Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Elton John:40 Years of Captain Fantastic

A supremely talented musician was born in England in 1947. His name was Reginald Kenneth Dwight, but we know him as Elton John. This moniker came from combining two names of members of his band which was formed in the 1960s. Elton grew up in a family with parents who were musically inclined, but yet his father did not want him to be a musician for a living. He wanted him to have a more stable job, such as being a banker. Elton fell in love with rock and roll when his parents brought home records by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and the Comets. As early as 3 years old Elton played piano and found he could play songs by ear. His mom and dad had a turbulent relationship and they divorced when he was 15. Elton never felt accepted by his father and he was closer to his mother and grandmother. As a teenager he would play piano in a local pub, and at 17 he left school to pursue music. He was part of a group called Bluesology starting in 1964, and at first he did not want to be a performer, he wanted to write music for others to perform. Bluesology would back American R&B and soul bands, so Elton developed a love for this type of music. In 1967 Elton met a lyricist named Bernie Taupin, and the two of them would team up to create some of the most successful songs in the history of music. Elton's 1969 album Empty Sky did not have success on the charts, but the following year would be the start of a string of hits that led to Elton John selling over 250 million albums, with 35 going gold, 25 platinum and seven albums in a row hitting #1.

In 1970, Elton's first U.S. concert was at the Troubador, a legendary music venue in Los Angeles. He was introduced by Neil Diamond, and Rolling Stone magazine called this one of the 20 performances that changed rock and roll. Elton received high praise from one of his idols, John Lennon, who said that Elton was the first big thing on the music scene since the Beatles had broken up. The 1970 self titled album had the first breakthrough hit, Your Song. In November of 1970 an album was recorded live at WABC-FM in New York City. This release was called 11-17-70 and it included Elton's interpretations Get Back by the Beatles, Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones, and My Baby Left Me, by Elvis. Elton did not shy away from performing cover tunes, and later in the decade he would perform The Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Pinball Wizard by The Who.

The early to mid 1970s were a time of hit after hit for Elton, with such gems as Your Song, Levon, Rocket Man, Honky Cat, Crocodile Rock, Daniel, Bennie and the Jets, The Bitch is Back, Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me, and many more. In 1973 Elton played on the song Whatever Gets You Through the Night by John Lennon. He had one stipulation, if the song went to #1, Lennon had to join Elton on stage in concert. Lennon said yes, thinking it would not be successful. The song went to #1 and Lennon joined Elton on stage at a concert at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1974. Apparently Lennon was nervous since he had not performed in a long time since the Beatles had broken up in 1970. Many performers turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the rigors of being on the road and the stress of churning out hit songs. Elton was no exception and he battled addiction through his most prolific periods of his career.

The second half of the 1970s was a time of many challenges for Elton. In 1976 at the height of his success, Elton admitted to being a bisexual. This was a big risk since it may hurt his album sales. In 1977 he was burned out and announced at a concert at Wembley Arena that that concert would be his last. He returned to performing a year later and tried writing with some other lyricists besides Bernie Taupin. In 1978 he collapsed from exhaustion. He had been pushing himself too hard and something had to give. In 1980 he performed a concert in Central Park for a crowd of 500,000 people. Later this year, Elton was crushed when he learned his friend and idol John Lennon had been killed. The song Empty Garden was written in his memory.

The 1980s were a period where Elton did not see the commercial success he had the decade before. In 1984 he married friend and sound engineer Renate Blauel, and he was in denial over his sexuality. They divorced in 1988. In 1986, Elton had nodules removed from his vocal cords after his voice gave out. Since then his voice has gone from a falsetto tenor to more of a baritone, and in concert he sounds different than on his early albums. This seems to happen to many performers as they get older. All of the touring puts a lot of stress on a voice.

Since the late 1980s Elton became involved in the fight against AIDS. He befriended a young boy named Ryan White who was HIV positive and when Elton performed at his funeral, it was a turning point for him personally. He saw video of his performance and he knew something had to be done to face his own demons. He though he looked terrible, sickly and old. He sought help for his addictions to drugs, alcohol and food. 1993 was the year that Elton's AIDS foundation was formed and it has raised millions to fight the disease. This was also the year that Elton met his partner, filmmaker David Furnish, who directed a documentary about the musician called Tantrums and Tiaras. The film was an unflinching look at the artist, including some scenes of him losing his temper. He is a perfectionist, who expects only the best from himself and others.

In 1997 he became "Sir" Elton John after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth. This same year his friend Princess Diana died and he wrote an updated version of Candle in the Wind for her, which sold a record breaking 37 million copies. The song was originally about Marilyn Monroe.

Elton is secure enough with his own success that he helps other up and coming musicians to gain notoriety. He has written articles for Interview magazine about current artists he enjoys.

In recent years he has written music for Broadway shows and films. He won an Oscar for The Lion King, a Tony and a Grammy for Aida and 10 Tonys for Billy Elliott.

Billboard magazine ranked him as the most successful male artist of all time. They did a list called "The Billboard Hot 100 Top All Time Artists" and Elton is #3 overall, behind only The Beatles and Madonna.

The song Tiny Dancer found a new audience when the 2000 film Almost Famous included it in the soundtrack. The film is an autobiographical piece about Cameron Crowe, who toured with Led Zeppelin in the 1970s as a writer for Rolling Stone.

In the 21st century, Elton has toured with another pianist/music legend, Billy Joel. In 2005 he performed his Red Piano show over an extended period in Las Vegas. 2007 marked Elton's 60th birthday and his 60th performance at Madison Square Garden. In 2009, while touring an AIDS clinic in the Ukraine, Elton decided he wanted to adopt a 14 month old HIV positive baby he met there. He and his partner were turned down due to their age and marital status.

40 years after the big break at the Troubador, Elton John remains one of the most prolific artists in the history of music and his works will be appreciated for decades to come. I am impressed by his mix of sensitive orchestral ballads such as Tiny Dancer and Daniel, as well as his up tempo intense songs such as The Bitch is Back and Philadelphia Freedom. It is so difficult to make a living in music, and anyone who can do it, especially with the success and staying power of Elton John, is impressive.

*Some information from en.wikipedia.org and the Biography channel's TV show about Elton John.
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