Yes, Elton John’s Stepfather Really Was That Great
It speaks to one of the fundamental truths of John’s life: His father Stanley left early, remarrying almost immediately and raising four other kids in a household that was substantially warmer than the one he abandoned. John’s mother Shiela raised the young Reginald Dwight virtually on her own; even before Stanley’s departure, his father was abroad serving in the military for long stretches of time.
John may have had a “quit-me father” but he eventually ended up with a dad: Fred Farebrother, the man who fell for Sheila in Stanley’s absence and stepped up to fill the role of stepfather after Stanley’s departure. By the time Stanley and Sheila divorced, John was already 15, so most of the damage from a broken household had already been done.
In one of the sweetest and purest twists in the winding biography of Sir Elton Hercules John, however, Farebrother became a more supportive and dependable father figure than Stanley ever was. A local painter and home decorator, Farebrother was everything Stanley wasn’t — easygoing, warm, and fully engaged with Reg Dwight’s burgeoning music career. As both a sign of affection and John’s absurdist sense of humor, he christened his stepfather “Derf,” an inversion of “Fred.”
Derf was a critical part of some of John’s first successes as a musician, author Mark Bego says in his book Elton John: The Bitch Is Back. Reg would play every weekend at the local pub, offering his take on standards, country-and-western ballads, the occasional rock number and rousing tavern singalongs. The pub only paid performers a pound a night, but Derf would pass a box around at the end of the night for tips. That brought John’s nightly take to as much as £35 (or $400 in today’s dollars), enabling him to save up for an electric piano and amplifier.
As John transitioned into band life with his first group Bluesology, that piano and amplifier became essential equipment. Derf then moved on to his next role in John’s life, as band chauffeur and sometime roadie. “Derf was marvelous, a gentle man," Bluesology drummer Mick Inkpen later recalled. "We took advantage of him something rotten. We had no way of getting to gigs, so it was a question of begging him for lifts. I called him Derf because I thought it was his real name! It didn’t occur to me for ages that it was Reg was having a joke.”
Derf came to the rescue when John abruptly departed his first serious romantic relationship, an engagement to Linda Woodrow that was immortalized years later in the single “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” from 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Derf picked up John and Taupin on the morning after John broke off the engagement, and the songwriting partners moved in to Sheila and Derf's house, sharing bunk beds in John’s childhood bedroom.
A photo of Sheila and Derf can be found among the other mementos commemorating John and Taupin’s career in the collage of artwork featured on the cover of Captain Fantastic. By then, Sheila Dwight and Fred “Derf” Farebrother had finally made it official; they were married in 1972. Their witness at the ceremony signed as “Elton Hercules John.”
John descended deeply into drug and alcohol addiction as the '70s went on, and the relationship with his parents became fragile and distant. Eventually, Sheila and Derf relocated to Spain in order to avoid direct exposure to John’s hedonistic lifestyle.
John’s stint in rehab brought about reconciliation, leading to another period of close contact. Derf and Sheila were in the audience when John won his Academy Award for The Lion King in 1995, and they were there in 2005 when John and David Furnish entered into a civil partnership in the United Kingdom.
Fred Farebrother died five years later, long before he came to life on screen in 2019's Rocketman – but he comes off well in the film. Derf is portrayed, along with John's grandmother, as one of John's few sources of unconditional support and love.