Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947, in Pinner, Middlesex, United Kingdom; son of Stanley (a Royal Air Force squadron leader) and Sheila Eileen Dwight; married Renate Blauel, February 14, 1984 (divorced, 1988). Education: Attended Royal Academy of Music, 1959-64. Addresses: Record company--Universal Music Group, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404, and 1755 Broadway, New York, NY, 10019. Management--Twenty-First Artists Limited, 1 Bylthe Rd., Olympia, London W14 OHG, England.
Few pop stars have been so successful for so long a time as has British rocker Elton John. Since bursting onto the music scene with his album Elton John in 1970, the flamboyant singer has placed dozens of albums on the charts while also generating a succession of top 40 hit singles, releasing at least one every year from 1970 to 1997. Only Elvis Presley rivaled John for popularity as a solo act in the United States, even as he has evolved from the outrageous stage persona that earned him the nickname "rock's Liberace" to a more restrained performer in the early 2000s.
Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in a North London suburb, John was an only child who showed early musical talent. He learned to play piano by ear at the age of four, and soon became adept at playing a wide range of classical pieces. His talent won him a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, which he attended on weekends from the age of 11 to 16. Music proved more than just a talent for John; it was also a refuge from a sad childhood. He suffered from a terrible inferiority complex and had a poor relationship with his father, who was a Royal Air Force squadron leader.
His parents divorced when John was a teenager. John's father tried to talk his son out of pursuing a career in pop music, while his mother fully supported his quest. John's mother fueled his interest in rock music by bringing home records by Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and other American rock and roll stars of the time. In 1961 he joined Bluesology, the group that backed singer John Baldry. (John's later name change was the result of combining the names of John Baldry and Bluesology's saxophonist Elton Dean.) John quit school at age 17 so that he could focus completely on his music, and played in various rock and blues bands during the next several years. He tried out for lead vocalist positions with King Crimson and Gentle Giant, but was rejected by both bands.
At a crucial juncture in his career, John answered an ad for songwriters run by Liberty Records. Answering the same ad was Bernie Taupin, and Liberty teamed the two to write commercial jingles as well as songs for artists such as Englebert Humperdinck and Lulu. Before long John and Taupin began working together on their own songs, primarily romantic ballads. Taupin wrote the lyrics first, then John would compose music for them with remarkable speed, sometimes in less than an hour. During his years of composing with Taupin, John often took as little as two days to compose songs for an entire album. As he noted in the New Yorker, "I get a lyric from Mr. Taupin, and look at it, and decide if it's going to be a fast song, a slow song, or a medium-pace song, and then I sit at a keyboard, sometimes with a drum machine, and write a melody." In the same article Taupin noted, "Instead of taking the path of least resistance--letting the melody line resolve in the obvious way---he goes against the grain. He'll do something melodically that you won't expect."
Eventually John cut a demo of one of their songs, which attracted the interest of Beatles' music publisher Dick James. James signed the pair to a songwriting contract that gave them an income of about ten pounds (or $25) a week in 1968. The move would prove a gold mine for James, who owned all John-Taupin songs until 1975. By 1968 John and Taupin had shifted to a more rock-and-roll mode. Their first song with James was "I've Been Loving You," which was produced by former Bluesology guitarist Caleb Quaye. Attention came John's way with the release of the Elton John LP in 1969. Critics lauded the album, and by the summer of 1970, with the album's touching ballad "Your Song" from the album climbing the charts in England and the United States, John was on his way to stardom.
"Rocket Man" Shot to Stardom
John's fame accelerated rapidly after he began performing in the United States in 1970, starting with a gig at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. He hid his shyness on stage by assuming an outrageous stage personality, wearing outlandish clothes and leaping around as he played the piano. The result was electric, and he became a pop sensation as he performed in other rock halls across the United States. His increasing visibility also helped his album move up the charts on the American hit parade. By the time John returned to England, he was a major star there as well.
John reached the top ten with Madman Across the Water. Then he struck major gold with Honky Chateau in 1972, which contained the mega-hits "Rocket Man" and "Honky Cat." John proved adept at making hits out of any kind of song, from heartfelt ballads to whimsical ditties. Meanwhile, his concert attire grew more and more outlandish, as he pranced onstage wearing everything from huge feather boas to simulated astronaut suits. A trademark of the performer was his seemingly endless collection of crazy eyeglasses, which by the early 1970s was estimated to be worth some $40,000.
Reached Top of Charts
John continued his pop reign with the 1973 release Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player, whose "Crocodile Rock" earned the singer his first number-one American hit. One of the most endearing melodies of the album, and perhaps of his career, was the number-two hit "Daniel." By this time, any new release by John resulted in a stampede to the record stores. His next album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, sold two million copies in the United States within six months of its release in the fall of 1973. That album produced another number-one hit with "Bennie and the Jets." Throughout this period John's band remained stable, consisting of bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson. Davey Johnstone came on board as guitarist in 1972. John's albums also became known for elaborate packaging, which included photography and lyric booklets as well as expensively produced gatefold cover artwork.
In 1974 John once again proved his skill at shifting between gentle and raucous with Caribou, whose melodies ranged from the sensitive "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" to the foot-stomping "The Bitch is Back." That same year he filmed a guest-starring role on the big screen as the Pinball Wizard in Ken Russell's film adaptation of the Who's rock opera Tommy. His Greatest Hits album in 1974 soared to number one in the United States and England. John's string of hits in 1975 also included his rollicking version of the Who's "Pinball Wizard." The Who returned the compliment by revving up John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and "Take Me to the Pilot" as a medley on the 1990s' tribute album to John and Taupin, Two Rooms.
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, released in the spring of 1975, became the first LP to enter the U.S. charts at the number one position. The album yielded two moderately successful hit singles, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," which recounted a suicide attempt by John after the breakup of an affair, and "Meal Ticket," which may be the hardest-rocking song John ever recorded. After the release of Captain Fantastic, there was a change in personnel in John's band, with Johnston remaining, and the addition of Quaye, Roger Pope, and bassist Kenny Pasarelli for his 1975 album Rock of the Westies. That year also proved to be pivotal on a personal level, as John admitted to his own bisexuality in an interview in Rolling Stone magazine.
Citing exhaustion as a factor, John curtailed his busy concert schedule as well as his composing after 1976. Strains in the John-Taupin partnership developed following the release of the double album Blue Moves in 1976, and Taupin began working with other musicians, including Alice Cooper and Jefferson Starhip. John worked with lyricist Gary Osborne for his 1978 release A Single Man, and in 1977 he realized his dream of recording with legendary Philadelphia soul producer Thom Bell. The collaboration between the two yielded the The Thom Bell Sessions EP (1979), which featured the hit single "Mama Can't Buy You Love." John re-teamed with Taupin for 1981's 21 at 33, which brought him back into the top 10 with the number three hit "Little Jeannie."
The next few years were quiet by John standards and short on hits, but he still drew big crowds to his concert appearances. He had an operation to remove nodes from his vocal cords in early 1987, but it seemed to have a minimal effect on his singing career.
Sought Treatment for Addictions
John revealed that he had been abusing alcohol and other drugs for many years, and he sought treatment for his addictions at the Parkside Lutheran Hospital starting in 1990. Two years later he started up the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and stated that he would give all royalties from his singles' sales to AIDS research. A more restrained John still captivated his fans, as he proved with his number-eight charting album The One in 1992. He and Taupin secured a major publishing arrangement with Wagner/Chapel Music that year for a price tag estimated at $39 million. A collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice on songs for the Disney film The Lion King in 1994 won John new legions of fans, as well as an Academy Award for Best Original Song and a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. The next year he embarked on a 41-concert world tour, seeming to have found a renewed source of performance energy.
Steady sales of his recordings secured John's position as one of the richest people in Britain, with an estimated net worth of $286 million in 1995, according to an article in Maclean's. In 1996 he began work on a musical with Tim Rice, and showed no signs of retiring.
In August of 1997, after Diana, Princess of Wales was fatally injured in a car crash in Paris, her sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, invited John to perform at the funeral, and he again teamed with Taupin, who quickly revised the lyrics to "Candle in the Wind" for Elton to sing at the funeral. Profits from "Candle in the Wind 1997," as it was renamed, were designated to go to the Diana, Princess of Wales' Memorial Fund.
The advent of the third millennium found John continuing with his career and his philanthropic endeavors. His ongoing fund raising for the benefit of AIDS victims produced a series of benefit affairs, and his annual White Tie and Tiara Ball raised an impressive $1.4 million for that cause in the summer of 2001. He contributed compositions and soundtrack to the DreamWorks animated feature Road to El Dorado, which was released in 2000. Additionally, John was heard on Earl Scruggs and Friends which marked Scruggs's first recorded release in 17 years. John won a Tony Award in 2000 for the musical Aida, written in collaboration with Tim Rice. He again teamed with Taupin and earned his 35th gold record certification for the 2001 album Songs from the West Coast.
In 2004 John debuted his Las Vegas revue The Red Piano at Caesar's Palace. He also announced plans to write music for two musicals, Billy Elliott and an adaptation of Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat. The latter is yet another collaboration with Taupin.
An honest assessment of John's career would place him among the top talents in pop music of the contemporary era. His body of work extends over more than 35 years and shows no signs of abating. He has created the melodies as well as recorded and performed some of pop music's most memorable songs, and as a pianist he is considered among rock music's premier musicians.
by Ed Decker and Bruce Walker
Elton John's Career
Won scholarship to London's Royal Academy of Music as a youth; began playing piano with Bluesology, 1961; quit high school to focus on music, 1964; hired by Liberty Records to write songs with Bernie Taupin, 1967; signed songwriting contract with Dick James, 1968; released first single, "I've Been Loving You," 1968; released first album, Empty Sky, 1969; had first charting single, "Your Song," 1970; had first number-one hit, "Crocodile Rock," 1972; founded Rocket Records, 1973; appeared in film version of the Who's opera Tommy, 1974; appeared in John Lennon's last concert, 1975; worked for first time with lyricist Gary Osborne, 1978; signed contract with Geffen Records, 1981; first Western rock star to perform in Moscow, Soviet Union; had throat operation, 1987; sought treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, 1990; set up Elton John AIDS Foundation, 1992; signed major publishing contract with Warner/Chappell Music (with Taupin), 1992; collaborated with lyricist Tim Rice on songs for The Lion King, 1994; went on 41-concert world tour, 1995; performed "Candle in the Wind 1997" at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales; toured in 1996, 1998, 2001, and 2002 with Billy Joel, in reprises of 1995 "Face to Face" tour.
Elton John's Awards
Grammy Award, Best Male Vocal Performance, and Academy Award, Best Original Song, both for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from The Lion King, 1994; Lifetime Achievement Award, British music industry, 1995; knighted by Queen Elizabeth, 1998; Grammy Award, Lifetime Achievement, 2000; Tony Award for Best Original Score, for Aida 2000; Radio Music Legend Award, 2001; MusicCares Person of the Year, 2001.
- Selected discography
- "Your Song," 1970.
- "Rocket Man," 1972.
- "Crocodile Rock," 1972.
- "Bennie and the Jets," 1974.
- "Philadelphia Freedom," 1975.
- "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," 1976.
- "Little Jeannie," 1979.
- "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues," 1983.
- "Sad Songs (Say So Much)," 1984.
- (With Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight) "That's What Friends Are For," 1985.
- "Nikita," 1985.
- "Candle In The Wind," 1987.
- "I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That," 1988.
- "Healing Hands," 1989.
- "The One," 1992.
- "Simple Life," 1993.
- "Believe," 1995.
- "Candle In The Wind 1997" (a tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales), 1997.
- Empty Sky MCA/DAM, 1969.
- Elton John MCA, 1970.
- Tumbleweed Connection MCA/DAM, 1970.
- 17-11-70 MCA, 1971.
- Friends Paramount, 1971.
- Madman across the Water MCA, 1971.
- Honky Chateau MCA/DAM, 1972.
- Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player MCA, 1973.
- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road MCA/DAM, 1973.
- Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy MCA/DAM, 1974.
- Caribou MCA, 1974.
- Greatest Hits Polydor, 1974.
- Rock of the Westies MCA, 1975.
- Here and There MCA, 1976.
- Blue Moves MCA, 1976.
- Greatest Hits 2 MCA, 1977.
- A Single Man MCA, 1978.
- Victim of Love MCA, 1979.
- Live Collection Pickwick, 1979.
- 21 at 33 MCA, 1980.
- The Fox Geffen, 1981.
- Jump Up! Geffen, 1982.
- Too Low for Zero Geffen, 1983.
- Breaking Hearts Geffen, 1983.
- Ice on Fire Geffen, 1983.
- Leather Jackets Geffen, 1985; reissued, 1987.
- Your Songs MCA, 1986.
- Greatest Hits 3 Geffen, 1987.
- Live in Australia MCA, 1987.
- Reg Strikes Back MCA, 1988.
- Sleeping with the Past MCA, 1989.
- The Complete Thom Bell Sessions MCA, 1989.
- To Be Continued... MCA, 1990.
- Greatest Hits, 1976-1986 Geffen, 1992.
- Rare Masters Polygram, 1992.
- The One MCA, 1992.
- Duets MCA, 1993.
- (Contributor) The Lion King (soundtrack), Disney, 1995.
- Made in England Rocket/Island, 1995.
- Love Songs Rocket, 1996.
- The Big Picture Rocket, 1997.
- Aida Rocket/Island, 1999.
- The Muse Polygram, 1999.
- Songs from the West Coast Universal, 2001.
- Peachtree Road Universal, 2004.
December 21, 2005: John married longtime boyfriend David Furnish at the Windsor Town Hall. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/12/21/britain.elton/index.html, December 23, 2005.
- Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
- Clifford, Mike, consultant, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Sixth Edition, Harmony, 1988.
- Nits, Norm N., Rock On: The Years of Change 1964~1978, Updated Edition, Harper & Row, 1984.
- Norman, Philip, Elton John, Harmony, 1992.
- Romanowsky, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1995.
- Maclean's, March 13, 1995.
- New York Times, August 22, 1971; July 6, 2001; October 21, 2001.
- New Yorker, August 26, 1996, p. 106.
- Rolling Stone, November 21, 1974, p. 40.
- Sacramento Bee, December 4, 2001.
- Time, March 13, 1995, p. 98.
- "Elton John," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 28, 2005).
- "The Rocket Man Blasts Off," Entertainment Weekly, http://www.ew.com (Dec. 28, 2004).