Elton John - Biography
When it comes to beating the odds, one would be hard pressed to outdo the career of Elton John. Diminutive in stature, somewhat pudgy, and blessed with the mug of an average Joe, on the surface John had the makings of anything but an A-List celebrity. Yet his unique ability to hop scotched from bar room ballads to country-rock to orchestral pop to soulful R&B with effortless aplomb, arguably made him the biggest British star of 1970’s. Offering something for everyone, John’s extraordinarily broad creative palate and penchant for the outrageously flamboyant, netted him an even broader audience. His fall from grace into the trappings of excessive fame and drug abuse throughout the 80’s however, not only cost him his health and reputation but nearly drowned his creative genius in the process. Blessed with more lives than a cat, a sober Elton John made one of the biggest comebacks in entertainment history a decade later as an iconic composure for Disney and Broadway blockbusters and he hasn’t looked back since. His bravery in coming out as a homosexual and subsequent championing of gay rights and HIV/AIDS awareness has made him a pioneer in more ways the one. By using the latter half his career as a stepping stone to raise awareness for numerous social-political causes, John proved the sheer power of music as a worthy humanitarian tool, with his tribute single, “Candle In The Wind 1997” raising a staggering $100 million for the charitable foundation Diana, Princess of Whales Memorial Fund. His no nonsense personality has certainly given him fans and detractors alike yet there is no denying Elton John is one of the most important musician’s-by-way-of-humanitarian’s in modern history. Having recently celebrated his 60th birthday, John shows no signs of slowing down and can currently be seen performing his Red Piano show at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas when not touring the world and releasing critically acclaimed albums.
Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born on March 25, 1947 in Pinner, Middlesex, England. His father, Stanley Dwight, was a trumpet player for various big band outfits and spent much of his time on the road, so young Reginald was largely raised by his mother, Sheila, and his grandmother. Dwight was something a musical prodigy on the piano with his mother claiming her toddler was able to play “The Skater’s Waltz” by Winifred Atwell by age 4. After discovering the exotic rock ‘n’ roll sounds of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, Dwight began playing rock music on the piano at school functions. Although his father attempted to steer him away from the unstable life of a musician, Dwight nonetheless pursued a music career at age 15. His first real job was as the weekend piano player at the local Northwood Hills pub, performing standards and even a few original compositions. Two years later, he joined the blues rock combo Bluesology and began gigging around London although the band never really took off. After failing auditions as the lead singer for King Crimson and Gentle Giant, Dwight was introduced to lyricist Bernie Taupin and the duo began composing original songs for other artists on the Liberty Records label. The process was relatively simple: Taupin would compose lyrics then mail them to Dwight who would write the music to the words. As a songwriting team the duo was a match made in pop rock heaven and though their subsequent history together would be rocky, their working partnership remains to this day. By 1967, John had begun to branch out as a solo artist, performing under the stage name Elton John, an homage to his Bluesology bandmate Elton Dean and the quintessential English blues rocker Long John Baldry. By the following year John and Taupin were composing and recording Elton John solo material, releasing the overlooked debut full length, Empty Sky (Rocket/Island) in 1969.
In hopes of broadening their creative horizons, John and Taupin brought in arranger Paul Buckmaster of David Bowie’s Space Oddity fame to add some symphonic flair to their piano driven pop rock. The resulting album, Elton John (1970 Rocket/Island) was an instant critical and commercial success spawning the signature classic “Your Song”, a Top 10 hit in the U.S. A buzz worthy North American tour followed, after which John and Taupin immediately began working on a follow up. Their writing partnership became a well oiled machine during this time with the duo churning out an album, sometimes two, every year between 1970 and 1976. John struck gold again with Tumbleweed Connection (1970 UNI), a bluesy concept album about the American West followed by the avant-pop masterpiece, Madman Across the Water (1971 Rocket/Island) which spawned another signature Elton John hit with “Tiny Dancer”. John’s subsequent live performances began to attract considerable attention with John performing handstands on his piano and appearing in flamboyant costumes that became increasingly outrageous and grandiose in subsequent years. By 1972, John had put together an astounding live band, aptly called the Elton John Band and featuring bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson, and guitarist Davey Johnson. The band, along with Taupin and John, became an unstoppable hit making machine that took the next five albums to the top of the charts across the world.
The infectious pop, soul, and rock fusion of Honky Chateau (1972 MCA) brought Elton John to a superstar level of worldwide fame on the strength of the instant classics “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” and “Honky Cat”. The pristine melodic pop of Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973 Rocket/Island) carried on the chart domination, spawning the ballad “Daniel”, which became his first #1 hit in the U.S. The diverse albeit glam heavy Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973 Rocket/Island) presented a defining moment in Elton John’s career and has long ranked amongst his best work. Although it spent a remarkable 8 weeks at the top of the U.S. charts, spawning the signature tracks “Candle In The Wind”, “Bennie and the Jets”, and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, it was John’s own public persona as a flamboyant showman that really made the album such an overwhelming success. Standing at 5’7” and balding, John was an unlikely superstar with limited sex appeal to say the least, yet he made up for it with a trademark public persona based on outrageous costumes (everything from Donald Duck to full Mozart regalia) and gaudy glasses. All of that flamboyant glam was quickly funneled into Caribou (1974 MCA) a somewhat muddled album that nonetheless spawned two more Elton John classics with the campy rocker “The Bitch Is Back” and the ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”. John’s 1974 performance at Madison Square Garden in New York City has since gone down in history as it marked the last live performance from former Beatle John Lennon, who agreed to join John on stage after a collaborative single “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” went to #1.
By the dawn of 1975, Elton John was at the height of his career’s golden era yet his biggest artistic triumph was yet to come. Although it only spawned one hit single with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” the autobiographical concept album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975 Rocket/Island) told the tale of John’s rise to stardom by way of a heady blend of rock, country, and soul (sometimes within the same song). The dense album wasn’t as commercially successful as previous albums yet it showcased a unified creative pinnacle for both John and Taupin neither would reach again. By the fall of 1975 the constant schedule of recording and touring had finally begun to take its toll on John and in a misguided decision he fired Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson, effectively breaking up The Elton John Band, who had served as the back bone of his sound up to that point.
The lukewarm yet dance floor ready, Rock of the Westies (1975 Polydor) broke John’s string of worldwide hit albums yet it provided a simple (albeit safe) formula of sentimental ballads backed by watered down pop rock John would follow into the mediocrity of his 1980’s career. The dour introspective Blue Moves (1976 MCA) spawned the relatively popular single “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Part” but mostly continued his decline in multi-platinum commercial successes. John made a brief triumphant return to the top of the charts later that year with the chipper single, “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”, a duet with Kiki Dee before making headlines later that year by publically admitting his own bisexuality, a brave move for the times but ultimately the beginning of John’s personal life outshining his musical prowess. After nearly 8 years of constant writing and recording, Taupin took some time off and John turned to lyricist Gary Osborne for the lackluster A Single Man (1978 MCA). Around this time, John also began to live the excessive lifestyle of a megastar by delving headfirst into substance abuse when not spending millions of dollars on everything from lavish homes to the Watford football team. The hits however, were drying up fast and with each passing year Elton John’s megastar status dimmed significantly.
John maintained a breakneck recording and touring schedule throughout the 1980’s despite being mired in public scandals, uninspired albums, and an increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol. Taupin and John would work together intermittently throughout the decade but the fruits of their labor were muddled at best. Around this time John toned down his flamboyance, trading in his outrageous sequined stage costumes for dapper suits, yet the makeover wasn’t enough to return him to the top of the charts. Of the numerous albums released throughout the decade only Too Low for Zero (1983 MCA) re-established John on the charts due to the success of the singles “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing”. John made international headlines in 1984 when he married his longtime sound engineer Renate Blauel, shocking many of his fans and the press who assumed him to be homosexual. The couple would divorce four years later with John later admitting he knew he was a gay before they married. After taking part in Dionne Warwick’s hit single “That’s What Friends Are For” in 1985 however, John all but disappeared from the charts although he continued to release albums and be a worldwide live draw, taking part in charity events like Live Aid and playing widely publicized concerts like his 4 night sold out stint at Madison Square Garden in 1988. That same year, John laid his former flamboyant stage persona to rest by auctioning off $20 million worth of costumes and memorabilia from his golden era of the mid-70’s. By 1989 however, chronic drug abuse and the eating disorder bulimia had reduced the once eclectic powerhouse into an overweight shadow of his former self. Around this time he also began to champion the cause of Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who became the center of an international campaign to raise AIDS awareness and education after being diagnosed with the disease. John credits White’s funeral in 1990 as a huge turning point in his life, and shortly after he entered a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, lost the excess weight, and underwent a hair transplant procedure.
After over a decade of releasing subpar material, a sober and rejuvenated Elton John made the most unlikely comeback of his career by the most unconventional of means. A lost mainstream audience was re-introduced to his back catalogue in 1991 due to the popular documentary about his creative partnership with Bernie Taupin titled Two Rooms. The subsequent tribute album, Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin (1991 Polygram) featuring Eric Clapton, Sting, and Sinead O’Connor amongst others garnered John a new generation of fans while the unrelated live George Michael rendition of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” performed as a duet with John became a massive radio hit by the end of the year. After the HIV related death of his close friend Freddy Mercury of the band Queen, John’s humanitarian efforts came to the forefront of his career when he founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation to raise awareness and fund HIV research and patient care. The One (1992 MCA) was John’s first album recorded sober since the mid-70’s and was also his most consistent effort in nearly a decade, spawning the radio hits “The One” and “Runaway Train”. The One essentially established the softer yet highly popular and lucrative adult contemporary tone of John’s work throughout the 90’s. Aside from the misguided Duets (1993 MCA) album, John kept the hits coming by collaborating with lyricist Tim Rice on the original music for the Disney animated feature The Lion King in 1994, which became the highest grossing traditionally animated feature of all time with John’s timeless songs acting as the centerpiece. The Lion King Soundtrack (1994 Disney) sold over 15 million copies with Elton John scoring three of the biggest hits of his career with “Hakuna Matata”, “Circle of Life”, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, which won the Academy Award for Best Song and a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. That same year, John was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Made In England (1995 Rocket/Island) found John and Taupin reuniting with many of the players from his breakthrough self titled release from 1970, including arranger Paul Buckmaster. The album spawned the adult contemporary hit “Believe” followed the next year by a successful compilation of his signature ballads called Love Songs (1995 Rocket).
Elton John’s 50th birthday party in March of 1997 marked a lavish return to the flamboyant debauchery of his mid-70’s heyday with John attending in an $80,000 Louis XIV costume. Tragedy struck just a few months later when fashion designer Gianni Versace was murdered in July followed by the untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales a month later. Both were close personal friends of John’s. As a tribute to Princess Diana’s legacy, John and Taupin reworked their signature classic ballad, “Candle In The Wind”, a song originally written about actress Marilyn Monroe, to reflect the life of Diana with all proceeds donated to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. The touching one off single, Candle In The Wind 1997 (1997
A&M) still holds the title as the best selling single in UK history and the second best selling single in the U.S. with an estimated 33 million copies sold worldwide. After performing the song for Diana’s funeral, John vowed to never play it again unless asked to by Diana’s sons. Over the next two years John largely turned his focus to the world of musical theater, first supervising the Lion King’s transition from screen to the Broadway stage before reuniting with lyricist Tim Rice for a stage production originally called Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida. Initially staged in Atlanta the original production was plagued with problems, resulting in numerous re-workings of the show including the title, which was shortened to Aida. The musical eventually made it to Broadway and garnered a Tony Award for Best Original Score with John releasing a star studded collection of Aida tracks titled Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida (1999 Island) featuring Sting, James Taylor, Tina Turner, and Boyz II Men, amongst others.
Elton John entered the new millennium by looking forward to the past. Although his adult contemporary 90’s output was very successful, albums like The One and Made In England bared little resemblance to his daring and eclectic mid-70’s material. Starting with the surprisingly overlooked soundtrack to the animated film, The Road to El Dorado (2000 Dreamworks), which also featured lyrics by Tim Rice, John once again began mixing multiple genres from soul, rock, and country back into his sound for the first time since the late 70’s, often with profound results. The critically lauded Songs from the West Coast (2001 Universal) further explored his 70’s sound, earning John the best critical reviews since his heyday. Shortly before the album’s release however, John announced his retirement from recorded music saying he would instead follow in the footsteps of his friend Billy Joel and only perform live. Later that year John made headlines around the world by performing a duet of the song “Stan” with Eminem at the Grammy Ceremony, a surprising move considering the hip hop star was battling accusations of homophobia at the time. Three years later John broke his promise and released Peachtree Road (2004 Universal), essentially a companion album to Songs from the West Coast that earned more critical accolades for its inspired diversity, although hit singles were less than forthcoming. The next year John performed at the Live 8 concert at Hyde Park in London, before returning to musical theater by composing music for the West End production of Billy Elliot the Musical. In a surprising move, John and Taupin made their next album a sequel to their 1975 autobiographical masterpiece Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Where that album covered duo’s rise to stardom, The Captain & the Kid (2006 Universal) focused on the complexities and temptations of fame, once again earning John huge critical accolades but no hit singles. The album also marked the first time Bernie Taupin is featured on the cover with John, although his face is turned away from the camera. Elton John celebrated his 60th birthday in March of 2007 by making his record breaking 60th performance at Madison Square Garden. Although his full length albums have become fewer and further between in recent years, Elton John can still be seen on the road or at his massively popular Las Vegas show called The Red Piano, which he has been performing intermittently since 2004. After over 40 years as an entertainer with an estimated 200 million albums sold in his lifetime, Elton John remains one of the biggest and most successful actively working musicians in the world.