Once famed for his campy outrageousness and string of successful pop songs, English musician Elton John (born 1947) has more recently made a name for himself as a humanitarian with a particular interest in supporting AIDS research.
Ever since he first burst on the music scene in the early 1970s, Elton John has been alternately adored, abhorred, commended, and criticized. At one time, his image was that of a flamboyantly over-the-top "glam rocker" with an undeniable gift for crafting memorable pop tunes. His spectacular theatrics may have earned him legions of fans and a generous income, but they also thrust him into the media spotlight on numerous occasions as reporters scrutinized his sexual orientation, his lavish lifestyle, his addictions to drugs and alcohol, and his bulimia.
As he approached middle age, however, John began to take stock of his life and career. He toned down the glitz and glitter both on stage and off, overcame his dependencies and eating disorder, and turned his attention to concerns other than himself. Since the early 1990s, he has donated all of the royalties from the sales of his singles to charity (most notably AIDS research) in both the United Kingdom and the United States. (His poignant tribute to his friend Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash during the summer of 1997, became the number-one selling single of all time, with proceeds earmarked for the charitable trust established in Diana's name.) As a result, John has finally been able to lay to rest much of the controversy and negative press that dogged him earlier in his career.
John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947, in the town of Pinner in the Middlesex region of England. An only child who was somewhat overweight and wore glasses, he was acutely sensitive to his appearance and how others perceived him. "Image" thus became an obsession of John's at a young age and remained an issue well into his adulthood.
Decided on a Career in Music
John embarked on a musical career in the early 1960s. He was just two weeks away from taking his final exams and graduating from the London Academy of Music when he quit school to pursue his dream. He first went to work for a music publishing house, where he served as a messenger and tea server. To supplement his income, John also played the piano in bars and clubs and eventually joined forces with a band called Bluesology.
Bluesology had some success backing up soul artists such as Doris Troy and Patti LaBelle until around the mid-1960s. It was during this same period that John picked up his stage name, which was a combination of the middle name of Bluesology's singer, Long John Baldry, and the first name of the saxophone player, Elton Dean. Much later in his life, John added the middle name Hercules.
In 1968, an advertisement in the British music magazine NME seeking writers and performers brought John together with Bernie Taupin, the man who would become his on-again, off-again songwriting collaborator. One of their earliest pieces managed to land on the short list for the British entry to the 1969 Eurovision contest. Even though they lost out when it was not chosen to be performed, they continued to write and record new material, including the early singles "Skyline Pigeon" and "Lady Samantha, " which sold moderately well. In 1969, John released his debut album, Empty Sky, which was a commercial flop. That same year, he played piano on the classic Hollies single, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother."
Logged His First Big Hit
The advent of the 1970s saw John's fortunes improve dramatically. His self-titled second album spawned his first hit single, "Your Song, " which climbed into the top ten in both America and the United Kingdom. But the watershed year for John was 1972. "Rocket Man" was his first number-one single in America. (It topped out at number two in England.) Other smash singles soon followed, including "Daniel" and "Crocodile Rock, " both of which appeared on the album Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player-John's first number-one album in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The seminal double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released in 1973. Besides the classic title track, it contained "Candle in the Wind, " a winsome ode to Marilyn Monroe. That same year, John launched his own record label, Rocket Records.
As his sales soared, John cultivated a colorfully outrageous and campy stage persona that drove audiences wild and provided plenty of fodder for the tabloids. Outlandish glasses (the more bizarre the better) and elaborate costumes featuring rhinestones and feather boas soon came to define him as a performer, and he was dubbed the "Queen Mum of Pop." He also lived a private life of luxury and excess that included a fleet of pricey cars, expensive shopping sprees, several lavish homes, and relationships with both men and women, all of which was recounted in detail by the media.
By the mid-1970s, however, John's popularity had begun to decline a bit after he released a series of less-than-stellar albums. In 1975, he starred as the Pinball Wizard in the film adaptation of the Who's rock opera, Tommy. The following year, he charted his first British number-one single, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart, " a duet with Kiki Dee.
Turned His Back on the Music Business
In 1976, John decided to retire from the music business and focus his energies on running a soccer team he had purchased, the Watford Football Club. Around this same time, he publicly admitted his bisexuality. The ensuing controversy took its toll on John personally and professionally. As he remarked to People magazine reporters Fred A. Bernstein and Laura Sanderson Healy, "the gay business really hurt me. A lot of radio stations stopped playing my records." And when he attended Watford's soccer matches, he told Bernstein and Healy, "twenty thousand people would sing, 'Elton John's a homosexual, tra-la-la."' To help him deal with the pressures of fame and the pain of depression, he turned to alcohol and cocaine, which he continued to abuse throughout the rest of the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1978, having grown bored and restless with his new lifestyle, John sought to return to the pop arena. But finding the right collaborator proved to be a struggle until he once again hooked up with Taupin in 1983. It was during the studio sessions for an album he made that year, Too Low for Zero, that John met Renate Blauel, a German-born recording technician. John courted her while working on his album and, after a five-day engagement, married her in Australia on Valentine's Day in 1984.
The union was doomed from the start. The British press viciously attacked both the marriage and John, dwelling primarily on his checkered sexual history. After less than five years, the estranged couple amicably divorced. In a 1992 Los Angeles Times interview quoted by Caren Weiner of Entertainment Weekly, John explained that he had married Blauel while in a drug-induced stupor. "Even though I knew I was gay, " he explained, "I thought this woman was attractive and that being married would cure me of everything wrong in my life…. When you take that amount [of drugs and alcohol] you can't have any relationship."
Set New Priorities
The early 1990s saw John undergo treatment for alcoholism, drug abuse, and bulimia. Once he was clean and sober, he publicly acknowledged his homosexuality and refocused his energies and talents toward helping others. Starting in 1990, he donated all of his royalties from the sales of his English singles to charity, mostly those involved in AIDS research or in offering assistance to people with AIDS. Two years later, he did the same for the royalties from his single sales in America. "It's about time I got off my backside …, " John told Melinda Newman of Billboard. "We have a long way to go." In 1992, he established the Elton John AIDS Foundation to further his philanthropy.
As the 1990s progressed, John garnered increasing respect as both an artist and a humanitarian. He began accumulating numerous awards, including ASCAP honors as songwriter of the year (with his longtime collaborator Taupin) in 1994, induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, a lifetime achievement citation at the Brit Awards in 1995, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music's Polar Prize in 1995, Grammy Awards in 1995 and again in 1998, and an Academy Award in 1995, among others. In 1996, John was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.
Tragedy followed in 1997, however, when he lost two good friends in quick succession-fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was murdered in mid-July, and Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a car accident in late August. John performed a reworked version of "Candle in the Wind" at her September funeral (which he vowed never to sing in public again), then released it as a single. Within just a short time it became the top-selling single of all time, with more than 30 million copies sold in 1997 alone. John donated all of the proceeds from the recording (which amounted to more than $47 million by the end of 1997) to the charitable trust established in Diana's name.
The phenomenal success of "Candle in the Wind 1997" earned John even more accolades, including Billboard awards for single of the year, singles artist of the year, and singles sales artist of the year. In early 1998, he was named favorite male adult contemporary artist at the American Music Awards, and at the 1998 Grammy Award ceremonies, he took home the trophy for best male pop vocal for "Candle in the Wind 1997." And to top it all off, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998 for his achievements in music and contributions to charity. John reflected on this honor in an Associated Press report published in the Toledo Blade, remarking that "I've had a long career and worked hard. But I think the turning point came in 1990, when I got sober and started to do some charity work, particularly for the AIDS problem. A knighthood is the icing on the cake."
Further Reading on Elton John
Newsmakers, 1995 Cumulation, Gale, 1995.
Billboard, October 17, 1992; May 21, 1994; May 20, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 1997, p. 76; December 26, 1997.
Maclean's, March 13, 1995, p. 62; December 22, 1997, p. 11; January 12, 1998, p. 9.
People, February 27, 1984, p. 79; November 12, 1984; September 8, 1986; December 5, 1988, p. 85.
Time, March 13, 1995.
Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio), February 25, 1998, p. 15.
"Elton John, " http://grove.ufl.edu/devseeff/bigpicture.html (March 3, 1998).
"Elton Hercules John, " http://www.public.usit.net/artboy/ejfan.html (March 3, 1998).
"Elton John, " http://www.roughguides.com/rock/entries/ELTONJOHN.html (March 3, 1998).