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The most flamboyant performer since Liberace, singer-songwriter Elton John arguably fashioned one of the greatest careers in the history of popular music. Since the songwriter first charted with the ballad "Your Song" in 1970, hardly a year passed without one of his tunes charting on Billboard's Top 40. Elvis Presley may have burned brighter faster with 10 No. 1 singles in 1956-57, but John's hit-making streak - beginning with "Rocket Man" and ending with "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" - of 16 Top 20 hits in a row (of those, only "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" failed to make it to the Top 10) from 1972-76 made him to the 1970s what Presley had been to the 1950s, and The Beatles to the 1960s. In 1971, John became the first act since The Beatles to have four albums on the American Top 10 simultaneously, beginning with 1972's Honky Chateau. Ultimately, he achieved the rate feat of releasing seven consecutive No. 1 albums. Some industry calculations estimated that his music once accounted for as much as three percent of annual sales worldwide. While drug and alcohol abuse dulled the hit-making apparatus throughout the hazy 1980s, the celebrated singer, composer and piano player remained a...
The most flamboyant performer since Liberace, singer-songwriter Elton John arguably fashioned one of the greatest careers in the history of popular music. Since the songwriter first charted with the ballad "Your Song" in 1970, hardly a year passed without one of his tunes charting on Billboard's Top 40. Elvis Presley may have burned brighter faster with 10 No. 1 singles in 1956-57, but John's hit-making streak - beginning with "Rocket Man" and ending with "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" - of 16 Top 20 hits in a row (of those, only "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" failed to make it to the Top 10) from 1972-76 made him to the 1970s what Presley had been to the 1950s, and The Beatles to the 1960s. In 1971, John became the first act since The Beatles to have four albums on the American Top 10 simultaneously, beginning with 1972's Honky Chateau. Ultimately, he achieved the rate feat of releasing seven consecutive No. 1 albums. Some industry calculations estimated that his music once accounted for as much as three percent of annual sales worldwide. While drug and alcohol abuse dulled the hit-making apparatus throughout the hazy 1980s, the celebrated singer, composer and piano player remained a formidable live draw, appearing in elaborate stage shows wearing outrageous costumes and equally absurd eyewear. After emerging clean and sober from rehab in 1990, John widened the scope of his artistry and philanthropy to become a mainstay on Broadway and animated musical features, as well as one of the world's most outspoken advocates for AIDS research. With his knighthood, bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998, John's legacy as true entertainment royalty was secured.
Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947 in Pinner, Middlesex, England, the middle-class son of a doting mother and a remote, frequently absent father, John began playing piano at the remarkably young age of four. It was soon apparent that the lad was a musical prodigy, demonstrating the ability to listen to records of all kinds and play them back by ear long before his feet could reach the pedals. At age 11, John began studying at the Royal Academy of Music on a scholarship, but dropped out a few years later to pursue a fulltime musical career. In his teens, John formed a band called Bluesology, performing with touring soul singers from the States, like Patti Labelle and Billy Stewart. Before long, Bluesology was hired as the back-up band for blues singer Long John Baldry. It was during this time when the young musician changed his name, taking his last from his bandleader, John Baldry, and his first from fellow band mate Elton Dean. It was all coming together for John - a new persona and an abundance of raw musical talent. What he lacked, however, was lyrical dexterity, a deficiency that hit home after an unsuccessful audition as a solo act for Liberty Records in 1966. The scouts were impressed by John's performance, but not his material, prompting an introduction to a talented young lyricist who lacked musical ability, Bernie Taupin. Initially corresponding via post, the pair clicked, and the result was one of the greatest songwriting teams of all time. Taupin provided the lyrics, and without changing a word - and rarely consulting with Taupin - John would fit his tune to the words almost effortlessly. It was a working method steeped in absolute trust that John and Taupin would maintain throughout their lengthy career together.
John and Taupin took their songs to music publisher Dick James, who hired them as house writers, primarily to churn out easy listening tunes at an assembly line pace, reportedly for a paltry salary of 10 pounds a week. It was during this period when John and Taupin began to position for the former to begin his solo artist career. In 1968, John recorded the first of these collaborations with Taupin, the single "I've Been Loving You," and the following year released his first album Empty Sky, which, due to its poor sales in England, would not be released in the U.S. until 1975. This disappointment would be fleeting, however, when his second album, Elton John, was met with a warm reception on both sides of the Atlantic in the spring of 1970. The eponymously named record offered a mix of gospel-chorded rockers and achingly sincere ballads, such as "Your Song," which became the template for dozens of subsequent hit singles. In August of that year, Elton John would quite literally become an overnight sensation with his first U.S. live performance at West Hollywood's famed Troubadour nightclub. Introduced by Neil Diamond, John took the stage at the club, the epicenter of live rock music at the time, and knocked the crowd off its feet. John would later say the show was the most important booking of his career. In its recounting of the show the Los Angeles Times went so far as to gush, "He's going to be one of rock's biggest and most important stars."
Over the course of the next five years, John would produce a creatively brilliant and commercially successful output the likes of which had not been seen in music since the heydays of Elvis Presley and The Beatles. Follow up albums like Tumbleweed Connection (1970) and Madman Across The Water (1971) - with the hit singles "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon" - firmly established John as an FM radio presence and performed well on the charts. In 1972, the breakout album Honky Chateau became his first to land at No. 1, and with "Crocodile Rock" - a track on 1973's Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player - John enjoyed his first single to hit No. 1. His magnum opus, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) featured smashes like "Bennie and the Jets" and years later would be ranked No. 91 on
The rest of the decade continued to be profitable - although arguably not as artistically satisfying after "Captain Fantastic" - but it came at a physical and emotional cost. After selling out stadiums on sold-out concert tours and following the release of "Captain Fantastic," an exhausted and unhappy John dismissed two of his longtime original band members, and it was around this time that the quirky entertainer began appearing on stage wearing such bizarre outfits as a Donald Duck costume. At the request of Pete Townshend he made a rare, but memorable, film appearance in "Tommy" (1975), Ken Russell's fantastically excessive film version of The Who's rock opera, in which John performed the hit "Pinball Wizard." Rumors had always persisted regarding John's sexuality, but in 1976 he shocked and tantalized readers when he announced that he was bisexual in an interview with Rolling Stone. Things seemed to be coming to a head, when in 1977 - after twice collapsing on stage during two separate shows - an emotionally fatigued John vowed that he was retiring from live performances. It was at this time that John also discontinued his long-standing working relationship with Bernie Taupin, resulting in the album A Single Man (1978), an offering that was poorly received by critics and one of his few not to boast a hit single. By 1979, however, John had come out of retirement, going on to become the first Western solo pop star to tour both the U.S.S.R. and Israel, a groundbreaking event documented in the concert film "To Russia...With Elton" (1979).
Although claiming that there had been no acrimony in his decision to part ways with Taupin, in 1980 John reteamed with his long-time songwriting partner for several numbers on the album 21 at 33, having apparently learned a painful lesson with "A Single Man." In 1982, he paid tribute to his good friend John Lennon, following the former Beatle's 1980 assassination, with the haunting Taupin-penned hit single, "Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny)." A year later, John returned to the charts in a big way with Too Low for Zero which featured the smash hits "I'm Still Standing" and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." And while it would not match the critical success of his material from the early- to mid-70s, it certainly proved that the old boy still had the magic touch. Despite having flirted with coming out of the closet years earlier in Rolling Stone John still was not ready to publicly embrace his homosexuality, and in 1984 puzzled nearly everyone by marrying female sound engineer, Renate Blauel. Within four years time they would be divorced, with John openly declaring that he was gay shortly thereafter. In 1985, John Collaborated with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder on the Grammy Award-winning "That's What Friends Are For" to benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Tragically, it was the proliferation of AIDS during that decade that help propel John - who later admitted he was in a spirit of denial - more deeply into his downward spiral of drug and alcohol addiction. In fact, John had been an addict for years, leading often to fallings-out with friends and cancelled shows, among other bad behavior. It would take befriending Ryan White - a teenage hemophiliac infected with HIV after a blood transfusion - for John to at last actively become involved in efforts to push for more AIDS research and awareness, and to battle his addictions head-on.
After White's death and subsequent funeral in 1990, John took stock of the sad state of his life and decided to check himself into a rehabilitation program for drug and alcohol addiction. Beginning with the release of 1992's The One the performer announced that all future profits from his singles would go to fight AIDS. He founded The Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992 to fund direct care services and prevention programs; it quickly became one of the world's largest privately-run nonprofit AIDS organizations. John was turning a corner, both personally and professionally, and his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 served as an affirmation of his newfound lust for life. Though he continued to write with Taupin, John embarked on another significant collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice in the 1990s, enjoying one of his greatest triumphs when the pair provided five songs for the animated Disney smash "The Lion King" (1994). The soundtrack sold over seven million copies and garnered three out of five Oscar nominations for Best Original Song, winning the statuette for the wantonly sentimental "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" In July of 1994, a newly reenergized John and fellow piano man Billy Joel would begin the first of their "Face To Face" tours, an act the powerhouse duo would resurrect many more times over the years to sold-out venues. Taking a cue from Madonna, John allowed himself to be the subject of the "warts and all" documentary "Elton John: Tantrums and Tiaras"(Cinemax, 1997) - filmed by his life-partner, David Furnish.
A sensitive artist and man, John remained deeply affected by the assassination of Lennon, and in 1997 he again experienced painful loss with the sudden, tragic deaths of two of his dearest friends, designer Gianni Versace, who was shot to death outside his Miami mansion by a serial killer, and Diana, Princess of Wales, who famously died during a high-speed race from paparazzi in Paris, France. Equipped with new lyrics by Taupin, John performed a special version of their homage to Marilyn Monroe, "Candle in the Wind," as a tribute to Diana at her funeral and donated all proceeds from its sale - which surpassed Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" as the best-selling single of all time - to charities patronized by the princess. The song went on to win John the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1998. That same year, he received the high honor of being knighted by the Queen of England for his contributions to charities and the arts. Following the unprecedented success of "The Lion King" - which also earned John and Tim Rice a Grammy and was adapted for Broadway in 1997 - Disney asked the pair to take a crack at adapting Verdi's opera "Aida" to the stage. "Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida" premiered in Atlanta in 1998. For their second animated extravaganza, DreamWorks' "The Road to El Dorado" (2000), John and Rice moved their attention to South America at the time of the Incas. One week prior, a revised version of "Elaborate Lives," now simply called "Aida," debuted on Broadway, ultimately winning the Tony Award for Best Original Score that year.
At the dawn of the new millennium, John proved he still had a knack for controversy, when it was announced that he would be performing a duet with the rapper Eminem, himself no stranger to negative publicity, at the 2001 Grammy Awards. Gay activist groups threatened to boycott the event, labeling Eminem's obscenity-laden, homophobic lyrics as "hate speech," but John stood by his decision, referring to Eminem's invitation as an "olive branch" to the gay community. He would later form a strong friendship with the troubled rapper, helping him beat prescription drug abuse. Still prolific in a variety of mediums, John was nominated for a Golden Globe for the song "The Heart of Every Girl" from the film "Mona Lisa Smile" (2003). Beginning in 2004, he returned to the stage in Las Vegas for a massively successful, multi-year engagement called "The Red Piano" at Caesar's Palace. The year 2005 was a banner one for John, when he and long-time partner, David Furnish, tied the knot in one of England's very first legalized civil unions. Later that year, the composer created the music for a West End production of "Billy Elliot: the Musical" - a production that eventually went on to Broadway, earning a Tony nomination in 2009. However, they could not all be winners, as evidenced by John and Taupin's collaboration on "Lestat: The Musical." Based on Anne Rice's popular vampire novels, the show opened in 2006, but critics put a stake through its heart and it closed shortly thereafter. That same year also saw the release of The Captain & The Kid a sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. John once again drew the ire of gay advocacy groups when it was announced that he would be the wedding singer for conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh at his June 2010 marriage ceremony. Why would openly gay Elton John perform for Limbaugh - an opponent of gay marriage - wondered the press? While it might not have answered the question entirely, the $1 million fee John reportedly received for the gig only added fuel to the controversial fire. Later that year, John made headlines yet again when the 60-something singer and Furnish became first-time parents via surrogate, welcoming son Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John on Christmas day, 2010.
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"I sustained my success because I was always pretty good live, but I wasn't very happy with some of the work I did. How could I be? I wasn't there half the time, mentally or physically. All I cared about was coming offstage and finding out where the cocaine was. The first five years of my career weren't like that; you could see the innocence, the spark in my eyes."---Elton John on how his addictions compromised his professionalism, to Richard Corliss in Time, March 13, 1995.
"Somebody asked me the other day, 'What are you most proud of in your career?' And I said, 'The fact that Bernie [Taupin] and I love each other more now than we've ever done, and the fact that we're still writing wonderful songs together when we've been working together twenty-eight years. He came to me from Lincolnshire with the smallest suitcase you've ever seen. In the first few years we lived in my parents' apartment, in the bunk beds, which will stay with us forever. He was the brother I never had. He was the first man I ever fell in love with. But it was never a sexual thing at all. He was the person, the friend I had wanted all my life."---John to Ingrid Sischy in Interview, April 1995.
"I love promiscuity, but why should I sabotage my life? Every performer has that self-destruct element somewhere inside. I'd love to have a glass of red wine, but why should I destroy my life just for that? My career is still there; I have a great art collection, a fabulous relationship. But if I were to go and fuck one boy and take one line of coke or one drink, my whole life would be in ruins."---John quoted in Rolling Stone, July 10-24, 1997.
"I looked like Jabba the Hut. I had lost my sense of values completely. When you do drugs you get lazy and become a slovenly person. And you feel terrible shame. And you know you're being a pig; your whole life is a web of lies and deceit. You're always covering your tracks. You think people don't know you're trying to hide what you're doing, but of course they know. I was going downhill at an alarming rate. I couldn't afford to go on much longer, but I don't know if I could have had the honesty or humility to do something about it on my own. Most people need a little kick."---John talking about the time before he entered rehab, to Leslie Bennets in Vanity Fair, November 1997.
"Some people aren't as driven as I am. Sitting around doing nothing doesn't appeal to me. The thing that saved my life was that I worked. No matter what shape I was in, I still managed to perform and make records. I love to tour. The greatest thing in the world is to get onstage. Some nights you feel wonderful and it just doesn't happen. Other nights you've got a headache, but it just goes away. It has always been an escape for me to be performing. I think most performers are seeking attention, seeking approval. The tragedy is when you don't know how to be offstage."---John in Vanity Fair, November 1997.
"My first royal meeting was a dinner with Princess Margaret at a restaurant. A friend of mine, Bryan Forbes, took us to dinner with her. It was in Hampstead, and I felt like I didn't know which fork went with what knife, and I was terrified. John Reid and I both went. And then I got invited to Royal Lodge, Windsor, which is just across the road from my house. I played the piano and did the Highland Fling with the Queen Mother, and had a brilliant time. I've had a few occasions in my life when I've thought, God, I was born on the cow sloughs in Pinner, and here I am in these surroundings."
"At Prince Andrew's twenty-first birthday party, the music segued from 'Hound Dog' to 'Rock Around the Clock', and Her Majesty asked us if she could join us, which I thought was amazing. I said, 'Of course you can, you're the queen.'"---John quoted in Interview, January 1998.
"I'm getting more ornery as I get older, so I don't care what I say."---Elton John at the 2000 GLAAD media awards
"I think every artist has five years - I had a five-year spurt from '70 to '75 - where you're just on that roller-coaster ride and you can't do anything wrong. I was intelligent enough to know that that would not always happen... My records sell about 4 million copies around the world, which is very well, thank you very much."---Elton John talking about how his albums don't sell like they used to to EW, November 5, 2004.
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