For most of the Seventies, Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin were a virtual hit factory, churning out 25 Top Forty singles, 16 Top Ten, and six Number One hits. In the Eighties their fortunes declined only slightly. To date, they have achieved more than four dozen Top Forty hits and become one of the most successful songwriting teams in pop history.
John's rich tenor and gospel-chorded piano, boosted by aggressive string arrangements, established a musical formula, while he reveled in an extravagant public image. At the start of the Nineties John confessed the personal costs of that extravagance—drug abuse, depression, bulimia—and revealed as well his impressive struggles to regain control. Since the late Eighties, he has been deeply involved in the fight against AIDS. And while his critical stature has varied over the years, his melodic gifts have proved undeniable. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. In 1998, he became Sir Elton, after Queen Elizabeth dubbed him a knight.
As Reginald Dwight, John won a piano scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at age 11. Six years later he left school for show business. By day, he ran errands for a music publishing company; he divided evenings between a group, Bluesology, and solo gigs at a London hotel bar. Bluesology was then working as a backup band for visiting American soul singers such as Major Lance and Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles. In 1966, British R&B singer Long John Baldry hired Bluesology as his band (In 1971 John co-produced an album of Baldry's).
Responding to an ad in a music trade weekly, Dwight auditioned for Liberty Records with his hotel repertoire. The scouts liked his performance but not his material. (Liberty wasn't his only audition; he was also rejected by King Crimson and Gentle Giant). Lyricist Bernie Taupin (born May 22, 1950, Sleaford, England) had also replied to the Liberty ad, and one of the scouts gave Dwight a stack of Taupin lyrics. Six months later the two met. By then, Dwight was calling himself Elton John, after John Baldry and Bluesology saxophonist Elton Dean. (Some years later he made Elton Hercules John his legal name; Hercules was a childhood nickname.) John and Taupin took their songs to music publisher Dick James, who hired them as house writers for £10 (about $25) a week, and whose Dick James Music owned all John-Taupin compositions until 1975.
Taupin would write lyrics, sometimes a song an hour, and deliver a bundle to John every few weeks. Without changing a word, and only rarely consulting Taupin, John would fit tunes to the phrases. Arrangements were left to studio producers. For two years they wrote easy-listening tunes for James to peddle to singers; on the side, John recorded current hits for budget labels like Music for Pleasure and Marble Arch.
On the advice of another music publisher, Steve Brown, John and Taupin started writing rockier songs for John to record. The first was the single "I've Been Loving You" (1968), produced by former Bluesology guitarist Caleb Quaye. In 1969, with Quaye, drummer Roger Pope, and bassist Tony Murray, John recorded another single, "Lady Samantha," and an album, Empty Sky. The records didn't sell, and John and Taupin enlisted Gus Dudgeon to produce a followup with Paul Buckmaster as arranger. (Brown continued to advise John until 1976; Dudgeon produced his records through Blue Moves and sporadically in the mid-Eighties.) Elton John established the formula for subsequent albums: gospel-chorded rockers and poignant ballads.
Uni (later MCA) released Elton John (withholding Empty Sky until 1975), and John made his historical American debut at the Troubadour in L.A. in August 1970, backed by ex-Spencer Davis Group drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. (Murray would play with John off and on until his death in 1992 from a stroke suffered during treatment for skin cancer.) Kicking over his piano bench Jerry Lee Lewis-style and performing handstands on the keyboards, John left the critics raving. "Your Song" (Number 8, 1970) carried the album to the American Top 10. Tumbleweed Connection, with extensive FM airplay, sold even faster and reached Number Five.
By the middle of 1971, two more albums had been released: a live set taped from a WPLJ-FM New York radio broadcast on November 17, 1970, and the soundtrack to the film Friends, written three years before. Despite John's public repudiation of it, Friends went gold. Elton John was the first act since the Beatles to have four albums in the American Top 10 simultaneously. Madman Across the Water (Number 8) came out in October 1971, boasting hits "Levon" (Number 24) and "Tiny Dancer" (Number 41) and before year's end, a Bernie Taupin recitation-and-music album, Taupin, was on the market.
Honky Ch âteau (1972), with Top-Tens "Rocket Man" (Number Six) and "Honkey Cat" (Number Eight), was the first album credited to the Elton John group: John, Olsson, Murray, and guitarist Davey Johnstone. "Crocodile Rock," from 1973's Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player, was his first Number One; "Daniel" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," from the 1973 LP of the same name, reached Number Two.
Then came the tidal wave: "Bennie and the Jets" (Number One), "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" (Number Two), "The Bitch Is Back" (Number Four), a cover of Lennon-McCartney's "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" (Number One), "Philadelphia Freedom" (Number One), "Someone Saved My Lifed Tonight" (Number 4), and "Island Girl" (Number One). Honky Ch âteau was the first of seven Number One albums, the most successful being Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which held the Number One spot for eight weeks in late 1973, and a 1974 greatest-hits compilation that held fast at Number One for 10 weeks.
In 1973 John formed Rocket, his own MCA-distributed label and signed acts—notably Neil Sedaka and Kiki Dee, with whom he recorded "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" (Number One, 1976)— in which he took personal interest. Instead of releasing his own records on Rocket, he opted for $8 million offered by MCA. When the contract was signed in 1974, MCA reportedly took out a $25-million insurance policy on John's life.
That same year, Elton John joined John Lennon in the studio on Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," then recorded "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" with Dr. Winston O'Boogie (Lennon) on guitar. Dr. O'Boogie joined Elton John at Madison Square Garden, Thanksgiving Day 1974, to sing both tunes plus "I Saw Her Standing There." It was Lennon's last appearance on any stage and came out on an EP released after his death.
In the mid-Seventies John's concerts filled arenas and stadiums worldwide. He was the hottest act in rock and roll. And his extravagances, including a $40,000 collection of custom-designed and determinedly ridiculous eyeglasses and an array of equally outrageous stagewear seemed positively charming.
After Captain Fantastic (1975), the first album ever to enter the charts at Number One, John overhauled his band: Johnstone and Ray Cooper were retained, Quaye and Roger Pope removed, and the new bassist was Kenny Passarelli (formerly of Joe Walsh's Barnstorm). James Newton-Howard joined to arrange in the studio and to play keyboards. John introduced the lineup before a crow of 75,000 in London's Wembley Stadium in the summer of 1975, then recorded Rock of the Westies. Also that year, John appeared as the Pinball Wizard in the Ken Russell film of the Who's Tommy. But John's frenetic recording pace had slowed markedly, and he performed less often. A live album, Here and There, had been recorded in 1974. John's biggest hit in 1976 was the Number One Kiki Dee duet. A single from the downbeat Blue Moves (Number Three, 1976), "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," reached Number Six.
In November 1977, John announced he was retiring from performing. After publishing a book of his poems—The One Who Writes the Words for Elton John— in 1976, Taupin began collaborating with others. John secluded himself in any of his three mansions, appearing publicly only to cheer the Watford Football Club, an English soccer team that he later bought. Some speculated that John's retreat from stardom was prompted by adverse reaction to his 1976 admission in Rolling Stone of his bisexuality.
A Single Man employed a new lyricist, Gary Osborne, but featured no Top 20 singles. In 1979, accompanied by Ray Cooper, John became the first Western pop star to tour the Soviet Union, then mounted a two-man comeback tour of the U.S. in small halls. John returned to the singles chart with "Mama Can't Buy You Love" (Number Nine, 1979), a song from an EP recorded in 1977 with Philadelphia soul producer Thom Bell. A new album, Victim of Love, failed to sustain the rally, and by 1980, John and Taupin reunited to write songs for 21 at 33 and The Fox. (Taupin put out a solo album, He Who Rides the Tiger.) A single, "Little Jeannie," reached Number Three.
An estimated 400,000 fans turned out for a free concert in New York's Central Park in August, later broadcast on HBO. Olsson and Murray were back in the band, and John had just signed a new recording contract. His second Geffen LP—Jump Up! —contained "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)," his tribute to John Lennon, which he performed at his sold-out Madison Square Garden show in August 1982. He was joined on stage by Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon, Elton John's godchild.
In 1983, with a version of "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" (Number Four), featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica, Elton had his biggest since 1980—and while he wouldn't match his Seventies success, he would continue to place in the Top Ten throughout the Eighties— "Sad Songs (Say So Much)" (Number Five, 1984), "Nikita" (Number Seven, 1986), an orchestral version of "Candle in the Wind" (Number Six, 1987), and "I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That" (Number Two, 1988). His highest-charting single was a collaboration with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder on "That's What Friends Are For" (Number One, 1985). Credited to Dionne and Friends, the song raised funds for AIDS research. His albums continued to sell, but of the six released in the latter half of the Eighties, only Reg Strikes Back (Number 16, 1988) places in the Top 20.
The Eighties were years of personal upheaval for John. In 1984, he surprised many by marrying studio engineer Renate Blauel. While the marriage lasted four years, John later maintained that he had realized that he was gay before he married. In 1986 he lost his voice while touring Australia and shortly thereafter underwent throat surgery. John continued recording prolifically, but years of cocaine and alcohol abuse, initiated in earnest around the time of Rock of the Westies' 1975 release, were beginning to take their toll.
In 1988 he performed five sold-out shows at New York's Madison Square Garden, his final concert—his 26th—breaking the Grateful Dead's career record of 25 sold-out Garden appearances. (John still holds the record; he played his 60th show at MSG on his 60th birthday in 2007.) But 1988 also marked the end of an era: 2,000 items of John's memorabilia were auctioned off at Sotheby's in London, netting over $20 million, as John bade symbolic farewell to his excessive, theatrical persona. (Among the items withheld from the auction were the tens of thousands of records John had been carefully collecting and cataloguing through his life.) In later interviews, he deemed 1989 the worst period of his life, comparing his mental and physical deterioration to Elvis Presley's last years.
Around that time, he was deeply affected by the plight of Ryan White, an Indiana teenager with AIDS. Along with Michael Jackson, John befriended and supported the boy and his family until White's death in 1990. Confronted by his then-lover, John checked into a Chicago hospital in 1990 to combat his drug abuse, alcoholism, and bulimia. In recovery, he lost weight and underwent hair replacement, and subsequently took up residence in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1992, he established the Elton John AIDS Foundation, intending to direct 90 percent of the funds it raised to direct care, 10 percent to AIDS prevention education. He also announced his intention to donate all future royalties from sales of his singles (beginning with "The One") in the U.S. and U.K. to AIDS research. That year, he released the Number Eight album The One, his highest-charting release since 1976's Blue Moves, and John and Taupin signed a music publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music—an estimated $39-million, 12-year agreement—that would give them the largest cash advance in music publishing history.
In 1992, at the Freddie Mercury Memorial and AIDS Benefit concert at Wembley Stadium, John duetted with Axl Rose on Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody, " a reconciling gesture, given Rose's previously homophobic reputation. He also released Duets, a collaboration with 15 artists ranging from Tammy Wynette to RuPaul. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
John collaborated with Tim Rice on music for the animated film The Lion King. The soundtrack featured "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," an Academy Award-winner for Best Original Song and a Grammy-winner for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. At the Academy Awards ceremonies, John acknowledge his domestic partner, Canadian filmmaker David Furnish. In 1995 John released Made in England (Number One3, 1995), which featured the hit single "Believe" (Number 13, 1995).
The year 1997 was significant for John personally and professionally. He lost two close friends, designer Gianni Versace and Princess Diana. Upon Diana's death, Bernie Taupin reworked the lyrics of "Candle in the Wind," a song originally written about Marilyn Monroe in 1973. The resulting tribute, "Candle in the Wind 1997," easily became the all-time highest-certified single, with U.S. sales of 11 million in the first month (all proceeds were donated to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund). John's accomplishment is particularly stunning when matched against his previous track record. "Candle," his 16th certified single, has outsold all of his other gold and platinum singles combined. The song is not on his 1997 album The Big Picture, which was released shortly after the tribute single.
Also in 1997, vestiges of the flamboyant Elton resurfaced as he threw a 50th birthday party, costumed as Louis XIV, for 500 friends (the outfit cost more than $80,000). In 1999, John had a pacemaker installed to overcome a minor heart problem. Also that year, he collaborated again with Tim Rice, this time on a Broadway musical version of Verdi's opera Aida. The pair also collaborated on a DreamWorks animated feature, The Road to El Dorado.
The 2000s witnessed something of an Elton renaissance. With 2001's Songs From the West Coast he sat down at the piano and made an old-fashion Elton John album, and the result was his best platter since Rock of the Westies. At the 2001 Grammy Awards show, John duetted with Eminem on the controversial rapper's "Stan." Gay-rights activists and organizations criticized John for embracing (literally and figuratively) Eminem, as he had Axl Rose years before, but he and the rapper stayed friends, with the Elton supporting Eminem went through his own drug problems.
Peachtree Road played like a sequel to West Coast, with Elton and Taupin turning in some of their most personal songs ever, as well as ballads like "They Call Her the Cat," about a post-op transsexual woman. Billed as the official followup to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, The Captain and the Kid was an autobiographical concept album about Elton and Taupin's lives since the Seventies, rocking out with red-blooded fervor on hot ones like "Just Like Noah's Ark."
In 2008, John announced that he would tour again with Billy John, as he had several times before dating back to 1994. The tour began in March, 2009, with the pricey tickets moving briskly, and was expected to run for at least two years.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this story.