennie and the Jets into new realms? How about showcasing entire albums like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” or “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player”?
A: That’s something to consider, although you have to remember that one time in Wembley [Stadium], Elton did “Captain Fantastic [and the Brown Dirt Cowboy]” from beginning to end and it didn’t go over too well.
We just did a benefit concert for aphasia [support and research] in Midland, Tex. A reviewer wrote that we played “Pinball Wizard” because it’s about a handicapped kid—a deaf, dumb and blind boy. I have to confess that was the last thing on my mind. But it’s nice that people can take away something you didn’t mean.
Q: Would you be willing to really go over the top and wear Elton’s Donald Duck getup?
A: He wore that costume in the  Central Park concert, and I don’t know if he wore it a whole lot afterward. The problem is, I’d need some sort of intermission to change into an outfit like that and that would interrupt the flow of the show. It would take too much time to get out of the pants and into tights and a duck’s ass. It would cool down the fans too much.
Q: Would you play the current Elton, the one who wears a pretty damned good-looking hairpiece?
A: Well, I’m not bald, so I don’t need to wear a hairpiece. I would wear one if it was what the audience wanted. I did dye my hair reddish when I played the red piano [that John plays in his “The Red Piano” show in Las Vegas].
You know, I usually do a meet-and-greet after the show because a lot of people want to take a picture with me, in the pseudo role of Bennie. If I came out in my regular outfit they probably wouldn’t notice me. They’d probably rush the guitarist.
Greg Ransom: The Scoop
The first song he couldn’t forget was the Guess Who’s “These Eyes,” which he played “over and over and over again” as a seven-year-old on an eight-track cassette machine in his father’s reel-to-reel player.
He recreates the Elton John-Billy Joel Face 2 Face tour with Storm Front, a Joel tribute band.
His relatively rare Elton John tracks include “Sugar on the Floor,” a 1975 B side to “Island Girl,” and “Wake Up Wendy,” premiered by a cartoon John during a 1998 episode of “South Park” where famous musical friends raise money for Chef after he’s sued for claiming he wrote an Alanis Morissette song.
He performs “Island Girl” at “outdoor beachy places” even though he’s not fond of the “outdoor beachy” hit.
An Air Force alumnus, he works as a civilian medical technician for the Military Entrance Processing Station in his hometown of Springfield, Mass.
He won’t play “Candle in the Wind” with the lyrics changed to honor John’s good friend, the late Princess Diana. “I‘d mess up the new words and go right back into singing the song for Marilyn [Monroe]. Besides, Elton has said he won’t do it again. I don’t think it’s that important to do it that way, anyway. It’s a nice one-off thing. It’s on record, it made a big impact, and there you go.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He can’t imagine a world without Elton John performing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “High Flying Bird” and “Talking Old Soldiers.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.