Gary James' Interview With Greg Ransom Of
The Elton John Tribute
Bennie And The Jets
Greg Ransom fronts an Elton John tribute group known as Bennie And The Jets. He's taken his act all over the world and as you'll find out, he's not just an Elton John tribute act. We'll let him explain.
Q - Greg, you are referred to as "The Premier Elton John Tribute Band". Did someone say that about you or did you come up with that title?
A - Well, what happened was we've been doing this since '95. But around '94 we started the project and of course Elton John's catalog is huge, so when somebody decides to undertake something like this, if they're gonna do it right, you have to do your homework. So, when you decide you want to play Elton John onstage somewhere, you're looking probably at a two year wait before you can even do your first gig, if you want to do it right, in my opinion.
Q - Why would that be?
A - Because you have to learn the material. You have to study his mannerisms and then you have to tie it together with being entertaining onstage and making the people believe, as long as they're not in the very front row, staring you right in the face, that you're Elton John. Not by false advertising, but by seeing you and saying "this is just like I'm at an Elton John concert." That's what you're after. So, at the time we took this on, there was nobody doing it. So, we were kind of like the first ones on the scene. I did a couple local gigs in Massachusetts and then I got a phone call from a guy in Florida that I never pitched myself to. It was Flashback Entertainment, which is also Wolfman Jack Entertainment. The son of Wolfman Jack has an entertainment agency. They had been looking for an Elton John guy for a long time and one never came up. I don't even know how they got my number. The next thing I know, I was on a plane doing a gig in San Diego. Since then a lot have cropped up. There's plenty of work to go around. There's no hate in that.
Q - You were probably doing Elton John material in another band, were you?
A - No. I was doing a lounge lizard routine in a hotel. I was playing Jackson Browne. I don't know what else. I was going through a period where I was into James Taylor, even though it's guitar, I would try to pull it off on piano with the old sniffer on the bar where people put the money in. Then the owner came to me and said "Do you know any Elton John?" and I plowed my way through that song "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues". He came to me at the end of the night and said "You know why I asked you to do that?" I said "Why?" He said "Well, when you sang the Jackson Browne song, it sounded like Elton John was singing the Jackson Browne song. When you sang the James Taylor song, it sounded like Elton John was singing the James Taylor song." So I said "Really!" "So if I was you I'd put on a hat and glasses and a funny coat and do that and see where it takes you." This is the guy that owns the Sheraton Tara in Springfield, Massachusetts. His name is Peter Picknelly. He's a millionaire. So who am I not to take the advice of a millionaire?
Q - Did he ever get to see you do your Elton John tribute?
A - That's a good question. I sent him a letter thanking him for really giving me my start. I never heard back, but I'm sure he's a busy man. This guy is no small cat. But he died.
Q - So, the appeal of Elton John to you was that Peter Picknelly said you sounded like him.
A - Well, that was the initial appeal. I bought a box set called "To Be Continued". It's a box set that he put out in the '90s, early '90s and it has like four discs in it and it was a lot of his B sides and all of his hits as well. It was like an anthology album collection. I could not believe the songs, I'm kind of embarrassed to say that I didn't know he sang those songs, but I knew them as a standard classics, but never knew that was Elton John. I loved "Tiny Dancer", but I didn't know he sang it. It was one of those things. I'm more a product of the '80s. I know "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" and "I'm Still Standing". In my era, videos were the popular thing. I only knew what he did on video basically.
Q - You probably knew "Rocket Man". That's always on the radio.
A - Right. But I never connected it to Elton John. I just never did. I don't know why. It's a shame. But I fell in love with him anyway. I said "Look, this guy has some great stuff. I can't believe it." It's like a treasure chest was opened. It's fun to perform too.
Q - And you perform the songs of early Elton John.
A - Exactly. The latest I go is the early '80s. I do "I'm Still Standing", occasionally I will do the song "The One", which is '91 or '92, but that's really rare that I even pull that one out. Most of it is "Sad Songs Say So Much", is about the cuts that I do. So I go from '84 back down to '70.
Q - There's a lot of material there.
A - There is and I tailor it to what I'm doing. If I get hired for a fair or a festival, it's the Greatest Hits gig that we do. If I'm playing in a theatre where people bought tickets to see us, then you're looking at people who probably like Elton John and bought tickets to see a show. You can get away with playing "All The Girls Love Alice" or "Madmen Across The Water". You can do some of the real deeper cuts because those people who bought tickets to see you in a theatre are looking for a treat. So I'll usually pull those out then.
Q - On average, how many gigs a year would you say you do?
A - This year, because of the economy, I'm hurting. I've had people call me and want to do a gig that would cost me money to do, so I had to turn it down. I would probably say 45 gigs a year.
Q - That's almost once a week.
A - It's probably a little less than that. I'm usually going out at least twice a month.
Q - And when you're not performing, you're working on the act?
A - Yeah. I'm working on it. I've done things where, and this will crack you up, I don't look like this unless I'm in the garb and from a distance. If you walked up to me in a supermarket, you wouldn't be like, "God, that guy looks like Elton John." But some things I do. I actually do meet and greets where you go to a party and you don't play or sing, you meet and greet people, which I think is silly because I don't look like him, but it tends to go over somehow when they know you're in a tribute act. For me, I'm always worried going into those type of events because I don't look like Elton John.
Q - People must say "Elton John!"
A - Yeah, because I'm wearing the garb. That's just that little bit in a nutshell. And then I work on what I'm gonna do next for my next gig, what we're gonna play.
Q - Last year (2010) you toured Iraq and Kuwait. That's dangerous, isn't it?
A - It wasn't. We were never in any harm's way. In each place we would land in a C-130 in a real airfield and then play in that area. There was no danger to our lives, at least I never felt there was.
Q - Was that a U.S.O. tour?
A - No. It was called M.W.R., Morale, Welfare and Recreation. It came under that heading. The U.S.O. tends to be a variety act. This one we were the only ones there.
Q - How many guys are part of your act?
A - Four onstage.
Q - How long was that tour in Iraq and Kuwait for?
A - Ten days.
Q - And I imagine you played for thousands or people at a time.
A - Right. It was mostly outdoors. There would be a thousand or so I would guess at each stop.
Q - Does Sir Elton John know about you?
A - It's been rumored to be the case. I've gotten the opportunity to shake his hand, but it was behind a velvet rope in a not real meeting setting. There was a line of people waiting to meet him. He sped by as he shook my hand. We were hoping for a photo-op which didn't materialize.
Q - Would that have been at some awards ceremony?
A - No. It was in New Orleans. He did the Storytellers on VH-1 in New Orleans. We were playing across town. I'm sure the person that hired us did that on purpose. Somebody had to go up to him and say "did you know there's a tribute group playing across town?" If he knows of me, he never sought me out, but I'm sure that he does 'cause we've also been on his website. We've done the AIDS benefit. We went to New York City and played at a couple of his "Lunch Around The World", which is his benefit to raise money for HIV treatment.
Q - Do you ever get to the point where you want to play something other than Elton John's music?
A - I'll be honest, there are times when you get in the costume, that kind of becomes tedious. You kind of feel like the bear that can ride a unicycle. I don't know how to explain it. It becomes like, are you kidding me? Do I have to do this again? Usually it happens when I'm towards the end of a tour, like if I'm doing something a lot of times, it starts to get mundane, tedious. So that does happen. But I just kind of suck it up and keep going. Without doing Elton John, I wouldn't have had this career and I wouldn't have had the taste of what it's like to be a pseudo Rock star, even if it's just for a moment. I can still go grocery shopping and nobody knows who I am. But I get a taste of what he feels like onstage. Then after that, it's over. I don't have to deal with the problems that he has to face. He can't go get a cup of coffee at the corner store. It becomes a big event. I level myself out by talking myself down like that. Like, take it easy. It's getting tiresome, but I could be digging a ditch somewhere.
Q - How far do you think you can take this act of yours?
A - Well, that's the question of the day. I'm sure you've heard this a million times with people that you've interviewed, but when it's absolutely not fun anymore, I think I would stop it. I'm sure that's an old cliché. I've been lucky enough to where I've never had even the slightest altercation with band members. I see an Aerosmith story. You see those guys kickin' each other off left and right. Never once has that happened (to me). If it was, it was minor and resolved quickly. There's no "I can't look at this guy anymore." Everybody in the group has always been kind of enjoying it. There's nothing to hate at this point. We really never had to cut our teeth. See, tribute acts get the banner of "sell out" by other musicians who are starving and working and trying to make their original songs heard. To them, we're total sell outs, but we get treated pretty nicely. That's the reason why it's easy to do. I would love to be the next James Taylor, but I'd have to hopefully play for 30 bucks one night, on a Friday night while no one was listening to me, eating sardines in the back of the bread truck with my equipment to the next gig I'm gonna do where I'm not gonna be appreciated. This is way better. A lot of people do look at us like we're not appreciated by real musicians that are cutting their teeth.
Q - But there is a demand for your services.
A - This is what I say, if you want to hire Elton John to do something like Rush Limbaugh's wedding, it's gonna cost you a mill (a million dollars) And that's to him, that doesn't include the light show, the sound system, the stage, the backline which is the piano and the gear. Or you can hire someone who sounds just like him and you pay a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that.
Q - Is it important to have guys in the band who look like the guys in Elton John's band?
A - My drummer doesn't look anything like Nigel Olsson, who is Elton John's drummer and makes no attempt to do so. My guitar player does adopt the look of Davey Johnston and uses his technique. Some people notice this, but it's very few and far between. And my bass player doesn't look anything like Dee Murray. But Dee Murray is no longer with us. Elton uses just a standard hired gun now.