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Roger Pope: Sideman who backed Elton John on hits such as 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart'


Roger Pope was a dynamic, powerful, precise drummer who backed Elton John in concert and on several of the singer's most enduring recordings, including the 1971 ballad "Tiny Dancer'', the 1975 US No 1 "Island Girl'' and his first UK chart-topper, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart'', his irresistible 1976 duet with Kiki Dee.

A drummer's drummer, "Popey", as he was known to his friends, also worked with Al Stewart, Harry Nilsson, Kevin Ayers and Cliff Richard. Along with his friend Keith Moon, and Ginger Baker of Cream fame, he was said to have inspired Animal, the drummer puppet in the orchestra pit on The Muppets Show.

Born in Whitstable, Kent, in 1947, he followed his father and started behind the kit in his early teens after the family moved to the Southampton area. By the age of 15 he was a member of the Soul Agents, led by the virtuoso organist Don Shinn and also featuring bassist David Glover and guitarist/harmonica player Ian Duck. Their repertoire of rhythm and blues covers, like the Willie Dixon composition "I Just Want To Make Love You'', recorded for a Pye single in 1964, ensured their popularity as Southampton's top mod combo.

He stayed with them for four years, co-wrote "Gospel Train'', the instrumental B-side of their excellent second Pye single, the Howard Blaikley composition "Don't Break It Up", and shone on "A-Minor Explosion", a 1966 Polydor 45. For a while, in 1965, they backed Rod Stewart, who had just released his debut 45.

Pope first met Elton John, who had yet to change his name from Reginald Dwight, in 1967, when both worked at Dick James Music, the music publishing company in Denmark Street, London's Tin Pan Alley. John had teamed up with the lyricist Bernie Taupin, and Pope helped them record demos of the songs they pitched to performers like Lulu and Roger Cook. When, encouraged by music publisher Steve Brown, John began recording some of their more ambitious material, Pope was the logical choice to play drums on the singer's first single, "I've Been Loving You'', as well as "Lady Samantha'', which paved the way for his eventual emergence as a solo artist.

Pope also drummed on a third single, "It's Me That You Need'', and John's first album, Empty Sky, both issued on the newly launched DJM label. Pope was making ends meet on building sites and missed the sessions for the Elton John album. However, he was back with guitarist Caleb Quaye and Glover for the superlative Tumbleweed Connection in 1970 and Madman Across The Water, the 1971 album which contained "Tiny Dancer'', the "sleeper" hit that became an FM radio favourite in the US.

By then, Pope had backed John Kongos on his 1971 Kongos album produced by Gus Dudgeon between John albums, and also recorded It Ain't Easy, the Long John Baldry album co-produced by Stewart and John, with whom he'd gigged in Steampacket and Bluesology respectively. With Duck, Glover and Quaye, Pope formed the rock group Hookfoot, named after his trick for keeping his hi-hat stand in place. Between 1971 and 1973 they made four albums for DJM, while John recruited drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray and then added guitarist Davey Johnstone and percussionist Ray Cooper to his live band.

When the superstar dissolved that group after Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in 1974, he retained Cooper and Johnstone, added bassist Kenny Passarelli and recalled Quaye as well as Pope, who had remained within his orbit as part of the Kiki Dee Band and recorded her I've Got The Music In Me album. That line-up made its live debut in June 1975 at Wembley Stadium, topping a Midsummer Music bill featuring Rufus and Chaka Khan, Joe Walsh, the Eagles and the Beach Boys.

Pope remained with John for another 83 concerts over the next couple of years, including two sold-out shows at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and a week at New York's Madison Square Garden. He also backed John on the Rock Of The Westies album in 1975 and on Blue Moves, the album featuring the Transatlantic Top 10 hit "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word", in 1976. When John bizarrely "retired" after another Madison Square Garden run, Pope teamed up with Johnstone for the short-lived China project, and then, along with Quaye and Passarelli, found gainful employment with the blue-eye soul duo Hall & Oates, as demonstrated on the Livetime concert recording and the studio album Along The Red Ledge (both 1978). He later battled with alcoholism.

In October 2000, I met Pope when he was invited by John – "a generous bugger" according to his old bandmate – to attend the two performances at Madison Square Garden that became the singer's One Night Only – The Greatest Hits live album and DVD. At that time, a new generation was discovering "Tiny Dancer" after it was featured in Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's engaging, autobiographical coming-of-age movie about a teenage journalist going on the road with a rock band in the early 1970s. Pope enjoyed catching up with Johnstone and Olsson but walked out halfway through the first night's show before John made a retirement announcement he retracted the next day. "I could see Elton's face. I know them eyeballs, and I knew he was about to quit!" mused Pope, who had been there before.

Pierre Perrone

Roger Pope, drummer: born Whitstable, Kent 20 March 1947; twice married; died Southampton 18 September 2013.