Once called “the most talented pop tunesmith of his generation” by the New York Times, the enigmatic, musically eclectic Londoner Elvis Costello has made a fascinating art form out of collaborations over the past 25 years. Although his late 2003 marriage to Diana Krall (whom he met at the 2002 Grammys) at Elton John’s estate in Surrey surprised some, the jazz diva is simply the latest in a long line of cohorts that have captured the former Declan Patrick McManus’ heart since he splashed on the scene in the late 70s with The Attractions.
Most recently, he’s been doing concerts with Steve Nieve, who joins on Costello’s fascinating resume the high profile likes of Burt Bachrach, The Brodsky Quartet, Paul McCartney, Swedish mezzo-soprano Sofie Van Otter, guitarist Bill Frisell, T-Bone Burnett and the Charles Mingus Orchestra.
Costello was by far the best songwriter and lyricist to emerge from Britain's explosive punk and new wave scene in the late '70s, putting intellectual honesty and emotional weight into themes of anger, revenge and personal betrayal. His astounding run from 1977 through 1984 included nine albums of varied styles hitting the Top 40. The biggest crowdpleasers were sets like the 20-song Get Happy!, which included a cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down,” and the brilliant Imperial Bedroom (1982), but even less commercially successful efforts like the country oriented Almost Blue (1981) received much critical acclaim. He had no trouble illuminating fans as to the source of his songwriting bravura, often complementing his own work with covers of tunes by Bachrach, Doc Pomus, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan and Rodgers & Hart. This mix of old and new prompted some critics to refer to him as “The Cole Porter of the 1980s.”
Costello split with The Attractions after 1986’s Blood and Chocolate, leaving him open in the late 80s to become a revolving door duet partner to numerous legends. His work with McCartney yielded grand efforts like 1989’s Spike and 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, as well as the former Beatle’s own Flowers in the Dirt (1989) and Off The Ground (1993). Costello scored his highest charting hit ever with the McCartney flavored “Veronica,” and McCartney’s Costello-sounding “My Brave Face” remains his last Top 40 hit.
Costello’s growing fascination with classical music led in 1993 to The Juliet Letters, a quirky hybrid album with The Brodsky Quartet. Straying so far from his stylistic home may have taken its toll, because the next year, he reunited with the Attractions for the first time in eight years for Brutal Youth (1994) and later, All This Useless Beauty (1996). Age-old tensions with bassist Bruce Thomas resurfaced, and Costello abandoned his former band (apparently for good) and sought out no less than longtime idol Bachrach for a phone and fax composed “God Give Me Stregnth,” which was commissioned for the soundtrack of the Brill Building flick Grace of My Heart. This led to a full-fledged duet album, Painted from Memory, in 1998.
In 2001, Costello began a residency at UCLA, where he both performed concerts and began a second career as a music teacher. He also began work on a self-produced project with Pete Thomas and Nieve called When I Was Cruel, which was released by Island Records in 2002 and later nominated for three Grammys.
The late 2003 Deutsche Grammophon release,”North”, an album of piano ballads composed, orchestrated and conducted by Costello, retained the number one position on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Chart for five weeks. “The Scarlet Tide,” his composition with T-Bone Burnett for Cold Mountain, earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Song.
Costello's repertoire of over 250 songs has been covered by a widely divergent range of artists, including Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, Roger McGuinn, Roy Orbison, George Jones, and Charles Brown.