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Flashback: Elton John Sings ‘Skyline Pigeon’ at Ryan White’s Funeral

Teenage AIDS victim inspired Elton to kick his cocaine habit and turn his life around

By the late 1980s, Elton John was struggling to find a reason to live. He was battling a near-crippling depression and consuming insane amounts of cocaine, alcohol and food in an attempt to self-medicate. It was at this extremely low point when he learned about Ryan White, a young hemophilic who had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. The general public was still wildly ignorant about the disease at this point, and a group of parents and teachers attempted to ban him from school thinking he would spread the disease to others through casual contact. 

Elton became very close to White and his mother Jeannie as they battled for his rights, transforming the teenager into a national hero. During the final days of White’s life, Elton moved to Indianapolis to help the family as best he could through the ordeal. “It took this child to galvanize people in this country to start doing something about AIDS for everyone,” John said years later. “The gay people who had been before were completely forgotten about it. If it hadn’t been for him, who knows where we’d be right now?”

Days after White passed away, John performed his 1969 classic “Skyline Pigeon” at his funeral. Many were shocked by his appearance. In a 2004 interview with Rolling Stone, Elton said he was close to death at that point. “I’m huge, and I have white hair,” he said. “And I look 70 years old.”

Elton’s experience with White gave him a reason to live again, and months later he went to rehab. “The first days were especially difficult,” he said. “When you deprive your body of cocaine after having used very much and very frequently, as I had, the craving for it is inconceivably enormous. I went through bouts of extreme anxiety and irritability. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think about anything but my own misery … If not for Ryan [White] and Hugh [Elton’s boyfriend at the time], I would indeed have run away. Thank God I stayed.”

In This Article: Elton John

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