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Elton John: My Life in 20 Songs

Cameron Crowe explores Elton’s journey from Reginald Dwight to technicolored pop sensation to rehab and back

elton john my life in 20 songs

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“You don’t mind if I play it loud, do you?”

It’s morning in Las Vegas, and sunlight fills the condo that serves as Elton John‘s home during his latest run of shows at Caesars Palace, part of the residency known as “The Million Dollar Piano.” Wearing a white terry-cloth robe, he moves to the stereo system like an athlete, arms swinging crisply at his sides. Soon, he’s locked and loaded his latest album, The Diving Board. Many who’ve just spent the past year and a half working on arecording might then leave the room, allowing the listener his own experience. Not Elton John. He sits down on a small sofa in front of the speakers, closes his eyes and listens along with you. And yes, it’s loud.

The album is a game-changer for him. It’s spare, sophisticated and deeply personal. Call it Elton John’s Sketches of Spain, after Miles Davis‘ own deep­career discovery of a worldly new creative voice. Spread around the stereo are other CDs – from new artists as well as Nina Simone at Town Hall. Elton is a fan who refuses to download his music. Music is a tactile experience for him – he wants to read liner notes, look at the pictures and take the journey.

He closes his eyes as he listens to The Diving Board, his leg bouncing and head catching the rhythms. You might even forget he’s made a few records before this one: This is his 30th. This one began as a trio recording, produced by T Bone Burnett. The first run of songs was relaxed and promising. A second session, fueled by an inspired new set of lyrics from longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, pushed the album into deeper waters. The feeling taking hold was reminiscent of Elton’s earliest recordings, when his band was a blazing trio, peaking with the live album 11-17-70. But Elton’s voice is more resonant now; the songs ring with experience and a life filled with epic highs, lows and plateaus. Now in his sixties, he is finally a father of two children, a family man and a working artist.

In the spirit of the intimate nature of his album, we reconvened a few months later to put together a fan’s playlist of his own most personally affecting songs. It was the perfect late-summer afternoon to reflect and kill some time before a doctor’s appointment to remove the stitches from a recent appendix operation. Going over all of his recordings, Elton chose the songs – not necessarily the hits – that still mean the most to him.

by Cameron Crowe

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“Circle of Life”

The Lion King, 1994

The Lion King changed my life. It gave me the opportunity to write for the stage. It gave me more strings to my bow. After The Lion King, I wrote Aida, I wrote Billy Elliot, and I wrote The Vampire Lestat – four stage musicals. Up until that point, I was just doing records, videos and touring. Of course, nobody knew it was going to be this big. I'm so proud to be involved in it, and I have Tim Rice to thank for it. He phoned me up and said, "Disney said you won't do it," and I said, "Of course I'll do it, it's a great story." It was a wonderful experience working with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Tim, and Bernie gave me his blessing – there wasn't any jealousy or anything like that. I don't often play the songs from it live, because they don't really fit in, but I do play "Circle of Life" because it's a brilliant lyric. It's really the song that should have won the Oscar, but "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" did. I'm not complaining.

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“Original Sin”

Songs From the West Coast, 2001

Hearing Ryan Adams' album Heartbreaker was a seminal point for this part of my career. I just fell in love with him and that record. And I had the great fortune of doing Songs From the West Coast with producer Pat Leonard. He got my idea and simplified the record, and made me work with other musicians. I have to say that one of the biggest regrets of my life is that I've not fallen out, but I've drifted away from Pat. I feel very ungrateful to Pat that I didn't make another record with him. We were so close on that record, he shifted me so much in the direction that I wanted to go. "Original Sin" is one of the best songs I've ever written.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

“Gone to Shiloh” (with Leon Russell)

The Union, 2010

The album before this, The Captain & the Kid, was the lost gem of my life. It was telling the continuing story of us, Bernie and Elton, now. I cared so deeply about it, because it was so personal and such a really good record. I was so furious with Interscope Records because they put it out and they dropped it. I had meetings in the South of France, and I said, "I know this isn't a commercial album, I just want you to do your best," and they dropped it like a fucking turd. It's probably why I didn't make another solo record. It was pure heartbreak.

I was so disillusione