Elton John

The History of Elton John: Classic Rock’s Piano Man

Elton John

Sir Elton John

Sir Elton Hercules John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947 in Pinner, Middlesex, London, England. He is famous for singing, songwriting, composing, playing piano, producing records, and on occasion, acting.

At age three, he began playing the piano on his own, and shocked his family by picking out by ear “The Skater’s Waltz” by Winifred Atwell.

When he was six, his parents married and the family moved into a semi-detached house. Before this, they lived in a council house (England’s social housing) with his mother’s parents. His father, who was in the Royal Air Force as a Flight Lieutenant, was not often home, so he was primarily reared by his mother and her mother. Both parents were musical; his father was a trumpet player and his mother often bought records of popular musicians, including Elvis Presley, among others.

Elton John at age 6

Dwight began formal piano training at age 7, and when he was 11, he was accepted as a student, with a scholarship, at the Royal Academy of Music in London. For the next four years, he took classes there on Saturdays. Because of his amazing aptitude for music (at this age, he was already composing and could often play a piece after only hearing it once), he did not apply himself as he might have, but still maintained good marks.

His parents divorced when he was 14, after many arguments whenever his father was home. His mother married Fred Farebrother, a local painter, who was supportive and caring. They moved to a new apartment in Frome Court, the location where many of Elton John’s songs were written. He remained in this home until 1971 when he had four albums on the US Top 40 chart.

1962-1969

At 15, Dwight began playing piano for a pub in the area. They called him “Reggie,” and his repertoire included his own songs, as well as popular songs by people like Ray Charles and Jim Reeves. He and some of his friends formed a band, which they called “Bluesology” in 1962. He had a day job as an errand-boy for a music publisher, and at night he either did solos at a hotel bar in London or performed with Bluesology, mostly as a supporting band for touring singers.

In 1967, the manager of Liberty Records placed an advertisement in a British magazine, which Dwight answered. Bernie Taupin had also answered the ad. They gave Dwight a pile of Taupin’s lyrics, and Dwight composed music for them. The results of this initial contact brought these two together into a lasting partnership, and that year they recorded their first collaboration: “Scarecrow.”

When he was 20, six months after meeting Taupin, Dwight officially changed his name to Elton Hercules John. He chose “Elton” after Elton Dean, a saxophonist for Bluesology, and “John” from Long John Baldry, an English blues singer.

Personal Life

He was engaged in his 20s to Linda Woodrow, who was his first lover, but they did not marry. He remained single until he married Renate Blauel, a German recording engineer, on February 14, 1984. The marriage ended in divorce in 1988, and he changed his self-declared sexual orientation from bisexual to gay.

In 1993, he and David Furnish began a relationship, which was solidified into a civil partnership when the Civil Partnership Act was enacted on December 21, 2005. Gay marriage became legal in England in 2014, and the two married on the anniversary of their civil partnership, December 21, 2014. They have two children, both borne by the same surrogate mother in California.

Elton John, left, his partner David Furnish, and their children

Songwriting with Bernie Taupin

Elton John and Bernie Taupin became staff songwriters for DJM Records in 1968. It was not unusual for Taupin to come up with a group of lyrics in an hour or less and hand them to John, who would spend half an hour writing music or disposing of the lyrics, if he could not come up with an appropriate tune quickly enough. Their partnership turned out a long list of songs, many of which were hits. This was never done in the same room, and even now, Taupin writes lyrics and mails them to John, who writes music for them separately.

Their songs became popular and many were covered by popular artists of the day, including Three Dog Night and Aretha Franklin.

Elton John had at least one Billboard Top 40 hit each year from 1970 until 1995, and the best-selling song of all time was “Candle in the Wind 1997.” The song was originally written about Marilyn Monroe and was recorded in 1973. The 1997 version was re-written as a tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, upon her death.

Even though John created his own label called The Rocket Record Company and signed other artists, he chose to sign with MCA himself instead of releasing his own recordings.


Top songs of 1970s and 1980s

Elton John had six #1 hits in the 1970s: “Crocodile Rock” (1973), “Bennie and the Jets” (1974), “Philadelphia Freedom” (1975), “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (1975), “Island Girl” (1975), and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976), which he sang with Kiki Dee. Along with these #1s, he also had 18 songs in the top ten: “Your Song” (1971), “Honky Cat” (1972), “Rocket Man” (1972), “Daniel” (1973), “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1973), “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” (1974), “The Bitch is Back” (1974), “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (1975), “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word” (1976), “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” (1979), “Little Jeannie” (1980), “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (1983), “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” (1984), “Nikita” (1986), “Candle in the Wind (live)” (1987), and “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” (1988).

Elton John early in his career

The 1970s were John’s top decade, but while his music became somewhat less popular during the 1980s, he still had some quality songs. Many of those songs stayed on top lists. In fact, of the 68 Hot 100 pop hits he had in America, 23 of them were songs he released during the 1980s.

Top songs of 1990s and 2000s

The 1990s saw several more top hits, including “Sacrifice” (1990), “You Gotta Love Someone” (1990), “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” (1992), “The One” (1992), “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” (1994), “Candle in the Wind 1997” (1997), and “Something about the Way You Look Tonight” (1997).

The top song of the 1990s, and the best-selling song of all time, Candle in the Wind 1997, was performed by Elton John once, at Diana’s funeral. It is the only single ever certified Diamond, with over 11 million copies sold in the U.S., and by 2009, it had sold over 33 million copies worldwide, according to the Guinness World Records.


Albums

1969 saw the release of Elton John’s first solo album, Empty Sky.

Elton John had several #1 albums, including Honky Chateau (1972), Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player (1973), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973), Caribou (1974), Greatest Hits (1974), Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975), and Rock Of The Westies (1975) in the 1970s. These last seven were consecutively released, and no artist had ever accomplished this previously.

In 1977, John announced he was retiring from performing, and began releasing only one album per year in the following years. Most of his albums either were in the top ten, or had singles that were. He also collaborated with other artists.

As of this writing, John has released 63 albums which include 4 live albums, 31 studio albums, 7 soundtracks, 16 compilations, 3 extended play albums and two others.

Awards

Elton John has received awards for films, music, and theatre. He was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1995 for his original songs for The Lion King:

  • Won Best Original Song, for  “Can You Feel the Love Tonight
  • Nominated for Best Original Song for “Circle of Life”
  • Nominated for Best Original Song for “Hakuna Matata”

He has been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards, of which he won five. Those for which he was nominated, but did not win, are:

  • 1972, Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture, Friends
  • 1994, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”
  • 1995, Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”
  • 1995, Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television, “Circle of Life”
  • 1999, Grammy Legend Award
  • 2011, Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals, “If it Wasn’t for Bad”

He won the Grammy for the following:

  • 1987, Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, “That’s What Friends Are For” (shared with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder)
  • 1991, Best Instrumental Composition, “Basque”
  • 1995, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”
  • 1997, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, “Candle in the Wind 1997”
  • 2001, Best Musical Show Album, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida (shared with Guy Babylon, Paul Bogaev, Chris Montan, Tim Rice, and the original Broadway cast)

He was nominated for four Tony Awards, of which he won one:

  • Nominated, 1998, Best Original Musical Score, The Lion King (musical)
  • Won, 2000, Best Original Musical Score, Aida (musical)
  • Nominated, 2009, Best Score (Music and/or Lyrics), Billy Elliot, The Musical
  • Nominated, 2010, Best Play, Next Fall (as producer)

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible, 1994. He has also been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1992), and the Order of the British Empire (1998). He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1975). In October 2006, he was named a Disney Legend for what he did for Disney’s theatrical works and films.

Elton John performs in 1975

Elton John performs in 1975

Elton John performs in 1975

Continuing Career

Elton John continues to perform both on his own and with others. Many of his appearances are affiliated with charities along with his own charity, the Elton John Aids Foundation. If you are interested in seeing Elton John and his band in person, you may see the remaining tour locations and dates at tour.eltonjohn.com.

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