John, Elton, (originally, Dwight, Reginald)

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John, Elton, (originally, Dwight, Reginald)

John, Elton, (originally, Dwight, Reginald) (b. Pinner, Middlesex, England, March 25, 1947), in collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (b. Sleaford, Lincolnshire, England, May 22, 1950), composed some of the most popular songs of the 1970s, characterized by Taupin’s vaguely romantic, nostalgic, and often esoteric words and John’s highly melodic music and ever-present hook.

With Bernie Taupin and Elton John established as poignant songwriters by 1971, and with John established as a virtual rock institution by 1972, Elton John elicited perhaps the broadest appeal of any rock performer (rivaled only by Paul McCartney) with his penchant for showmanship and catchy melodies and his command of a variety of musical styles. Although critically reproached as lacking evocative emotional commitment or a defined musical character, and regarded as a consolidator rather than as an innovator of musical styles, Elton John nevertheless bridged the gap between pop and rock with enormous success, particularly in the U.S. Although suffering a decline in popularity in the early to mid-1980s, John has since returned to his former prominence on the charts and as a performer with a somewhat more subdued style. He has also become an active fundraiser in the war against AIDS.

Reginald Dwight began playing piano at age four, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London at age 11. He later performed in a succession of local bands before joining Bluesology as a teenager. Taken over by “Long” John Baldry as his backing group by 1967, Bluesology backed visiting American black acts such as Major Lance, Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles, and Billy Stewart. After the smash British 1967 hit “Let the Heartaches Begin” by Baldry, Bluesology disbanded and Reginald Dwight became Elton John.

Unsuccessfully auditioning for Liberty Records, Elton John was put in touch with lyricist Bernie Taupin, and the two were signed to a three-year songwriting contract with Dick James Music. As the team had little luck writing commercial material, John recorded an anonymous series of budget albums covering current hits. Urged by publicist Steve Brown to follow their own muse, Taupin and John assembled new material and recorded an album, Empty Sky (eventually released in the U.S. in 1975), but both the album and John’s first single, “Lady Samantha,” sold minimally in Great Britain. Subsequently employing arranger Paul Buckmaster and producer Gus Dudgeon, John recorded Elton John, but the album’s first single, “Border Song,” became only a minor hit in Britain and the United States. John soon recruited drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray, former members of the Spencer Davis Group, for a promotional tour of Britain’s college circuit.

Undaunted by initial failures, Elton John’s American record company Uni (later absorbed by the parent company, MCA) launched a massive publicity campaign to hype John’s American debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in August 1970. The tactic worked exceedingly well, and shows there, in N.Y., and in Philadelphia were greeted by ecstatic reviews. By late 1970 the second single from Elton John, “Your Song” (one of the duo’s finest compositions), had become a near-smash American hit, and the album, which also included “Take Me to the Pilot,” remained on the charts for nearly a year.

Tumbleweed Connection, revealing Bernie Taupin’s fascination with the American Old West, contained “Burn Down the Mission” and “Country Comfort,” already covered by Rod Stewart, yet yielded no hit singles. During 1971 two Elton John albums were issued in rapid succession: the soundtrack to Friends (on Paramount) and the live 11-17-70 (on Uni). Madman Across the Water, recorded with Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray, and guitarist Davey Johnstone, produced the major hit “Levon” and the moderate hit “Tiny Dancer,” but was greeted harshly by British critics.

Over the next two years, Elton John enjoyed what was generally regarded as the artistic high point of his career. In early 1972 he and his band (Olsson, Murray, and Johnstone) traveled to France to record Honky Chateau, eschewing elaborate string arrangements in favor of Johnstone’s guitar. “Rocket Man” and “Honky Cat” became smash hits from the album. Don’t Shoot Me, I’m the Piano Player yielded the derivative top hit “Crocodile Rock” and the poignant smash hit “Daniel,” another of the duo’s finest compositions. The double-record set Goodbye Yellow Brick Road remained on the album charts nearly two years, containing the Marilyn Monroe tribute “Candle in the Wind” and “Funeral for a Friend,” and featuring three smash hit singles, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and the title song. Caribou, recorded in the United States, contained two more smash hits, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “The Bitch Is Back,” and was followed by two more smash hits, a cover of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Philadelphia Freedom.”

John was (in)famous for his elaborate stage shows through this period. Exhibiting a flair for outrageous showmanship, wearing wild and often silly costumes, and performing in a flamboyant and flashy fashion, he was compared to Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and, perhaps more accurately, Liberace. Often identified with the so-called glitter-rock movement, John nonetheless retained an ironic sense of tastefulness that avoided the garish and disconcerting image attached to David Bowie and others of the genre.

In 1973 Elton John and manager John Reid formed Rocket Records. In late 1974 Kiki Dee and American singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka had huge hits on the label, Dee with “I’ve Got the Music in Me” and Sedaka with “Laughter in the Rain.” Sedaka’s revitalized career with Rocket lasted through late 1976 (with “Bad Blood” and a slow version of his 1962 hit “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”), when he switched to Elektra Records. Dee had a smash hit in duet with John on “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” in 1976. In June 1974 Elton John concluded negotiations on a new recording contract with MCA Records valued at $8 million, the largest such deal in rock history until Stevie Wonder’s $13 million contract with Motown in August 1975. John appeared as the Pinball Wizard in Ken Russell’s bizarre film version of the Who’s Tommy in 1975. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which dealt with the early career of John and Taupin, featured the smash hit “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

During spring 1975 bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson left the Elton John Band. Olsson later scored a major hit with “Dancin’ Shoes” and a moderate hit with “Little Bit of Soap” in 1978-1979. With holdover guitarist Davey Johnstone, the band brought in drummer Roger Pope, debuting at Wembley Stadium in June. Rock of the Westies produced the two-sided hit “Grow Some Funk of Your Own “/”I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford),” and was followed by the live album Here and There. In August 1976 John announced that he was disbanding his group and retiring from live performance. Blue Moves, John’s final album with producer Gus Dudgeon and collaborator Bernie Taupin, yielded the smash hit “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and the moderate hit “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!).”

Elton John’s next album, 1978’s critically attacked A Single Man, recorded with lyricist Gary Osborne, yielded only one major hit, “Part-Time Love.” In February 1979 John returned to live performances, accompanied only by percussionist Ray Cooper, culminating in several appearances in Russia that May. During the year, John recorded with Philadelphia International producer Thorn Bell, scoring a near-smash hit with “Mama Can’t Buy You Love.” He also recorded the inane disco- fied Victim of Love under songwriter-producer Pete Bellotte. Late that year John toured the United States for the first time in three years, playing remarkably subdued concerts in medium-size halls, accompanied by only percussionist Cooper. During 1980 John scored a smash hit with “Little Jeannie,” toured again with Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson, and signed to the newly formed Geffen Records.

Under producer Chris Thomas, Elton John recorded four albums for Geffen. The first two yielded the major hits “Nobody Wins”; the John Lennon tribute “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny),” with lyrics by Taupin; and “Blue Eyes,” with lyrics by Gary Osborne. John again toured with Johnstone, Murray, and Olsson in 1982 and 1984, retaining Johnstone into the 1990s. Dee Murray died on Jan. 5, 1992, in Nashville after suffering a stroke while fighting cancer. The defiant “I’m Still Standing” announced John’s return to form. John returned to collaborating solely with Bernie Taupin on Too Low for Zero (for the first time since Blue Moves), resulting in the major hit “Kiss the Bride” and the smash “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Breaking Hearts produced three hits, including the smash “Sad Songs (Say So Much).” Elton John’s Ice on Fire yielded two hit duets with George Michael, “Wrap Her Up” and the smash “Nikita.” John joined Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder for the top pop and R&B hit “That’s What Friends Are For” in 1985 in support of AMFAR (for AIDS research). Leather Jackets marked a low point for John in the 1980s, yet he toured from September 1985 to June 1987, undergoing throat surgery in January 1987. The tour wrapped up with successful appearances in China.

Elton John returned to MCA for Live in Australia, recorded with the Melbourne Symphony Orch., which produced a smash hit with a live version of “Candle in the Wind.” By 1988 he had given up his elaborate stage costumes and flamboyant stage demeanor in concert, while for the first time employing electric piano. Reg Strikes Back, recorded in England under Chris Thomas, yielded the smash “I Don’t Wanna Go On with You Like This” and the major hit “A Word in Spanish.” After the major hit “Through the Storm,” recorded with Aretha Franklin, John scored three hits from Sleeping with the Past, including “Healing Hands” and “Sacrifice.”

In 1991 Elton John had a top hit with “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” recorded live in London with George Michael, from the tribute album to John and Taupin, Two Rooms. The socially aware album The One, recorded under producer Chris Thomas, yielded three hits: the title song (a near-smash), the poignant “The Last Song,” and “Simple Life.” In November 1992 Elton John and Bernie Taupin signed a $39 million songwriting contract with Warner Chappell Music. At the same time, John established the Elton John AIDS Foundation in Atlanta.

In 1994 Elton John scored a smash pop and top easy-listening hit with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and a major pop and smash easy listening hit with “Circle of Life,” from the popular animated movie The Lion King. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In early 1995 Polygram Records bought out Elton John’s remaining MCA contract to revive his Rocket label for Made in England, featuring the hit single “Believe.”


elton john:Empty Sky (ree. 1969; rei. 1975); E. J. (1970); Tumbleweed Connection (1971); Friends (soundtrack; 1971); 11-17-70 (1971); Madman Across the Water (1971); Honky Chateau (1972); Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player (1973); Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973); Your Songs (1970-1973) (1986); Caribou (1974); Greatest Hits (1974); Here and There (ree. 1974; rei. 1976); Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975); Rock of the Westies (1975); Blue Moves (1976); Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1977); Rare Masters (1992); The Thorn Bell Sessions (rec. 1977; rel. 1989); A Single Man (1978); Victim of Love (1979); 21 at 33 (1980); The Fox (1981); Jump Up! (1982); Too Low for Zero (1983); Breaking Hearts (1984); Ice on Fire (1985); Leather Jackets (1986); Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1979-1987) (1987); Live in Australia (1987); Reg Strikes Back (1988); Sleeping with the Past (1989); To Be Continued (1990); The One (1992); Greatest Hits, 1976-1986 (1992); Duets (1993); Made in England (1995). nigel olsson:Drum Orchestra and Chorus (1971); Nigel Olsson (1975); Nigel Olsson (1978); Nigel (1979); Changing Tides (1980). bernie taupin:Bernie Taupin (1972); He Who Rides the Tiger (1980); Tribe (1987). davey johnstone:Smiling Faces (1973).


Paul Gambaccini A Conversation with E. J. and Bernie Taupin (N.Y., 1975); Cathi Stein, E. J. (London 1975); Dick Tatham and Tony Jasper, E. J. (London, 1976); Gerald Newman, E. J. (N.Y., 1976); Greg Shaw, E. J.:A A Biography in Words andPictures (N.Y., 1976); David Nutter, E.J.: It’s a Little Bit Funny (N.Y., 1977); Alan Finch, E.J.: The Illustrated Discography (London, 1981); Chris Charlesworth, E. J., “Only the Piano Player”: The Illustrated E. J. (London, 1984).

—Brock Helander