He’s a songwriter, humanitarian, Grammy, Oscar, Tony and BRIT winner, Broadway champion, football benefactor, a superstar and yet still a man of the people. He’s the most enduringly successful singer / songwriter of his generation and also the most decorated. But such is his insatiable appetite to meet and beat new creative challenges, any biography of Elton John needs updating practically by the week.
There’s also the little matter of a new British tour which opened on May 28 at the Point in Dublin, interspersed with other European shows and incorporating a typically imaginative run of concerts at English cricket grounds, in locations such as Canterbury, Worcester, Taunton and Hove. It’s a tour that, for all his global savvy, reflects Elton’s undying love of Great British culture, and it had an echo of his football stadium tour of 2005.
On the business side, Elton remains the most educated of musicians, ever-eager to follow the machinations of the industry and intricately informed about trends and developments. He champions the abilities of up-and-coming artists devotedly, and has seen one of those talents, James Blunt, become one of the bestselling artists of the decade and a genuine British breakthrough in America. This is validation indeed, since Blunt is managed by Twenty First Artists, the management company Elton co-owned and sold in 2005 to the Sanctuary Group. Not only does Elton champion the cause of many talented younger artists, but he relishes writing and working with them, and his latest collaboration, writing with the Scissor Sisters, will be heard later this year.
It’s not enough that he is deeply committed to the planned American opening of ‘Billy Elliot,’ the Olivier Award-winning show for which he wrote the music and which was widely described in the media as the best musical ever staged. Along with partner David Furnish, he’s just finishing on a new film produced by Rocket Pictures - "It's a Boy/Girl Thing", Elton has also written songs for their planned animated movie "Gnomeo & Juliet". And he’ll doubtless celebrate his 60th birthday with characteristic bravura when it arrives next March, but there are too many exciting deadlines in his present and future for him to wallow in the past.
Elton is also relishing the return to good footballing health of his beloved Watford FC, the local club of his youth at which he fulfilled a boyhood dream by becoming chairman in 1976. It was his financial support of countless millions of pounds that set the club on the glory road soon afterwards. They rose from the bottom division of English football to the top, and he proudly and emotionally watched their 1984 FA Cup Final appearance against Everton at one of his own glory venues, Wembley Stadium. As honorary life president, he maintains close connections with the club and its prosperous young manager Adrian Boothroyd, and monitors their progress wherever he is in the world. Watford were promoted to the Premiership this year.
But for all of these commitments, he would never disrespect his day job of close to 40 years. John has just completed his 44th album, due to be released on 11 September 2006 and it’s characteristically ambitious. ‘The Captain and the Kid’ is Elton and Bernie’s all-new, autobiographical update of the classic 1975 album that documented their experiences to that point, ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’.
The original ‘Captain Fantastic’ was the first album ever to debut on the Billboard chart at No.1, during the staggering creative hot streak that represented Elton’s first wave of global success, and incorporated at least one top 40 entry on the Hot 100 every year from 1970 to 1995 inclusive. The new album will seize the momentum of Elton’s acclaimed albums of the new century, 2004’s ‘Peachtree Road’ and 2001's multi-platinum selling ‘Songs From The West Coast,’ records that saw his creative spirit and span reaching new levels.
He’s the last person to sit at home admiring the trophy cabinet, but you hardly need to run to the record books to recall endless other honours in Elton’s extraordinary lifetime, from Ivor Novello trophies and the Music Industry Trusts’ Award to his fellowship of the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. He is the embodiment of the phrase “lifetime achievement” at award ceremonies the world over.
Sparkle and showmanship have always been part of Elton John’s make-up, but they should never obscure the painstaking craftsmanship, commitment and sheer graft that accompany everything he does. That’s as true in 2006 as it was when he first began to cover the world stage in 1970, as payback arrived for his years of struggle and study.
Reginald Kenneth Dwight first sat at the piano at the age of four and won a part-time scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music when he was 11. It wasn’t long afterwards that the schoolboy from Pinner in Middlesex set his course for the music industry. He played with local band the Corvettes, which in 1961 changed its name to Bluesology, in tribute to a record by guitar sorcerer Django Reinhardt. Later, his own new name would be inspired by Bluesology frontman Long John Baldry and jazz saxophonist Elton Dean. Typically, their early gigs would earn him £1 a night.
Frustrated by his unrewarding labours playing with other performers, Elton auditioned for Liberty Records in 1967 and finally met the young lyricist Bernie Taupin, with whom he wrote, at first, by mail. Late that year, they became staff songwriters for renowned publisher Dick James' DJM label, farming out music to budding pop stars. Elton’s own first single, the unsuccessful ‘I’ve Been Loving You,’ came out on Philips in March 1968.
The debut album ‘Empty Sky’ followed, to encouraging notices but scant sales, in 1969. By the time Elton's self-titled breakthrough album and subsequent evergreen 'Your Song' introduced him to an international stage in 1970 and early 1971, the writing partners had so honed their skill that Taupin could create a lyric in half an hour and Elton could compose to it within the hour.
In the multi-platinum whirlwind that followed between 1972 and 1976, they were producing at least two landmark albums per year, including the beloved ‘Tumbleweed Connection,’ ‘Madman Across The Water,’ ‘Honky Chateau,’ ‘Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player’ and ‘Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy.’ Among these, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ became and remains Elton’s bestselling studio album in the US, with eight weeks at No.1 at the end of 1973 and two years on the chart in total.
In 1974, Elton signed a record breaking $8 million deal with MCA and he co-wrote and appeared on his friend John Lennon's US chart-topper ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night.’ Their famous bet — that if it went to No.1, Lennon would join Elton on stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden — led to one of the most memorable concerts in history, sadly Lennon’s final live appearance.
The second half of the 1970s is often underappreciated in Elton's historical canon, but it was a time of regeneration that produced the superb 1976 double album ‘Blue Moves’ (his first in a temporary sabbatical from the Taupin alliance) and other works of great experimentation. In one of those, longtime vintage R&B fan Elton teamed in the studio with revered soul producer Thom Bell, leading to the ‘Thom Bell Sessions’ EP and, more than a quarter of a century later, to a UK No.1 with a remixed version of one of the songs on it, ‘Are You Ready For Love.’
1978’s A Single Man provided a new musical ally in Gary Osborne and another “career” recording in the wistful ‘Song For Guy’. John and Taupin were reunited for ‘21 At 33’ in 1980, which also featured collaborations with Osborne, Judie Tzuke and others. 1982’s ‘Jump Up!’ contained the smash single 'Blue Eyes' and the moving Lennon tribute 'Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny),’ and previewed the even more powerful ‘Too Low For Zero,’ the home of two of Elton's live favourites to this day, 'I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues' and the valedictory 'I'm Still Standing.’ As the decade continued, platinum albums rained down, as did memorable singles from them such as 'Nikita', 'Sad Songs (Say So Much)' and the rousing 'I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That.’
Elton’s charitable endeavours reached new prominence in the 1990s. The establishing of his Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992 in the USA, and the following year in the UK, emphasised his commitment to raising consciousness and generating funds for those suffering from HIV and related illnesses around the world. On record, he soared to the top of the British charts again with a new ‘Very Best Of’ set in 1990 and shone on studio albums such as ‘The One’ and ‘Made In England.’
But even bigger challenges were calling. Elton’s collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice on music for Disney's ‘The Lion King’ garnered not only a Best male pop Grammy but his first Academy Award, after which he collaborated with Rice again on the Broadway smash ‘Aida.’ The London launch of the stage version of ‘Billy Elliot,’ with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, became a smash to rival the original film, achieving that rare feat of sending both the public and the critics into ecstasies.
The late 1990s were a time of intense personal tragedy for Elton, with the loss of his good friends, fashion design guru Gianni Versace and Diana, the Princess of Wales. The untimely death of the Princess would provide him with, reluctantly, the biggest single hit of his career, the rewrite of his Marilyn Monroe tribute 'Candle In The Wind.’ which he performed at the Princess' funeral. In the Canadian Top Ten for three whole years, the single is now the biggest selling in the world, ever, surpassing even Bing Crosby's ‘White Christmas.’
In the new millennium, the reinvigorated Elton undertook an epic residency with the ‘Red Piano’ show, which continues at the Caesars Palace Colosseum in Las Vegas, art-directed by the brilliant conceptualist, David LaChapelle. A four DVD box set entitled ‘Dream Ticket’ was released around the same time as ‘Peachtree Road,’ containing three concerts and a never-before-seen documentary highlighting four decades in Elton's illustrious career.
Meanwhile, as a complement to his myriad new endeavours, the artist’s illustrious song catalogue exerts a tremendous influence on contemporary popular culture. The filmmaker Cameron Crowe immortalised 'Tiny Dancer' in his fictional rockumentary, ‘Almost Famous,’ and another John-Taupin song from the early 1970s, ‘Indian Sunset’ from 1971’s ‘Madman Across The Water,’ became the basis of a posthumous No.1 for rapper 2Pac in June 2005, and Elton’s seventh UK No.1 in total.
While you’ve been reading, it’s short odds that Elton has been developing even more creative goals to score. For Captain Fantastic, “from the end of the world to your town,” it’s 35 years of global achievement, and counting.