The Meaning Behind “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee and the Unconventional Method Used to Compose It

Before his famous duet with Kiki Dee, Elton John had yet to top the singles chart in his home country. Astonishingly, neither “Rocket Man” nor “Tiny Dancer” reached No. 1 in the UK.

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So, John looked to the past when he created his timeless duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” featuring Dee. Surprisingly, the recording happened in separate countries, with an ocean separating John and Dee’s intimate vocal performances.

The song also developed in a reverse process from how John usually composed music. His unconventional method worked, and he finally reached the elusive milestone.  

A Timeless Duet

“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” is a tender love song that’s both vulnerable and pleading, styled after the classic ’60s soul duets. John’s upbeat soft rock hit has hints of disco, turning his anxiety into something hopeful.

Nobody knows it
When I was down
I was your clown
Nobody knows it
Right from the start
I gave you my heart

The call and response of John’s “Don’t go breaking my heart” and Dee’s “I won’t go breaking your heart” ends with the duo harmonizing the title.

So don’t misunderstand me
You put the light in my life
You put the spark to the flame
I’ve got your heart in my sights

The Writers Worked in Reverse

John collaborated with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, using the pseudonyms Ann Orson and Carte Blanche. They intended to write a Motown-style duet similar to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”  

Producer Gus Dudgeon said John wrote the music first, a departure from how he usually worked with Taupin. Dudgeon said John repeated the phrase, “Don’t go breaking my heart,” throughout the song as he worked out the arrangement.

Typically, John wrote music to Taupin’s lyrics. But John asked Taupin to write words to the title he’d improvised in the studio. Taupin’s original lyrics didn’t make the final cut, and he mentioned in his memoir that he tried to write something simple, though not trite.

In 1977, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” earned John and Taupin an Ivor Novello award for The Best Pop Song.

Motown’s Orchestra

Keyboardist James Newton Howard wrote the orchestral score, once again inspired by Gaye and Terrell’s Motown recordings. Howard said, “I wrote the arrangement on piano and then wrote it down on paper the old-fashioned way.” John also wanted a string solo, which Howard added to the score.

Unlike most duets, the two singers recorded separately, with John and his band in Toronto and Dee in London.

Elton John’s “High Voice”

Dee recalled on John’s website that he added a “high voice” so she would know which part to sing. Initially, John sang nearly the entire song before Dudgeon reminded him it was supposed to be a duet.

She also described the makeshift video accompanying the song, filmed quickly for a TV show. “Who would have thought that would have been played so much over the years?” Dee said.

Chart-Topping Collaborations

Released as a standalone single in 1976, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” reached No. 1 in the U.S. and became John’s first No. 1 song in the UK. It was also Dee’s commercial peak.

Still, it would be another 10 years before John’s next U.S. No. 1. The charity recording with Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and Glady Knight, “That’s What Friends Are For,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986.

In 1992, another John duet, this time with George Michael—“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me—topped the Billboard chart.


Dee and John again revisited the Motown sound with their cover of the Four Tops’ “Loving You is Sweeter than Ever” for her 1981 album Perfect Timing. However, their version reimagines the driving mid-tempo soul song as a ballad with fretless bass and smooth jazz keys.

The duo reconnected in 1993 with a cover of Cole Porter’s “True Love” on John’s album Duets. It reached No. 2 in the UK.

Reminiscing about John to the Daily Express, Dee said, “I love working with him because as well as being hugely talented, he’s such a hoot. He’s a fascinating person, incredibly loyal, and one of the funniest, most quick-witted people I’ve ever met.”

An Ageless Duet

Elton John wanted a timeless duet reminiscent of Motown’s enduring hits. With “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” he not only reached No. 1 for the first time in his home country, but he also created an equally classic duet with Kiki Dee.

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Photo by Gabe Palacio/Getty Images

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