Nearly 50 years ago a young would be singer appeared on the rock n roll landscape performing his first ever top ten single, “Your Song”. His first record, “Empty Sky”, was not released in the U.S. until 1975. He has 32 albums, over 300 million records sold worldwide, and currently performing live in arenas all over the world for the last time.
Reginald Dwight was his name. He played tennis. Piano lessons came at an early age. He performed a lot as a kid then eventually wound up in a group called Bluesology. Then he changed his name to become a rocker. He took the names of two bandmates in his former group, Elton Dean (Saxophonist) and Long John Baldry (Vocalist) to come up with his new name, Elton John. The name was a tribute to his mates. This would become a lifelong trait.
On Friday, May 31, a new biopic, “Rocketman” will hit theaters. Telling the story of his formative years including a difficult family life and his initial rise to rock stardom. The R-rated film stars Taron Egerton as Elton and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin. I am quite excited about the film. Presented as a ‘real’ fantasy, the film will surely be a fanciful trip.
My listening over the years regarding Mr. John’s output has been quite spotty. Honestly I prefer much heavier rock than the pop he composes, but cannot deny his success. Quite frankly I feel he deserves his name to be singular like Cher or Sting. When researching for this entry I re-discovered how I first came into contact with his music.
Each listener comes to an artist’s work in different ways. Whenever I heard his name I pictured the oversize eyeglasses he sported. I learned about his name change and the construction of his public persona later on in books and magazines. I was a kid in the seventies. I was seduced by the camp and androgynous rockers of the time. Marc Bolan of T-Rex, Freddie Mercury of Queen, and Elton John are my favorite three of those days. Sir Elton is the sole survivor of that raucous era.
In 1967, Dwight answered an advertisement in the British magazine New Musical Express, placed by Ray Williams, then the A&R manager for Liberty Records. At their first meeting, Williams gave Dwight an envelope with lyrics written by Bernie Taupin, who had answered the same ad. Elton would compose the music to fit the lyrics. He would send the music back to Bernie in the post. The two men’s partnership endures to this day.
During the 1970s I was certainly aware of Elton John. ‘Crocodile Rock’, ‘Bennie and the Jets’, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ were performed on “The Muppet Show” which he hosted. It was not until the 1980s that I would listen to a full album of his work let alone purchase one of his albums. Then came the second moment of impact, a concert in the park, attended by 400,000 people and aired on HBO within 3 months of John Lennon’s death. This was a show that included Lennon’s song, “Imagine”.
Elton John’s Concert In Central Park (Fall 1980)
On the left Elton John started the concert in this flashy suit. On the right side he came out for his encores dressed as Donald Duck! I never forgot this show. When his next album appeared I bought it.
However, it was not until the appearance of his May 1983 release that I would be a fan for life. This was to become his best-selling album of the 1980s. “Too Low For Zero” was quite personal too. Mr. John’s turning point from over the top excess in the 1970s to a more conservative approach. The album was his arrival on MTV with hit videos made for every single released. ‘I’m Still Standing’ was his declaration of survival.
A cocaine habit and bulemia almost cost him everything. He was closeted until 1988 when he officially came out as gay. His AIDS foundation has raised countless millions for people afflicted around the globe.
Sadly, ‘Empty Garden’, a tribute to the late John Lennon had him reflecting on the loss of his friend. Unfortunately there were many to come. I came to understand him as a pop star with a defined mission to help those in need and never stop trying to reach new listeners. His longevity is remarkable.
During the 1990s his image and career would change considerably. After the tragic death of Princess Diana he re-released ‘Candle In The Wind’ with new lyrics from Bernie Taupin. It became the biggest single of all-time.
The Disney Company hired him to perform original songs for their animated film, “The Lion King” which proved to be a global smash. Mr. John would win an Oscar in the process. He was now a film composer! With Tim Rice he wrote, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”. Now kids of all ages were fans too.
Staying relevant is always a challenge for famous people. Elton John has managed to do so after many ups and downs. Following The Lion King would be hard. The movie “Billy Elliott” would be the ticket. The movie featured the music of T-Rex. Elton saw the film knowing in his heart it could be made into a stage musical with original music.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Too Low For Zero”, “The One”, “Made In England”, and “The Captain and the Kid” are my favorite albums. They cover 4 decades of pop and rock.
I have seen Elton John perform many times. I worked at Tower Records in the 1990s. I got to meet Elton in person! He always shopped for new music every month. Always interested in what is happening in the current musical culture has kept him alive.
His performance Co-headlining Shea Stadium in New York City with Eric Clapton in support of “The One” was one of the best shows I have seen. Elton covered Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” in tribute to his fallen friend, Freddie Mercury. It was the first time I had heard a Queen song live!
Elton John & Billy Joel would tour together. I went every time. Each sang the other’s songs. Selling out football stadiums in this era was standard for the piano men.
Elton John encouraged Mr. Joel to tour. Today, he is his own music franchise at Madison Square Garden in New York.
At 72, Elton John can be proud of a life well-lived. Everything comes at a price. He knows his persona will be public property forever. Following his Goodbye Tour he wants to settle with his children and husband.
I think he will return for special events. His songs have been featured in movies, musicals, radio and television. The unkown Reginald Dwight became Elton John. He has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Sir Elton Hercules John. I will just call him ELTON.