(A version of this article was shared with Laughing Place on December 19, 2022.)
Six decades of music. Eighty total albums. Over 460 songs. Over 3,500 concerts. Oscars. Grammys. Tonys. Accolades. Tributes. Charity. Gratitude. These facts barely scratch the surface of a music career that forever changed the face of pop culture around the world. I’m talking about none other than Sir Elton John. A simple article can barely do justice to the life and career of this music legend, but let’s give it a go just the same.
Come celebrate music’s “Rocket Man” in this edition of Disney Legends Spotlight.
The Suburban Londoner
Elton John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in March 1947, in the London suburb of Pinner. As a child, Reginald lived with his parents and grandparents in a council house – a form of British government-subsidized housing. Both of Reginald’s parents were musically inclined and they were avid record collectors, exposing him to the popular singers and musicians of the day.
Reginald started playing his grandmother’s piano as a young boy, and by age three he was able to play comprehensive pieces on the piano by ear. He started formal piano lessons at age seven. Throughout his youth, Reginald took Saturday music classes at the Royal Academy of Music in central London. He didn’t particularly enjoy the music classes, and as such put in minimal effort, but his natural talent carried him through until he left the Academy without ever taking his final exams.
When Reginald was a teenager, his parents divorced. Reginald continued to live with his mother, as his father had become disinterested in him since he disobeyed his guidance and made the move to pursue music as a career (as opposed to his father’s plan for an exciting career in banking). Reginald’s mother remarried a local painter, and the family moved into a flat in a multi-unit apartment building. Some of the songs that launched Reginald’s career came from his time in that flat, where he lived until he had amassed several top-selling albums.
Reggie in the Pub (and on the Road)
At age 15, Reginald – known as “Reggie”or “Reg” – worked as a pianist at a nearby pub, playing a range of popular songs on piano from Thursday through Sunday nights. While Reginald did not have any issues with his eyesight, he began wearing horn-rimmed glasses as an ode to musician Buddy Holly. This was the beginning of his lifelong style with outlandish eyewear.
During this time, Reginald spent time as a musician with two bands – the short-lived Corvettes, and the more successful Bluesology. During Reginald’s time with Bluesology, the band was touring with American soul and R&B musicians like the Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle.
In 1967, Reginald answered an advertisement in a British music magazine, looking for new musical artists. In the interview, Reginald was given an unopened envelope with lyrics written by another hungry musical artist – Bernie Taupin – who had answered the same ad. Reginald wrote music for Taupin’s lyrics, and producer Ray Williams sent the music to Taupin, matching the two complementing talents and initiating a working partnership that has lasted their whole careers. The pair’s unique creative process starts with Taupin writing the lyrics on his own and sending them to Reginald, who then writes music for them before recording the songs. Amazingly, the two are never in the same room during the process!
The pair recorded their first song “Scarecrow” in 1967. Shortly thereafter, Reginald began going by the name “Elton John”, honoring two members of Bluesology: saxophonist Elton Dean and vocalist Long John Baldry. He formally changed his name in 1972, including a middle name – Hercules. John and Taupin and joined Dick James’ DJM Records as staff songwriters in 1968, and over the next two years wrote material for various artists.
Into the Spotlight
Moving out from the shadows, John and Taupin began writing more complex songs for themselves. They released their first album Empty Sky in 1969. The pair’s first hit album was 1970’s self-titled Elton John, which cracked the top ten in both the US and UK and featured the hit “Your Song.”
From there the pair – along with the backing band – began a torrid pace of studio album creation. Honky Château – released in 1972 – was John’s first US number one album, spending five weeks at the top of the Billboard 200. Honky Château, which featured the hit singles “Rocket Man” and “Honky Cat”, began a streak of seven consecutive US number-one albums.
Beginning in 1972, John collaborated with “Legs” Larry Smith, the drummer with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Smith had a flair for showmanship, including dancing, giant stage sets and elements, and over-the-top costumes. John was all in on the theatrics, and Smith has proven to have a profound influence on John’s look style over the rest of his career.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – released in October 1973 – was critically acclaimed and topped the chart on both sides of the Atlantic, remaining at number one for two months. Aside from the anthemic title track, the album also featured “Bennie and the Jets” and “Candle in the Wind.” The album also established John as a glam rock star. John’s music catalog grew so quickly and so deeply, that in 1974 – with barely four years of solo material – MCA records released Elton John’s Greatest Hits, which sold 17 million copies in the US.
A Star Among Stars
At this point, both legends and contemporaries wanted to work with Elton John. He collaborated with former Beatle John Lennon on a pair of songs, including a cover of Lennon’s iconic trip tune “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” When Lennon’s single “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” hit number one, Lennon agreed to join John for a few songs in his Thanksgiving 1974 Madison Square Garden concert. This appearance of Lennon remains the single most memorable concert moment for John. It was also Lennon’s last ever concert appearance.
In a three-year period from 1972 to 1975, John had seven consecutive albums reach number one in the US, something that had not been accomplished before. As another tribute to his influence and accomplishments, John received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1975, still so early in his career. Between 1972 and 1976, John had six singles reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
In November 1977, John announced that he was finished performing (oh, how false those words proved to be). John continued to make studio albums. The 1980 album 21 at 33 – aptly named as his 21st album, recorded at age 33 – was John’s biggest album in four years, including the hit single “Little Jeannie.”
Central Park, New York was calling Elton John’s name. In September 1980, John performed a free concert to an estimated 400,000 fans on the park’s Great Lawn. Disney fans will be amused to know John played part of the concert set dressed as Donald Duck.
John continued to release albums regularly through the 1980s. While they were all commercially successful, none were as popular as any of the albums released during his creative pinnacle of the mid-1970s.
Considering John’s career success on both sides of the Atlantic, it is hard to believe his first number one single in the UK didn’t come until 1990’s “Sacrifice.” John quickly followed that in 1991 with a famous live duet with George Michael for a cover of John’s 1974 song “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
Going Sober and Giving Back
In 1990 – after depending heavily on the influence of drugs and alcohol throughout his career – Elton John made the decision to go sober. He had seen friends like HIV spokes child Ryan White and contemporaries like Queen’s Freddie Mercury die of AIDS. John recognized that his lifestyle was out of control, and successfully turned sober.
In addition to turning sober, John became more closely associated with AIDS charities, using his public profile to raise awareness of the disease. He founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992 to fund programs for HIV/AIDS prevention, to help eliminate prejudice and discrimination against HIV/AIDS-affected individuals, and to provide services to people living with or at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. This continues to be one of John’s passions, for which he hosts an annual Academy Awards Party, as well as a White Tie & Tiara Ball at his home in Old Windsor in Berkshire, England. Through his charity efforts, John has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
In 1992, John released The One – his first album produced completely sober. The album hit number eight in the US. In 2020, John recalled “I was used to making records under the haze of alcohol or drugs, and here I was, 100% sober, so it was tough.”
Music for the Mouse
As the 90s moved forward, Elton John was now over two decades into his legendary music career. It was inevitable that the Walt Disney Studios would come calling, looking to bolster a feature film project with John’s musical chops. The animation giant had recently lost one of its treasured musical talents in Howard Ashman, and was looking for new musical firepower. Working alongside lyricist Tim Rice, John wrote the songs for 1994’s The Lion King. The success of the film – and particularly its soundtrack – introduced a new, younger generation to the music of Elton John. At the 67th Academy Awards, three of the five nominees for Best Original Song were from The Lion King soundtrack, with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” winning the award. The romantic ballad also won the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 37th Annual Grammy Awards. The soundtrack for The Lion King remained at the top of the Billboard 200 for nine weeks, and in November 1999, the soundtrack was certified “Diamond” for selling 15 million copies.
Just a few years later, in 1997, The Lion King debuted on Broadway, receiving six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. The show has gone on to be the highest grossing Broadway show of all time.
John and Rice teamed up again for another Disney-produced musical, 2000’s Aida. The show won a Tony Award for Best Musical Score and Grammy Award for the Best Musical Show Album.
John’s other work for Disney includes appearances in The Muppet Show (pre-Disney, Episode 214, February 1978), The Country Bears (2002), and Lady Gaga & the Muppets’ Holiday Spectacular (2013). John also produced and wrote songs for Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), released under Disney’s Touchstone Pictures division.
Tragedy and Triumph
The year 1997 saw the tragic deaths of one of Elton John’s closest friends. Diana – Princess of Wales – died in a car crash in Paris on August 31st. Princess Diana was both a media magnet and a British treasure. Shortly after Diana’s death, John worked with Taupin on revising the lyrics to their 1973 song “Candle in the Wind” to honor the former princess. John performed the song “Candle in the Wind 1997” live only one time – at Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey.
The 1997 rendition of this song was a touching tribute – a legend remembering a legend. It became the fastest and biggest-selling single of all time, eventually selling over 33 million copies globally.The song broke all sorts of industry records, being the best-selling single in UK chart history, the best-selling single in Billboard history, and the first single certified “Diamond” in the US, where it sold over 11 million copies.
Steamrolling Into the New Millennium
Elton John continued to record new material and occasionally tour. In the mid-2000s, John shared time with fellow music legend Celine Dion at Caesar’s Palace – performing 75 shows over a period of three years under the residency title “The Red Piano.” John’s tenure at Caesar’s would far exceed the original contract, and John went on to perform 247 “Red Piano” concerts between 2004-2009. John returned to the famous Las Vegas casino resort for a second residency “The Million Dollar Piano” from 2011-2018, performing another 197 shows.
For his next major project, John collaborated with playwright Lee Hall for a 2005 West End production of Billy Elliot: the Musical. John had been moved to write the music for the show after seeing the 2000 British film Billy Elliot, and noting that the title character reminded John of himself. The show won four Laurence Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. On Broadway, the musical won a Tony Award for Best Musical.
In March 2007, John performed his record-breaking 60th concert at Madison Square Garden to celebrate his 60th birthday. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, John performed with countless pop stars, leaving his legendary mark on every genre of music.
In January 2018, John announced that he was retiring from touring and would soon embark on a three-year farewell tour. The tour – consisting of more than 300 concerts worldwide – went on hiatus during the COVID pandemic, but has since resumed and is expected to end in New Zealand in January 2023. John performed his last scheduled US concert on November 20th at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles – the location of his famous back-to-back concerts in 1975 wearing a sequined Dodgers baseball uniform. The memorable performance was broadcast on Disney+ in a live stream event.
Speaking of COVID, John used the surreal experience to get his creative juices flowing once more. In September 2021, John announced his new album The Lockdown Sessions – a series of collaborations between John and other artists during the COVID-19 lockdown. John performed with Eddie Vedder, Miley Cyrus, Dua Lipa, Lil Nas X, Nicki Minaj, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks, and others, noting that working with different artists during lockdown reminded him of his roots as a session musician in the 1960s.
One of the singles from this album “Cold Heart (Pnau remix)” – a collaboration with Dua Lipa – peaked at number one in the UK in October 2021. With this hit, John became the first solo artist to have top 10 singles in the UK in 6 different decades.
Marching to His Own Beat
“There is a world of difference between calling someone your ‘partner’ and calling them your ‘husband’. ‘Partner’ is a word that should be preserved for people you play tennis with, or work alongside in business. It doesn’t come close to describing the love that I have for David, and he for me. In contrast, ‘husband’ does.” – Elton John
After enduring a restrictive childhood under his father, Elton John flourished as his own spirit in adulthood. Uninhibited by social boundaries, he has shared meaningful relationships with partners of both genders, including engagements and marriages. John came out as bisexual in a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone. Later in his career, in 1992, he told Rolling Stone in another interview that he was “quite comfortable about being gay.”
John has two sons with his husband David Furnace, and has ten godchildren among a who’s who of celebrity friends, including John Lennon’s son Sean, soccer star David (and wife Victoria) Beckham’s two children, and actor Elizabeth Hurley’s son, among others.
A Star-Studded Career
Early on in his career – in 1975 – John received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1994 – his first year of eligibility – Elton John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. John was awarded the Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2004, and was named a Disney Legend in 2006.
Over his career, John has won six Grammy Awards, two Academy Awards, and one Tony Award. John’s songs and albums adorn countless “top lists” within music industry publications, including Billboard, Rock and Rock Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone, and other organizations.
Elton John’s life and career have extended beyond music. John was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1995, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998 for services to music and to charity. In further recognition of his charitable work, John was appointed Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) by Prince Charles for services to music and to charity in 2020.
Rocketman – biopic about John’s life from his childhood to the 1980s, was released in May 2019. John performed a new song written for the film, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
To put a bow on the depth of his life and career, John released what he described as his “first and only autobiography” in 2019, titled Me: Elton John Official Autobiography.
Elton John, with his larger-than-life stage persona and classy, gracious attitude, is both deserving of his accolades and appreciative of them. In a world where celebrity stardom comes with irrational demands and behavior, John shows us that it is truly possible to be both legendary and grounded.
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