It’s been 50 years since the release of Elton John’s debut album, Empty Sky (1969), yet the 72-year-old is still poised at top of the tree, thanks to the perfect balance he’s struck between his different personas – the glittering showman, the songwriting legend, and now the nurturing Father of Pop.
The secret to this sustained success is possibly the way he’s repeatedly re-invented himself over the years. As such, he means different things to different fans who came in at different points in his long career.
In the early 1970s, Elton’s music was underground (can you believe?), and fans would carry an album of his under their arm in school hallways, as a marker of their sophisticated taste. These people put their headphones on to soak up the chamber pop of tracks such as The King Must Die and Tiny Dancer, before heading out to a party to spin Elton’s album of almost authentic Americana, Tumbleweed Connection.
Then he moved away from singer-songwriter territory, striking out for the mainstream in 1972. Through his run of seven consecutive number one albums in the US, Elton burned his image into the public consciousness, providing unforgettable moments along the way, such as his performance in 1975 indie film Tommy based on The Who; his collaborations with John Lennon, and his two epic sold-out concerts at Dodger Stadium, the first rock shows in the stadium since The Beatles nearly a decade before. His marathon live performances, many of which topped three hours, have became legendary. Although no conventional heartthrob, once Elton was wearing one of his iconic, Bob Mackie-designed theatrical costumes, he could be whatever he wanted to be. “The great thing about rock and roll is that someone like me can be a star”, he said.
Eventually reality caught up with him. There were still hits, but most of the coverage was to be found in the gossip pages, rather than the music press. These stories – the announcement of his bisexuality, the unexpected marriage, the entirely expected divorce, the drug use, and the throat surgery – kept coming, until Elton went into therapy to escape his addictions in 1990.
And so began another phase in Elton’s life. His contributions to the hit musical Lion King, which hit theatres in 1997, meant that his music was being sung by a new generation of children. (This will happen again this year when Beyoncé releases her version of Can You Feel the Love Tonight.) His performance of Candle in the Wind 1997 during Princess Diana’s funeral became the biggest selling single of all time. Collaborations with Eminem, Scissor Sisters and Clean Bandit, among many others, indicate how far his influence has spread. According to Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, “there has never been a cool keyboard player, except Elton John”.
Elton found love, with film producer David Furnish, and late in life, started a family, taking the idea of same-sex parents into the mainstream. He has also become a major player in the fight to overcome HIV/AIDS, with his AIDS foundation raising almost half a billion dollars since its establishment in 1992.
Today, the three-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour continues. Although the shows are now only two hours long, and his voice isn’t as dynamic as it was, Elton’s almost inhuman energy and enthusiasm for live performance remains. The visual element of the shows continues to amaze, with the costumes now being designed by Gucci. He has an eye on immortality: with a career and creative identity this long and complex, it’s not surprising that some simplification has been required to present his story for current and future generations. The upcoming movie Rocketman (a “true fantasy”, starring Taron Egerton), will be followed in the fall by Me, his “no-holds-barred” autobiography. These represent the final repackaging of a man with many lives, preparing him for a legacy that will long outlive him and will see his body of work live alongside the likes of The Beatles, Elvis, Bowie, Aretha and Prince. But if you ask me, the legacy of this tiny dancer was cemented many years ago.
Neil Barrett is the founder of the I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Elton John podcast.
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