This article was originally published in La Dolce Vita magazine.

“I’m having a few days off – it’s been hectic!” Kiki Dee says, speaking from her home in a sleepy Hertfordshire village; then quickly adds, “But I can’t complain about that, really!” It’s a typical reaction from this warm and down to earth star, a genuine gratitude that, after 50 years in the music business, the fans are still showing up.

 

The 66 year-old singer’s career has been defined by her famous duet with Elton John, but Kiki Dee is far from a one-hit wonder. Discovered at 16 singing soul in a Leeds dancehall, she was whisked to London to be packaged as a pop star. But although her voice was an industry hit, it was a decade before she found popular success. Since then, her amazing career has covered 12 albums, 40 singles, stadium tours and a Live Aid performance.

 

Kiki was born Pauline Matthews in 1947 in Bradford, the youngest of three children. “I used to sing to get attention when I was small,” she says. “When anybody came to visit, I’d say, ‘Can I sing? Can I sing?’ My brother was a rock ‘n’ roller, so he used to play me his vinyl ’78s. Those were my first influences – Gerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley.

 

It was Pauline’s father who first spotted her potential. “My mother was a stay-at-home mum, because that was the norm then, and my dad worked in the textile industry. My parents’ generation didn’t have the opportunity, and I think that my Dad saw that I had something, and wanted to give me that chance. I’ve got an amazing photo of me at 10 years old, singing at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool. We were on holiday, and the bandleader let me sing – which is pretty amazing really! So I had the ambition fairly early on.”

 

Leaving school at 15, Pauline got a job at Boots, singing twice a week with a dance band at the Astoria Ballroom in Leeds. It was there she was spotted by a record company rep and invited to audition in London. The whole street waved her off as she set out with her Dad.

 

London in 1963 was starting to swing in earnest; a riot of funky fashion, Pop art and new music. Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday had just premiered, Mary Quant was mass-producing her skimpy skirts, and the Beatles were topping the charts. “It was an unbelievable time to go to London,” Kiki remembers. “I was so blown away. It was the most buzzing city in the world. To be arriving there from the sticks, it was another universe.”

 

Father and daughter travelled to the studio in Marble Arch for the audition. The 16-year old Pauline’s excitement still shines from the 66-year Kiki. “Every time I drive by now, I blow the building a kiss! It’s a special place for me.”

 

Pauline found herself being styled as a potential star. First to go was her name – although even the teenage Pauline could see that the initial suggestion of “Kinky Dee” was too gimmicky if she wanted to be taken seriously, shortening it to Kiki. “I can remember photo sessions with the photographer saying, ‘lift your skirt above your knee’, and me thinking, ‘why’s he asking me to do that?’ I was so young and grateful to be offered a deal, I guess I went along with a lot of things; the name change, dying my hair red. They sent me to a diet doctor in Harley Street. Adele would be flabbergasted now! I did have a bit of an identity crisis for a while, but you’re very resilient to change when you’re young.”

 

But for the next decade, stardom proved elusive. Kiki’s early singles, like the twinkly, syncopated Early Night, or the soulful heartbreak of Excuse Me, got some radio play, and in 1970 she became the first European to be signed to the US hit factory Motown. But to the public, Kiki Dee was virtually unknown. These days, she’s philosophical about it; “I was naïve – I thought, a couple of years and I’d be a huge star, you know! It’s probably just as well that I wasn’t. I would have been too young.”

 

Returning to London after recording for Motown in Detroit, Kiki dipped under the radar, working as a backing singer for artists like Dusty Springfield. Unsure of her next move, she rang friend and former Motown manager John Reid, who invited her to meet an up-and-coming musician he was starting a label with – Elton John.

 

““You just never know, do you? You never know what’s going to be around the corner. It was just from that phone call!” Kiki laughs, still tickled by the serendipity of it four decades later. “I was invited to meet Elton, and that was it. Things changed. It’s always worth making the call. I went to his rock-star flat on the Edgeware Road. Neil Young was coming over that night, and so was Elton’s mum – a strange combination!”

 

Elton John produced the love song Amoureuse, Kiki’s first real hit. Then, three years later, came that song. “I remember Elton’s producer playing me a version of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Elton singing my parts in a high voice, it was quite funny. I stuck my vocal on it in London, Elton did his in America, they mixed it and it was released. I thought it was a good pop song, but it wasn’t until I heard it on the radio that I thought it could be a big hit. It was one of those records that just sounded amazing on the radio.”

 

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart topped the charts throughout the sweltering summer of ‘76. The video features a wide-eyed Kiki in pastel-pink dungarees and Elton in a loud suit. “Elton looked a bit awkward – cute and awkward! Usually he was behind a piano,” she remembers.

 

Riding the wave of the single’s success, Kiki was whisked off on a US tour with Elton John. “It was so exciting. John Lennon had made a bet with Elton that if a record got to a certain position in the charts, he’d come and play at Madison Square Garden, and he did. I remember being backstage and the whole building was rocking. Quite amazing. And that night, John turned up at our hotel and we hung out with him. It was very rock ‘n’ roll. Elton was in another hotel across the square, and we were waving across at him. I remember thinking, ‘this is a moment. I’m with John Lennon, waving to Elton John.’ Amazing stuff.”

 

Over the next couple of decades, there were other collaborations with Elton John, a Live Aid appearance, and a stint as a West End actress, starting in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, to critical acclaim. But Kiki’s fame was never to peak beyond that summer hit.

 

These days, Kiki is stoical about it. “Thank goodness I’d had a couple of hit records before it. I think if I’d just had that one song, it would have been a bit of a millstone. In the ‘80s, I was fed up with it, wanted to move on. But now I think you’ve got to be positive about it. There are a lot of talented people out there who haven’t had that break. But it is difficult sometimes. It’s like when an actor plays a role in a major movie, people want you to keep playing the same part. But you have to persevere and hope people will listen. That’s what I’m doing now, with my live shows. My music now is very different.”

 

It was thanks to Elton John’s encouragement that Kiki began to write her own songs. “I’d thought about writing before, but I suppose I never had the confidence to do it, and it took someone like Elton, who believed in me as a writer, to give me that confidence to keep going. That was a revelation for me; to hear a song I’d written played by top musicians.”

 

Songwriting is now her passion. For the last 19 years she has worked with her musical partner, guitarist Carmelo Luggeri. Their latest single , Sidesteppin’ (with a Soulman), is Kiki’s 40th. “Apparently it is!” She laughs. “I’m not really a numbers person, but I suppose it’s an achievement to still be out there, making original music. I met Carmelo at a time when we were both looking for something more mature, not just trying to get on Top of the Pops. And we’ve stuck together.”

 

Kiki and Carmelo’s latest album is A Place To Go. Kiki’s beautiful voice soars elatedly over acoustic ballads and bluesy tunes. The title echoes an attitude to music as a spiritual refuge, a feeling Kiki takes from her live shows too. “It’s a magical thing, when you get a full house and people are reacting to your material. People have no idea what I’m going to do! I think that’s the difference between me and a lot of other artists that have been around as long as I have. With other artists you’d know exactly what you were getting, but with me it’s always a bit of a surprise.”

 

Kiki Dee seems slightly in awe of her own career, and contented that she still has the chance to write and perform.As long as the desire is there and we feel that there are good songs to write, we’ll keep going. That’s all you can do, really!” She has no regrets about the highs or the lows of the past. “Carmelo always says, if you can last that long and make a living making music, then you’re doing OK.”