Elton Hercules John's career stretches from 1969 to the present day, a period encompassing five decades. A full accounting of John’s impressive accomplishments would be a daunting task best left for another time. The highlights must include selling more than 300 million records, having seven consecutive No. 1 U.S. albums (1972-1975), getting at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100 for 31 straight years (1970-2000), and releasing the best-selling single in the history of singles charts on both sides of the Atlantic. That would be “Candle in the Wind 1997,” reworked as a tribute to Princess Diana which wound up flying out of record stores and additional outlets to the tune of 33 million copies worldwide. This song originally came out in 1973 as a paean to Hollywood goddess Marilyn Monroe.
Bernie Taupin, John’s collaborator from the beginning back in the 1960s, has been a key contributor to the musical legacy of the British star. Taupin wrote the lyrics to a song and then would mail it to John, who might be at most any place in the world. John added music to the composition and then went into a recording studio. Amazingly, the two men were never in the same room during this entire process. Yet they turned out some of the most enduring songs in the history of rock’n’roll. The duo’s first significant work together yielded the hit singles “Border Song” and “Your Song” from the album Elton John (1970).
Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in the Pinner area of London, John began playing the piano at the age of three and moved on to taking formal lessons four years later. At this early stage he gained a measure of attention by performing like Jerry Lee Lewis at school functions. For a time in his youth John enjoyed being a classical pianist and showed a degree of diligence in doing pieces by Bach, Handel, and Chopin. This interlude of sorts came about due to John’s winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.
The real background to the musical career of John can be narrowed down to a series of events occurring in the 1960s. In 1962 at the tender age of fifteen, John assumed the position of weekend pianist at Northwood Hills Hotel, a pub located near where he lived with his mother and stepfather. Playing Thursday to Sunday nights, the aspiring performer concentrated on knocking off the popular standards of the day in a convincing fashion.
In that same year John joined up with some friends and formed a band that went by the name of Bluesology. Within a matter of a few years the group became skilled enough to serve as back-up musicians to touring American soul and R&B acts like the Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. Bluesology graduated to being the supporting band for Long John Baldry, a blues singer, who mentored Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Jack Bruce, and Charlie Watts. The name Elton John pays homage to Bluesology; it comes from two members of the group, saxophonist Elton Dean and the just mentioned vocalist Long John Baldry.
John and Taupin first met in 1967. Gradually the two transformed themselves into the well-oiled machine famous for fantastic sounding singles and albums with “deep cuts” in some ways more memorable than the hits everyone knew. Empty Sky (1968), Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection (1970), and Madman Across the Water (1971) represented their initial attempts at achieving mainstream success. Released in 1972, Honky Chateau started the chain of seven consecutive No. 1 LP’s in the U.S for John. The remaining records in the sequence were Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973), Elton John’s Greatest Hits, Caribou (1974), Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and Rock of the Westies (1975). These albums spawned the hit singles “Rocket Man,” “Honky Cat,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Daniel,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “The Bitch is Back,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and “Island Girl.”
As for deep cuts, particular attention should be focused on “Grey Seal,” “All the Girls Love Alice,” and “Funeral for A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.,” all of which come from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Even though he supplied the lyrics for “Grey Seal,” Bernie Taupin has said he is clueless about the meaning of the song. A number of critics see it as possibly being a declaration of independence. “All the Girls Love Alice” stands as the best rocker on the album. It tells the story of a sixteen-year-old prostitute who winds up dead in the subway. The opening cut on the record, “Funeral for A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” is eleven minutes of pure bliss. John imagined the type of music he would want for his own funeral and came up with this rousing instrumental. He found the song blended in well with “Love Lies Bleeding;” so the lengthy initial track on the LP was the result.
The 1970s represented the height of critical acclaim for John. Seven consecutive albums reaching No. 1 in the U.S. during the 1972-1975 period had never been done before. Each one of the records got reviewed favorably, with five of them showing up in the Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
A highlight of John’s career took place in the 1990s when the animated film The Lion King became a worldwide sensation. John and Tim Rice wrote the songs for the hugely successful picture. In 1994 at the 67th Academy Awards ceremony, three of the songs nominated for Best Song came from the soundtrack for The Lion King. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Circle of Life” put John back on the Billboard hit singles chart. The album itself remained atop the Billboard 200 for nine weeks. Its popularity reached astonishing heights, and in 1999 the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) certified the soundtrack to The Lion King as “Diamond,” a new award put into place for albums and singles selling ten million copies.
“Candle in the Wind 1997,” one of John’s greatest singles, amassed all sorts of sales records upon its release. He performed the song publicly once (and just once)—on September 6, at the funeral of Princess Diana in Westminster Abbey. All the proceeds of the single, in excess of 55 million pounds, were donated to Diana’s charities by way of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. John and Diana had been close friends, and her death shocked and saddened him. He has refused all requests to sing the song in public, “vowing never to perform it again unless asked by Diana’s sons.” “Candle in the Wind 1997” won John the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 1998 Grammy Awards. In his career John has been nominated for 34 Grammys, winning on five occasions.
The document from our collection highlights a congratulatory letter from Bill Clinton to Elton John. In it the President sends kudos to the singer on his Grammy for “Candle in the Wind 1997.” He alludes to the original about Marilyn Monroe, declaring “I clearly loved” that version and the manner in which the song ensnared “goggle-eyed moviegoers like me.” His praise of the new styling is even more fulsome. Clinton views Taupin’s lyrics and John’s music as constituting a “great gift to Diana’s memory and a world yearning to believe in the possibility of our better selves.”
In the 21st century John has continued to add even more laurels to an already illustrious lifetime filled with highlights both inside and outside the music world. Starting in 2004, John began what turned into two residencies at Caesars Palace located on the Las Vegas Strip. The first residency, called “The Red Piano,” ran from 2004-2009 and included 243 shows. Each of these concerts was a multimedia event featuring oversized props and fabulous video montages designed to overwhelm the audience with sight and sound at a level rarely seen. The second residency, referred to as “The Million Dollar Piano,” began in 2011 and will end in May 2018, encompassing a total of 207 shows. Billy Elliot the Musical, a West End production that John wrote the music for in conjunction with playwright Lee Hall, opened in 2005 to rave reviews and ran through April 2016, 4,566 performances in all. The Union, an album he made with the iconic Leon Russell, was released in 2010. It signaled a new phase of John’s recording career, that of a more mature artist who “didn’t have to make pop records any more.” John viewed Russell in a reverential manner and thought the aging musician might be overlooked in the contemporary rock’n’roll landscape. On his initial jaunts across the U.S. John had opened for the then very popular performer, producer, songwriter, and jack of all trades who made a name for himself as the brains behind Joe Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. Russell helped John get through the uncertainties and potential pitfalls connected with touring for the first time.
John has continued to be a spearhead in the fight against AIDS into the present day. Building upon the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF), a non-profit organization he founded in the United States in 1992 and in the United Kingdom in 1993, he frequently makes appearances at events designed to raise funds to combat one of the worst scourges of the modern era. For instance, John showed up in 2016 at a South African Gateway clinic, a pioneering effort treating thousands of people who in the normal run of things would slip underneath the radar and receive no attention. John’s Foundation is, according to Wikipedia, set up “to support innovative HIV prevention, education programs, direct care and support services to people living with HIV.” In the course of its existence the EJAF has raised in excess of $349 million geared toward assisting HIV related programs in fifty-five countries.
In two separate interviews with Rolling Stone John addressed his sexuality. He came out as bisexual in 1976 and as being “comfortable” with his gayness in 1988. In 1993 John began a relationship with David Furnish, an advertising executive turned filmmaker. They entered into a civil partnership when it became legal in 2005; then when gay marriage became legal in England in 2014 they were one of the first couples to tie the knot formally. John and Furnish have two sons. In addition, John has ten godchildren.
Winding down his career as a live performance musician, John announced on January 24, 2018 that he would embark on a three-year farewell tour scheduled to kick-off in eight months. The first concert was set for Allentown, Pennsylvania on September 8th. John said retirement beckoned to him because of a desire to spend more time with his children. He declared, “Ten years ago if you had asked me if I would stop touring I would have said no. But we had children and that changed our lives. I have had an amazing life and career but my life has changed. My priorities are now my children and my husband and my family.”
One aspect of John’s life as a performer that should be briefly addressed is his fondness for outlandish costumes, specifically in television appearances. He first appeared on American television on December 11, 1970 as a guest on The Andy Williams Show. He sang his hit of the day “Border Song.” An online article said “he looks more like any other pop star in the 1970s.” But from there John showed up on Soul Train in 1975 singing “Philadelphia Freedom” wearing a “feathered bowler hat,” “customary sunglasses,” and “colorful striped suit.” He came back to Soul Train in 1978 and gave an inspired rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” “decked out head to toe in a glorious green suit.” As a guest on The Muppet Show two times in 1978 John began by playing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” with a keyboard design displayed on the hat atop his head, “green sequins on his yellow sportcoat,” and a “coordinating casual polo shirt” and followed that with a romping stomping version of “Crocodile Rock” in an outfit that made him look like a peacock.