Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


JOHN, Elton

(b Reginald Kenneth Dwight, 25 May '47, Pinner, Middlesex) UK singer, songwriter, pianist. Unprepossessing and soon balding, an unlikely superstar; one of the few megastars of the '70s, a dismal decade for pop, he was an icon of pop nostalgia, consoling the market for the loss of the Beatles; still a superstar in the '90s but long since seen as ultimately inconsequential. Began as Bluesology pianist mid- '60s; took name from Bluesology singer Long John Baldry and saxophonist Elton Dean (later with Soft Machine). Auditioned for publisher Dick James, began writing with lyricist Bernie Taupin (b 22 May '50, Lincolnshire); they didn't meet for six months, writing songs by post. James set up DJM label for John; he later started his own Rocket label (records on Uni, then MCA in USA; after '81 on Geffen, late '80s back on MCA). (The relationship with James ended in court '85.) Empty Sky '69 was pleasant if undistinguished debut; Elton John '70 incl. first single hit 'Your Song', made top five US LP chart, as did Tumbleweed Connection '70, also year of triumphant US debut. Hiatus occurred with lamentable soundtrack Friends '71, patchy live LP 17--11--70 '71; Madman Across The Water returned to top ten US LPs, though it was already clear that his prolific talent easily filled a less exciting era than the '60s had been. Backed by trio of Nigel Olsson, drums; Dee Murray, bass (d 15 Jan. '92, Nashville, age 45 of cancer); Davey Johnstone, guitar; next six LPs all no. 1 USA: Honky Chateau '72 incl. top ten hits 'Rocket Man', 'Honky Cat'; Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player '73 incl. 'Crocodile Rock' (no. 1 USA), 'Daniel' (no. 2); two-disc Goodbye Yellow Brick Road '73 incl. no. 2 title track, 'Bennie And The Jets' (no. 1); Caribou '74 incl. 'The Bitch Is Back' (no. 4), 'Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me' (no. 2); Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy '75 incl. 'Someone Saved My Life Tonight' (no. 4); Rock Of The Westies '75 incl. 'Island Girl' (no. 1). Greatest Hits '74 also made no. 1 LP slot; reissue of first LP in '75 made no. 6. It was said that 2 per cent of all records sold were his. Here And There '76 reached no. 4, recorded '74 live, one side in London, one in NYC; two-disc Blue Moves '76 incl. 'Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word'; at no. 3 his last top ten LP USA. As commitment to heavy recording required by the James contract began to tell, he was already the biggest of stars, courted by the showbiz establishment; live shows were colourful (he was famous for his collection of weird costumes and outrageous spectacle frames). Cover of the Beatles' 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' '74 had guitar by John Lennon as 'Dr Winston O'Boogie'; appeared with Lennon at Madison Square Garden '75 in what turned out to be Lennon's last concert ('I Saw Her Standing There' was '81 hit; John is godfather to Sean Ono Lennon). Played the Pinball Wizard in film of the Who's Tommy '75. Greatest Hits Vol. II '77 incl. 'Lucy', 'Philadelphia Freedom', 'Don't Go Breakin' My Heart' (duet with Kiki Dee), all 3 no. ones USA. The last was his only no. 1 hit in UK: Dee was an old friend, early signing to Rocket; he signed Neil Sedaka and Cliff Richard for USA only. As the most visible member of the rock aristocracy he was pilloried by the punk movement though he wrote songs with Tom Robinson. He was no longer working with Taupin, who published a book of his lyrics for Elton, prod. album American Gothic '72 by David Ackles; made solo LPs Taupin '71, He Who Rides The Tiger '80; co-wrote '85 hit 'We Built This City (On Rock'n'Roll)' for Starship.

Elton's A Single Man '79 saw him working with lyricist Gary Osbourne, but biggest hit was instrumental 'Song For Guy' (no. 4 UK '80). The Thom Bell Sessions '79 was a mini-LP made in '77 incl. 'Mama Can't Buy You Love'; Victim Of Love '79 made no. 35 USA; 21 At 33 '80 and The Fox '81 did better, incl. work with Taupin, but were not up to standard; Jump Up '82 incl. 'Blue Eyes', tribute to Lennon 'Empty Garden'. Too Low For Zero was only no. 25 in USA, but pleased fans: had him reunited with Taupin, Olsson, Murray and Johnstone, guest Stevie Wonder; incl. 'Cold As Christmas', 'I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues' (no. 4), energetic 'I'm Still Standing'. Breaking Hearts '84 incl. no. 5 'Sad Songs (Say So Much)'; Ice On Fire '85 continued renaissance, incl. duet with George Michael on 'Wrap Her Up', 'Nikita' just missing the elusive no. 1 UK solo hit. He appeared with Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight on '85 charity disc 'That's What Friends Are For', became the first rock star since the Beatles to have a wax effigy of himself at Madame Tussaud's, was the first Western rock star to play Moscow (documented in film From Elton With Love '79). Critics were always ready to count Elton out, but after 30 top 40 hits '70--82 in USA, 16 in top ten, plus 24 chart LPs '70--84 with an incredible six in a row at no. 1, they almost learned to live with him. He was also famous for owning Watford Football Club near London; he announced '84 that he would tour no more, changed his mind; released Leather Jackets '86 (incl. duet with Richard). At an '86 concert he wore spangled jumpsuits, a huge turban with an ostrich plume, etc, used a Little Richard tape instead of an opening act; Chicago critic Daniel Brogan speculated that John wanted the audience to make a connection (Richard/John both piano players, bisexual, given to wild costumes), and thought that a Liberace tape would have been closer to the mark. Throat operation early '87 was supposed to keep him out of action, but Elton John Live In Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was on MCA. After Reg Strikes Back '88, Sleeping With The Past '89 was cocktail-lounge pop, causing David Sinclair in The Times to ask, 'Is he turning into the David Whittaker of pop?' He always was. Pop songs for decades have been songs that fitted between the jingles on the radio, a mindless soundtrack for too many people's lives; Elton John's were perfect for the '70s. He's been in the news for his hair transplants, his love life, his brief marriage, for auctioning his memorabilia; he is inescapable. The One '92 went top ten in the USA; Duets '93 had 15 guests incl. k. d. lang, Little Richard, Bonnie Raitt, George Michael; Sinclair described Made In England '95 (back on Rocket) as 'stodgy ... jaunty singalongs and overwrought cartoon epics'; it still went top 15 in the USA. He sang 'Candle In The Wind' with new words at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales Sept. '97 and made a studio version that became the biggest single of all time (proceeds to Diana's charities), but new album The Big Picture was mostly tired stuff.