In his 2019 autobiography Me, Elton John described Tony King — the promotional guru, dextrous rock fixer and friend to the stars — as somebody so flamboyant he “would have attracted attention in the middle of a Martian invasion”. Coming from John, a man who arrived at his 50th birthday party in a removal van to accommodate his planet-size Louis XIV wig, it was quite the compliment.
Yet The Tastemaker, King’s account of more than 60 years spent working with the A-listers — the Beatles, Freddie Mercury, the Rolling Stones — is not quite as showy as John’s tribute suggests. Names drop like feathers from a marabou cape, but King understands his place in this gilded world and knows how to balance irreverent entertainment with respectful discretion.
King’s career has left him with an embarrassment of elegantly polished stories — he took John to his first gay bar, advised Mercury to come out to his girlfriend and once wrestled a drunk, violent John Lennon to the ground — but he has little interest in dishing real dirt. John might have been happy to describe himself masturbating in a vomit-covered dressing gown; King, without the privilege of fame, is a little more careful about what he reveals. Yet even the mundane moments — Keith Richards sleeping off a hangover, Yoko Ono rearranging her fridge — offer a compelling snapshot of God-tier rock Olympians.
King’s story is remarkable by itself, being one of those postwar lives shaken into unprecedented new shapes by rock ’n’ roll. Born in 1942 into a complicated family — his parents were in fact his grandparents, his Auntie Kay was really his mother — he grew up in Eastbourne, a grammar school boy who decoded his sexuality with a dictionary and the plays of Tennessee Williams. His life changed at 14 when he heard “Heartbreak Hotel” on the radio while strip-washing at the kitchen sink, “terrified” that he’d missed the singer’s name. “It was like the key to a different life, and somehow I’d let it slip through my fingers.”
Tony King took Elton John to his first gay bar, advised Freddie Mercury to come out to his girlfriend and once wrestled a drunk, violent John Lennon to the ground.
Once armed with the name Elvis Presley, however, he was unstoppable, working in record shops before starting a job at Decca at 16. From putting together sleeve notes he moved to promotions, working for the Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham, then George Martin’s Air studios. He was pushed right up against Swinging London, at one point vamping through Supremes songs with Richards and Mick Jagger as Paul McCartney watched in awe.
There are less glamorous stories — on tour he once helped the singer Brenda Lee navigate a puddle of Gene Vincent’s urine — but they prove King’s credentials as an old-school trouper. It’s the superstars, though, that provide the book’s memorable set pieces. King patiently looked after Lennon during his “lost weekend” period of hard-drinking estrangement from Ono in the mid-1970s; he lovingly describes a man whom he bundled out of a Las Vegas show for shouting “get your cock out” at Frankie Valli.
King was instrumental in organizing Lennon’s final live appearance as a guest of John at Madison Square Garden in 1974. It’s a sign of their friendship that he was forgiven after helpfully washing up a glass of water at Lennon’s apartment only to discover that it was an Ono artwork.
The book darkens into social history as the 1970s end and King — in New York promoting disco for an RCA department so gay they merrily called themselves “homo-promo” — witnesses the terrifying descent of Aids. He writes poignantly about visiting the dying Mercury, but it is his description of the early epidemic that is most haunting. “Now I caught up with friends in hospital beds rather than bars.” King was diagnosed with HIV in 2005 and acknowledges the “survivor’s guilt” that comes with his access to life-saving drugs.
It’s clear from this book why these stars wanted King around: he’s witty, animated, his gossip lacks malice and his love of music is enduring. The Tastemaker could never be as wildly florid as Elton John’s Me, but, Martian invasion or not, it proves King still attracts attention as himself.
Victoria Segal is a book critic for The Sunday Times