He might be in his 70s and had a five-decade career, but Elton John is still as iconic and awesome as he’s ever been
It’s been 50 years since the release of Elton John’s debut album, and his star shines as brightly as ever. 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 the unconventional family man.
The secret to this sustained success is in the way he’s repeatedly re-invented himself. As such, he means different things to fans who came in at different points in his career.
In the early 1970s, Elton’s music was underground, 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 Tommy, his collaborations with John Lennon, and his celebrated shows at Dodger Stadium.
His marathon live performances, many of which topped three hours, became legendary. Although no conventional heartthrob, once Elton was wearing one of his iconic, Bob Mackie-designed 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.
Reality eventually caught up with him, though. 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 additions in 1990.
And so began another phase in Elton’s life. His contributions to the Lion King 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.
Now, 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 bit of repackaging for a man with many faces, preparing him for a timeless flight that could end up with him joining legendary ranks, alongside the likes of The Beatles, Elvis, Bowie, Aretha and Prince, in something approaching eternity.
Hopefully some his wonderful, lesser-known music, including the songs that didn’t make it onto the Diamonds collection, will join him there.
Neil Barrett is the founder of the I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Elton John podcast.
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