WEARING A LOOSE BLACK SUIT, leopard-print slippers with golden studs and amber-tinted eyeglasses, Elton John ushers me into his Los Angeles condo and introduces me to his family: his partner of 17 years, David Furnish, in a bathrobe at 10 a.m., and his two cocker spaniels, Marilyn and Arthur. Conked out and bundled in a stroller is the newest addition, their baby boy, Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John, who was welcomed just nine days earlier, via surrogate, on Christmas Day. “He came sprinting out,” says Elton, looking at his son adoringly. “It was like Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. The obstetrician caught him.” Becoming a dad, he says, “was the most incredible feeling.” Elton, usually quite squeamish, was proud to have snipped the umbilical cord: “It’s like a calamari!”
Elton has owned this aerie in West Hollywood for three years. The walls are lined with contemporary art and iconic photos: Miles Davis shot by Lee Friedlander, and portraits of Nina Simone and Billy Preston by William Claxton. “There is nothing else I collect more passionately than photography,” says Elton, who also hoards porcelain, glass and napkin rings. At his main U.S. home, in Atlanta, it would take four hours to stroll through his photo collection, which includes Tears by Man Ray, a print he bought in the early Nineties for $126,000. “I thought I’d gone stark-raving mad,” he says. Elton also owns properties in the South of France, London and Venice — and a 35-acre estate in Old Windsor, England.
Past the five-foot-tall stack of baby gifts, the apartment unfolds into a large living room. A glass coffee table is covered in art books, glass sculptures and multiple skulls — including ones by William Morris, Marc Quinn and the shiny, metallic “exploding skull” created by Damien Hirst. “The skull is a Venetian thing,” Elton says. “It brings good luck.”
Los Angeles is smog-free this morning, and the window facing east offers a crystal-clear view of snowcapped Mount Baldy, 60 miles in the distance. Elton points down Sunset Boulevard, at a giant ad for the new animated film Gnomeo & Juliet, which he and Furnish produced. Not far to the south is the Troubadour club, where Elton played two legendary sets in 1970 and kick-started his U.S. career with a bang. “I never go past that place without thinking about it,” he says. In the past 40 years — with 35 studio albums and countless singles, collaborations and hits packages — Elton John has sold more than 250 million albums, placing him squarely among the top 10 best-selling artists in history.
On his second night at the Troubadour, Elton looked out from the stage and saw his hero, pianist and bandleader Leon Russell, in the crowd. “Leon was the man,” says Elton. “I had so many influences on piano: Allen Toussaint, Ian Stewart, Booker T., Little Richard, Fats, Garth Hudson, Jimmy Smith, Jerry Lee…the list is endless. But I wanted to be Leon. He played on everything I loved: Delaney and Bonnie, all the Spector records, Frank Sinatra sessions, and the Wrecking Crew. He had that country feel but with rockabilly and gospel and soul all mixed up in it.” Russell, in his commercial prime, thanks to hits like “Tight Rope,” brought Elton on tour in the early Seventies. But soon after, they lost touch.
In December 2008, Elton appeared on Spectacle, the musical variety show hosted by Elvis Costello, where he talked at length about Russell, whom Elton hadn’t seen or spoken to in 38 years. A month later, on safari in Africa, he got the idea to make music again with his hero, who was barely scraping by. “He was touring just to put bread on the table, playing small places and losing his self-respect,” says Elton. “It was awful, like Crazy Heart without the drugs or alcohol.”
The pair were soon in an L.A. studio, with producer T Bone Burnett and Elton’s writing partner of 44 years, Bernie Taupin. The Union is a return for Elton to his country and soul roots, and Taupin’s lyrics revisit the Wild West imagery of the duo’s 1970 triumph, Tumbleweed Connection. On The Union’s last track, Russell thanks Elton for reviving his career, singing, “When you’re in the hands of angels/ Life is oh so sweet/And you feel the love, down deep inside.”
“I thought, ‘What do you give a guy who’s got six houses and 10 of everything?'” says Russell. “The only thing I could give him would be a song.”
“In the last third of my life, I want to make records that I really want to make,” says Elton. At 63, he continues to play more than 100 shows a year, in addition to overseeing an artist-management company and his AIDS foundation, which has raised more than $220 million since 1992 and benefits programs in 55 countries.
Over the course of four hours, Elton reminisces about The Union and the highs and lows of superstardom. He sits on an L-shaped couch with one side under a painting by Juang Yi Hi, and the other under a glossy Steven Klein photograph of a male model in a Speedo. Sir Elton sits with perfect piano posture.